A day of George Monbiot

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.

11 thoughts on “A day of George Monbiot

  1. With 150,000 Twitter followers and the guardian readership, the general public is less oblivious than you suggest. We do realise that unless someone like Monbiot takes a hardline, nothing will ever change. You can be sure that he’s researched and thought this through before writing.
    I’ll send it on so that he can have some Adrian Colston in his day.
    Thanks for the efforts of all environmentalists seeking to change the status quo. Having heard that Cameron said ‘the time for protecting nature is over’ you can be sure a large chunk of the public are getting fully behind effecting these changes rapidly.

  2. Hi Adrian. I think one of the points that isn’t getting through is that it is the land that is now below the moorland line because it was improved relatively recently that needs hard scrutiny in terms of its current management. Remember Moorland Conservation Orders (originated in Exmoor of course)? These marginal grassland areas have tremendous potential for being restored to semi-natural vegetation if only they weren’t continually sheep grazed and topped up with bags of NPK. We all have photos of such areas.


    PS In Yorkshire Dales this year I was particularly dismayed at the degraded nature of very large areas of limestone grassland at high altitude – beautiful karst landscapes, crappy grassland, sheep *****ed, guys with quad bikes and sprayers then spraying off the creeping thistle (latter probably worsened because not enough foxes to control the rabbits = gamekeepers and farmers zero tolerance of them one assumes).

    • Agreed Sue – I am going to write a piece in due course about why ‘nature conservationists’ haven’t got a position on GM and re-wilding Britain – stuff around Ratcliffe’s Nature Conservation Review, Naturalness, Future Nature, designated sites etc. Haven’t quite got my head around it yet. But did feel very uncomfortable being on the wrong end of George when he reasoning seemed so logical!

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  4. Did you know that 135 different wild flowers are the Welsh record! They come from a field that has had cattle grazing it for 40 years and trampled the ground every winter. Cattle , sheep and ponies produce the best sward for wildlife, developing fertility so that quality grass is available on the uplands as North Wyke ( part of Rothamsted) with IBERS , Aberystwyth, have proved with grasses like Prior , Festuca X Lolium that grass with long roots can divert heavy rainfall into the ground better than trees. On Dartmoor cattle have been prevented by Natural England from grazing in Winter. I attended the Molinia Conference at Huddersfield in the autumn which was held by kind help of the National Trust. However the dominance of Molinia on the National Trust estate was because the ‘Warden land managers ‘ had taken all the stock off. Robin Milton , NFU, was polite about Monbiot on Countryfile last Sunday, suggesting that some of his ideas are unscientific! He stood in upland with scrub, bracken and Molinia up to his boots and said that trees should be planted! Does he realise there is more Molinia, bracken and gorse than wheat. Upland grazing that could keep cattle and sheep grown 100% on grass producing exports that the world needs and UK is approaching a shortage of 50% food self sufficiency. Ponies that can help with conservation bring more tourists than Monbiots wolves . There used to be 30000 on Dartmoor but now only 900!
    Cattle are dying from drought in Africa , in Syria they have been slaughtered , millions are starving , come on Adrian support cattle and sheep farming on our uplands that have lost 60% of the stock because of unproven Natural England schemes.and bring Heather and grazing land back to restore the wonderful hill country landscape. Get behind farmers who have been in families with their stock for generations, control existing predators to bring back waders and wildlife with gamekeeper help. What a great job for young people!

    • Thanks for your comments Fairfax – I would only say that if you look at my subsequent blogs I argue all the time for a grazed landscape on Dartmoor which clearly means support for the Commoners and I do not advocate the Monbiot approach for Dartmoor. My comments around grazing pressure and burning frequency are made simply because of the biodiversity crisis – i.e. the decline of cuckoos etc. I am not arguing for wall to wall heather just a bit more balance. Thanks Adrian

    • There’s a lot here and I don’t pretend to understand it all. Its a pity you can’t write it to Monbiot. He’s a serious guy and if it makes sense he will take it on. My feeling is that for every good thing happening there’s someone else b*ggering it up. Hopefully with more debate, their might be more of the positive. It seems to me that Defra etc, make rules for the profiteers, that dont always help the small farms.

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