Feral – another midlife crisis story, or a way forward for conservation politics?

George Monbiot’s Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding is worth dipping into – unless you are one of those bourgeois escapists whom Steven Poole’s recent Guardian Review article identified as the likely readership for this genre of nature writing. In which case, you’ll probably want to read it from cover to cover.

I have just done this. To be honest, overall Feral is not my cup of tea. I came to the book already annoyed by its publicity hype; and the first chapter, which I read online while waiting for the book to come to Hebden Bridge Library, had antagonised me because of Monbiot’s implicit class politics, clunky prose and his banging on about his mid life crisis, which I am just not interested in.

But I’m glad I read the book. Leaving aside the midlife crisis frame story, Feral pulls together a thorough account of what is going on with the land and sea, the plant and animal species who are at home there, and the human politics that have led to the degradation of the seas, uplands, rivers and valleys. He draws on a wide range of published research and journalism and interweaves it with his own first-hand observations.

Green thoughts in a green shade - looking up from reading Feral

If you are going to be dipping into Feral, rather than reading it all the way through, someone tweeted that it starts to be interesting around Chapter 6, and I reckon that’s about right.

Feral also portrays people whose daily lives and work involve them in the fate of land and marine ecosystems. Some of these portraits are a tad patronising- I mean, in The Hushing chapter, why does Monbiot see fit to to rave on about  a young Welshman’s brilliant mind? Surely better to show the young man’s mind in action, rather than for Monbiot to take it on himself to bestow this judgment?

But still, these character sketches are ways into detailed, practical accounts of how land and sea, if left alone or given the least bits of help, regenerate and return to supporting a teeming variety of life. And the portraits also provide insights into real conflicts of interest that make proposals for rewilding a delicate social and cultural issue, with potentially sinister effects. Monbiot discusses these in the chapter The Beast Within.

For lay people – and maybe even for professional conservationists – who are  trying to help restore and enhance biodiversity, this is all useful and inspiring information.

For instance, I would recommend it to people and organisations in Hebden Bridge who are currently working with PhD student Shaun Maskrey, on a flood risk “participatory modelling” pilot.

Rewilding uplands to reduce flood risks 

The aim of Shaun’s research is to work out how the public can put their heads together to create a model of ways of reducing flood risk from the Hebden Water catchment. Last year, 5 flash floods inundated Hebden Bridge. Surface water runoff from the Hebden Water catchment was a key factor in most of those floods. By sharing information and experiences in Shaun’s workshops we should be able to “gain an increased understanding of the natural system as it relates to flood risk” and so “make robust recommendations of how to tackle the problem of flood risk in Hebden Bridge”.

The “participatory modelling” group met for the first time last week. The sub-group I was in identified the political difficulty of changing land use practices on the massive grouse moors in the catchment. Their degradation, through draining and burning, is fairly widely held to have contributed to the flash floods that inundated Hebden Bridge last year.

These moors are precisely the kind of bleak monoculture that Monbiot rails against in Feral. They are probably fit for rewilding, through the kind of process of benign neglect that Monbiot describes in various chapters in Feral. This approach to land use management sees degraded uplands and hillsides quickly revert to biodiverse woodland, improving the soil structure, supporting a wide variety of plant, animal and insect species and reducing surface water runoff.

At a guess, the problem in the Hebden Water catchment area is not that these environmentally degraded moors make us in Hebden Bridge feel ecologically bored – the emotional deadening that drives Monbiot’s midlife crisis story. It’s more a matter of, how do you get the political power to let these uplands regenerate, revert to woodland and in the process help reduce flash floods in the valley?

This in an area where the tourist economy rides on the back of Wuthering Heights and the award-winning cultural celebration, the South Pennines Watershed Landscape project, exploits this “heritage”.

Monbiot says that rewilding can only happen with public consent. But even if there is public consent, there is then the tricky political question of how public opinion can counter the power of the established landowners and corporations who have effectively captured the so-called democratic political process as it relates to the use of land and other ecosystems.

Feral’s stories about people and places that are regenerating and rewilding degraded land and sea are strong  -and yes – enchanting enough to stand on their own, without the frame story of how and why Monbiot sought them out and decided to tell them. By framing them in the story of his quest to resolve his mid life crisis, it’s almost as if Monbiot didn’t trust these stories to stand on their own feet. But they can, and do.

And they are the reason for reading Feral, as far as I’m concerned.

But where Feral frames the story of rewilding as the cure for Monbiot’s middle aged loss of meaning and direction in life, I think this takes us into the kind of bourgeois escapist territory that Steven Poole’s article explores. The territory of the imagination where hell is other people and paradise is a deserted beach in Iceland – or a solitary kayak miles out in Cardigan Bay.

The territory that, at the end of Chapter 1, Monbiot trails as his version of Narnia. Fine, but rather than entertaining fantasies, I’m interested in how rewilding can happen, how and where it’s appropriate, and where it would just be a proxy for kicking around various political footballs, as it can so easily be.

Who is going to pay for rewilding, and how? 

Monbiot makes a concrete proposal about how to pay for rewilding- abolish the Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition Rule 12 . Complying with this rule is currently a condition of receiving Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) farm subsidy payments for land which is not in agricultural use.

This rule requires farmers who receive CAP farm subsidy payments to cut or graze scrub and rank vegetation on land that they are not using for crops or grazing. The rule effectively prevents land from rewilding itself. Monbiot says that removing the rule would encourage rewilding, without penalising farmers who want to use their land for farming rather than for rewilding it.

One of the reasons I was suspicious about Feral before I read it, is that rewilding advocates are jumping on the payment for ecosystem services bandwagon – among them, Rewilding Europe, a group that Monbiot discusses without mentioning their enthusiastic advocacy of payments for ecosystem services.

During the book launch, Monbiot seemed to be buddy-buddy with Tony Juniper, who recently wrote a book advocating payments for ecosystems services. I didn’t watch the hour-long video of Juniper and Monbiot discussing Feral , so I don’t know if the subject came up. But now, having read Feral, I still wonder if it will turn out to be a Trojan Horse for payment for ecosystems services.

Monbiot avoids discussing the issue. It would be good if he would say where he stands on the issue of payments for ecosystem services in relation to rewilding. He has strongly denounced the principle of payments for ecosystem services elsewhere, so why not in the context of his proposals for rewilding?

In the meantime, one and a half cheers for Feral. And definitely worth dipping into if you’re part of Shaun Maskey’s research project, or are in any way involved in working out how upland management can help reduce flood risks.

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