“Feral”, Rewilding, and Hutting

feralSome books I pick up and march straight through in a quick campaign, forcing short or long engagements at every opportunity until the matter is concluded. Others I pick away at in a form of guerrilla warfare. Now I mostly read on a Kindle app, the temptation to neglect one book for another is greater too. George Monbiot’s book “Feral” has been subject to my hit-and-run tactics since I started it last year, after the publicity surrounding the launch of Rewilding Britain in July. This month I devoted some proper time to it, and now I’ve finished it I thought it would be interesting to look at the book from the point of view of hutting.

You can get a flavour of Monbiot’s argument from a piece he wrote at the time for his Guardian column:

We are surrounded by such broken relationships, truncated natural processes, cauterised ecologies. In Britain we lack almost all large keystone species: ecological engineers that drive the fascinating dynamics which allow other lifeforms to flourish. Boar, beavers, lynx, wolves, whales, large sharks, pelicans, sturgeon: all used to be abundant here; all but for a few small populations or rare visitors are missing.

The living systems that conservationists seek to protect in some parts of this country are a parody of the natural world, kept, through intensive management, in suspended animation, like a collection in a museum. An ecosystem is not just a place. It is also a process. I believe their diminished state also restricts the scope of human life. We head for the hills to escape the order and control that sometimes seem to crush the breath out of us. When we get there, we discover that the same forces prevail. Even our national parks are little better than wet deserts.

“Feral” was published a couple of years earlier in 2013, and starts with four chapters describing experiences Monbiot has had in wild places (at least from the point of view of urban Britain) which have shaped his argument. My guerrilla warfare was conducted in these chapters, and that may be because they didn’t work so well for me: I knew where he was going and wanted to read about that.

Lynx photographed by Bernard LandgrafThe fifth chapter takes on the complete implausibility of hidden populations of big cats in Britain, and then turns the controversy on its head to explain that not only would Britain be a very suitable place for the introduction of cats like lynx, they were probably here into the early middle ages until finally removed by hunting.

There’s a whole chapter devoted to engaging with hill farmers whose sheep are the “White Plague” in Monbiot’s view and are suppressing the natural regeneration of scrub and then woodland, and providing the habitats that would encourage lynx and the other larger animals like wild boar and wolves that are on the agenda. There’s a description of the economics of hill farming, the subsidies that are needed to keep it going, and the management rules that are imposed to ensure uplands don’t become overgrown with “unwanted vegetation” – which is a euphemism for the progression back to woodland. It becomes clear that far from being a naturally barren landscape, there are seeds of local species all around waiting for opportunities to grow. Ritchie Tassell’s practical experience of reforesting in Wales bears this out:

They had planted trees, but soon discovered that, in much of the fenced land, this was unnecessary. Where they had turned over the turf, the exposed soil was colonised by birch seed, which blew in from a few surviving trees further down the valley, which had themselves returned, Ritchie explained, as a result of an agricultural depression around a century ago.

“Almost every tree we planted has now been overwhelmed by native birch. It grew so densely it looked like the cress you grow on your windowsill. Even when the trees we planted survived, the local birches did much better. They’re genetically suited to this site. Seeing the way the birch recolonized was a real awakening. I saw that nature is far more adept at doing these things than we are.”

But he’s very clear about the need to persuade landowners rather than to enforce rewilding changes: that we should be working to change the system of subsidies and remove the requirements to suppress natural regrowth, which will then give farmers and upland communities the option to rewild their land and their businesses.

A big part of the ecology underpinning rewilding is the trophic cascade: a chain of predators, prey, and plant species which together keep part of the environment in a stable equilibrium. A striking example is the way in which the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 led to reduced flooding: wolves control deer numbers and make them avoid open spaces, which allows trees to come back on hill sides and river banks which acts as a slowly-draining reservoir in heavy rain or snow melts. Riverside trees encourage beavers, whose dams in turn slow the rivers. Alongside these practical (and rather topical) benefits, wolves suppress coyotes which along with the increased tree cover encourages a wider range of smaller mammals. So one rather controversial species (the wolf) leads to a much richer ecosystem overall.

Monbiot’s motivation for rewilding isn’t rooted in any kind of naturalistic fallacy. It’s our shared human self interest:

If rewilding took place it would happen in order to meet human needs, not the needs of the ecosystem. That, for me, is the point of it. Wolves would be introduced not for the sake of wolves but for the sake of people. If rewilding happens it will be because we value a biologically rich environment more than we value an impoverished system which continues, with the help of public money, to support sheep.

And this is where, for me, rewilding starts to connect to hutting. A revival in hutting in the countryside has the potential to give many more of us the chance to engage more directly and more deeply with that enriched natural environment. Hutting is intentionally low-impact, and locating it in new native woodlands accentuates that. Hutting also allows people and their families to develop a continuous, long lasting relationship with a specific location and its surroundings – some Scandanavian huts stay in families for generations. This in turn allows people to learn how that environment works and that knowledge can then spread out through family and friends into wider society. We can dream that instead of having school children who don’t know where eggs come from, we can have school children who know wild boar won’t attack you (unless you provoke them.)

There’s also a kind of economic cascade, led this time by us. Instead of suppressing and eradicating the top predators, we would be introducing and encouraging them, and in turn enjoying them, either by seeing them, experiencing the richer ecosystem of other animals and plants they help maintain, or even just by knowing they’re there – somewhere. Hutting is another route for money to be injected into the rural economy, presumably in addition to increased conventional tourism as B&Bs and hotels, shops, cafes, and pubs – which are typically much higher impact than hutting. This all makes land uses with rewilding more viable. More politically viable as subsidised activities (instead of subsidising sheep) and more viable economically by persuading land owners to participate in rewilding schemes – perhaps so they can sell or lease land for hutting, convert a barn to a B&B, or become rangers or guides on their changing but familiar land.

But above all, since hutting in the countryside involves that deeper connection between ourselves and land in nature, I think it should be an important part of rewilding us too.

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