The earth wants to be green

Rewilding the United Kingdom – from restored forests to the return of predators such as the lynx – were in the spotlight at a topical lecture featuring acclaimed writer George Monbiot and leading conservationist Alan Watson Featherstone, Founder of award-winning charity Trees for Life. PhD student Kuba Jablonowski was there….

“Woodland covers 31 per cent of the world’s land area and 37 per cent of Europe, but only 13 percent of Britain,” says journalist and environmental campaigner George Monbiot at the start of his talk at the University of Exeter.

Later, during the question and answer session that follows, someone from the audience adds that natural woodland accounts for even less than that, just about six per cent of the British land. Why is it? Well, according to rewilding pioneer Alan Watson Featherstone, who speaks after George, this is mainly because we are ‘a nation of sheep’. He means it quite literally: Scotland, where he comes from, has 5.3 million people and over six million sheep. Scotland also has countless red deer who have no natural predators in today’s ecosystem and hence are left free to overgraze desolate hills. No trees can take root in such an environment.

Throughout the evening George and Alan explain why Britain’s rolling hills, for many a defining feature of the country’s landscape, should rather be considered as evidence of an environmental disaster which turned our uplands into some of the least functional ecosystems in Europe. They blame it on human activity and yet it is not the industrial revolution and its unintended consequence, the climate change, that they focus on.

The peculiarity of the British landscape with its barren, ‘grass-trashed’ and ‘sheep-wrecked’ uplands is an effect of farming and a particular pattern of land ownership more broadly.

Unlike almost anywhere else in the world, Britain has never had a revolutionary event that would trigger some kind of redistributive land reform. As a result very few people own much of the land, and Britain has one of the most concentrated land ownership patterns in the world, second only to Brazil. To make matters worse, the enduring lack of transparency as to who owns what exactly makes the efforts to mitigate ecological damage harder.

For George, therefore, the main obstacle to rewilding Britain is political ecology and economy. Sheep in the uplands are often a loss-making business and many farmers live off subsidies form the European Union, which are paid per hectare of land in ‘agricultural condition’. This excludes woodlands but does include barren and overgrazed land. The cumulative effect of unusually large size of British farm holdings and European subsidies is a landscape where only the most resilient animals can survive: deer, skylark, and not much more.

Rewilding is about reversing that process and bringing back biodiversity that used to characterise much of rural Britain. There is palpable excitement in the audience as George describes the wilderness of our last interglacial period, when elephants, rhinos, hippos, lions, and hundreds of other species roamed Britain. However, his is not an agenda for conservation with an arbitrarily selected baseline, or for going back to a particular historical moment. Rewilding is a progressive agenda to let nature thrive. As George puts it: “The process is the outcome,” and it is certainly not about protecting the few species we have left.

This makes most sense when Alan speaks about the work of his life which he spent planting trees in Scottish highlands, or often just protecting them with fences to stop sheep and deer overgrazing. The result is there for all of us to see. He shows numerous photos of barren land that becomes overgrown with young trees within just a few years from putting up fences. A few more years and these fences can be dismantled, and lush woodlands stand proudly where there was nothing. This often is achieved with no planting at all – nature does not need our help as much as a chance to grow on its own. Coming back to one place every two years Alan documents the rewilding process and shows how he just lets the nature take its course. There is something incredibly intimate about these photos, showing Featherstone looking after trees until they are strong enough to cope on their own. It is like a family album…

Rewilding has very simple principles, says Alan. It starts with restoration of vegetation communities, which is followed by reinstatement of vital ecological processes, and finally reintroduction of missing species including large mammals and predators. And this process of rewilding is not just a way to heal our dysfunctional landscapes, but also to bring people together. Alan clearly loves trees, but he is also very concerned about the wellbeing of people ‘deprived of nature’. He lists Scotland’s social woes, and says that rewilding is a great way to get people to work together, be out in nature, and do something meaningful for one another and future generations.

In the question and answer session much attention is focused on winning over the wider public for rewilding Britain. George and Alan argue that it is all about sharing knowledge and using existing resources smartly. They say that agricultural subsidies, for example, would bring greater returns if they became rewilding subsidies, and that reforested uplands would be the most effective flood defence Britain can have.

Finally, a question about the baseline ecosystems comes up: if we decide to reintroduce missing species, then what is the new, wild landscape supposed to look like? Which point in history do we reference as the right type of wilderness? But Alan says it is really ‘not about turning back the clock, but restarting it’. Let’s begin with that, adds George, and who knows – maybe eventually we will get our elephants, hippos and lions back!
The talk was organised at the University of Exeter on Thursday 14th January by the Network of Wellbeing, Exeter Community Initiatives, and Research Services.

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