Yesterday was a day which had a lot of George Monbiot in it for me! I started my day drinking coffee and scanning various websites and news items – nothing new there then. I then clicked on an article by George in the Guardian (again nothing new there) entitled ‘Scorched Earth Conservation’ – see here. The previous evening I had watched his piece on the BBC Inside Out programme about sheep and swaling on Exmoor – see here -11 minutes 15 seconds in.
His Scorched Earth piece is all about swaling and over grazing particularly on Dartmoor and Exmoor. Half way through the piece I read my name and see a series of maps I produced last December when I worked for the National Trust – see here for the link.
“Adrian Colston, the National Trust’s General Manager on Dartmoor, has published a series of maps showing the astonishing deterioration over the past 25 years of the habitats the park claims to be protecting. As he reports: “These maps do not tell a happy tale. Our land is now in far worse condition than it was in 1990 as a result of overgrazing and burning (known as swaling on Dartmoor).”
I’ve got to say although I didn’t know George was going to use my work I’m really pleased that he did – this was a piece of work that was very important to me and the National Trust and something that the NT wants to sort out. I don’t work for the NT any more (as of the 31st December) – I am now a freelance ecologist and campaigner. I worked for the NT for 18 years – it is a brilliant organisation, we didn’t fall out in the slightest but it was just time for a change for me.
I’m currently working on a Report for the NT on the ecological changes on their Plym Valley estate over the past 25 years (updating the maps that George used) and recommending what needs to be done to turn things around. I hope to report back on this work in due course once I have completed it.
In the evening I attended a talk at the University of Exeter (where I was an undergraduate) by George Monbiot and Alan Featherstone Watson on rewilding. If you are unfamiliar with the rewilding idea – it basically suggests that our uplands particularly, are completely over managed by sheep grazing (sheep wrecked) which George calls the white plague. It would be much better for wildlife and the ecosystem generally if the sheep were removed and natural processes were allowed to occur so that the hills could again be covered with trees and shrubs. The final part advocates that extinct mammals such as beaver, boar, lynx and wolves should re-introduced so that they once again could play their part in managing the ecosystem. For a fuller account of the rewilding ideas of George Monbiot you can watch him speak to the UK National Parks conference last year about his ideas – see here or you can read his book Feral which sets out the entire argument.
The argument goes on to suggest that as well as providing habitats much richer in wildlife these rewilded areas would also be much better at protecting and locking up carbon, would provide better supplies of drinking water and would protect areas downstream from flooding.
The logic is perfect but the ideas deeply challenge the current status quo and what conservationists have been trying to achieve for over half a century. George Monbiot is pretty rude about what the National Parks and large conservation organisations (such as the National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB) are up to in the uplands. Much of the UK’s wildlife now lives in what are called ‘sub climax’ communities. This means habitats that are managed by people to ensure they don’t develop into the ‘climax’ communities, that is woodland. We are talking here about the uplands, heathlands, chalk grassland, meadows, fens etc etc. I suspect over the coming months and years this topic will be fiercely debated and a new paradigm will emerge as we re-frame the UK’s attitude to nature. You can watch the two presentations from last night here.
I am not sure that my report for the National Trust on their land in the Upper Plym will be advocating a rewilding approach because there is an awful lot of politics involved, the Commoners’ livelihoods are at stake and the rich Bronze Age archaeology of the area could be threatened. There are indeed an awful lot of vested interests and legal constraints at play in the uplands. George’s intervention however has created a space for discussion where a much better future environment in the uplands can now be discussed and more radical solutions can be debated.
George finished his piece in the Guardian thus – “There is, I discovered, a widespread sense that we cannot go on like this, that we cannot keep destroying in the name of protection. Something has gone badly wrong here, and there is an urgent need for change.” I suspect most conservation professionals agree, most farmers fundamentally disagree and most of the general public are oblivious.
Interesting times ahead.