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The urgent case to rewild the countryside

Walk on the Wild Side: Rewilding our environment would take us back to a healthier balance, restoring lost natural food chains

Have you ever wondered why most deciduous trees can resprout from wherever the trunk is broken? How they can withstand the extraordinary amount of damage done to them − hacking, splitting, twisting, trampling − when a hedge is laid? Why understorey trees such as holly and box are so much stronger and hardier than canopy trees like oak and beech, even though they carry less weight and are subject to lower shear forces from the wind?

There is, I believe, a single explanation for all these mysteries. Elephants.

Does that sound ridiculous? If so, it’s because we have forgotten that ours is an elephant-adapted ecosystem. Until around 30,000 years ago, Europe was dominated by the straight-tusked elephant (Elephas antiquus). It was a temperate forest species, much larger than any elephants alive today. Any trees that could not withstand its attentions would quickly have been wiped out.

There are also signs, in some of our thorny shrubs, of rhino adaptation. There were two species of browsing rhinos in Europe: the Merck’s and the narrow-nosed. There were also hippos, hyaenas and lions, all living in a climate similar to today’s. In fact lions persisted in Europe throughout the ice age. They pursued reindeer across the frozen tundra of southern Britain.

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Until a few hundred years ago, grey whales fed in estuaries all over Europe. Until the 18th century, fin whales and sperm whales harried shoals of herring within sight of the British coast. For several years the world-record bluefin tuna was one caught off Scarborough on the Yorkshire coast in 1933.

Elephants of several species also lived in the Americas, as well as a beaver the size of a black bear, armadillos as big as small cars, ground sloths the weight of elephants and monstrous predators, such as the great American lion, the giant sabretooth and the short-faced bear − which appears to have specialised in driving giant lions and sabretooths off their prey. The Argentine roc (Argentavis magnificens) had a wingspan of 26 feet. Sabretooth salmon 9 feet long migrated up Pacific rivers.

These animals, like megafaunas almost everywhere, were hunted to extinction by people. Megafaunas were once universal, on land and at sea. Ours is a ghost ecosystem, adapted, like our ghost psyches, to circumstances that no longer prevail.

All this has been forgotten by almost everyone, including many professional ecologists. The elephant in the forest is the elephant in the room: the huge and obvious fact almost everybody has overlooked.

For me, this thought − that the mark of these animals can be seen in every park and avenue and leafy street − infuses the world with new wonders. Palaeoecology − the study of past ecosystems, crucial to an understanding of our own − feels like a portal through which we may pass into an enchanted kingdom.

The megafauna lives on in our stories. The heroic epics we have preserved − tales of Ulysses, Sinbad, Sigurd, Beowulf, Cú Chulainn, St George, Arjuna, Lac Long Quân or Glooskap − are those which resonate with our evolutionary history. In computer games, fantasy novels and films, the ancient sagas of battles with lost monsters maintain their essential form. We retain a suite of behavioural and emotional adaptations to a dangerous world. We invent quests and sports to provide safe outlets for these urges. To know this about ourselves and the world we inhabit is, I believe, radically to alter our sense of self.

The fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly invented a term that’s crucial to an understanding of how we see the world: shifting baseline syndrome. The people
of every generation perceive the ecosystems they encountered in their childhood as normal, even if those ecosystems were in fact highly depleted. With every generation, the ratchet turns a little further, and we become less aware of what went before.

This is one of the reasons, for example, why the great bald uplands of Britain are widely considered natural. People eulogise the ‘natural beauty’ of the Lake District, the Pennines, Snowdonia and the Scottish Highlands, whose hills are almost treeless. But that bare state is the result of centuries of intensive grazing, mostly by sheep, which have reduced complex forest ecosystems to something resembling a bowling green with contours. In doing so, the sheep have destroyed not only most of the wildlife of the hills, but also the ability of the land to retain water. Dense vegetation absorbs even very heavy rain when it falls, then releases it slowly. But bare hills, whose soil has been compacted by grazing animals, scarcely absorb it at all. It flashes off, causing floods downstream, followed by water shortages.

Partly because we have forgotten how watersheds used to function, we have tried to address the problems of both flooding and falling water tables at the end of the pipe, concentrating on what happens on the floodplains while ignoring the far greater influences upstream. Only when we understand that the hills were once largely forested does the obvious solution jump out at us: reforest some of the hills.

This is an example of rewilding. Rewilding means the mass restoration of ecosystems. It’s not an attempt to restore primordial wilderness, which is by definition impossible, but to permit ecological processes to resume.

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Over the past few decades, ecologists have discovered the existence of widespread trophic cascades. These are processes caused by animals at the top of the food chain, which tumble all the way to the bottom. Predators and large herbivores can transform the places in which they live. In some cases they have changed not only the ecosystem but also the nature of the soil, the behaviour of rivers, the chemistry of the oceans and even the composition of the atmosphere. These findings suggest that the natural world is composed of even more fascinating and complex systems than we had imagined. They alter our understanding of how ecosystems function and present a radical challenge to some models of conservation. They make a powerful case for the reintroduction of large predators and other missing species.

Already, species such as wolves, bears, lynx, bison, moose and beaver are spreading back across Europe, re-occupying places from which they had been exterminated. The main reasons are that there is less persecution and that farming is retreating from infertile places. One estimate suggests that between 2000 and 2030, farmers on the European continent will vacate around 30 million hectares of land, an area roughly the size of Poland. If this is the case, perhaps it’s unambitious only to consider the re-establishment of the species that are coming back. Perhaps we should also think of bringing back our lost megafauna.

The same species of lions, hyaenas and hippos live in Africa today. The Asian elephant might make a good substitute for the straight-tusked elephant, the black rhino for the two browsing species we have lost. Why, if the land is available, should we not have a Serengeti on our doorsteps? Wouldn’t that enhance our lives, reinvesting them with thrills we have lost as we have reduced and harnessed the natural world? Rewilding gives us the chance to construct a positive environmentalism, a better future rather than inexorable decline. It offers us the hope that our silent spring could be followed
by a raucous summer.

Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding

Author: George Monbiot
Publishers: Allen Lane

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