[TheLandIsOurs] Re: [Diggers350] Fw: Monbiot rewilding book review

david bangs dave.bangs at virgin.net
Wed Jan 22 12:50:27 GMT 2014

Interesting stuff, Ed.

The farm economy of the welsh uplands would have included cattle on a large scale, of course, and cattle are the browsers, by and large, I think. 

It interested me that both Dafydd Morris Jones (who Monbiot sympathetically interviews) and my mate Chris Evans (who I quote in my review) finally sold their cattle herds at about the same time - just over a decade ago. I think Chris much preferred his cattle to the sheep, which is all he has at the moment. After his dad took the farm about 1949 they had cereal and forage crops on the bottom land, chickens (not liked), and a herd of ponies which they seemed mostly to sell to gipsy travellers...and only got rid of relatively recently. They had a mixed farm economy.

Monbiot does talk about the eaten-out valley woods which has been a major problem in Wales for donkey's years. He doesn't really talk about the problems of the huge softwood plantations much at all, though, and mostly in the chapter interviewing Dafydd. Why not ?...He concentrates all his fire on the open component of the uplands, because he has a strong personal preference for woods, over pastures. 

Interesting about the tick borne diseases, too. I've had Lymes myself, but caught it in time.

I will pass this stuff on...

For those interested google 'Tony Whitbread's blog' and look at his posts of 7th January and 20th November on Monbiot's 'Feral' book. Good, high quality info for the debate.

Tony Whitbread is Director of the Sussex Wildlife Trust and one of the foremost woodland experts in Britain. 

He co-founded our 'Keep Our Forests Public' group in Brighton and spoke at our rally. 

Dave Bangs

  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Ed Jones 
  To: david bangs 
  Cc: Massimo ; TheLandIsOurs at yahoogroups.com 
  Sent: Wednesday, January 22, 2014 11:42 AM
  Subject: [TheLandIsOurs] Re: [Diggers350] Fw: Monbiot rewilding book review


  Hi Dave,

  I just wanted to say thanks for sharing this well-argued and thoughtful piece. It deserves wider coverage.

  For those who haven't read it, I'd also recommend the review by Simon Fairlie which Dave Bangs mentioned:


  I had a couple of thoughts after reading both of these reviews. Feel free to say what you think about them...

  1) Couldn't Monbiot's disdain of sheep (due to biodiversity loss etc) as well as of deforestation/land clearing on uplands which leads to flooding of lower areas, be partially solved by the increased feeding of sheep with trees and shrubs instead of by pastures? There was some recent research showing that more sustainable Livestock Production is Possible with Silvoculture. A summary:


  See the full journal article here open access:


  The trees and shrubs would increase biodiversity while also absorbing more water so less runs off the land. As Monbiot stated in one of his recent articles:

  "One day a government consultant was walking over their fields during a rainstorm. He noticed something that fascinated him. The water flashing off the land suddenly disappeared when it reached the belts of trees the farmers had planted. This prompted a major research programme, which produced the following astonishing results: water sinks into the soil under trees at 67 times the rate at which it sinks into the soil under grass. The roots of the trees provide channels down which the water flows, deep into the ground. The soil there becomes a sponge, a reservoir which sucks up water and then releases it slowly. In the pastures, by contrast, the small sharp hooves of the sheep puddle the ground, making it almost impermeable, a hard pan off which the rain gushes."

  2) None of you has mentioned the potential increase of certain diseases and health-risks to humans by rewilding large areas of land as a critique of Monbiot's rewilding project. 

  For example, as stated in the book 'Everything you need to know about Lyme Disease and other Tick-Bourne Disorders' by Vanderhoof-Forschner: 
  “Over the past 30 or 40 years, the American landscape has changed markedly. A look back at history is instructive. In his book Ticks: And What You Can Do about Them, Roger Drummond, PhD, quotes from an eighteenth century traveller in New York State who says that it is impossible to sit outdoors without being attacked by an army of ticks. By the late nineteenth century, the landscape had been so dramatically altered – with wilderness giving way to farms and grazing lands – that another visitor to the same area wrote that the common tick had nearly become extinct. Now, with much of the U.S. Northeast more heavily forested again, ticks have made a remarkable comeback.

  “Shifts in the pattern of Rocky Mountains spotted fever illustrate the results of ecological disruptions. In the 1940s, the disease was primarily found in the Rocky Mountains, but as settlers cleared the land for pastures, ticks were pushed out, and the number of cases dropped dramatically. Meanwhile, east of the Rockies, farmland was increasingly giving way to forests, and suburban terrain was being planted with tick-attracting shrubbery, with a resulting rise in the incidence of disease. By 1964, more than 90% of Rocky Mountain spotted fever cases were being reported in the eastern United States” (Vanderhoof-Forschner 2003: 20)

  Within Europe tick-borne diseases are currently a massive problem. This recent paper for Germany shows the extent to which this is a problem, although scientists argue over what are the real figures for the whole of Europe:

  “An incident diagnosis of LB was coded in 14,799 and 16,684 individuals for the years 2007 and 2008, respectively, resulting in an incidence of 261/100,000 cases annually in the DAK cohort. Although the extrapolation of these numbers may lead to an overestimation due to clinical misdiagnosis and/or miscoding, our findings translate into 213,912 annual incident cases on a population-wide scale, which suggests more LB cases in Germany than projected previously in the available literature dealing with this topic.”

  Source: Evaluating Frequency, Diagnostic Quality, and Cost of Lyme Borreliosis Testing in Germany: A Retrospective Model Analysis, Clinical and Developmental Immunology Volume 2012 (2012)

  There are a wide range of estimates to what extent Lyme and other tick-borne diseases are a problem in the UK, although many Doctors/scientists think current official estimates are an underestimate by a factor of ten.

  In the Unites States, the official figures for Lyme have recently increased from 30,000 cases per year to 300,000! This is explained in the recent article in PLOS Pathogens:

  Lyme Disease: Call for a “Manhattan Project” to Combat the Epidemic 


  A quote from the above article:

  "Until recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported an average of only 30,000 cases of Lyme disease per year in the United States. Three preliminary CDC studies, however, have indicated that the true incidence of Lyme disease may be greater than 300,000 cases and as high as one million cases per year in the United States. A majority of these cases occur in women and children. Based on this new information, Lyme disease should be recognized as a virulent epidemic that is at least six times more common than HIV/AIDS. In response to these alarming statistics, we review the ongoing problems with diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease. We propose the need for an HIV/AIDS-style “Manhattan project” to combat this serious epidemic that threatens the physical and mental health of millions of people around the world."

  This not just about Lyme. There are many other diseases that ticks carry, such as Babesia, Anaplasma, Ehrlichia, Rickettsia, and Bartonella, and there are other disease risks for humans for increased rewilding (it would take too long to go through all of them).

  If large areas of land were to be rewilded, I'd really want to see studies trying to look at the health impacts on humans as a result of that. 

  That's all for now...



  On 18 January 2014 23:17, david bangs <dave.bangs at virgin.net> wrote:

    [Attachment(s) from david bangs included below] 

    See ATTACHED review of Monbiot's rewilding book 'Feral'. I think it complements Simon Fairlie's excellent review in the last edition of The Land (and it quotes several times from Simon's piece, too),

    Dave Bangs
    ‘Feral, Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding’, 

    by George Monbiot. 

    A review by Dave Bangs, January 2013. dave.bangs at virgin.net

    Monbiot’s latest book, “Feral”, is both a passionate polemical demand for a rethinking of nature conservation strategy and a love tribute to the kind of wildlife and habitat which is central to his proposed way forward  – big beasts, forests, and the sea.

    In it he proves himself to be a superb nature writer, on a par with Williamson (‘Tarka the Otter’) and modern writers like Michael McCarthy (‘Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo’). I hope this new turn to explicit nature writing is something we will see more of from him. 

    Monbiot’s book galvanises the debate around an already controversial subject – rewildling. He defines it as the reinstatement of significant areas in which natural processes will be left in charge, with no defined management outcomes. Top predators and herbivores are to be encouraged or reintroduced, both for their intrinsic interest and as ‘keystone species’, stimulating all sorts of beneficial and unpredictable changes in ecosystems (“trophic cascades”).

    His main focus is on the uplands of Britain and he places his vision in the context of major rewilding initiatives in Eastern Europe and beyond. This review looks at that and does not discuss the issues around marine conservation.

    Monbiot wants to rid the uplands of livestock farming, chiefly sheep, end the monopoly of big landowners’ recreational usage (deer stalking, grouse shooting) and return the uplands (the Cambrian Mountains in Wales and the Highlands in Scotland) to unmanaged forest. He wants to bring back the wolf, the lynx, wild boar, possibly the bear...and maybe even larger beasts...

    ...Indeed, as he does the rounds promoting his book his name is tied more and more to the story of the straight tusked elephant. Though extinct, now, for 40,000 years, that beast, he writes, played a keystone role in the development of our temperate broad leaved forests. It is hypothesised that this species was a forest browser that knocked broad leaved shrub and timber species over and smashed their crowns (much as tropical elephants do today) and that the evolutionary response of these species was to develop the pollard and coppice habit of re-growing from the broken crown or basal stool. (There appears to have been no equivalent in the boreal conifer forests. If their trees are cut down they simply die). All those many generations of smallwood coppice workers, charcoal burners and tanners were performing the ecological role that elephants had once done. 

    I don’t doubt Monbiot’s honesty, and I absolutely don’t doubt his commitment to nature. His polemic, though, will make enemies where he could have made friends, risks doing actual harm to nature conservation and wildlife, and will confuse as much as clarify the issues.

    The most significant chapter for me (The Hushings) was that in which he describes going to visit Dafydd Morris-Jones, a Welsh farmer and activist for the language and his community who believes that “conservation should be about how we can live in nature”. Morris-Jones knocks spots off Monbiot and throws him in turmoil (“cognitive dissonance”) as he tries to weigh up supposedly intractable alternatives (“rewilding” versus “the sheep farming that kept Dafydd’s...culture alive”). Yet Dafydd’s approach, as Monbiot describes it, is not at all intractable. He helps run a community woodland that has replaced a local conifer plantation (a sort of rewilding, in fact) whilst also working as an educationalist, translator and conservationist.

    I was struck by the question of why it took that encounter for Monbiot to face up to the social politics of rewilding. Why was it not more formative, more obvious to him ? He lives, after all, in a nation whose endemic language culture is both strongly held and deeply threatened, and in which the farming economy is one of its strongest redoubts. 

    He does attempt an honest appraisal of earlier rewilding projects, such as the big National Parks of eastern and southern Africa, of the United States, and Slovenia, in the former Yugoslavia. He writes with great feeling of the decline of Masai pastoralism in Kenya, where he spent much time and made close friends. In Africa and the United States such rewilding has been at the expense of the long-present native inhabitants. In Slovenia it has been a part of the fall-out from genocidal ethnic strife and population transfers. 

    He does not, however, see the destruction of small, mixed, and low intensity farming in Britain as a social and productive regression that should be rectified. Though he confesses that his position changed after his encounter with Dafydd, it only changed towards proposing an amelioration of hill farmers’ distress, whereby they would receive agricultural subsidies without a requirement to farm - a sort of dole, if they no longer wished to farm. 

    He dismissed the productive contribution of upland farmers with the assertion that Wales imports by value seven times as much meat as it exports, though, as Simon Fairlie comments[i], “that sevenfold influx of meat into Wales is supplied through an agricultural system that is widely regarded as unsustainable”. Monbiot’s figures are predicated on continuing major imports from countries like New Zealand, whose endemic ecosystems and erstwhile forested highlands have their own need for ecological restoration, from Europe outside Wales, and from the Americas, where far greater destruction to far richer ecosystems continues at a primary level – through ongoing forest clearance.  Those imports are dependent upon massive food miles, use of fossil fuel derived fertilisers, pesticides, excessive irrigation, on imported animal feeds, notably South American soya, on appalling animal welfare standards, and on an inflated dietary usage of meat.  

    His dismissal of upland productivity says little about the wasted potential of wool, too, mouldering in barns for decades, whilst our clothing importers collude with Bangladeshi sweatshop owners. In lowland sheep country such as my own South Downs the primary roles of sheep, historically, were as producers of wool and of dung, transferred from the biologically diverse, but productively poor high ground to fertilise the arable of valley and plain, via the nightly folding thereon of the flock. The Lord Chancellor sat on a wool sack, not a mutton pudding.

    I discussed these issues with a Welsh livestock farming friend (an English speaking lowland Gwent socialist) who had no knowledge of the rewilding debate. He had none of Monbiot’s tardiness in acknowledging the social implications of the removal of farming activity from the Cambrian Mountains, and needed no prompt to assert that “it’s just another form of ethnic cleansing”. His father would have said the same, I am certain, though he characterised the Cambrians as a ‘green desert’ many years before Monbiot used his phrase the ‘Cambrian Desert’.

    Monbiots’s focus on the rewilding of the uplands is leaking down to the lowlands, too, as I see in my own Sussex Wealden countryside with the removal of 3500 acres of agricultural land on the Knepp Estate from tillage to ‘wild land’, though it was cropped for perhaps a thousand years. Simon Fairlie rightly comments that, with our current population, the “rewilding of upland Britain[ii] is probably dependent upon the continued existence of industrial agriculture and in particular chemical fertilisers. Or conversely, one argument in favour of intensive chemical agriculture is that it allows a measure of rewilding”. And one of the things that has most surprised me is the enthusiasm with which elements of the political right have jumped on the bandwaggon. This agreement of some of the most destructive, most productivist elements of food industry capital with the rewilders is only one manifestation of the governing tendencies which are at work across all of our British and European countryside. Marginal lands are left derelict, subtracted from agriculture, exploited in stripped-out, single product versions of old mixed farm economies (as with the upland sheep pastures), and converted to owning class recreational usages.  The most productive lands, by contrast, are super-exploited for intensive food production, and all their prior ecosystems, landscape features, and physiographic nuances are levelled and simplified on a unified production ‘floor’.

    If we are to cater for our current and increasing population, break our dependence upon fossil fuel and chemical applications, and necessarily return to organic systems, then we will not have the option of removing farming from our marginal lands. As Fairlie says: “The more we rewild in Britain, the more food we will need to import and the more we are likely to dewild land in countries that provide us with substitute food. Conserving our natural environment at the expense of other peoples is a neo-colonialist agenda”. 

    Monbiot’s use of language vis a vis other parts of the nature conservation movement is harsh, polemicising vigorously against those who value open habitats (pasture, meadow, moor, fell, heath). He denounces the atavism of many nature conservationists, who wish to “preserve the farming systems of former centuries”, whilst celebrating the atavism of rewilders who call for the return of ecosystems which pre-date significant human modification. He doesn’t even want to call the sites conserved by those who focus on open habitats ‘nature reserves’. For him they are best described as ‘culture[iii] reserves’. He does not, by contrast, wish to emphasise the cultural nature of the rewilded areas, which will likely contain different humanly introduced species sub-species and geographical varieties from those species which have been lost, hopefully to act as surrogates for those rendered extinct.

    As for the “sheepwrecked” Cambrian Mountains, the steep decline over the past 40 years of their extant wildlife assemblage – with black and red grouse, golden plover, merlin, curlew, harriers, to name just a few charismatic species - runs in tandem with the abuse of sustainable pastoralism encouraged both by post-war UK and EU agricultural support systems and the ‘natural’ process of capitalist farming’s productive intensification. Monbiot omits from his account that the Cambrian Mountains formed the last haven for the polecat and the red kite, from which they have now re-emerged across Britain. It was there, too, that the wild cat and pine marten had their last refuges south of the Lake District, only to be extinguished there post 1850 (the former) and in the twentieth century (the latter).

    The modern leader in British ancient woodland ecology, George Peterken, has none of Monbiot’s contempt for open habitats, developing a profound involvement with meadow ecology which has brought him in late life to the writing of a definitive study of them[iv]. His appreciation of them could not be more different from Monbiot’s damning faint praise. (“I do not object to[v]...protecting meadows of peculiar loveliness in their current state”). For Peterken, meadows have a strong link with woodland. They are one part of a larger matrix, and meadow-like vegetation communities can be evidenced from more than 70,000 years ago, that is, more than 50,000 years before the mega beast cave paintings of Lascaux. Peterken’s book has a photograph of a huge and colourful upland meadow taken close to the spot near the Elan Valley reservoirs, where Monbiot expounds his contempt for the management of upland grazed nature reserves. 

    Let me take two examples relevant to this debate from my own countryside. 

    -         In the High Weald I have surveyed an area of tiny fields and smallholdings excised over the centuries from the fabric of a large heathy common. Fragmented ownership, the rumpled landscape and poor soils have served to preserve not just this pattern of fields, but much of their rich archaic grassland, too. It is an extraordinary collective survival, and the small grazed pastures and hay meadows provide a haven for such species as chimney sweeper moth, cowslip, pale sedge, heath spotted orchis and pepper saxifrage. By contrast, the surviving areas of common have been abandoned (rewilded) for a century, and have grown over to a banal mixture of dense bracken, holly, birch, and oak. The common’s rich open vegetation survives only on a few bits of mown lane verge, where cow wheat, bitter vetch, betony, hawkweeds, et al, give a hint of the richness that has been lost.

    -         In the centre of a Mid Sussex town, there is large Victorian cemetery, which was created on the site of ancient heathy woodland. It is vigorously maintained, mown at least every fortnight, and its turf is, in many places, as short as a bowling green. Despite this over-enthusiastic management it provides a refuge for an extraordinarily rich suite of woodland, marsh and heath species, including many scarce plants such as ivy leaved bellflower, bog pimpernel, wood horsetail, indigo pinkgill, marsh pennywort, sphagnum mosses, and many colourful waxcap fungi. Next to it is an area which has been fenced out of the managed cemetery and designated a “nature reserve”. It is left to natural processes – rewilded. It is a rank place of stinging nettles, Himalayan balsam, Japanese Knotweed, beer cans and rotting litter.

    Does all this matter? Is it all a matter of personal preference for different types of nature, a matter of nature conservation fashion ?

    Sadly not, for the real problems that the nature conservation movement faces are all too obvious: – gigantic cuts in public funding, redundancies, staff teams in public and voluntary sector organisation reduced to skeletal levels, loss of whole projects, neglect of critical management tasks, deteriorating sites and ecosystems, monitoring and survey work left undone, and lost opportunities at the very point when public consciousness was ready, at last, to accept the need to fund the conservation imperatives. 

    Statutory wildlife protections are under attack (badgers, harriers, buzzards, pine martens), ameliorative planning protections are undermined, the public conservation estate is everywhere threatened (public forests still, local authority lands).  

    Erstwhile common birds, plants, and invertebrates continue in the most shocking declines. Cuckoos and turtle doves, willow tit and wood warbler will soon be nationally extinct at these rates....and what will follow ?...starlings, house sparrows, mistle and song thrushes ? Macro moths shrink to a fraction of their former abundance. Ecologists argue that only ponds – sealed off from the polluted and over-extracted river system - can act as guaranteed refuges for the national freshwater wildlife assemblage. 

    Massive continuing habitat losses, habitat fragmentation, continuing pollutions, dangers from invasive disease, parasitic, and competitor species, dangers from climate change, (as “species”, to paraphrase Maggie Thatcher, “find themselves in the wrong place”), massive competition for land....these are the real issues. 

    Yet for Monbiot, the matter of personal preference is crucial. He makes no bones about his feeling of kin with the world of the big beasts, extols the pleasures of the hunter gatherer (foraging for fungi, fishing, shouldering a dead deer carcass). He tells us that before his breakthrough to the rewilding project he was suffering from “ecological boredom”. 

    But how seriously should we take his boredom, given the golden opportunities with which his class background, good fortune and talent have presented him ?

    For most people, cooped up as we are, the chance to see wild deer or a rabbit is a thrill. For most people, a summer afternoon blackberrying, or fishing on a reservoir or canal, offers peace and connection with nature.  For people in my life, on several occasions, the sight of a wood with bluebells in full bloom has brought them to tears. 

     It is imperative to plan the return of some of the lost big beasts in some places. It is essential to make the conservation of nature an imperative across large areas of our countryside, and to have large areas where natural processes are given much greater autonomy (both forests AND open habitats).

    It does not help, however, if rewilders like Monbiot diminish the efforts of us folk to preserve the extant wildlife communities near our homes and in our countryside.

     It does not help if rewilders argue the case for large scale nature conservation without embracing the fundamental need for an alliance with our friends who are struggling for sustainable mixed, low impact, and organic farming systems. 

    The preservation of nature can only be won in alliance with the struggles of small and disempowered food producers, in alliance with the struggles of those who wish to preserve existing rural communities of poor and middling folk, and in alliance with those who are struggling to preserve the existing wildlife of their localities. 


    [i] “Rewilding and Food Security”, by Simon Fairlie, page 23 to 25, ‘The Land’, Issue 14, Summer 2013.

    [ii] Simon Fairlie, op cit.

    [iii] “Feral”, page 224, George Monbiot.

    [iv] “Meadows”, George Peterken, British Wildlife Publishing (2013£).

    [v] Feral”, page 224.

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