“The wolves had created a landscape of fear.” And this is a good thing. Unless you happen to be an animal just a bit smaller than a wolf in Yellowstone Park, perhaps.
George Monbiot, in his talk at 3pm in the Baillie Gifford Theatre on his new book Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding was describing how the reintroduction of wolves into the national park in 1995 after an absence of 70 years had had a dramatic and unexpected transformation of not only the fauna and flora of the area but also had led to changes in the physical geography. Before, without the wolves, the terrain had sparse, scrubby vegetation and few animals in any great number apart from deer — “rather like Scotland”.
More wolves “counterintuitively” also meant more of almost everything, the result of trophic cascade. A trophic cascade he said, is one that “starts at the top of the food chain and tumbles all the way down to the bottom”. Wolves preying on deer meant trees could regrow properly, more trees meant more birds to live in them, and beavers, who suddenly had materials to build dams. More wetlands behind the dams brought back otters and fish numbers grew, along with amphibians and all sorts of other species. Even bears, who ate berries from trees and shrubs that the deer were now leaving alone began to flourish.
All this and more happened, Monbiot said, because wolves had done something that people could not: created a “landscape of fear” where the deer would simply no longer go: anywhere they might be cornered or easily picked off, such as valleys or bluffs, radically changing the park “almost immediately”. In these areas erosion stabilised and reduced as tree roots dug into the soil, allowing water to flow more slowly, creating new lakes and watercourses. Instead of being a menace to the ecosystem, wolves had given it life.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if someone tries to draw parallels between this and a popular economic theory to deride it as “trickle-down ecologics”, but there was something very compelling about Monbiot’s argument, particularly when he got everyone on-side early by pointing out that there is a very simple reason most of our low-lying trees, such as holly, yew and box, the understory are so tough and resilient.
Yes, elephants, and rhinos. And hippos. All of which once lived on land that is now the British Isles. Their remains, along with those of lions, were found in excavations of Trafalgar Square. To survive the appetite of such megafauana, low-lying plants had to become very tough, which is why many of our trees, such as Blackthorn, have spiny defences. This impressive image, of a Serengeti in the Home Counties, as recently as 12,000 years ago (before humans learned to kill them), was the leaping-off point for his argument that we should be reintroducing large predators to benefit the whole ecosystem.
In a well-rehearsed, passionate and compelling 40 minutes he extolled the idea of “re-wilding”, of leaving areas completely alone at sea to repopulate so that the overspill would mean more and more diverse sealife around the edges, and on land reintroducing to the best of our abilities – even to the extent of maybe letting elephants and rhinos roam free, though he drew the line at lions – predators long extinct.
The other side of his plan, though, is to re-wild humanity: to allow us the experience of knowing we are in an area where wolves also live, or to come eye-to-eye with a bull dolphin as he once did while sea kayaking and know they also have intelligence and social structures. To experience, as he put it, the situations that have given him “the most thrilling and delightful and, in the true sense, most wonderful times of my life”, and to extend to children the room to grow in a completely wild place.
It’s an ambitious plan and even though he clearly had a large proportion of the audience on his side from the start – who knew so many people had built a hedge? – there was one vocal opponent who interrupted angrily with a clap and a largely inaudible challenge while Monbiot was answering a question from the event’s chair, Bob McDevitt, about how much balance he gave opposing voices. Badly timed, as the chair informed him there would be questions soon and carried on. For about another two minutes. The increasingly reddening face did not deign to repeat his question – during the following Q&A was that Monbiot insisted on alternating questions between men and women, which I’ve never seen before but seems a good idea – which was perhaps a shame. The lesson: don’t mess with Bob.
The whole plan is an ambitious idea, and one that will probably never see fruition amid much opposition but, like many political stances, it is a bargaining position, and though sheep may safely graze (notably eroding the hills above the A82 and causing Scotland’s worst landslips) in industrial numbers for the foreseeable future, maybe this will help pull the balance back towards the wild. After all, Monbiot noted, his book is mainly about hope: “Hope that our Silent Spring can be followed by a raucous summer.”
This was, for me, an inspiring highlight of the day, a day that also included a mint choc chip cone from the Di Rollo of Musselburgh Ice Cream Trike (a very reasonable £1.80), a chat by the press tent with yet more fellow Scotsman refugees and a reunion with the head of our course at Napier, who I hadn’t seen for almost a decade: for those who might be interested, Mark Meredith is in fine spirits and enjoying the coffee.