For anyone raised on Grimms’ fairytales – or wary of cows, hostile-looking geese – there have always been certain obvious difficulties with ambitious rewilding campaigns. Reintroducing beavers is one thing. Boars: maybe. But among the more appealing aspects of life in Britain, for the nervous, is the relative certainty of never encountering a wolf pack.
Recent celebrations over the return of these predators to the outskirts of Rome attest, however, to the huge success of rewilders, within a couple of decades, in dispelling this sort of unsubstantiated, if ancient, anti-wolf sentiment.
Far from representing a threat to humans, wolf supporters insist, the creatures are shy, peaceable types, outrageously traduced in The Three Little Pigs, much less aggressive towards us than dogs – no great surprise, really, given the numerical difference, but you get the point.
If there is any substance to French farmers’ complaints that wolves keep killing their sheep, this would probably, to many sheep-hating conservationists, seem an excellent way of using the ruminants up. As for killing UK deer, which have only human predators: this culling would be doing us, if not the deer, a favour. European wolf fans, such as the Dutch ecologist Leo Linnartz sound amused by our timidity. “We have wolves coming into the Netherlands again and we are much, much smaller than Britain. If the Dutch can do it, everybody can do it.”
Expanding on the benefits of wolves, which he hopes shortly to reintroduce in the UK, after the lynx and before, hopefully, bears, Peter Smith, CEO of Britain’s Wildwood Trust, said recently: “There are wolves all over Europe and they don’t cause problems. When was the last time you heard someone being killed by a wolf?”
It seems improbable, however, that the scheme will be abandoned if a Greek coroner is confirmed in his theory that an attack by wolves – not feral dogs – caused the horrifying death of the British academic Celia Hollingworth. If rewilding is designed, as its exponents believe, to be more natural than what it replaces, that can hardly be achieved by forcing animals to suppress their instincts. And if something is guaranteed 100% safe, it can’t really be called rewilding, can it? To the extreme rewilder, some loss of human life could be a price worth paying.
For all the assurances about safety and the greater likelihood of injury in traffic accidents, excitement about reintroducing risk to tame, farming-depleted landscapes seems integral to grander strategies for rewilding. To the annoyance of its more glamorous exponents, the term now embraces the restoration of anything from vegetation to mammoths.
Before long, in fact, some new words may be needed to distinguish humbler conservation-minded projects, featuring, say, reed beds and voles, from bolder, explicitly prelapsarian proposals, such as those advanced by George Monbiot, author of the widely admired Feral. He dreams, he writes, of us “standing back” from the land, after removing manmade interventions and “reintroducing missing animals” (and culling, along the way, “a few particularly invasive exotic species”). “It’s about abandoning the biblical doctrine of dominion which has governed our relationship with the natural world.”
The consequences of this updated form of dominion are not easy to predict, as some biologists have warned. To import wolves into selected zones of Britain is, however picturesque, neither to recreate the 18th-century ecosystem in which they were last observed, nor to ordain the outcome. The authors of Rewilding is the new Pandora’s box in conservation (Current Biology, February 2016) advocate, as a corrective to the “drumbeat” now advancing all kinds of rewilding approaches, “caution and an increased understanding and awareness of what is unknown about rewilding and what its potential outputs, especially ecological consequences, might be”.
As with the craze for fangsheng, the mercy release of animals, which recently led to hundreds of crabs and lobsters being dropped into the sea off Brighton, the best attempts by humans to repudiate previous dominion can translate into disaster and, in that case, £15,000 in fines for twowell-meaning Buddhists.
But from what Monbiot has written, and the response to it, some vagueness around restoring nature only adds to its attraction. “The wonderful thing about rewilding,” he wrote, following a Guardian review of his book, “is that you don’t know where it’s going to go… the way ecosystems evolve once missing species are introduced and we stop trying to control them is delightfully unpredictable.”
A similarly disarming imprecision, among enthusiasts, about the most natural baseline for rewilding, recalls the way that conservationists, when conferring aesthetic approval on a particular moment in the evolution of a historic house, tell us just as much about the present day. Where Rewilding Britain seems happy – for now – with unshowy improvements, and others are content with any pre-industrialisation benchmark featuring wolves, true rewilding demands, for some, costly attempts to recreate the Pleistocene landscape, before mankind, in its fallen state, started ruining the natural world.
What the various rewildings have in common is that, though all consider human intervention unnatural, all require, for the reversion to Eden, further human intervention: maybe correcting for missing flora and fauna, or to give a leg-up to unsuspecting prey, or simply to protect these zones from hostile life forms, whether farmers, tourists or foreign lobsters.
Even with its distaste for earlier human priorities, rewilding is not, as indicated by the popularity of wolf-restoration, too aloof to indulge continued human fascination, regularly demonstrated by Vladimir Putin and likeminded princelings, with charismatic megafauna. “The flagship taxa of rewilding,” the authors of an academic study of rewilding point out, “tend to be megaherbivores and carnivores, species that generate considerable public appeal and revenues for conservation.”
Rewilding is offered, in Monbiot’s compelling account of his awakening, as a corrective to an affliction that cannot but recall Marie Antoinette’s in the court of Louis XVI, that of boredom – in the writer’s case, “ecological boredom”, thus requiring treatment more powerful than a model farm. We may yet have to instrumentalise the mastodon.
“We arose in a thrilling, terrible world,” Monbiot writes, in a tone that suggests mere wolf reintroduction won’t do much for his accidie. Not when David Attenborough once described wolves as “gentle and very loyal creatures, whose sole purpose is to survive and look after each other”.
Rather, Monbiot conjures up early hominid life on African savannas, “dominated by sabre-toothed and false sabre-toothed cats, giant hyenas and bear dogs”.
As a recreational walker, I can barely express how grateful I am to inhabit, instead, a landscape dominated by the labradoodle. Still, the soaring interest in importing wolves and bears suggests that Monbiot’s longing for Pleistocene-age pick-me-ups – “a smouldering longing for a richer and rawer life than the one I lead” – is widely shared. While France and Italy have thriving packs, there seems no good reason why the British public should be denied its own wolf population, even if it may well tell us less about thrilling nature than about the disenchanted human beings who opted to put them back.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 01 Oct 2017.
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