I’ve favoured a return of our wild megafauna to our mountains for some time, now as a general wish to see wildlife flourish on our island. This includes letting the red deer extend their range beyond the small confines of Killarney NP, where it seems only those with friends in the right places and a pile of cash in their back pocket can get to hunt stags. It includes getting wild boar back, as far as our scant natural habitat is still suitable for them. And of course in includes letting the wolf roam the uplands, as those uplands regain their balance in terms of flora as well as fauna.
There are clear barriers to such steps. One of them is the lack of that suitable habitat, and another, connected to that, is the extent of sheep farming.
Sheep in a field. See any trees? Only habitat for tellytubbies. Photo by Paul Mutton.
I have long marvelled at the fact that sheep are still farmed in Ireland. I’ve spent decades hearing about and seeing how destructive they are to the uplands – anyone whose seen the golf green fields where farmers have them on the lowlands can imagine their effect on a wild landscape. When I was still in college in the early 90s we learned about overgrazing at important conservation and recreation areas of Ireland (like the slopes of Errigal Mountain in Donegal, Connemara NP). Some call them woolly maggots, for obvious reasons.
Sheep in the mountains. Hard to spot a tree here, either. Photo from http://snowdonia-active.com/news.
Simultaneously, I’ve spent decades pushing these animals ahead of me, both in cars on the roads and while trying to hunt or just hill walk without them scattering every shred of wildlife I might have otherwise had the chance to see. I even spent an hour saving one, which had got its leg caught in the wooden slats of a footbridge. It gave me scant thanks, and I was sure the farmer wouldn’t have been too pushed either way, given the huge numbers of dead animals you see while walking in our mountains. But I didn’t think letting it die of thirst was a valid option for anyone with a conscience. If my car jack wasn’t able to push up the slat, I was going to smash its skull in with a wrench, or a rock. A better end, despite the visual image you’re probably conjuring up right now…
Anyway, I remember a farmer telling me more than a decade ago that the wool was barely worth the effort to shear the sheep, and that the merchant only took it from him under no obligation to actually return money to the farmer. If it sold, he gave a portion of the sale, if not, then he… I’m not sure what he’d have done with the wool – throw it out, donate it, or what.
I’ve only eaten lamb a few times in Ireland, and I never liked it much. How much lamb is eaten round here and how much a lamb is worth, I’ve no idea, but I never imagined it was much (again, seeing how little attention is paid to them on the hill).
George Monbiot has the numbers. He reckons it’s less than 1% of the British diet, and the wool has almost no value. And it’s probable that the flooding caused by overgrazed hillsides means less food is grown downhill than otherwise would be, meaning sheep grazing actually reduces agricultural production.
He’s submitted a whole list of problems with the current Common Agricultural Policy and its effects on the environment.
One of these is that without subsidies sheep farming on uplands would be so clearly a waste of time that the sheep would disappear from the mountains by themselves.
And if that happened, well, two obvious effects would be that there would be no problem with sheep kills by reintroduced wolves up there (down the slopes any remaining sheep are easily protected in electrified pens at night), and the deer and other fauna would have something to eat and habitat to hide in as they spread over a landscape currently almost devoid of plant cover.
And real money could flow into these areas from people who want to see the wildlife, just like the reintroduced red kite (hopefully right now spreading across and out from Wicklow) brought £8 million in tourism revenue to parts of Scotland.
Seems simple maths to me.
As I get back into the swing of things after summer, first thing I have to do is congratulate David Devins of Co. Leitrim and Damian O’Sullivan of Co. Cork, who both won copies of my children’s novel, Peter and the Little People in the summer IWT Irish Wildlife Magazine’s book competition.
As you might know, I have pledged to give 10% of my royalties on Peter and the Little People to this NGO (if you’ve read the book you’ll know why) to help the great work they do.
At the moment a new battle has emerged for them, and us all, to tackle – the possible introduction of more destructive insecticides in Ireland, which threaten bees and other useful and important insects.
It seems that the fight to protect bees, like the fight to stop much environmental destruction will be continual, as companies try to introduce more chemicals.
It’s similar to George Monbiot’s post this week, that though the TTIP agreement seems to have been abandoned in the face of so much negative public opinion against it’s implementation, there are other similar treaties in the works, all designed to take power to legislate international companies from government – and thus public – hands. At the end he suggests we can never let our guard down, for the corporations and their cronies are always working against us and our environment, and they only need to succeed once, while we have to beat them every time.
Similarly, the bees and other insects only have to be erased from the planet once, and we have to save them every year, every week, every day.
Do your bit – join the IWT or whatever similar organisation operates in your country. And be vocal, even through the internet. It’s not quite the direct action that seems necessary to protect the Dakota water supply, but it’s effective when there are enough of us.
I read an interesting article about rewilding today – calling it the “new Pandora’s box in conservation.”
Hardly a title to inspire confidence…
One problem the authors see with rewilding is that the term is fluid and quite ill-defined as yet. It would be better to firm up exactly what rewilding is and is not, and define what it aims to achieve.
I agree, as a scientist, that it would be better to know exactly what we are talking about.
But I think there is room for maneuvering yet.
Rewilding is a new term that has yet to come into its own. It has yet to capture the public consciousness.
And in order to let that happen, I think the term should be as broad as possible for as long as possible.
In fact, perhaps we can have two meanings – just like the word “theory” has two meanings – one in common parlance, and the other in scientific terms. It won’t be that problematic if we have a broad meaning for the wider public discussion and then a more precise, concise or even split terms for use in ecology – for example, the Palaeolithic rewilding, or passive rewilding as mentioned in the article.
I say this because what we don’t want to have happen is that the general public decide that rewilding is some scientific activity which only trained ecologists can pursue, or have a hand in, or a stake in.
Because we will need lots of rewilding, of all types, if we are to get through this century with functioning ecosystems. There are some, such as passive rewilding, which the general public can have a great, and direct, impact on. There are things they can do themselves at home, in addition to supporting more extensive projects and translocations by voting, signing petitions and going to visit places which have had formerly extinct species reintroduced.
An article in the Guardian today, about not mowing the lawn so often so that dandelions can flower and feed the multitude of insect species that rely on them highlights this.
As we live in a world steeped in pesticides, we will need the gardens of our suburbs and cities to give a refuge to the species which would otherwise die out. While research suggests that farmers should plant wildflowers themselves to aid keep pests down in their crops, it’s plain that insects like bees are suffering as we continue to spray.
Luckily, the terrain of the farms I visit near Pamplona makes wildflower verges almost unavoidable, though even here the number of butterflies seems to have plummeted in recent years.
To a certain extent, rewilding is just allowing that little slice of wildness to exist alongside our lives and our lawns, instead of keeping wilderness far from us as we push into that very wilderness.
The man on the street with a garden can help this rewilding, just as the building companies who can’t get financing to build on the lots they bought during the boom can let the weeds grow in the meantime. It might not provide habitat for wolves, or bison, but it can keep bees alive, let butterflies and lizards and small mammals survive.
Instead of even planting grass for lawns, home owners, and councils and building management companies, can plant wildflower meadows instead. I showed an example of one in Pamplona last summer. I look forward to it blooming again this spring.
Wildflower meadow planted in Pamplona park about to bloom in 2015
One type of rewilding that the article didn’t mention, but George Monbiot among others does, is rewilding ourselves – getting back in touch with the nature we have too long either ignored or tried to tie up, impound, mow short and neat. I’ve seen the kids approach this wildflower meadow in a much different way to how they’d approach a lawn. I’m sure you can imagine which they’re more excited by.
We might be disinclined to let our kids dig in the muck these days when everyone’s so obsessed with cleanliness, but allowing them romp through a few flowers will set us smiling more than any pretty new frock or well-maintained playground.
What child can resist making petal angels? And collecting conkers can be done in a clean frock.
And just as we might one day be delighted to have dandelions, we will be grateful for the general public’s work in keeping our lives just a little bit wild.
We’re just about done with possibly the hottest December on record, with heat waves across the northern hemisphere. Simultaneously, there is record flooding in England and Ireland, and huge fires across northern Spain, where I live; seemingly unconnected, but not really.
Both phenomena are either caused by or exacerbated by bad laws.
Today in my email inbox are two mails. One is my automatic notification of George Monbiot’s Guardian article about the predictions of flooding in York because of the actions of farmers (grouse farmers, to be sure) in the watershed upstream, burning and draining peatlands so they don’t hold rainwater as well as they should.
Flooding in Athlone. Photograph: Harry McGee, from Irish Times
The other email is a request to sign a petition to change the new Spanish law, which means people get rich by burning land. 50,000 hectares have burned so far, and most fires have been set on purpose. Forests which have been burned can now be rezoned for building, making a tidy profit for anyone who invests in a forest and a few gallons of petrol.
It seems amazing that we can have such stupid laws when we are faced with such grave global problems. In Ireland, in fact, the minister responsible for environment will change the law to allow field and hedge burning even later than before, in response to the problem of illegal fire setting last spring. Mind boggling, even if we discount the fact that the birds the law is there to protect are breeding even earlier as the climate warms.
Yet, when I talked to a farmer I know about the article I wrote about the illegal fires, she told me she doesn’t get paid for having gorse on her land, so not being able to burn was losing her money – though to date I haven’t seen her burn the patches she has.
Just as we can’t blame corporations for putting their shareholders ahead of the wellbeing of their customers and workers, since the law obliges them to do so, we can’t blame farmers from trying to get the money the law says they are entitled to, as long as their fields are in “agricultural condition.”
Some farmers I know here in Spain are actively digging trenches and putting in plastic drains under fields in far from the wettest part of the world by any stretch of the imagination. These fields have been farmed for centuries, but nowadays the machinery is so heavy it can only be used on dry soil. The state subsidies for starting farmers stipulates that the five-year plan have such modern machinery to be efficient, so staying out of muddy fields after a rain is not an option. And never mind that the water not held in the fields just goes faster to the Ebro, a river notorious for flooding, and which flows through large cities like Logroño and Zaragoza. A whole pig farm was swept away last year, and farmers are asking the river be dredged so the water can flow faster away from them. Which is counterproductive, we know. But farmers are paid to farm, not to mange the environment in a sensible manner. Or to protect other people’s homes from flooding and wildfires.
In Ireland, the town of Athlone on the Shannon is hoping the river won’t inundate it, while politicians suggest paying people to move out of floodplains that should never have been built on in the first place. At the same time, some locals say they never had a flood in 75 years until trees were cut down on the local mountains.
The rules are more than faulty. They’re stupid. Except for those they benefit, of course. Big landowners are making millions off them.
The politicians have thus far, even including the recent Paris agreement, decided it’s supposedly less damaging to their precious economy to deal with the consequences of climate change rather than prevent it.
This is a test of their ideas.
The warming climate will bring much more such fires and floods.
Building flood defences is all well and good, but it’s more wasted money dealing with consequences rather than wisely trying to prevent them. Forests and bogs can absorb a lot of the water destroyed homes from the recent storms, if they aren’t burnt to the ground.
As Monbiot said, flooding fields or towns: which is it going to be?
Common sense says the former, of course. Let’s see if anyone in power got some for Christmas.
(photo copyright: babies-dangerous-wild-animals.blogspot.com)
I watched this video a while ago. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYG0ZuTv5rs) It’s very interesting. It’s about stress and how it can kill you. If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, don’t worry. That’s not really the point of this post.
This article summarises the most interesting part for now…. (http://www.upworthy.com/something-fascinating-happened-after-these-male-baboons-died-men-should-keep-this-in-mind?c=ufb1)
Basically, the dominant baboons in a troop, which was being studied to investigate stress, died of TB. Half of all males died from the disease, which they’d contracted from infected meat in a dump they’d taken to foraging from – the head honchos took more meat than their subordinates.
When they died, the surviving males down the totem pole didn’t become the bastards their predecessors were. They remained chilled, and were nice to the females (who now outnumbered them two to one) and young. And everything was rosy for them from then on.
Seems only a few baboons are assholes (though the guy researching them does describe them as backstabbing Machiavellian bastards that hurt each other) but they control the situation in most troops. This sends their shittiness down the pipeline. As the narrator says in Snow White and the Huntsman said, the queen’s “reign was so poisonous…. that people turned on each other.”
But new males joining this troop learn that being a wanker is not allowed. They chill out and groom instead of harassing others.
I was reminded of the baboons when I read George Monbiot’s recent article about Human Kindness. He points out that we are in general, good folk, who are nice than we assume when we glance about us on the train home from that shit job where your boss sucks the life out of you. In fact, we’re innately good.
But it’s something we usually aren’t aware of, this fellow kindness. All those videos of people ignoring homeless people etc. you see on the Internet doesn’t help with our own image, either (nor the videos of kids beating up one another).
And this other recent article about Twitter becoming just a forum for abuse indicates that we’re all participating in being assholes, or at least letting them rule our conversations.
It points the blame at the fact that our lives are an abuse, where we are put to work by the those holding the reins:
“We have created an abusive society. We have normalized, regularized, and routinized abuse. We are abused at work, by the very rules, norms, and expectations of our jobs, at which we are merely “human resources”, to be utilized, allocated, depleted. We are abused at play, by industries that seek to prey on our innocence and literally “target” our human weaknessses.” (https://medium.com/bad-words/why-twitter-s-dying-and-what-you-can-learn-from-it-9ed233e37974#.68hxb243u)
We are acting like assholes because the assholes are creating the rules. Just like most baboons farther down the hierarchy get abused by those above just because those just above have gotten shit from their own superiors. And they have highly stressed lives, which lead to illness, obesity and earlier deaths.
So how do we get rid of the asshole baboons who are ruining life for the rest of us?
This is the problem. They’re not going to die of a disease we all avoid – they eat and drink only the best of food, taste wise and health wise. They also can afford access to healthcare that most can only dream of. Even their excesses can be solved by buying a heart or a liver when their own break down.
We might need to rely on the old adage – “they got the guns but we got the numbers.”
When I wrote a blog post about us humans allowing our own extinction in the imminent ecological collapse, I had thought to include those instances when people stand around and “let” people get attacked without either trying to stop it, or even calling the cops. They’re not bad folk – they just assume someone else is going to do it. Our current situation is more akin to allowing the assailants to beat us up without raising our hands to protect our face.
For ourselves, our fellow non-assholes, and for the planet, we have to start fighting back. I’m not saying we become as violent as these Alpha males who would continue their abuse. As Russell Brand suggests in his book Revolution, we just band together, walk up to them and take their weapons away (their weapon is money, by the way). Because those asshole baboons have to go.
The term rewilding has become part of our language. Just a couple of years after it was coined, rewilding is happening across Europe. Rewilding Europe (http://www.rewildingeurope.com/) have made great strides in returning emblematic animals like the bison and brown bear to former haunts on the mainland.
Without constant persecution, numbers of large mammals, including predators are up across Europe (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/dec/18/brown-bears-wolves-and-lynx-numbers-rising-in-europe).
But what about the European islands?
Are they a lost cause?
Well, the word is being used, and calls are being made (http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/article1498773.ece).
A slew of articles have backed up George Monbiot‘s constant mantra for lynx at least to return to the rewilded birch forests of Scotland: Wildlife trust calls for return of lynx to curb deer numbers (http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/article1498780.ece), Simon Barnes: bring back the cat (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/others/article1842743.ece).
But it will be harder to have bears returned to Britain like they are returning to Italy and other mainland nations because citizens of that island are unused to living with them (http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/if-you-go-down-woods-today-you-re-big-surprise-europe-s-bears-are-back)
In Ireland, the lynx wasn’t around as recently as the bear and wolf, and it’s the wolf that most rewilding thoughts are focused on, including my own: https://davidjmobrien.wordpress.com/2014/03/05/further-information-about-wolves-and-deer-management-in-ireland/
And yet, it seems we’re farther back even than Britain. A recent article on Irelandswildlife.com (http://www.irelandswildlife.com/grey-wolf-re-introduction-ireland/) discussed the matter, and concluded that the time is not right, and probably won’t be for a long while yet.
It’s hard to disagree. I recently discussed the matter with an ecologist colleague. He laughed out loud at the suggestion of bringing back the lynx to a country whose farmers can’t stop themselves killing white tailed eagles they think are killing their lambs.
But we can’t stop pushing the word, the work that lies ahead. As long as people are talking about it, as long as people who would not think about it are beginning to understand it, to see what it’s all about, we’re making progress.
I had a lot of these ideas in my head when I was writing my new novel, The Ecology of Lonesomeness, last summer. It’s set in Scotland, where a lot of rewilding the island of Britain is focused, and rewilding is discussed often and in depth by the characters.
“Loch Ness Rocks” by Ben Buxton – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Loch_Ness_Rocks.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Loch_Ness_Rocks.jpg
I will tell you all about the story in another post.
However, I will say now that it turns the rewilding problem on its head, and asks what if there were an endangered species discovered to have hung on there, despite our cleansing of the countryside? Would it be protected?
First, thanks to all of you who read and liked my blog posts about Five Days on Ballyboy Beach, and thanks to my hosts for having me on their blogs. Also, welcome to the new followers!
I wanted to post this link to a radio show on the BBC about rewilding, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p026lnqs
and features among the guests, George Monbiot, author of Feral – book I haven’t yet read, but don’t really need to in order to know I agree with 95% of what it says.
I was intrigued to hear George talk about the feelings he got when spear fishing for flounder in Wales at the start of this programme: George is against hunting, I think, especially the kind of hunting that goes on in Scotland among the rich (one of the reasons he was for a Yes vote last week) and he knows many of his readers are, too, yet the passionate feeling he experienced in the tidal flats were identical to what hunters feel when stalking. It is one of the reasons why, my non-fiction book about the sociology of hunting will argue that hunting will continue and become in some circumstances accepted by nature lovers of all stripes.
Hunting makes one feel part of the ecosystem, part of nature. Our genetic memory, our brains, cannot separate us from these feelings because we hold a gun rather than a trident like George did: the concentration is the same, the intensity of the feeling is the same, one becomes immersed in the hunting experience.
I also wanted to post a few photos from just beside my house in the country outside Pamplona from two weeks ago.
This for me was a metaphor for rewilding.
It’s a privilege to be able to see such spectacles still, since Spain still has a lot of wildlife now lost to much of the rest of western Europe.
A dead cow had been left in a paddock (used for storing straw and farm machinery nowadays) on Friday. The truck that normally collects dead livestock since the BSE crisis was busy. Nowadays, the carcasses are taken to a place where vultures and other scavengers can feed from them – Spain has large populations of endangered scavengers as well as other bids of prey – because starvation was affecting breeding successes, and causing some vultures to harass non-quite dead yet lambs, at least according to some farmers – otherwise these large scavengers might end up the way they did elsewhere.
On Sunday, the carcass was spotted by some vultures and within minutes, there were dozens. It was spectacular. The great birds came in from all directions, making a bee line for our village when they saw others descending.
And I thought, this is the way it is supposed to be. Nature is out there, waiting to come back in, and if we just let them, wild creatures will return, swoop in to take their former places.
Then the farmer realised they’d landed.
And he was worried that if he didn’t have a carcass to show the collection truck on Monday morning, he could get a fine – even though he’d reported the death and was told that they’d have to wait till Monday – so he came over and chased away the vultures.
They reluctantly took to the air and wheeled around above us, waiting, then hoping he’d leave. But he stayed all afternoon. And eventually, the last of the great birds stopped circling and glided off in a straight line, making for a roost on the last of the afternoon thermals, disappearing off into the blue distance from whence they’d come and the sun set on a dead cow as if they’d never existed, had been extinct for years.
And that was another message for me – we expend energy in keeping Nature at bay, with our rules drafted only because we now do extremely badly what we had once done well, for centuries.
The dead cows of yore were taken by mule team to a spot not 200 metres distant and left for vultures. But now the same farmer chases them away.
And if we let Nature do what it wants to do, it would be so much easier for us in the end – who needs to call a truck if the birds come to you for free? Nature does for free what we waste time and money and carbon dioxide doing ourselves.
Time to rewild.
A prominent activist for conservation and rewilding advocate, he’s got a lot of good reasons the Scots should separate entirely from the UK. They’re being given the chance to do painlessly what many other countries shed much blood for, so they should take it. Later if it doesn’t work out, well, there’s always the chance to join again. After all, their ancestors fought for freedom and then later the countries joined by marriage, so it’s not unprecedented.