Bring back wonder

George Monbiot
Allen Lane, 2013

Book review by Roy Johnston

In this charming and inspiring book George Monbiot, environmental polymath and Guardian proselytiser, shows how, by restoring and rewilding our damaged ecosystems on land and at sea, we can bring wonder – “enchantment” – back into our lives. This book is an unusual combination of bedside reading; George goes feral, with disaster warnings and many reference sources. It thus effectively sucks in the neophyte as much as the activists who read his brilliant Guardian columns, many of which are reprinted by Village, often centring on climate change.

In the first five chapters he outlines his experience with wild life in Brazil, Wales, east Africa, England and elsewhere, on land and sea, then in chapter six he homes in on the need to encourage the replacement of mountain pasture by forestry with native species, managing it without clear-felling. This ideally should reproduce the original post-ice-age ecology, which supported a rich species-mix, before its replacement by pasture mono-culture, which tends if abandoned to revert to heather.

It does not appear that many others in this country (apart from articles in Village and by Michael Viney in the Irish Times) have picked up on this. Perhaps the reduction in pressure from sheep grazing over the last twenty years has reduced the imperative.

Hill forestry it seems has been culturally forgotten in both Ireland and Britain, though some understanding remains in continental Europe and ecologists increasingly emphasise its value. It is being re-created in Wales and Scotland by a handful of pioneers, and Monbiot explores their experience, and looks at the positive influence of wildlife such as the wolf, boar, beaver, linx in sustaining diversity of life. As usual Monbiot writes both effectively and lyrically. Monbiot wants wolves reintroduced, for example, because “wolves are fascinating … because they feel to me like the shadow that flits between systole and diastole, because they are the necessary monsters of the mind”.

He celebrates a process known as trophic cascades: predators at the top keep an ecosystem healthy via such means as reducing the number of herbivores, thus providing carrion for animals further down the food chain. Eliminating a top predator does not mean more food for humans. For example, fishermen once believed they could enlarge their catches by reducing the numbers of animals such as whales and seals, leaving more fish for human consumption. In fact, the opposite occurred, because you cannot remove one piece of an ecosystem without creating catastrophic knock-on effects.

Almost everywhere, except Britain and Ireland, large charismatic species are returning. Wolves have spread across most of Europe. Between 1927 and 1993, the wolf was extinct in France. Now, helped only by the restraint of people who might otherwise have killed them, there are over 200 wolves there, in at least twenty packs, he notes. His key message is the need to conserve the complex wild ecologies associated with native forestry, especially in the mountains. He also exposes the need to reconstruct the current complex agricultural subsidy regime in the EU, if re-foresting is to be achieved politically. Monbiot doesn’t just want to return nature to its state of a hundred years ago. He believes we can reintroduce extinct species of animals and flowers, and then allow nature to run its course to bring back diversity.

The implication for Ireland is that re-foresting the mountain pastures enables the heavy mountain rainfall to be retained, so that it does not immediately rush down the mountain streams to cause floods in the main rivers. This aspect of global warming, generated by the rising seas has already hit us severely. Dredging the rivers is not the right response; we must re-forest the mountains.

Those who depend on mountain sheep for their livelihood need not worry, provided the State supports them in helping with the transition to becoming instead managers of energy supply in the form of wood chips and firewood from restored mountain forest. Indeed one of the differences between Ireland and Britain is that because the sheep industry was never as intensive in Ireland it was reduced in the 1990s following EU rulings on over-grazing and related changes to headage payments. The Rural Environment Protection Scheme provided generous cash payments to farmers who agreed to reduce sheep numbers on the hills.

Sheep numbers more than doubled from 3.3 million in 1980 to 8.8 million in 1991 but had reduced to 3.5m by 2011 . In the UK there are over 11 million. Over-grazing of Irish uplands peaked twenty years ago. •


Dr Roy H W Johnston is a scientific consultant with an interest in techno-economic analysis. He wrote  a weekly science column in the Irish Times in the 1970s.