Start the rewilding now Mr Gove – the people have spoken.

Michael Gove

On a hot summer’s night the people spoke – the vote at the end of last night’s rewilding debate in London was 52% in favour of rewilding the uplands and a mere 39% against. If 52% (actually a smidgeon under) v 48% (actually a smidgeon over, and without counting the don’t knows and did not bother to votes) is enough for us to leave the EU then this is clearly enough to have persuaded Michael Gove, who was sitting in the front row, to get on with a massive programme of bringing nature back, naturally, to the English uplands.

And this vote in favour was gained from an audience packed with farmers! In one of her few useful contributions to the evening the President of the NFU, Minette Batters, asked for a show of hands as to how many of the audience of c400-500 were farmers and how many were upland farmers. There were about half a dozen of the audience who self-identified as upland farmers (amongst a few dozen farmers in all); more than 1% of us.  The audience would have needed to be about 60,000 for those six to be a representative sample of the population.  And so Michael Gove can be quite sure that the enthusiasm for rewilding is massive given the highly unrepresentative nature of the audience.

But what of the debate? It was fun and almost certainly more entertaining than watching France beat Belgium 1-0.  Well worth the £20 entrance fee, and you will be able to watch a video of the evening on Friday, we were told – I’ll try to put a link in here when it is available but watching Match of the Day is never as much fun as being there, is it?

Debates of this sort rarely get to the heart of the matter and rarely tackle the issues adequately – that was true here but it was a much, much better attempt than is usual in these events. The £20 was worth it just to hear George Monbiot’s bravura performance – and he spoke first in the debate so watch him and revel in his skill.

But I haven’t properly told you who was on the field, have I (football references are just too tempting)?  The referee was Jonathan Dimbleby (who was rather tolerant of foul play), and the Rewilding team, no doubt with three reintroduced lions on their shirts, were George Monbiot and Mark Cocker.  Both were very comfortable on the ball, strong in attack but sometimes a little slow in tracking back in defence. But they did play the ball, in contrast to the team of Rory Stewart and Minette Batters who spent the game rolling around feigning injury or playing the man rather than the ball. Batters would have been substituted early in the game had there been a bench of subs available and should have been shown a red card for telling the audience not to listen to the two Three Lions because they made their money out of writing apocalyptic nature stories – quite rightly the crowd booed her for this.  Rory Stewart, being the spitting image of Nobby Stiles, had to put in a manful performance to prevent an even greater drubbing of his team and he did it through a series of illegal tackles from behind and cynical ankle taps, often departing the scene trying to look innocent showing his palms to the ref and looking shocked that one of his opponents was rubbing their leg. Mr Stewart even fouled two people at once, one of whom was, I thought, supposed to be a teammate of his, when he compared George Monbiot to Boris Johnson (that must have stung a bit and needed an ice-pack after the game) for being great on the big picture stuff but no head for details! Ouch!  Stewart clearly wanted to take Monbiot out of the game but he failed.  Stewart came around to saying do rewilding but in the lowlands not the uplands, or do it in Scotland, but don’t do it in the English uplands such as in his sheep-wrecked constituency because these are historical cultural landscapes. This is just a way of saying that they have been knackered over a long time rather than knackered in a short time.  Batters tried to suck up to Michael Gove by saying how pleased we all were that he was still in the environment job and 500 people looked at the back of the Secretary of State’s head trying to discern a thought bubble rising from it which might have read ‘But I wanted to be Foreign Secretary! Boo Hoo!’. She also stunned the audience into silence by her pre-1970s’ grasp of the role of predators in ecosystems. Her parting shot was simply a quote from the sheep farmer’s propaganda book (reviewed here).

But in these debates it is hardly the arguments which one remembers, it is the artistry on the ball, the crunching tackles and the overall performance. The player ratings would be: Monbiot 9, Stewart 7, Cocker 7 and Batters 2.

Nature’s coming home, it’s coming home…

The crowd was interesting.  Not just all those farmers packing the hall in numbers with Mr Gove but the Chair of Natural England (who enjoyed reading this blog, it seems), a few NE staff, FC, CLA, the Chair of the Hawk and Owl Trust, the Chief Exec and spin doctor of GWCT but very few senior wildlife NGO staff. Well, when I say very few, I didn’t spot any. What is the position of the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, National Trust, WWF-UK and others on rewilding? They must have been watching the football.



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41 Replies to “Start the rewilding now Mr Gove – the people have spoken.”

  1. Very good, Mark. But what omens does it suggest for tonight’s clearly less significant encounter?

  2. Was in North Wales a couple of weeks ago and was horrified at the rate of erosion on many of the uplands, especially in Snowdonia. I'm very much in favour of rewilding - so are my cousins who are farmers on the Welsh border.

  3. Having moved from North Yorkshire where the uplands are either ruined by grouse management or sheep over grazing to rural mid Wales where the sheep grazing and management of uplands for sheep makes the Yorkshire uplands like a biodiverse paradise. Its either wall to wall woolly maggots on bowling green ( brown at the moment) grass or Sitka spruce. I was with Monbiot when he said that the Lakes should NOT get world Heritage status because it is a classic example of what you get with 1000 years of sheep over grazing, most of Wales is just the same or worse. We somehow need a managed retreat from commercial enterprises in our uplands. Lets be honest most sheep farming is producing either a product that is almost valueless (wool) or a meat we don't want. Why is New Zealand lamb cheaper here than the local product?

  4. The arguments for the motion were so effective that the mere 39% against the motion increased an threefold from 13% at the outset. Undecided declined from 26% to 9%

    1. I'm trying to think what the difference is between a referendum of the entire (qualified to vote) population in a country and a vote amongst 500 people in a room. I can;t quite put my finger on it but I'm thinking one is democracy and one isn't.

        1. I think Filbert makes a good point

          The arguments you so despise seem to have changed a lot of pre existing opinions - is that not so?

          If her/his figures are correct - perhaps there are others buried in your blog (FFS paragraphs!!!) are correct then we have

          at the start

          against 13%
          don't know 26%
          for 61%

          at the end

          against 39%
          undecided 9%
          for 52%

          It does seem that the arguments put swung quite a few opinions.

          As for claims of 'foul play' we see the same arguments in the brexit debate but to my mind we should respect people's ability to make up their own minds and allow all sides to present the facts as they see them.

          For the record I'm a died in the wool fuddy duddy and see pros and cons in both sides of a divisive debate.

          1. GB your figures are correct - same as displayed at the debate. Also on the screen was the swing that swung - 18% - against the motion during the debate. Such was the power of persuasion.

            My wool is definitely not dyed pink

      1. Just to help you a bit Giles. If 52% voting Brexit means Brexit why does over 80% against fox hunting mean not banning fox hunting

        1. John - I've yet to see an opinion poll supporting the mass extermination of wildlife as a legally required pre requisite to non lethal humane dispersal - have you? In the absence of any law enforcement officer prepared to enforce such an absurd attempt at a law - I'll just carry on. Absurd laws make absurd crimes and breaking the Hunting Act in the way that I do has nothing to do with 'fox hunting' (wrong species for a start) it's an honour, a pleasure, child friendly, humane, non lethal, carbon neutral, wildlife enhancing and if you don't like it can Impolitely suggest you find a suitable location in your anatomy in which placing it might least give you some kind of satisfaction.

      2. Well GB that's easy to answer in a country where 35% of the vote can elect the government for the next term clearly the side which gets the biggest smallest vote wins even if 65% of the voters didn't actually want the outcome which IIRC was That Dreadful Woman

        1. 65% will generally beat 35% ( although it can be more complicated with FPTP) however if :

          35% want A
          30% want B
          30% want C and
          5% want D

          then IMO it's fair to say we voted for A

          this is because at the end of the day in a general election we vote for people not ideas - that's because it is representative and not direct democracy.

          Essentially we vote for people and entrust them to do what they think best on each issue that arises.

          Referendums are fundamentally different they involve a vote on a single issue not for a person.

          This is tempered by political parties so a "labour vote" entails some degree of qualified support for the manifesto the voted for MP is standing under. So in spite of a remain referendum vote - of you subsequently voted Labour you are voting for a person committed to ensuring we leave the EU.

          1. I think you are wrong on a whole series of points Giles. On the hunting act there is no doubt that the vast majority of us want hunting with dogs banned and if anything the act tightening to stop hunts using the loopholes they do to continue their vile sport. What you do can be done perfectly well without the use of dogs. After all if I god forbid go beating or walked up shooting with a dog it is flushing for me and I would not attempt to shoot all it flushes.
            I am a remainer in the Brexit nonsense, yet I vote labour which despite your claims not pro-brexit and I vote for the ideals not the person and I would hope most people do. There are a few Tories I admire but if they were representing my constituency I would NOT vote for them as they are members and represent a party whose values and thus policies I generally despise.

          2. This is getting a bit off topic here - merits of PR and all - but perhaps a good subject for a separate column by Mark or AN Other some time? Just a suggestion, but I think environmental matters suffer because although they are an issue most people care about (I believe) , they are rarely their # 1 concern. Plus, because most people care about them to some extent there's no party political angle to exploit - as long as all parties ignore them they can all carry on as usual.

  5. Really looking forward to the video of this event!!! For your part Mark you were clearly the John Motson. In Isabella Tree's cracking book 'Wilding' about what's happening on Knepp Estate she brought about the very, very big gun for rewilding that's not used nearly enough, George M an honorable exception. At the same time the NFU have been crying that we need to keep all our current farming going because of food security issues in a world with a growing population she points out that we waste an incredible amount of food nationally and globally through both poor storage and wasteful consumption (non consumption really). It comes to 1.3 billion tonnes annually, in total we actually produce enough to feed 10 billion people. Cut that waste and not only do we stop cutting down forest for food, we can give land, lots of it, back to nature. She does mention, very significantly, that there are farming and food interests that don't want this pointed out. I've never seen any mention of this fact in any of the official government anti food waste (about 6 million tonnes and 12.5 billion quids worth of it in the UK annually) - the closest was the use of the word 'deforestation' once. I had a little bit of a go recently at the RSPB - in a nice way I hope - for never in my recollection mentioning that there would be a hell of a lot less conflict between modern farming and conservation if we didn't throw away so much food. Are they holding back so as not to piss off farmers? Shouldn't the 'green' NGOs be making one hell of a lot of this? What David Attenborough did for plastic waste they need to do for wasting food (pulp and timber production needs a look at too).

    Imagine all that money subsidising upland sheep farming going into public education - telling us all that wildlife is destroyed because we waste food - some of which is imported from countries where people are malnourished, getting kids into growing their own food at school, in local parks, their own gardens and how not to waste any of it. The basics on why animal protein tends to come at a higher environmental cost than the green stuff - if you do eat meat what about going back to using waste food (the non avoidable kind hopefully) to feed pigs rather than imported soy? There could be a big push towards more food growing in urban(ish) areas a good thing for various reasons. Pointing out that pheasant and partridge released for game shooting require vast quantities of feed and thereby intensive agriculture, and most aren't consumed by people, would hardly hurt. If there was any money left over from pursuing this from re allocated subsidies then of course it could go to the NHS.

    Imagine more wildlife, less flooding and a better educated, more responsible and healthier public especially the next generation. None of this is rocket science, I know I've prattled on about it before and on this page that's definitely trying to teach your granny to suck eggs, but why the hell isn't this most basic of points not right up there at the very forefront of the rewilding debate? It wouldn't take much to counter the incessant use of 'tradition','heritage', 'cultural' and 'way of life' about as you say Mark something that's been doing for damage for a long time and to my mind doesn't quite fit with quad bikes, anti biotic treatments, steel sheds and people who want to have the BB connections, indoor plumbing and central heating the rest of us have, except we pay for it because their chosen profession doesn't make enough?

  6. Great stuff, Mark. I'm pleased by that result, and also pleased that it will be available to view, presumably on Youtube?

  7. He can't do it, not until he works how he and his rich mates can make money out of it. As per Tory Ideology, every policy must include a method of enriching the rich first.

  8. Mark askes what is the position of the wildlife trusts etc, well as the Executive Director of The Seahorse Trust we are 100% behind rewilding and it should start now, our seas DO NOT have anymore time to waste.
    The effects of over grazing and all the other ills associated with some bad farming practises (not all farmers are the same, some are brilliant and think in joined up terms) end up in the sea and especially in the shallow, seagrass meadows where seahorses live, our seas are becoming deserts !!!
    Not only should rewilding start on land now, it should also happen in our oceans which are equally as farmed and denuded through trawling and overfishing.
    I am fighting to have the rest of the thin blue line (The Marine Conservation Zones) put into place, including Studland Bay where the seagrass has become fragmented and the seahorse numbers dropping rapidly.
    I went and saw Michael Gove and David Rutley at DEFRA a couple of weeks ago and both were highly supportive of the MCZ process and I just hope they make Studland and the other areas protected but we should protect the whole ocean and license activities in it rather than these token gestures (which are better than nothing)
    What so many people seem to forget is the interconnectedness of our natural world. What happens on the uplands effects, what happens in the depths of the seas.
    So anything to restore nature to bring back a balance will have positive effects on the whole natural world.
    Bring back wolves, lynx and all the other species now that have a historical, natural right to live in the UK and let the balance be restored, only this way will our seas also have a chance.
    We must stop thinking in fragments and take the holistic view.
    I live near Dartmoor, whose full name is Dartmoor Forest and yet there are few trees there but have a look at the small quarry next to Haytor and you will see a slice of what once was and what could be in a few short years. It has been fenced off from those ponies, sheep and cows that denude the moor and I have introduced sticklebacks back into it and now we have a small slice of Eden, full of birds, insects, mammals and importantly trees and plants. Trees that bring life to a desert of heather and bare soil.
    It is about time the authorities take bold steps and look at the bigger picture for all, including the farmers whose land would be in a much better state if it was allowed to restore and who would financially be better off because their land would be more productive without having to add fertilisers to it.

    1. Neil, Dartmoor, Exmoor, Ashdown Forest, the New Forest, and the rest are all Forests in the old sense of (once having) being under Forest Law. Nothing to do with being covered in trees, or not.

      Dartmoor and Exmoor were as essentially as open as they are now back into the mid Bronze Age, and neither currently have an overgrazing problem in the way that, say, mid Wales does. Their open origins lie as much in mid-Bronze Age climate change events as in human clearance. Hence the extensive Dartmoor peat bogs, for instance.

      In the debate about the best future for them, starting with a misunderstanding about their past isn't helpful.

  9. Some thoughts;

    I know this makes me sound like a grumpy old git, which I probably am, but the footballing stuff made this very hard for me to read and actually I wanted a more factual report on an important event. Sorry Mark!

    Some more substantive thoughts; re-wilding has become synonymous with Wolves in popular imagination - I hope the debate got away from this and into a more meaningful discussion.

    Glad to see Knepp mentioned; a version of "re-wilding" that still keeps farmers in business and still produces food is a much easier sell for the lowlands than what will look like abandonment. And Knepp certainly produces the wildlife we want more of.

    In all the NFU's blather about food security they set up nature conservation as a win/loose alternative to food growing but never seem to mention the 100,000s of prime acres used for pointless ponies or even more pointless golf. Or indeed the grain used to feed... how many pheasants every year was it again? If we really do have a food security issue why aren't these land uses on the table for returning to food production long before low productivity uplands?

    There are issues of scale around ecologically literate re-wilding that give me reservations about Monbiot's sometimes simplistic take. I hope that here he didn't present it as a black and white choice, or applicable everywhere. There are small areas of uplands and lowlands full of wildlife as well as big areas of uplands and lowlands devoid of it. I just don't want to find that we have a baby and bathwater problem when it comes to agri-environment changes. Things are rarely as simple as we'd like them to be.

    And finally the fact that Gove actually came was a real surprise to me, and a very welcome one. Whatever he took away from the debate, the fact that he thought it important enough to attend is very significant. Clearly rewilding is no longer a fringe topic even in Govt, it is on the table for serious consideration. As a demonstration of critical mass and of symbolic respectability his presence is a big step forward for us. Let's hope his take on the outcome is the same as Mark's.

    1. jcb - Git? No, no. Old? Not at all! Grumpy? Well, I'd ask for your money back if I were you... After all, for an event that finished after 9pm and for which an attendee's thoughts are posted for 6am is pretty poor service.

      1. I did say I was grumpy... and I didn't know you'd posted by 6am.

        Ok, Ok, I admit it, I just don't like football.

        1. jbc - fair enough. You may hear a lot less about it after this evening. On the other hand...

    2. I'm not sure ponies are entirely pointless. They are semi native mammals - as are we.

      1. They are NOT native they are all DOMESTIC horses, the wild horse if it ever occurred here and it may well have done is extinct. Nothing infuriates me more when I hear on generally awful Countryfile about "native" ponies, they are not wild/native they are owned and as I say NOT native.

        1. FWIU Exmoor ponies are pretty close to the native animals - they are pretty distinctive looking and remarkably similar to those depicted in roman times - yes they are domesticated but very extensively but that's a slightly different matter.

          1. You said it Giles domesticated and yes they may look like the ponies from the roman era but they were domestic too. All evidence suggests the domestic horse was brought here and is thus not native. Wild horses ie Tarpan in Europe are extinct

          2. Pau surely this distinction is an indication of how zany the rewilding argument can get. Native ponies are somehow 'invalid' because they are owned by people. This is ideology not conservation.

          3. giles - no it shows you don't take any notice of what people actually say!

          4. Mark with respects perhaps Paul was not completely understanding what I meant by 'semi' native - all domesticated horses are descended from wild horses - I certainly did not mean to say they are fully native wild animals - that's obviously a nonsense - however they are IMHO as close to native horses as we can realistically get. And we know that there were horses here 700,000 years ago - so it is IMHO rather ridiculous to suggest that the most similar horses we have available to wild horses should not be part of a "rewilding" scheme. Just as it would be to suggest we didn't include brown hares because they are not truly native.

            That said I'm rather dubious about the idea of setting wolves onto ponies.

          5. giles - maybe you should put a bit more effort into making yourself clear then. Nobody has suggested any of the things you think are ridiculous except yourself.

  10. If this idea is to take hold, further debates will be necessary, in some of the area's under discussion.
    Sheffield, or one of the town's on the western fringe of the Peak , would be a good start.
    Outside the lambing or early grouse season, ought to get a good turnout from those most
    likely to be affected.

    1. Trapit - we are all affected, we all pay taxes which deliver poor value for money, or get flooded, or have smoke heading through our windows or... That point was well made yesterday evening. And there were far more farmers in the room than there 'should' have been to reflect 'us'.

  11. Paul Irving.... I agree with your point about Welsh v NZ lamb. A few years ago we were having dinner in a pub in Porthgain, Pembrokeshire. My wife had a rack of Welsh lamb which was, by some distance, the most expensive item on the menu. Yet when I looked out of the window the little buggers were wandering about all over the place. Why can't they make the economics stack up. I've no doubt a farmer will be able to tell me. In the meantime re wild the lot, wildlife holidays will be much more profitable I'm sure.

  12. Agreed, but it would be nice to give more people the opportunity to discuss the matter, without
    having to travel up to London.
    A little like the England team playing some friendlies away from Wembley.

  13. I was sitting in the second row, surrounded by farmers and their friends. A few extra voting cards (we were given one each on entry) appeared from nowhere and were quickly grabbed. I have a very strong suspicion that here again the vote was rigged. In any case the strong majority was clearly heard from the enthusiastic clapping each time Monbiot spoke.


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