The naturalists who are terrified of nature
June 14th 2016
I'm writing this on the train home, after visiting two places in the north of England celebrated for their "wildness". One of them is Ennerdale in the Lake District, now officially known as Wild Ennerdale, a valley in which the river has been allowed to move freely once more, and in which native trees are succeeding naturally up the hillsides(1).
The other is the Sheffield Moors (in the Peak District), from which most of the sheep have been removed and where the structure of the vegetation has been allowed to change a little. I found both visits fascinating, not least because of the eruditon and enthusiasm of the people who walked me through these places.
But sitting on the train, watching the chemical deserts of the English lowlands flash past, I'm struck by how pathetically grateful I feel. For what? For the fact that, in two small conservation areas, located in national parks, a few natural processes have been allowed to resume.
Were I to explain to a foreigner that these places are now celebrated by conservationists in Britain for their radical approach, he or she would think I had gone mad. "What?," they would say, "you are telling me that this is the cutting edge of nature conservation in your country? Where have you been for the past 50 years?"
I don't know if there is any other country in which people - including conservationists - are as afraid of nature as they are in Britain. I don't know if there is anywhere else in which conservationists are so convinced that if they relax their intensive management of the natural world, something dreadful will happen.
Nowhere else do conservationists subscribe more enthusiastically to the biblical doctrine of dominion: that we have a holy duty to control and corral nature, in case it gets out of hand. Nowhere else does conservation look more like a slightly modified version of the farming which trashed the land in the first place.
In my view most of our conservation areas aren't nature reserves at all. They are museums of former farming practices, weeded and tended to prevent the wilds from encroaching. The ecosystem's dynamic interactions are banned. Animals and plants are preserved as if they were a jar of pickles, kept in a state of arrested development, in which little is allowed to change.
But nature is not just a fixed assemblage of species, maintained as if it were a collection in a museum. It is also the ever-changing relationships between them, the successional processes, the shifting communities: all of which, in many of our reserves, are prohibited.
The problem begins with designation. The "interest features" of a site of special scientific interest - its species and habitats - must be kept in "favourable condition". Often this means the condition in which they happened to be when the reserve was created. In most cases that's a condition of dire impoverishment and depletion: ecosystems missing almost their entire trophic structure, most of their large herbivores, all their large predators, in many cases even the trees. They have to be kept like this by extreme and intrusive management, in order to sustain the impacts which reduced them to this woeful state.
In Wild-ish Ennerdale and on the Sheffield Moors, there has been a partial relaxation of this draconian regime. But even in these places, there is much that I question.
On the Sheffield Moors, for example, cattle are kept: at much higher densities and for far longer periods than large herbivores would exist in a self-willed ecosystem. In many parts of the moors, trees, if they have the temerity to return, are cleared. The effort, even here, is to ensure that the landscape remains farmed, open and bare.
This is done partly to favour breeding populations of wading birds(2). It's likely that these species are being maintained at artificially high populations(3). A tendency I've noticed among some groups is to try to make all their target species common, even if they were naturally rare. Perhaps some species ought to be rare. Those which lived in open habitats - which would have been small and occasional before people started cutting and burning the forests - are likely to have been rarest of all.
Think of the varying fortunes of grouse populations in Britain. The palaeontological evidence is extremely sparse, so this is guesswork, but during the Boreal and Atlantic phases, 9,000-5,000 years ago, when closed-canopy forest covered most of Britain, the commonent grouse species in this country might have been hazel hen. Perhaps the second commonest would have been capercaillie, followed by black grouse, followed by red grouse, which are likely to have been very scarce.
That likely sequence has now been reversed. Hazel hen is extinct, capercaillie extremely rare, black grouse are sparse and in severe decline and red grouse are bloody everywhere. The red grouse is the magpie of the uplands: it benefits from human intervention, which in this case means the clearing of land.
Arbitrarily, conservation groups in the uplands of England and Wales have decided that their priorities are, for example, dunlin and curlew, rather than capercaillie and pine martens. I'm not insisting that this is always the wrong decision. But it's a decision that should be rigorously questioned, especially if this intensive management means the destruction of habitats which would have sheltered a much wider range of species.
Spend a couple of hours in an open upland nature reserve, and count the diversity and abundance of the birds you see. Then spend a couple of hours in a bushy suburban garden and do the same thing. In my experience you're likely to see more birds of more species in the garden. That's hardly surprising: most birds - indeed most wildlife - require cover to survive. Am I the only one who thinks that something has gone badly wrong here?
It's not just common species I'm talking about. Many of those excluded by our brutal upland management are not just rare in Britain; they are extinct.
Whenever I meet a conservation manager, I find myself acting like a 3-year old: I keep asking "why?". Why are you preserving this and not that? Why is this site designated for moorland flea beetle and pearl-bordered fritillary, rather than blue stag beetle and lynx? Why are you protecting the wretched scrapings of life that remain here, rather than reintroducing the species which would once have lived here, but have been excluded by the kind of interventions that you - the conservationists - have sustained?
When I worked in the Amazon, the conservationists I met were fighting to defend the rainforest against cattle ranching. In Britain the conservationists are - literally - defending cattle ranching against the rainforest. Britain was once covered by rainforest: woodland wet enough for epiphytes to grow. (Epiphytes are plants which root in the bark of trees). Our closed-canopy rainforest was likely to have been richer in species than any of our remaining habitats. Given half a chance, it would return. But it isn't given half a chance, even in conservation sites, because conservationists keep clearing the land and running cattle on it, in case the wayward and irresponsible ecosystem does something that isn't listed in the rules. In doing so, they preserve a burnt, blasted and largely empty land with the delightful ambience of a nuclear winter.
Conservation groups in this country are obsessed by heather. Heather is typical of the vegetation that colonises land which has been repeatedly deforested. You can see similar vegetation - low, scrubby, tough, thriving on burnt ground and depleted soils - covering deforested land all over the tropics. There, the dominance of these plants is lamented by ecologists, for it is rightly seen as a symptom of ecological destruction. Here it is fetishised and preserved.
Even in the Eastern Sheffield Moors management plan, published by the RSPB and the National Trust, "cutting and burning" are listed as the requisite tasks for managing heather(4). Imagine what a tropical ecologist would say if she saw that. "You people have been telling us for decades that we should stop cutting and burning. You've been sending us money and lobbying our governments to discourage us from doing it. And all the while you've been telling yourselves that cutting and burning are necessary for the protection of wildlife." If she concluded that we are hypocrites, that we are unambitious, irrational, anally retentive and ecologically illiterate, she would not be far wrong.
The same plan reveals that these two august conservation bodies will maintain cattle on the moors at their current level, but keep them there for longer. "Their grazing and trampling will manage the vegetation in a way which should improve the condition of the habitats and benefit wildlife."(5) What does this mean? Yes, it might benefit some wildlife, but only at the expense of other species. Yes, it might "improve the condition" of a habitat, if by improvement you mean a better representation of the state of arrested development you've chosen. It sounds uncomfortably close to the 19th Century agricultural meaning of "improvement": which means draining and clearing land to make it more suitable for farming.
It astonishes me to see statements like this left unpacked. Asserted without qualification, they create the impression that all wildlife benefits from management of this kind. Of course, all interventions (including a complete cessation of management), are better for some species than for others. But in my view, the losses inflicted by cattle ranching - here, as in the Amazon - outweigh any gains.
An even starker example is provided by a report commissioned by the RSPB on changing livestock numbers. It contends that "undergrazing and loss of vegetation structure is now occurring in some areas, with adverse impacts for some species such as golden plover and other waders."(6)
"Undergrazing" is an interesting concept. The report seems to be referring to "undergrazing" by sheep. How can a native ecosystem be undergrazed by an invasive ruminant from Mesopotamia? Is our wildlife underhunted by American mink? Are our verges underinfested by Japanese knotweed?
I would question what undergrazing by any domestic animal means. "Not farmed enough" is what the term appears to signify, "or not sufficiently damaged". Sure, the golden plover is among a small group of species that benefit from scorched-earth policies, but a far greater number are harmed by them. So why is the golden plover the priority? And how can a report for a conservation organisation blithely use the term undergrazing without qualification or explanation?
Another RSPB report advocates "the eradication of invasive tree species" from the bare uplands of Wales and claims, without citing any evidence or explaining what this means, that "extensive grazing, ideally mixed grazing, is important in maintaining upland pastures in a state that benefits upland birds and other wildlife."(7)
A document published by the Welsh government revealed something I have never seen in the RSPB's literature: that the society advises farmers "to cut down trees to discourage buzzards which kill other birds."(8)
I checked with the RSPB in Wales and it confirmed that it does "at times provide advice to landowners on the management of trees to reduce available vantage points and nest sites for some avian predators."(9)
Isn't that more or less what the British government wanted to do to protect pheasant shoots? And didn't the society contest those efforts?(10)
I wonder whether, in their arbitrary choice of target species and target habitats, British conservationists are influenced by the legacy of hunting. Many of the birds on behalf of which this extreme and brutal simplification of the ecosystem takes place are those which, in the 19th Century, were pursued by gentlemen with guns. Perhaps we should see conservation efforts in Britain as a form of gamekeeping, which regards some of our native species as good and worthy of preservation, and others (such as trees and buzzards) as bad and in need of control.
Sometimes I receive coherent answers from the conservation managers I speak to, which are debatable but at least consistent. Sometimes the only answer I receive is "that's what the rules say." But isn't it time we began to challenge the rules? Isn't it time we began to question the way sites are designated, and to challenge the ecological blitzkreig required to maintain them in what is laughably called "favourable condition"? Isn't it time we began asking why we have decided to privilege certain species over others? Isn't it time we started wondering whether the collateral damage required to support them is worth it?
After all, how did nature cope before we came along? To judge by the actions of British conservation groups, it must have been in a pretty dismal state for the three billion years before humans arrived to look after it.
George Monbiot's book Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding is published by Allen Lane.
2. National Trust and RSPB, 2012. The Eastern Moors Management Plan summary, page 15. Eastern Moors Partnership, Curbar.
3. This, of course, is speculative, as palaeontology gives us few indications of numbers. But the circumstantial evidence seems powerful: the habitat required for breeding populations of these birds, many of which need to nest several hundred metres from the nearest woodland edge to avoid predation, was in short supply. See for example:
NJ Whitehouse and D Smith, 2010. How fragmented was the British Holocene wildwood? Perspectives on the ‘‘Vera'' grazing debate from the fossil beetle record. Quaternary Science Reviews Vol. 29, nos. 3-4, pp539-553. doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2009.10.010
FJG Mitchell, 2005. How open were European primeval forests? Hypothesis testing using palaeoecological data. Journal of Ecology Vol. 93, 168-177
JHB Birks, 2005. Mind the gap: how open were European primeval forests? Trends in Ecology & Evolution Vol. 20, pp154-156.
R Fyfe, 2007. The importance of local-scale openness within regions dominated by closed woodland. Journal of Quaternary Science, Vol.22, no. 6, pp571-578. doi: 10.1002/jqs.1078
JC Svenning, 2002. A review of natural vegetation openness in northwestern Europe. Biological Conservation Vol 104: 133-148.
RHW Bradshaw, GE Hannon, AM Lister, 2003. A long-term perspective on ungulate-vegetation interactions. Forest Ecology and Management, Vol. 181: 267-280.
4. National Trust and RSPB, 2012, as above, p16.
5. National Trust and RSPB, 2012, as above, p11.
8. Welsh Government, 2010. Glastir: frequently asked questions, Section 13. This document is no longer available on the government site, but you can read it here: http://www.fuw.org.uk/glastir-faq-miscellaneous.html
9. Emma Roberts, RSPB Wales, 10th August 2011. By email.