Rewilding Britain: A Reflection on the Words of George Monbiot

Charlotte Collins reviews ‘Rewilding: The mass restoration of Britain’s ecosystems’, a talk by writer and activist George Mobiot presented by the UCL Geographical Society.

In a society permeated with discourses of climate change and the anthropogenic reshaping of our natural environments, academics, scientists and policy makers alike strive to find viable solutions to combat these issues. Conservation is often lauded as one of the leading methods to preserve the planet’s ecosystems and the species upon which humanity rely on so heavily. The term itself has connotations of stewardship, protection and altruism, however it is important to interrogate why the environment needs protecting in the first place: are the methods used contributing to, and supporting the flourishing of wildlife? With sustained discursive emphasis on conservation overseas, such as in the Amazon rainforest, we are in need of a so-called ‘recalibration’ of this vision, to highlight the ways in which the UK’s wildlife protection strategies are reductive and counterintuitive, as they can often do more harm than good.

Writer and environmental activist George Monbiot delivered a talk to the UCL Geographical Society on December the 17th, which critically examined the impacts of conservation in rural Britain and put forward what he called ‘rewilding’, as a means of reclaiming the ‘wildlife deserts’ that span our countryside today. He followed the argument set out in his latest book, Feral, that bureaucratic, top-down approaches inhibit the flourishing of wild natural habitats. Having lived for a number of years in the Welsh countryside, at the convergence between Snowdonia and the Cambrian Plain, Monbiot drew on his own experiences of traversing the landscape, and feeling bewildered by the desolateness, and lack of wildlife.

The countryside for many paints an idyllic setting of nature unbounded, but we often fail to interrogate the silences that it presents, such as the lack of trees and biodiversity of fauna. Monbiot argued these omissions are the result of Britain’s uplands being converted to arable land, which he suggested has caused more ecological destruction than any form of urban construction. This ‘agricultural hegemony’ exemplifies how humans continue to commodify and manipulate land to satisfy their needs and desires. Generous subsidies provided by the European Commission which equate to €55 billion per year only exasperate the matter. Lenient laws in the UK state that land owners and farmers must keep their pastures in a suitable agricultural state (free of obstructive vegetation) in order to receive these stipends. Monbiot meanwhile pointed to the fact that only 4% of the UK population are farmers, which brings into question the ways in which other landowners are using their land. Whilst some areas are set aside as deer reserves, much of the land is left barren and unused for the purpose of accruing vast amounts of subsidies. As soon as the vegetation is allowed to proliferate, the hand-outs subside.

This domination of humans on the natural environment also extends into conservation strategies themselves. Monbiot argued that nature reserves are manufactured manifestations that seek to maintain ‘favourable conditions’ that once existed in these ecological spheres. He recalled with bafflement how various bodies responsible for maintaining nature reserves and conservation areas considered ‘cutting, burning and grazing’ as appropriate tools for maintaining natural environments. The reality suggests these measures can in fact heighten the impact of flooding, as the desolate uplands lack the necessary vegetation to provide greater interception rates resulting in ‘flashy’ storm events such as those in Cumbria. These heavily managed areas, whilst appearing to have a seemingly rich biodiversity, actually inhibit the presence of other flora and fauna which could prosper if the land was ‘rewilded’. ‘Rewilding’ is a concept close to Monbiot’s heart which he described as a form of ‘positive environmentalism’: it is open-ended and resilient and allows the diversification of ecosystems. He proposed that the only means of instigating rewilding is through political avenues , tackling the policies that grant subsidies based on the destruction of wildlife habitats.

Monbiot’s writing and narrative above all invites us to reevaluate and challenge our understandings of the processes and institutions that safeguard the natural environment. Rather than explicitly writing off conservation as a technique ensuring the preservation of habitats, he aims to illuminate its short-fallings. Regulations and practices such as the removal of trees and the cutting back of long grasses are dictated on a top-down basis and fail to take into account the differing and unique characteristic from each habitat to the next. In this way, a ‘rewilding’ led approach would allow our oceans, riverbeds, meadows and forests to flourish once again. As Monbiot suggests, the species that rewilding will favour most is ‘hope’. The hope that nature will heal itself in time, in the absence of human interference.

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