I have an unhealthy obsession with sheep. It occupies many of my waking hours and haunts my dreams. I hate them. Perhaps I should clarify that statement. I hate not the animals themselves, which cannot be blamed for what they do, but their impact on both our ecology and social history.
Feral by George Monbiot
I’ve always enjoyed reading George Monbiot’s articles for The Guardian. They are generally interesting and informative, often focused on the environment and discussing the concept of rewilding, a topic close to his heart. In these he writes incisively and with passion, so I was keen to read more about this in Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life which the blurb describes as “the lyrical and gripping story of George Monbiot’s efforts to re-engage with nature and discover a new way of living.”
It’s partly that.
While Feral does see Monbiot dabble with nature writing, much of the book retains his powerful journalistic discussion of rewilding projects and the challenges these present globally. In a range of case studies, he outlines how the reintroduction of large predators actually benefits ecosystem and allows wildlife to thrive, restoring worn out links in the food chain via trophic cascades which sees major predators like wolves indirectly benefit plants and animals throughout their ecological networks. Some of this covers the potential for introducing not only beaver and wild boar throughout Britain, but wolves in the highlights of Scotland where Trees for Life are working to restore the Caledonian Forest. As Monbiot neatly summarises, “if feeding the ducks is as close as you ever want to come to nature, this book is probably not for you”.
Although Monbiot argues forcefully for rewilding, he retains a fair degree of objectivity highlighting not only the ecological and environmental benefits that some rewilding projects have brought, but the societal problems that have been wrought by rewilding at the expense of native peoples and the potential climate problems that rewilding in certain regions might cause. It was interesting, especially in light of his comments about sheep in the quote above, to read his account of meeting with a young sheep farmer and their arguments around the implications of sheep farming and rewilding in the Cambrian Mountains. For me, it is these case studies and anecdotes which make the book compelling (did you know that British films are dubbed with American birdsong?), and they make up for the areas in which the book loses momentum.
While Monbiot is a skilled and outspoken journalist, he is a middling nature writer and many of the chapters begin with awkwardly written accounts of him reconnecting with the landscape or experiencing moments of “genetic memory”. I think part of the stiltedness here is a desire to offer some kind of unique description or offer some light humour, but very often it leads to some very strange figurative language or some even stranger images coming to mind. For example, I’m not sure whether it was confused writing, poor copyediting or a combination of the two which lead to the following sentence about grey squirrels, goshawks and pine martens, but it conjured to mind a very weird situation.
Snarkiness about the more flowery prose aside, I would highly recommend this as a read to anyone who has enjoyed Monbiot’s Guardian column. The relevant parts are hugely interesting, very well researched and you do feel like you’ve learned something new after reading it.