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Adapting to change

David LinternIt’s hard to countenance, coming down from a wander in the hills, that things haven’t always been like this, that the great outdoors is not just a source of peace and quiet for humans, but also contested ground for plants and animals – the site of competing interests and debate. The hills are so unchanging. Aren’t they?

But as I return to my fossil fuelled technology, my newsfeeds tell a different story. Our environment is changing, fast, and not for the better. Is the threat to wildlife and habitats accelerating; are we responsible for a sixth ‘mass extinction event’? A recent paper from Mexico shows extinction rates at between 10-100 times the average expected without human interference, depending on the group of animals studied. This, they assure us, is a conservative estimate.

What’s almost as concerning is how idealogical our decisions about nature are, with some pretty trivial human politics crowding out what are literally life and death issues for flora and fauna. Fox hunting, Bee Colony Collapse and Grouse shooting are all current examples in the UK.

In the Black Mount, looking northwest towards Bidean nam Bian, Nevis and beyond. Some things never change… or do they?

In the Black Mount, looking northwest towards Bidean nam Bian, Nevis and beyond. Some things never change… or do they?

Landscape Engineers

Thankfully, there’s a new charity, which is aiming to address some of the bigger issues of environmental change. It’s called Rewilding Britain and was inspired and co-founded by journalist George Monbiot. The charity takes a structural approach to consider: Which animals are missing from our environment as it stands, what effects they have when present, and what habitat is needed to bring them back.

The charity is advocating the careful reintroduction of what it calls ‘ecosystem engineers’ – Beaver, Wild Boar and Lynx. They’re idealistic, but also pragmatic – Wolves are a long way off for now, at least in the UK, although their example is used to great effect in the film below:

Toothy predators are certainly headline grabbing, but the important thing about them is their ability to alter the behaviour of their prey, which creates all sorts of knock on effects lower down the food chain. It’s known as a trophic cascade. In the UK, our own deer numbers have long since spiralled out of control due to a lack of natural predation, and more recently, effective human control. The John Muir Trust film below gets into the detail of what’s currently involved, without predators on the ground:


It’s not just about predation – as these films show keystone species are the movers and shakers in the business of habitat creation. Recently returned after a long hiatus, Beavers are creating new wetland habitats in Scotland and England, redirecting watercourses and providing new homes for plants and insects. Trees for Life have reintroduced Wild Boar to the Caledonian Forest in order to control bracken and create disturbance in the understory for new trees to come through. Both these animals could help pave the way for Lynx, a woodland dweller, which in turn could help, at least in part, to turn the tables on our deer problem. The last film below is a few years old now, but the message from their founder still rings clear and true:

The rewilders have also called out another simple, brilliant fact – what’s ‘normal’ isn’t necessarily natural. Time is relative: what seems slow to us, is rapid in the life cycle of the planet. We’re used to seeing grouse moors, fen traps and Muir burn in the Cairngorm hills, and the consequent lack of hares, foxes, stoats, weasels and crows (not to mention hen harriers). More deer on the hill… and more cases of Lyme disease and fewer trees to go with. These things are easy to accept as the natural state of affairs because they have changed incrementally over a human lifetime. This is an example of ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, and it’s regressive, a limit to imagining anything different to the ever present now. It’s part of the reason we’re considering re-legalising fox hunting as a control measure instead of letting natural predation do the job for us. We can’t see the wood for the trees.

Glen Feshie, a fantastic example of how quickly nature can bounce back when given half a chance (and a few less deer)

Glen Feshie, a fantastic example of how quickly nature can bounce back when given half a chance (and a few less deer)

Making a case

In a world of permanent war and mass extinction, conservationists wonder how best to frame their case: Do we need rewilding, or just want it? My own view is that a highly functioning natural world is not just a ‘nice to have’. The UK is a net food importer by a long margin, and the planet’s food production and distribution is now highly mechanised and fossil fuel dependent. It’s barely mentioned at the moment, but world oil consumption exceeded production way back in 1981, and peak oil, the rate of maximum extraction after which production decreases year on year, has either already been reached or will be any day now, depending on who you read.

What is certain is that change – the only constant – is guaranteed. Within the next 2 to 3 generations the UK will experience colossal food and fuel shortages. Food banks are just the beginning. There is no technological redemption from this reality: GMO crops are just as fossil fuel dependent as their predecessors, renewable energy cannot begin to meet current demand and in some cases, causes more CO2 and wildlife damage than it cures. The associated challenges are intimidating. What fuel poverty will look like in 50 years I shudder to think, but energy consumption will be curtailed, either indirectly through pricing or directly through supply. Off-grid won’t just be for hippies.

I’ve not even mentioned climate change, just resources. We’ll need to relearn how to farm without fossil fuels – without oil and gas based pesticides, fertiliser, (used to triple yields in traditional field systems over the last 50 years) and centralised distribution. It will mean growing more locally and communally, and working with, not against our environment. And for that, we need the ecosystem engineers back in the mix to handle some of the adaptation for us. As pointed out in one of the films above, woodland is the climax habitat for plants and animals in our climate, our most efficient growing ecosystem. Need winter food for grazing animals that doesn’t involve energy intensive hay production? Willow, Lime and Ash leaves are all edible. Got slugs? Get ducks. Need flood prevention? Beavers know a thing or two about dam building. Simplistic examples, yes, but the general principle holds true. The boundary where rewilding meets agriculture, is permaculture, the practise of forest gardening, complimentary planting and crop rotation to control pests. A long term American study comparing organic farming methods against conventional found it to produce higher yields, be more efficient and more profitable than oil based agriculture.

We don’t need to rewild because it will make things prettier to look at, or even because we have a moral obligation to do so… although for what it’s worth I agree wholeheartedly with both sentiments… but that’s why we might want to rewild. We need to rewild because it will help both humans and animals cope with food and flood security in a rapidly changing environment. For me, rewilding is both something we’d love to have, and something we actually need.

we’re rightly proud of our wild land in Scotland, but there are some great things happening elsewhere in the country too – this is the ‘Wild Ennerdale’ project in the Lake District.

We’re rightly proud of our wild land in Scotland, but there are some great things happening elsewhere in the country too – this is the ‘Wild Ennerdale’ project in the Lake District.

Finding a Balance

There’s nothing like impending doom to render us passive, powerless and overwhelmed. Framing the case for rewilding is about balance, which as any climber (or ecologist) will tell you, necessarily involves tension, in this case the tension between hope and despair, enjoyment and activism, urban and rural. One antidote to the creeping terrors of ecological collapse is to do something: Join an organisation working towards rewilding: these include Trees for Life, the John Muir Trust, The Borders Forest Trust, or your local Wildlife Trust. Being a member of a terra forming charity is a good start, but it’s not as fun as getting our hands dirty: Most of these organisations run education and/or volunteer programs – become a member, and sign up! If you can’t, or it seems too distant a prospect to keep motivated, help clean up your local river, plant veg in your own garden, or if you don’t have a garden and/or you want to make it a social, do some community gardening. Dig where you stand – you’ll feel better for it.

Another antidote is simply to get out and enjoy it. As many of us already know, taking time out to reconnect with our environment makes us happier, more rounded people. Take some friends who don’t get out so much with you. The rewilders aren’t just another bunch of eco bores – they may be fighters, but they are also lovers. As such the rewilding movement follows in the footsteps of American writer, activist and raconteur Edward Abbey, who has the last word for now:

“Do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”

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