Guest Blog and Book Review – more on Feral (George Monbiot) by Aggie Rothon (and a cartoon by Ralph Underhill too)

004Aggie Rothon is a naturalist and mother to a five year old small person. She is also a nature writer and is currently researching a writing project on the wildlife and landscapes of the Norfolk Broads. Aggie recently won the BBC Wildlife magazine’s nature writer of the year competition. Look out for her winning article in the next edition of the magazine.

I’m pleased to see that the grown-ups are being patient with George Monbiot for, as he confessed here, George has been finding himself ‘acting like a 3 year old’ lately.  I’m the mother of a small boy so am able to spot a small boy temper tantrum a mile off and (through gritted teeth, for I have admired much of George Monbiot’s ideas and writing before) I must say that  Feral, Monbiot’s recent book on rewildling, feels like a well-educated, fifty year old man’s version of a temper tantrum.   

Monbiot has of course branded himself ‘a professional trouble-maker’ so perhaps Feral is supposed to be literary trouble-making, but it is trouble-making of the most childish kind.  As any primary school teacher can tell you from watching the antics in the playground, children love to get a rise out of playmates by provoking them. Getting a rise is, I guess, what Monbiot hoped to do when he described conservationists as ‘unambitious, irrational, anally retentive and ecologically illiterate’ and by describing the work they do as producing nothing but ‘dire impoverishment and depletion’. I suppose it is also what he wanted when he described sheep farming as turning the uplands to ‘bowling greens with contours’ and sheep themselves as ‘woolly maggots’ and ‘a white plague.’ Perhaps George’s teacher should have reminded him more often that there is nothing more school-boyish than slagging off one person’s life (and livelihood) to make a quick win in your own.

Whilst a good telling-off might work in the playground, unfortunately there are no teachers to rule the playgrounds in adulthood. It is lucky for George then that his peers have been so understanding. Rather than giving Monbiot a metaphorical black eye for his diatribe against conservationists, Martin Harper wrote only that he (Harper) ‘finds big predators awe-inspiring too’ and that he admired Monbiot’s aspirations. Harper went on to quietly point out that RSPB nature reserve managers ‘do a remarkable job and our wildlife benefits as a result.’

However dissatisfied and grumpy my son can be at times (and George himself has described just how discontent he was himself to ‘continue to live as I had done…sitting and writing, looking after my daughter and my house) one thing I will never allow him to moan about is being bored. To describe oneself as bored is to my mind to describe oneself as having lost the common sense and gumption to go out and look. Unfortunately, one of the reasons that Monbiot says was key to his writing Feral was his becoming ‘ecologically bored.’ I wonder whether by taking the time to look George might find himself once more ecologically intrigued.  Instead it seems he prefers to spend his time eating maggots and slinging dead deer around his neck which, for someone campaigning to reforest vast swathes of land, seems to me to be wasting time playing cavemen. In fact it was Monbiot’s partner, when on holiday with George in Slovenia, who had to point out to Monbiot that where once there had been a barren mountainous landscape there was now dense, ecologically rich forest. Perhaps George isn’t very good at looking.

You have to look and become interested to stave off boredom George. Watch closely and perhaps you will become as intrigued as I was yesterday when walking in the Norfolk Broads. I stood and watched an abundance of Norfolk Hawkers parading in the sunshine. The dragonflies’ gilded bodies and glowing emerald eyes proof that it’s not just big that can be beautiful. These dragonflies have recently set up home in Cambridgeshire as well as Norfolk; a win for a rare species traditionally confined to one small area, and perhaps a win for conservationists too.

It is a shame that Feral and Monbiot’s ongoing argument for rewildling is written in the rather arrogant and argumentative way that it is. Looking beyond the egotism there is much in Feral that I relish. I too would like more space for nature, more forests and yes, I’d love to witness beavers and wolves gaining ground. I too am a huge believer in providing children with more opportunities to experience wildlife and the outdoors for themselves. Nevertheless I can’t believe that the best way to realise this is to provoke others, demean their way of life and demand change for the sake of boredom. To behave in this way smacks of the showboating and arrogance of the, largely masculine, banking world pre financial crisis – look at the mess that got us in.

So, here’s a call to you George Monbiot for a more balanced and less exclusive argument for rewildling. Sir Fred Goodwin of the Royal Bank of Scotland said, ‘pre-crisis we saw very alpha male environments build up and consequently a win/lose situation, which can lead to very bad outcomes. It can feel intimidating and excludingWomen can have a more open conversation, do more listening.’ I’m not asking you to become more female George, but, if you could, less of the school-boy please.


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28 Replies to “Guest Blog and Book Review – more on Feral (George Monbiot) by Aggie Rothon (and a cartoon by Ralph Underhill too)”

  1. A great guest blog and it sounds like a good description of Monbiot's writing as I've not read the book yet, but will. I like "Beyond Conservation" by Peter Taylor and think we could and should do much more but the vested and blinkered and even ignorant interests are a huge obsticle, so whilst aspiring to greater things I will take pleasure in the small gains and bemoan and even temper tantrum about the losses and try to reverse them.
    Since a teenager I've known sheep as woolly maggots, yes they have their uses and I love eating lamb but as despoilers of uplands they have no peer, look at much of the Lake District and mid Wales all hugely damaged by sheep and biodiversity trashed.
    Its sunny and now I'm going out to enjoy nature, well breakfast first!

  2. I think George's "temper tantrum" stems from an enormous frustration that in this country our conservation efforts have expended such enormous efforts to achieve so little. Now I've upset some people but instead of getting defensive consider this: the State of Nature report outlines quite clearly that we are failing. Would things have been worse without our efforts? No doubt. Are there success stories? Of course. But the comparison George draws with other countries is important. Our biodiversity compares poorly with any other country in Europe, let alone worldwide, and our National Parks would not qualify for the name in any other country. I think George is right to be provocative and ask conservationists here to be more ambitious. Focusing on the minutiae of this butterfly or that beetle, while laudable, risks the appearance of fiddling while Rome burns.

  3. I seem to remember Iolo Williams describing the hills of Wales covered in wooly maggots. He was not impressed............and that was years ago!

  4. Aggie, the best for a long, long time. It is clear why you became Nature Writer of the Year.
    The problems facing our wildlife will not be solved by demonising sheep. We live in a small country containing 63 million people each of whom consumes resources equivalent to a 14th century village. Even if we didn't waste 25% of our food and 35% of our energy we could not maintain ourselves. We already rely on the 'Food Fairy' to survive and it is not clear for how much longer we will be able to afford pay her.
    Rewilding is a lovely idea and people should be allowed, as many already do, to rewild their land.
    Rewilding as a instrument of rural management policy is a bit too imperialistic for me. Most people now recognise the error in removing wolves from Yellowstone but forget the other species which was removed after having been part of it's ecology for thousands of years. This was the small and nomadic Native American population of Homo sapiens. They can never return as their way of life was destroyed intentionally by the US Government but they had already had an enormous and irreversible impact by exterminating the mega-fauna who had dominated the landscape before their arrival, just as our ancestors did in Europe.
    Rewilding's hope of a return to a 'state of nature' will always be compromised by the absence of the big stuff and so will probably always need human intervention.
    We should be thankful for the myriad efforts of conservationists of all sorts to save what we have and not denigrate their efforts as anally retentive, we should be working with farmers, including those reckless enough to keep sheep, to improve their contribution to conservation, and we should be grateful for a guest blog of this quality.

    1. Well said Ian. Our food waste is a crime; please someone invent a suitable punishment, but worse still are unecesssaryily fat people. When I was a child (post war) there were no fat children at my school, not one (try looking at school photos of the 40s, 50s and 60s), now the place is heaving with them and their parents are equally supersize. It's not funny. Try sharing buses, trains and planes with these gross examples of humanity. If they were predated upon they would provide easy pickings. I am reminded of the Daily Telegraph diet 'eat less, move more' or, more vulgarily, 'your exit is smaller than your entrance'.

  5. One of the best things of leaving an organisation is to see things others inside can not. I am sure this applies to Mark even though he is often slow at showing the results. 'Rocking the Boat' is not excepted in British society. 'Tell tale tit, your mother can't knit' is a rhyme created for very young children like Aggie's child to stamp it out at an early age. Look at the Iraq war. Who killed himself because no one would listen!! There were no bombs of mass destruction and it cost us £Billions not to mention the dead. 'The Beautiful Lake District'!!! Who is educated now!! Was it not Natural England that created the new 'Upland Vision' only to be torn apart by NFU, CLA and the government. A vision which would help farmers to understand what these uplands could be like for future generations. Who came to their rescue! Nobody!!! 1000s of miles of Red Grouse tracks destroying the 'wild' at our cost. Who is sitting on their bum now! 'Rocking the Boat' is good for everyone to look again at their actions. It might be wrong or it might be right but could it have been done another way. Why should people loose their jobs like I did for exposing wrong which included 'damaging an SSSI' by a RSPB warden just for more money from a forestry commission grant. Sure, I was offered another job [Which i declined] but that is not the point. It is our society that has to change and by 'Rocking the Boat' is the only way it will change. Read the book.

  6. Progress isn't a smooth progression. there are break points, points where big, critical decisions need to be taken. For me, the RSPB decision to become involved in agriculture policy is 1987 was one of those. Hard to believe today, but there was serious opposition within RSPB at the time.

    20 years later David Miliband made a radical speech about the future of land use. It blew away a lot of the ludicrous arguments emananting from modern neo-liberal economics and included some unlikely thoughts - that beauty matters, for example. The subsequent Foresight study of land use which included no less than 40 contributing Professors buried Milliband's ideas so deep that I bet hardly anyone reading this has ever heard of them - and put things back to how they should be, in nice, neat silos. He's not the only 'eminent' person making these sorts of comments - Lord Kreb's Climate Change committee has recently warned about water supply. these land use issues include our conservation silo but extend much further and its increasingly clear that how we play the different strands - and in particular how we get land to work harder for a range of benefits - which may mean less intensive management - is becoming increasingly critical. We are at a break point and aren't we half ducking and weaving to avoid it in an era of near zero leadership ?

  7. Aggie, I like that a lot. The book is sitting on the bedside cabinet waiting to be read although a David Baldacci is first in line. That may be an indication of my priorities, although I hope not. I suspect it is more to do with slightly lukewarm critiques giving me the feeling that I ought to read it but not urgently.

    I am sure it would also be very eye opening to see stats on gender ratios against the style of some of the comments placed on the many forums that are around.

  8. I suppose it's fun to try to convince someone that they are wrong to use goading as a debating tool by patronising them. Its hard to tell if the author is being hypocritical for effect.

    I don't agree though. 95%+ of conservation is spent on firefighting and grazing is almost never really challenged.
    You're right in saying that he won't be the person negotiating an improved settlement for conservation with his preferred tack. But getting people's backs up gets attention and works.

    Conservation groups are good at naval gazing but I'm not sure they look at the right bits and I think Feral's position is very useful.

    When your policy is made of compromise built on compromise and you spend most of your time fighting off attacks it is worthwhile to be forced to question what you are actually trying to achieve. I think Feral does this quite well.

    Though he wild man adventures did lack a degree of self awareness or humour - I'll give you that.

  9. Aggie, I wonder if GM's visit to Slovenia was partly the inspiration for his book, lets use Slovenia as a perfect example. Currently in Slovenia there is an incredible 2 million hectares of woodland and over 785,000 hectares of farmland (60% permanent pasture and 30% arable). Pre-independence from the Soviet Union some 90% of the farmland was owned by small private farmers providing cereal crops for the soviet union. After independence from the soviet union when Slovenia expressed an interest in joining the EU agri-business (most of it UK) swooped in and purchased HUGE amounts of the farmland and created massive farms with very little concern for wildlife, this "land-grab" continues to this day in not only Slovenia but other ex-soviet countries. Now given how we in the UK destroyed most of our woodland for farming, how safe do you reckon that 2 million hectares of woodland is from by chopped down for farmland? How safe is the wildlife? So if George saw this on his trip perhaps he too realised this and could see history repeating itself (just on a bigger scale). Have we seen conservationist here in the UK or in the EU raise this point? I can't find much? And if we are to carry on developing farming on this scale with ex-soviet states, then welcome them into the EU fold , is there going to be any real need for arable farming in the UK? Therefore does George's idea of rewilding the UK becomes more realistic?
    One thing is for sure with three mentions on Mark's blog and one on Martin Harper's is certainly got plenty of free PR!

  10. "George! ....Don't do that!"


    "....upon their backs to bite 'em"

    Next week's Feral review from somebody who surprisingly loves the book (and even plans to read it some when), leaving that bloke's stick insect who plans to peruse it in gaelic and Aunt Mary's cousin Bob's daughter-in-law, Janey who is waiting for the direct to video release, for when she's getting over the operation.

    Good to see Norfolk Hawkers returning to the Fens, although consult the Global Biodiversity Information Facility - you know the one that Aunt Mary's cousin Bob's daughter-in-law, Janey used to work for - and it appears that 'Green-eyed Hawkers' have never been recorded in the UK. Sometimes, one has to make a noise (like "Poot!" - other noises are also available*) in order to make even a small change in the right direction. I'm sure that those dragonfly records currently accessible via the plucky National Biodiversty Network will be also available via GBIF before too long. But, just in case, "Poot!".

    Perhaps there will be a unified chorus of "Poot!" (other noises are also available) in relation to achieving the rather more significant task of making a better fist of biodiversity conservation - whilst celebrating the small steps forward and learning from the setbacks in the meantime. Hopefully, the muttering from the impatient audience will soon be hushed, the discordant noises from the pit dying away as the instruments are perfectly tuned for the work ahead, and, and.....

    *'Ting!' might seem to some purists as the right noise to make over Aeshna isoceles, but puppy-dog tail persuasion or not, I believe "Poot!" to possess that extra quantum of gravitas. So "Poot!" it is.

  11. "40 contributing Professors"

    At the RS meeting in March 2011 (Reducing GHG Emissions from Agriculture) an eminent speaker asserted that, while our UK contribution to climate change mitigation was very unlikely to meet its target (and even if it did the effect would be so small that it would be scarcely measurable at the global scale), we would have shown the World how to do it.

    I thought these conclusions were reassuringly honest. He was one of those acknowledged in "Foresight". So were many others also present and contributing. Look at the range of institutions they represent - all reliant on taxpayer funding. Nothing wrong with that but it is perhaps unreasonable or unlikely to expect anything other than a Business As Usual Plus response to the challenges of providing food and services from land. The institutions have to fight their corners to maintain their income - so the silo mentality continueth.

    I quote the meeting output - "We conclude that in the long term, even with new research outputs and effective translation, the only structural change that could be of a magnitude sufficient to even approach an 80% reduction target in the agricultural sector would be a large reduction of agricultural production in the UK, thus displacing greenhouse gas emissions to other countries. Such an action is not compatible with increasing global demand for food and would be morally irresponsible, economically unrealistic, and would have no global climate benefits as it would result in land elsewhere (undoubtedly less suited to food production) being converted to grain production to meet UK demand."

    These experts are advisers to Gubmints and one hopes their advice is objective. But the advice is received and translated into policy by political ideologues, who mostly have no experience of running a country, a business, or even a stall selling boiled necrophagous molluscs. That's our problem. Meanwhile, the Elephant gets bigger every day

  12. Filbert Cobb's comments get more intellectual every day.Think you would write a more sensible book than George Monbiot.

  13. I would love to see the rewilding concept miniaturised into urban areas where most of us live. Could I be bold enough to suggest that the human health and education benefits of nature (while obviously linked to habitat size & type) are inversely proportional to distance from populated areas. Not everyone has the resources to get out to remote areas.

    This is why ironically 'urban infilling' - on remnants of brownfield land where Buddleia bloom, butterflies dance, and teenagers hangout with skateboards - is shortsighted and damaging.

    (Note we will be discussing Feral at greenthinkers Bookclub in December - all welcome)

  14. Personally I love fish and birds. They are great! I would very much like to see bluefin tuna populations in the North Sea and the giant herring shoals that supported them. I live in Sheffield, and am half surrounded by upland. I regularly visit this to watch diverse birds; ring ouzels, short eared owls, little owls, merlin, hobby and goshawk. A notable bird missing is the hen harrier, which the surrounding area should be able to support several.

    Up here the "fight" is local but even if you were to change moorland policy to encourage greater biodiversity then there would still be a "million?" people on a daily basis trecking their dogs all over the hills. I have often thought that the odd siberian tiger would do a world of wonder in persuading dog owners to keep them on leads or to simply discourage the huge numbers of people. The UK is a very densely populated country. This is the main cause of the pressures that exist as of now.

    It surprises me how un-militant many conservationists are especially in the face of blatant spitefulness from members of the gun and dog lobby. No body seems to want to have this fight, lest they are stereotyped as nay-sayers and wooly treehuggers by the right wing. Actually I think this is the crux of this issue and what any boat rocking is aimed at. Some people maybe are trying to outmanoeuvre the traditional landowners side of the fight by winning public opinion through their children and this is a valuable trick.

    Georges book sounds to me (I haven't read it) like a product of the times and is probably healthy in encouraging debate.

    Personally I think the conservationist side should be pushing for a total ban on shooting any birds and therefore shotguns for when the Tories are ousted. This will strengthen greatly the negotiating position of conservation groups at the upland management meetings. The conservationists with enough public support will hold all the cards at the table, they should be appropriately ambitious. The list of re-established species should include things like bluefin tuna to the North Sea, Lynx to the uplands and hen harriers to the moors around Sheffield.

      1. Gerard, I too think that's a relevant comment, as an owner of three greyhounds and two Australian Shepherds I fully agree about dogs on leads and have seen both disturbance and sometimes destruction "dogs off leads" can do. I even had one incident when one dog off lead came runnig over to me and my greyhounds, the hound pinned the other dog to the floor, the owner came running over screaming her head off, slipped and broke her wrist, three weeks later I had a letter from a solicitor telling me I was being sued! Needless to say by the time it went to court, I demonstrated the fact my dog was under control on a lead/hers wasn't, she was on a SSSI and the dog should've been on a lead during breeding season especially, we won, luckily. After that I started a group to encourage other dog owners to walk there dogs on lead in public, do you know after 3 months of being formed we had just 6 like minded people!! So we quit, the general concensus was "my dog is in control", normally followed by "My dog, I'll do what I want". So I then approached the local council about making it mandatory that in all public places dogs should be put on lead especially in public places owned by the council, I was told "it would be instant vote looser" and I failed, this is the biggest problem of getting anyone to pass such a law, the "dog brigade" would oppose it en-masse. Sadly it will never happen...unless more pitbulls chomp on more people of course.

  15. Dennis - we are in agreement - a serious point humourously put, Filbert. And I sort of recognise Hamemtopatmous' style....

  16. Mark,congratulations you are collecting some grumpy people and eccentrics among your bunch of people who comment,feel sure we are privileged that you publish all of them(I guess you do anyway as from past experience you are a liberal moderator)

    1. Dennis - thank you (I think!?). There hasn't been a comment for ages (probably this calendar year) that I have refused to post - that says something about how politely grumpy even the grumpiest grumps are on this site. Thank you. And not everyone is grumpy by any means.

  17. This is less of a book review and more of a wide of the mark, personal attack on the books author, it does little to address the core arguments and ideas contained within the book.

    If George Monbiot had actually described British conservationists, within the pages of Feral as, 'unambitious, irrational, anally retentive and ecologically illiterate’, then he should have also added 'over-sensitive', except these comments are not in the book. He posted them on a guest blog whilst making a point about cutting and burning being perceived as prerequisite tasks for moorland management.

    For those of you that have not read Feral (which seems to be many of those with the strongest views on the subject) Monbiot's view on cutting and burning of moorland is put forward in a more measured way.
    Take this short extract for example: "In one of its pamphlets, the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust warns that 'in some areas, heather moorland is declining in quality due to neglect of traditional moorland management techniques such as cutting and burning'. Imagine how a tropical ecologist would respond if she saw that. British environmentalists have been campaigning for years to stop the cutting and burning of habitats in developing countries, yet here we see this destruction as an essential conservation tool. A conservation movement which believes that the environment is threatened by a lack of cutting and burning is one that has badly lost its way"
    He's not wrong on this point is he ? Disagree ? Well make sure you write to Martin Harper and ask him to drop the Walshaw Moor case.

    Talking of Martin Harper (who's review of Feral is excellent) could it be that he didn't hand out a "metaphorical black-eye" to George Monbiot because he actually agrees with him ?

    "To describe oneself as bored is to my mind to describe oneself as having lost the common sense and gumption to go out and look"
    I have to confess to being perplexed by your view of this. GM found he was "ecologically bored", (the reasons why are quite thoughtfully explained in the book), then sets out to address the cause of his boredom and seven years later writes a book about it. This strikes me as a mature response and hardly the actions of an idle and unresourceful school boy.

    Ps, Re Sheep AKA wooly maggots, I know many farmers who use this term, Paul Irving's comments regarding on the damage they cause are spot on. Nowhere in this book did I sense that GM was seeking to demean the existence of the upland sheep farmer, however the chapter titled 'Sheepwrecked' does highlight how seriously flawed with the current subsidy regime is for many SDA farms. I defy anyone with an ounce of ecological knowledge to visit the uplands of mid-Wales and declare that they are happy with the current state of play.

    Its also occurs to me that the style and tone employed by GM is no more emotive than that employed by Marion Shoard in 'The Theft of the Countryside'. I know I don't regard the contents of this book as being the result of a 31 year old woman's 'version of a temper tantrum' ?

    It's funny how the author of an interesting and slightly provocative book on 'rewilding' seems to attract more criticism than the likes of messrs Kendall and Benyon. Is it any wonder that 'the state of nature' is in such as dreadfull mess ?!

    Anyway, I'll look forward to Haematopotamus's Aunt Mary’s cousin Bob’s daughter-in-law, Janey's review of the video, it promises to be a corker.

    1. Well said.

      A pedantic point - possibly "Sir Fred Goodwin of the Royal Bank of Scotland" should read "the then Sir Fred etc" as he isn't Sir Fred any longer. Not an authority I would have appealed to to make a point.

    2. I agree with much of the post above. I don't think that review by Aggie is particularly good and fails to address the main points of the book. I'm currently reading the book and thoroughly enjoying it.

  18. I think the tone of this book review is painfully condescending.... with a bizarre undertone of sexism. So yearning for more wonder and an emotional response to nature should be mocked as "playing caveman"?

    Feral is a real eye-opener about how many of the landscapes we revere in the UK are so impoverished. As is its pointing out our "shifting baselines" whereby we all look back on our childhood impressions of biodiversity and abundance without realising how much poorer these are than previous generations. And the UK's phobia of mammal reintroductions compared to our European neighbours.... look at the fuss over wild boar and eagle owls. Seems rather a truism now but was a bit of a revelation when I read it the first time.

    As for ecological boredom in the UK, surely this resonates with all of us? There are 1800 species of lichen in the UK.... perhaps I should transfer my interest to these as our bird populations continue to decline but it is a poor substitute. I enjoy dragonflies as much as the next naturalist but if you want to excite the public imagination, I think Lynx rather than dragonflies are a far more powerful tool (irrational headlines aside)... and biodiversity as a whole would benefit. It also gives us a little more credibility when expecting developing countries to preserve there wilderness and co-exist with their megafauna.


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