Rewilding Australia? A feral contemplation

I appreciate the irony, but huddled by the heater, I just read my first e-book on an iPad –  on how to better engage with nature.

Feral Monbiot cover

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The book, Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding, is a fascinating account of optimistic and dysfunctional approaches to nature conservation. The author, George Monbiot, argues that many conservation policies – especially in the UK – intentionally maintain impoverished ecosystems from the past, rather than creating diverse, dynamic ecosystems for the future. In their place, he advocates Rewilding. In his words,

… rewilding, unlike conservation, has no fixed objective: it is driven not by human management but by natural processes. There is no point at which it can be said to have arrived…. Rewilding… does not seek to control the natural world, to re-create a particular ecosystem or landscape, but – having brought back some of the missing species – to allow it to find its own way.

Feral is a fascinating and at times an irritating book. You can read many excerpts online (here, here, here and here), watch an animation of his main argument, view a TedTalk video, and see the author and opponents interviewed on BBC TV. If nothing more, Monbiot is a brilliant self-publicist, and he sells optimism really well. But PR aside, what does a book about conservation in Europe have to interest a reader in Australia?

I read it for a simple reason. As an ecologist I’m increasingly working in ecosystems that have regenerated ‘naturally’ after new land uses, especially rural residential land use, replace traditional agriculture (see my last blog and YouTube clip for example). I wondered whether this natural regeneration could be viewed as a form of rewilding. No one planned it, no one planted it, no one ‘saved’ it, most people don’t seem to like it much. We haven’t articulated a single goal, strategy or vision for its future. It mucks up our tidy conventions about cleared and natural vegetation. Yet (plantations aside) natural regeneration has delivered more hectares of vegetation than any intentional activity. Hence, I was curious to see whether Feral could offer better ways of thinking about, and talking about, conservation in these new regenerative, human landscapes.

Feral covers a lot of ground, and includes two different approaches under the banner of rewilding. The first approach advocates the promotion of natural regeneration, by removing heavily subsidized grazing in particular. Monbiot goes for broke on this topic. He accuses European policies of creating ecological ‘deserts’ by providing subsidies to prevent (not promote) regeneration of trees and shrubs, even inside conservation reserves.

I am convinced that… if people were more aware of how their money is being used, the needless destruction, the monomania, driven by farm subsidies – across Europe and in several other parts of the world – would come to an end. This, more than any other measure, would permit the trees to grow, bring the songbirds back, prompt the gradual recolonization of nature, release the ecological processes that have been suppressed for so long. In other words, it would allow a partial rewilding of the land.

These chapters read as a severe indictment of UK and EU conservation policies. However, beyond the critique of global subsidies and the message that we can control regeneration by managing livestock, their relevance to Australia is muted. No sheep farmer in Australia would willingly create landscapes as barren (in the literal sense) as the ‘sheep-scraped misery’ of Monbiot’s reserves.

Feral’s second approach to rewilding is one that Australian ecologists are equally familiar with: re-introducing top-order predators or ecosystem engineers to alter ecosystem functioning. Re-introduced beavers fell trees that create wetlands that, in turn, alter stream hydrology and provide habitat for countless organisms. Similarly, re-introduced wolves can control deer herds, which allows over-grazed trees to regenerate, and so on. This form of rewilding is derived from the North American literature on trophic cascades. From a political and social perspective, Feral should be required reading for anyone contemplating the re-introduction of apex predators like Dingoes, Tasmanian Devils or Quolls in Australia.

Individually, neither approach is particularly novel (except it seems in Britain). However, I was eager to see how Monbiot linked the two approaches. Does the second activity logically, or necessarily, follow from the first? Unfortunately, Monbiot promotes both approaches without integrating the two. Natural regeneration creates ecosystems that can house and be modified by re-introduced fauna. Hence, one could presumably have ‘rewilding phase 1′ without ‘rewilding phase 2′. However, Monbiot’s primary rationale for encouraging rewilding is to encourage ‘hope’ and to re-engage humans with diverse ecosystems, and both activities may achieve this goal for some people.

The environmental movement up till now has necessarily been reactive. We have been clear about what we don’t like. But we also need to say what we would like. We need to show where hope lies. Ecological restoration [i.e. rewilding] is a work of hope.

Thus, while Monbiot doesn’t spell it out, big wild carnivores provide a great PR hook to excite people about restoration, even if the biggest gains come from more mundane activities like controlling small domesticated herbivores.

Natural regeneration in a rural residential area in central Victoria.

Yellow pins mark patches of natural regeneration in a rural residential area in central Victoria. Source: Google Earth.

If we accept Monbiot’s first approach to re-wilding, then we’ve got lots of rewilded areas in eastern Australia, in areas where trees and shrubs have regenerated after land use change. Where these landscapes support large rural residential blocks (i.e. amenity land use), Monbiot’s desires to increase biodiversity and engage people with nature are both fulfilled, as more people and more native species share new areas of bushland. In his words, “Everyone should have some self-willed land on their doorstep.”

But do we need a new buzzword like rewilding to promote this great conservation outcome?

One of the things that fascinates me about rural revegetation is how ambivalent people are about it. Natural regeneration has created lots more vegetation than intentional on-ground activities but no one really wants to talk about it. Maybe it’s because of the words we use?

In the ecological literature, these regenerating landscapes are well captured by the concept of novel ecosystems, as described by Richard Hobbs and others. To me, this term perfectly describes the new ecosystems that are forming across many parts of SE Australia. Many patches will never resemble natural or intact remnants, but they provide important habitat, and the juxtaposition of remnant and new patches can increase the landscape diversity of some organisms (see my last blog for example). However, for reasons that I don’t understand, the term novel ecosystems seems to really, really annoy lots of people. [If you hate it for some reason, please leave a comment below].

Another new catch-cry for conservation is landscape connectivity – creating linkages across the landscape to improve ecosystem conditions, especially under climate change. Many connectivity programs share the goal of promoting natural processes. But our ambivalence towards natural regeneration highlights that we don’t necessarily like the things that natural processes deliver. We like the idea of connectivity much more than we value the new patches that make the connections. Feral highlights the big disconnect between unguided natural processes and the prescriptive activities that we often adopt, many of which aim to constrain natural processes.

If you’re interested in restoring ecosystems in human landscapes, Feral provides much food for thought. To me it highlights the chasm between the idea of conservation and the practice of conservation, especially in disturbed, fragmented human landscapes, and the tension between natural processes and regulatory control. If you’d rather watch a cartoon than read a book, watch the video. Otherwise, curl up by the fire and get Feral. You’ll enjoy it.

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14 thoughts on “Rewilding Australia? A feral contemplation

  1. The north east US (New England) got rewilded when the sheep industry moved west in the 1870′s. States that were 75% cleared land went to 75% wooded by the 1950s. 60 years later we have woods that are mature with very little understory and Audubon has a list of birds of concern that are being pushed out by the encroachment of the big woods. We’ll eventually get wolves and mountain lions back most likely long before the 10 inches of forest loam lost downstream by sheep grazing is restored. In the meantime it’s good to look at the green.

    • Hello Tom, thanks very much for taking the time to send in a comment. The changes in land use and forest cover in New England are extraordinary aren’t they. I don’t think we’d ever see changes this dramatic in Australia, as we don’t have as big an area of cleared country that could revert to dense forest. It must be quite amazing to contemplate the degree of change that has occurred when you visit many forests now. George Monbiot gives a similar example from Europe, where forest regenerated across a huge areas after people were removed (ie killed) in WW1. You can read this section of his book online at the address below. Like New England, it’s a fascinating tale, although more gruesome. Thanks again, best wishes Ian
      http://www.aeonmagazine.com/nature-and-cosmos/george-monbiot-rewilding/

  2. Hi Ian,
    Thanks for another very interesting post. I watched the animation on rewilding – I will read the book I hope at some stage but opted for the quick fix! Interesting ideas about reintroductions from the distant past (eg elephants to Europe) – how far back do we go in our rewilding? We are already doing this to some degree with the Wollemi Pine – now becoming a common feature in backyards and parks – and I think they have been reintroduced into a canyon in the Blue Mts World Heritage Area too? Should we be looking forward in our restoration efforts and not backward – embracing new and unavoidable changes that introduced species are making in our evolving ecosystems rather than trying to recreate some unknown, idealistic wild past? Personally I am an idealist and would just love to have the land as it was pre 1788! Maybe I should quit my landcare group and focus my efforts on building a time machine…..
    Thanks again for your help with the climate change ppt that I borrowed – they went over a treat and are now educating many students in Western Sydney schools about the Greenhouse Effect!

    • Hi Steven, thanks very much for your great comment. The book covers a lot more ground than the video does, and while it devotes a lot of space to animal re-introductions it also deals with a lot of broader issues, especially vegetation restoration. There is a strange tension though between the historical aspect of rewilding and the functional perspective though. The functional perspective focuses on the ways in which top predators and ecosystem engineers affect ecosystems, and doesn’t necessarily have a historical perspective – although both views do tend to be mixed together in the book. The reality is, even if we could re-introduce lots of vanished animals, ecosystems would still differ greatly from what it did 200+ years ago.

      Personally I think it’s more useful to focus on ways to retain diverse ecosystems into the future, even though the makeup of those systems will inevitably differ greatly from what they look like now, rather than primarily focusing on retaining historical systems. If nothing more, change demands this, as I see it. Keep up your great work in environmental education, we need more and more of it! Best wishes Ian

  3. HI Ian, I haven’t read the book, but this statement concerns me a little:

    “Natural regeneration has created lots more vegetation than intentional on-ground activities ”

    There are a few issues here:

    1) “oils ain’t oils” and “vegetation ain’t vegetation” – for example, changes to grazing and fire regimes in vast tracts of Central NSW has lead to similarly vast areas of natural regeneration (INS in another language) – is a farmers’ decision to walk away from their former practices an “intentional on-ground activity” – possibly – depends on how it is defined.

    2) most of the investment in the “on-ground” activities which i think you are eluding to has been in more highly contested and managed landscapes, where there is tighter competition between production and conservation. It is not the case in many areas of the landscape that woody vegetation is regenerating of its own accord without interventions – including fencing, reintroducing plant material and herbivore control. In the NSW context I am thinking of the box gum woodlands east of the country referred to in #1.

    2.1) of course, as we know, there is much more to biodiversity than woody vegetation regeneration alone – most of the biodiversity is below the knees in non-woody vegetation (there are important tangents here into your connectivity comments – but that is a topic for its own blog)

    3) the loose ‘lots more’ language highlights the point that if all we care about is volume of vegetation, then we could (1) put plantations everywhere, or (2) remove all the herbivores from Central Australia after the rain and achieve our goal of having ‘more’ vegetation. As we know, society cares about quality of vegetation condition, biodiversity, groundcover, shelter, palatability etc. and the equation is more complicated than a volumetric ‘lots more’.

    4) regardless of these comments, I commend Ian on his blog, and encourage all scientists to step up to the plate like Ian has and get conversing with the rest of the world.

    • Hi Jason, thanks for your fantastic comments. I agree completely with all your points – and I doubt that anyone could sensibly disagree. (I would question any assumption that the quality of natural reveg is intrinsically bad though – its probably extremely variable).

      A few years ago I went on a great road trip with John Morgan, which is when we first realised just how much natural reveg there was across central Victoria. At one stage towards the end of the trip, we looked at each other, somewhat flabbergasted and said, ‘how come no one has mentioned this stuff exists?’ The amount of natural reveg that exists, and the silence around its existence is very difficult to reconcile (western NSW INS aside).

      The most important point I’d like to make is – if we start to recognise the existence of natural regen a lot more, and work out where it has the best potential to occur, and what we can and can’t get out of it, then we can design our planting activities etc to supplement it, so the two work hand in hand, giving us even better outcomes, for the minimum amount of work. I said this a lot better in the video in my last blog, than in the short essay above. I’d be really interested in your thoughts on the video if you get a chance to watch it. Thanks again, and keep up your fantastic work, best wishes Ian

      • Hi Ian
        Graham Fifield who has lead our Whole of Paddock Rehabilitation program recently, with the incessant ‘deliver more for less’ pressure from @CfOC, has been working up an idea where we better facilitate natural regeneration rather than reintroduce plant material. That is, where we have previously provided incentive payments for landholders to rest their paddocks so we can reintroduce trees and shrubs, we basically ask and pay them to do the same – and they will find the best way to do it. Of course this is unlikely to facilitate the reintroduction of species lost from the seedbank or local landscape by decades of pressure (vis plant life history traits and disturbance pressures), but its likely to be an efficient way to reintroduce ‘lots of regeneration’ to overcleared landscapes.
        JC

  4. Hi again Jason, that’s an interesting proposal, and is similar to one of the suggestions I put in the connecting landscapes video last month – http://youtu.be/hnfBDinsNqE . I’m currently designing a project to model where natural regeneration is most abundant, based on abiotic factors (topography etc) and human land use changes. Results will be a way off, but I suspect there is a strong potential to use past regeneration to tell us where regeneration is lost likely to occur in the future. We will need to manage expectations well if we use a ‘hands-off’ approach though, as regeneration may be slow to occur, or occur in wet years, and outcomes will be variable (which could sometimes be a big positive). It’ll be fascinating – and exciting and uplifting – to look back in years to come to see the results of all of our endeavours in landscape restoration. Best wishes Ian

  5. Hi Ian,

    As always you raise many interesting points. In my area near Castlemaine in Central Victoria, Cassinia arcuata is a major coloniser of degraded land and several hectares of it cover hilly country that was once a sheep paddock at the back of my acreage. It is unpopular with the neighbours because they consider it a fire risk. Another common form of regrowth is spindly and densely packed gum trees, mostly red gum and grey box. These are also commonly considered a fire risk as well as being dismissed as ugly.

    I’ve looked closely at the Cassinia covered hilltop and I’ve noted that dozens of small herbaceous plants like urn heath, chocolate lillies, milkmaids, wiry buttons etc. grow amongst it. I can’t find anything positive to say about the spindly gum regrowth, however, as it seems to be mostly a dull monoculture that leaves the soil bare and open to erosion while attracting very few birds. Am I overlooking some value in this type of regrowth?

    • Hi Mel, thanks very much for your great observations. It’s great to hear that you’ve got a really diverse Cassinia patch on your property. We found many beautiful, diverse patches of regrowth that were dominated by Cassinia in the Rushworth region where we work. My impression in that diversity can vary a lot between sites, from rich to poor, and that this variation probably doesn’t have anything much to do with whether thy are dominated by Cassinia or not, but instead is due to the land use before Cassinia established.

      It sounds like your regrowth is pretty similar to the ones we work in. Tree density is often very high in many patches. One of my PhD students, Lisa Smallbone, found that bird diversity was highest in regrowth patches that had a mix of patches of trees and shrubs. So even though the dense patches look poor, they can play an important role in creating diverse habitats at the larger, paddock scale. I talked a bit about Lisa’s work in the video on a recent blog, if you want to see more on this – see http://ianluntresearch.wordpress.com/2013/06/13/natural-regeneration-connecting-regional-australia/

      The erosion issue is a really interesting one. We find similar things in some of our patches – see the earlier blog on bare soil patches – http://ianluntresearch.wordpress.com/2012/10/21/the-dirt-ring-photo-blog/ However I recently came across a really old patch of dense regrowth, and it was really interesting as the ground was covered its thick leaf litter, which I didn’t expect to see. I posted a picture of this stand in a recent post on old suppressed trees – http://ianluntresearch.wordpress.com/2013/05/22/dense-old-trees-bitter-and-twisted-charismatic-megaflora/ My impression is that the dense stands might gradually create thick litter layers, and thereby minimise erosion, as they self-thin, and as the fallen boughs catch and hold litter in the stand.

      It’ll be fascinating to observe the changes in your patches over time. We don’t have any information at all on long term changes in regrowth patches, so observations like yours can be really important to show how patches change over time. Thanks again, and best wishes Ian

  6. Hi Ian – really enjoyed this piece on rewilding and it captures some of the differences between Australian and British issues very well. I’ve yet to read Monbiot’s book and look forward to doing so. A couple of aspects that are likely to affect whether or not rewilding will be successful (or even attempted) in Britain are land ownership and current distribution of plant diversity. A significant proportion of Britain is in private ownership, often managed as estates for farming, forestry and hunting. Even now these estates resent (and often persecute) top predators, particularly birds of prey. They are unlikely to accept the overspill of these predators onto their land. In addition, some of our most diverse plant communities are wholly artificial, e.g. calcareous grassland, maintained by sheep and rabbit grazing. If we start rewilding the South Downs, for instance, we will lose those large areas of those communities to succession which conservation organisations would never agree to. Rewilding’s an interesting concept (and one I touched on recently in a blog post: http://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/rewilding-inside-and-out/) but fraught with potential conflicts and trade offs!

    • Hi Jeff, thanks very much for your comment. In Australia, nearly all of our agricultural land (i.e. beyond the semi-arid & arid zones) is in private ownership, and much is owned by large companies, but we don’t have the ‘lorded gentry’ type of big landholders which Monbiot rails against. However, the largest native predator in Australia is the dingo, and most farmers oppose any suggestions of relaxing controls on dingoes very virulently. This short article by Euan Ritchie captures the issues about dingoes and apex predators well: http://theconversation.com/whos-afraid-of-the-big-bad-wolf-is-the-dingo-friend-or-foe-587. We don’t have species-rich ecosystems that have been created and maintained by agricultural management to the degree that is apparent in Europe. Livestock grazing and fertilisers have reduced native richness in most cases, but there are some native grassland ecosystems where livestock grazing can help maintain native plant diversity; see my earlier blog on grazing for example; http://ianluntresearch.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/can-livestock-grazing-benefit-biodiversity/ . Thanks also for the link to your great blog, which I’ll follow from now on. I just read your post on bees and pollination and was about to forward it to a colleague of mine, Manuelinor, but then saw that she’d already seen it and had commented on it too. Best wishes Ian

      • Thanks Ian, will take a look at those links. The book by Sharon Levy I discussed has a big section on Australasia, including an overview of the dingo debates.

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