When the call of the wild can go too far

Radicals want to reintroduce predators to the British countryside. It would be wiser to learn more about the wildlife we already have

Patrick Galbraith

The woodcock, according to the text message, burst out of a bush in a South London park, danced through the air towards Oval Tube and then disappeared, into the bright December sky, high above the cricket ground.

That evening, my commute home was terrorised by a gaggle of schoolgirls, who were crowded round an iPhone, shrieking. David Attenborough’s seductive tones, as he pontificated on the painted wolf, drifted down the carriage. In a different era, when speaking to children on public transport wasn’t a sure-fire way to get nicked, I might have said something like, “Dynasties is cool but my friend saw a woodcock today in deepest London. Isn’t that fabulous?”

Risk of arrest aside, the more I considered it, the more certain I became that the Wotsit-munching shriekers wouldn’t give a damn about the sighting of the red-listed wader. They were hooked on harder stuff, out of their minds on the majesty of the sort of wild creatures that a vocal group of ecologists want to see reintroduced to the British landscape.

“Rewilding” was a term coined by radical eco-activist Dave Foreman in the early 1990s and further defined in the same decade by Dr Michael Soulé and Professor Reed Noss. In its earliest iteration, according to Foreman, it was a conservation strategy to restore self-regulating land communities which necessitated the reintroduction of “wolves, cougars, lynx, wolverines, grizzly and black bears”. In their landmark 1998 essay, “Rewilding and Biodiversity”, Soulé and Noss justified rewilding as an “ethical issue of human responsibility” and an exercise in restabilising “the emotional essence of the wild”. Without top carnivores, they believed nature is “somehow incomplete, truncated, overly tame”, and lamented that “human opportunities to attain humility are reduced”. To substantiate his philosophy, Foreman quoted Lois Crisler, appropriately perhaps, a Disney cinematographer, who said, “Wilderness without animals is dead, dead scenery. Animals without wilderness are a closed book.”

This all sounds rather charming, but, despite some modern associations with the word “rewilding”, Foreman was far from being that gentle bloke you shell peas with down the allotment on Saturdays. He was a self-styled “eco-brute” with a taste for direct action. Others went so far as to call him an eco-terrorist. Anybody who would like to know how to slash tyres, torch machinery or sabotage light aircraft would do well to get themselves a copy of Foreman’s iconic book, Ecodefense! A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching.

The term “to monkeywrench” — that’s “sabotage” to us Brits — came into use after the publication of Edward Abbey’s 1975 book The Monkeywrench Gang, which follows a group of “enviromental warriors” as they wreak havoc across Utah and Arizona. Foreman himself was arrested for conspiring to damage government property. In my view, some of his opinions were justified. But, as is often the case with direct action, his methods and those he advocated were questionable and it is consequently difficult to entirely disassociate rewilding from illegal activity. When I rang Dr Steve Carver, a senior lecturer in wilderness at the University of Leeds, to discuss the genesis of the movement, he was happy to admit that shock tactics were de rigueur for its founding fathers.

Given the roots of the movement, it would be reasonable for those who farm livestock in this country to worry that the introduction of apex predators is a form of anarchic, direct action, designed to disrupt their lives.

Thirty years later, attempts to reconnect with some sort of “emotional essence” still dominate conversations about rewilding. Although the journalist George Monbiot is sniffed at by academics like Steve Carver for getting into the scene only in 2004, he has used his platform to become the high priest of the movement. For Monbiot, rewilding is about restoring what’s missing in our own lives and has made him “much happier and more optimistic”.

Perhaps I’m doing those girls on the train a disservice and they are every bit as interested in waders as I am, but a recent survey that found a quarter of primary school children can’t identify a robin, and one in ten thinks Eddie the Eagle is a bird of prey, would suggest otherwise. Clearly, this is symptomatic of a growing cultural disconnect and a resultant spiritual vacuum.

And, if social media is anything to go by, the children aren’t the only ones. Last October, Monbiot tweeted a picture of a muntjac deer. It was appropriate for Halloween, he reckoned, because of its fang-like teeth. It was immediately pointed out that muntjac don’t have such teeth and he had posted a picture of a Chinese water deer. The post was deleted. Fair cop. We all make mistakes – but then again we don’t all profess to have the expertise to champion radical conservation movements.

Without wanting to bring the grand old man into disrepute, we might call this the Attenborough effect. Not his fault, but we have become a nation which sits down in front of the television for a dose of big beasts while being unable to recognise the creatures outside our window.

Almost two decades before rewilding came into being, John Berger, in his 1980 essay “Why Look at Animals?”, noted that the United States was home to 40 million dogs and 40 million cats. He believed the explosion in pet ownership was part of the “personal withdrawal into the private small family unit, decorated or furnished with mementoes from the outside world”. He also highlighted “the way the average owner regards his pet”. Essentially, “the pet completes him”. For the 86 per cent of Britons who live in urban areas, this “withdrawal” has progressed even further, giving credence to the idea that, to rekindle our souls and fill that spiritual vacuum, we need access to a countryside where wolves howl and lynx slink among the trees.

Romantic, admittedly, but returning to Monbiot, it seems there are still political motivations driving the movement as well as soul-making ones. Whatever your views on foxhunting and independent education, a Guardian article by him focusing on both those issues, written the year he got into rewilding, is eyebrow-raising. He admitted that “as an animal welfare issue, foxhunting comes in at about number 155”, but he added, “As a class issue, it ranks behind private schooling at number two.”

From an ecological and ethical perspective, hunting with dogs is a hugely complex issue. To take it on as a class issue when you purport to be an environmentalist, exhibits a capacity to weaponise animals and disregard their welfare. In some small way, Monbiot contributed to winning that battle. Perhaps the introduction of megafauna is next. One can’t help but wonder where he ranks rewilding as an environmental issue compared to where he places it as a class issue.

There are some 5,000 gamekeepers in this country employed on sporting estates. You could forgive them for imagining there might be some sort of link between Monbiot’s opposition to commercial deerstalking and an enthusiasm for reintroducing creatures which would kill the deer and ruin that revenue stream.

Last year, the travel writer Isabella Tree published a quixotic book entitled Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm (Picador, £20). It tells the story of a project in West Sussex which has seen Tree and her husband, Sir Charles Burrell, “wild” Knepp, their 3,500-acre estate, after struggling to make it profitable as a conventional farm. Free-roaming old English longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs and fallow deer graze the post-agricultural scrub which stops the estate turning into suffocating closed canopy woodland. However, they didn’t go so far as introducing apex predators, so instead they produce 75 tons of steak, burgers and sausages a year.

The estate has seen a staggering increase in wildlife which, in turn, attracts paying visitors. The whole thing is visionary and the Burrells are now believed to make a substantial annual profit from the venture.

But is it rewilding? Well, it depends who you ask. A cynic might suggest it is really just a canny model of farm diversification.

Meanwhile, in Holland, the nature reserve Oostvaardersplassen, brainchild of Dutch ecologist Frans Vera, is making headlines. Just over 5,600 hectares in size , the reserve is home to semi-feral Konik horses, red deer and Heck cattle. The large herbivores on the reserve are intended to mimic the presence of extinct wild beasts like the aurochs and a type of Eurasian horse better known as the tarpan.

Vera’s dream was to recreate an ancient wilderness, but the project has become a nightmare. A year or so ago, the total population of creatures living there was just over 5,000. Now, though, more than half of them have been slaughtered: the authorities had to go on a mass culling spree when the grass on the reserve in the fenced area ran out and the animals starved. Some have called it a grotesque experiment. Others believe it hasn’t gone far enough and the answer is to tear down the fences. After all, the wolf population in Holland is booming. Just ask the farmers whose sheep were killed last year at a rate over six times greater than the previous year.

In my opinion, rewilding is a nebulous radical political movement, riding a wave of nostalgia and soul-searching in an intensely urban epoch.

Last weekend, I sat behind an old oak in Dumfriesshire and watched bats flit around a pond. Then teal came and swam in the shallows, chattering and feeding in the gloaming. I built that pond and it certainly wasn’t rewilding. The sooner we expunge that divisive word from our conservation lexicon, the better. It was habitat creation. That should be our focus, and while we’re at it, we should devise a Natural History GCSE, so that when Dynasties is over, young people can pop their heads out of the back door and identify the noises of the creatures in the night.

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