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.
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.
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.