Sheepwrecked

In his book Feral, George Monbiot uses the term ‘sheepwrecked’ to describe the British countryside. I had never realised someone could harbour such resentment against sheep, heather and rhododendrons, but Monbiot does. The book is loosely framed by him living in and then leaving Wales, a place he finds unutterably boring because of the lifeless desert that has been created by farming and is now being preserved at any cost.

Lochranza, Isle of Arran - sheepwrecked?
Lochranza, Isle of Arran – sheepwrecked?

Immediately, then, Monbiot’s worldview made me start thinking about the countryside in different ways. Cycling around Arran last weekend I kept asking myself whether this was a diverse landscape. Is Arran wild, or have the sheep ruined it too? It still looks and feels wild to me, and I still get a kick out of staring out at the pinks and purples of heather-strewn Holy Isle – is that enough?

Monbiot’s book surprised me in different ways too, not least finding out that Monbiot himself is some kind of superman who can kayak for 7 miles into the sea, run for whole mornings through the Brazilian forest or across African plains, and recognise all manner of birds, plants and animals at 50 paces. Only used to seeing his pristine headshot on The Guardian website, I wasn’t prepared to read about the adventures of action man and I felt strangely alienated by the scale of his achievements.

The most gripping part of the book talks about trophic cascades and Monbiot gives the example of Yellowstone National Park in the United States. You can watch a video of the case study, narrated by Monbiot:

The effect of re-introducing wolves into the park has been unbelievable, and Monbiot is a big advocate of bringing back wolves, beavers and even elephants to Europe. (Of course he knows that public opinion in the UK isn’t ready for some of his suggestions, although the recent success and support for beavers was a good start.)

Easier, perhaps, is ‘rewilding’. This involves protecting the land and sea from farming or fishing and allowing natural processes to restart. Monbiot gives many examples of how the land and sea can change rapidly and hugely increase the diversity of life contained there, if they are left to themselves. ‘Trees for life’ is one such project working in the Scottish Highlands that has already seen results. Monbiot does a good job, though, of highlighting the often nonsensical or badly thought out resistance to rewilding.

I am left in equal parts frustrated and inspired, starkly aware of my own inability to even begin to know how diverse a landscape is because I am so bad at identifying trees. But Monbiot does show the natural world at its best, and his final image of a dolphin playing around his kayak will stay with you. For the National Trust’s response to Monbiot’s idea that the Lake District is ‘sheepwrecked’, go here.

For the National Trust’s response to Monbiot’s idea that the Lake District is ‘sheepwrecked’, go here.

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