How the British Countryside Got Sheepwrecked
Posted by Richard Conniff on January 25, 2014
My latest, for The New York Times:
You don’t have to look far to see the woolly influence of sheep on our cultural lives. They turn up as symbols of peace and a vaguely remembered pastoral way of life in our poetry, our art, and in our Christmas pageants. Wolves also rank high among our cultural icons, usually in connection with the words “big” and “bad.” And yet there is now a debate under way about substituting the wolf for the sheep on the (also iconic) green hills of Britain.
The British author and environmental polemicist George Monbiot has largely instigated the anti-sheep campaign, which builds on a broader “rewilding” movement to bring native species back elsewhere in Europe. Until he recently relocated, Monbiot used to look up at the bare hills above his house in Machynlleth, Wales, and seethe inwardly at what Lord Tennyson lovingly called “the livelong bleat/Of the thick-fleeced sheep.” Because of overgrazing by sheep, he says, the deforested uplands, including a national park, looked “like the aftermath of a nuclear winter.” In any direction, there were fewer trees than when he used to work in the semi-desert regions of northern Kenya.
“I have an unhealthy obsession with sheep,” Monbiot admits, in his new book Feral, recently published in the UK and due out next year in the United States. “It occupies many of my waking hours and haunts my dreams. I hate them. “ In a chapter titled “Sheepwrecked,” he calls sheep a “white plague” and “a slow-burning ecological disaster, which has done more damage to the living systems of this country than either climate change or industrial pollution.”
The thought of all those sheep—30 million nationwide—makes Monbiot a little crazy. But to be fair, something about sheep seems to lead us all beyond the realms of logic. The sheep-nibbled landscape that Monbiot denounces as “a bowling green with contours” is beloved by the British public, who regard those ruined uplands as an eternal cultural heritage. Visitors (including this writer, otherwise a wildlife advocate) tend to feel the same when they hike the hills and imagine they are still looking out on William Blake’s “green and pleasant land.” Even British conservationists, who routinely scold other countries for letting livestock graze in their national parks, somehow fail to notice that all 15 of Britain’s national parks are overrun with sheep.
Monbiot recently attacked the Lake District, immortalized by writers from William Wordsworth to Beatrix Potter, as the worst-kept landscape in Britain, because it’s been reduced to nubble by sheep. (The Lake District Park manager shot back, a little too hastily, that “The Lake District has always been able to deliver what people want from it, from Neolithic axes to lead and slate mines.”) Monbiot also attacked children’s books for twisting vulnerable minds with idyllic ideas about sheep farming.
He detects “a kind of cultural cringe” that keeps people from criticizing sheep farming. Sheep have “become a symbol of nationhood, an emblem almost as sacred as Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God,“ he writes. Much of the nation tunes in ritually on Sunday nights to BBC television’s “CountryFile,” which Monbiot characterizes as an escapist modern counterpart to pastoral poetry. “If it were any keener on sheep,” he says, “it would be illegal.”
In response, the many friends of British sheep have not yet called for burning Monbiot at the stake. “Without our uplands, we wouldn’t have a UK sheep industry, “ Phil Bicknell, an economist for the National Farmers Union protested. “Farmgate sales of lamb are worth over £1bn to UK agriculture, while lamb exports generated £382 million in 2012.” The only wolves he wanted to hear about were his own Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club. A critic in the Guardian, where Monbiot also contributes a weekly column, linked the argument against sheep, rather unfairly, to anti-immigrant nativists, adding “sheep have been here a damn sight longer than Saxons.” (And doesn’t that name Monbiot sound suspiciously Norman?)
More soberly, Oxford geographer John Boardman says the uplands, in the Lake District and elsewhere, have already begun to recover as government policies encourage alternatives to sheep grazing. “I can see George’s point and I can see the value of some reforestation,” says Boardman. “But what he is proposing isn’t minimal or sensitive change. It’s a wholesale change, and pretty impractical in terms of public policy.”
Monbiot acknowledges the antiquity of sheep-keeping in Britain, which has played an important part in the economy for more than 1000 years. But the subjugation of the uplands by sheep, he says, really only got going in the seventeenth century, when the landlords enclosed the countryside, evicted poor farmers, and cleared away the forests from the hillsides and moorlands, particularly in Scotland. When even the National Trust opts to keep the landscape open, Monbiot writes, it is inexplicably choosing “to preserve a 17th-century cataclysm.” The sheep wouldn’t be in the uplands at all, he adds, without annual taxpayer subsidies averaging £53,000 per farm. He proposes an end to this artificial foundation for the “agricultural hegemony,” to be replaced by a more lucrative economy of walking and wildlife-based activities. He also argues for bringing wolves back to Britain, for reasons both scientific (“to reintroduce the complexity and trophic diversity in which our ecosystems are lacking”) and romantic (wolves are “inhabitants of the more passionate world against which we have locked our doors”). But he acknowledges that it would be foolish to force rewilding on the public. “If it happens, it should be done with the consent and active engagement of the people who live on and benefit from the land.”
Elsewhere in Europe, the sheep are in full bleating retreat, and the wolves are resurgent. Shepherds and small farmers are abandoning marginal land at an annual rate of roughly a million hectares, or nearly 4000 square miles, according to Wouter Helmer, co-founder of the group Rewilding Europe. That’s half a Massachusetts every year left open for the recovery of native species.
Wolves returned to Germany around 1998, and they have been spotted recently in the border areas of Belgium, The Netherlands, and Denmark. In France, where the story of Little Red Riding Hood may have originated, the sheep in a farming region two hours from Paris suffered 22 wolf attacks last year. But environmentalists say farmers would do better protesting against dogs, which they say kill 100,000 sheep annually. Wolves are now a protected species almost everywhere, other than Britain, and the European population has quadrupled since 1970s. Today an estimated 11,500 wolves roam there.
Lynx, golden jackals, European bison, moose, Alpine ibex, and even wolverines have also rebounded, according to a recent study commissioned by Rewilding Europe. Helmer says his group aims to develop ecotourism on an African safari model, with former shepherds finding new employment as guides. That may sound naïve. But Helmer sees rewilding as a realistic way to prosper as the European landscape develops along binary lines, with urbanized areas and intensive agriculture on one side and wildlife habitat with ecotourism on the other.
In northeastern Scotland, Paul Lister, a former furniture manufacturer, is already working on an ecotourism scheme to bring back wolves and bears on his Alladale Wilderness Reserve. To get ready, he has planted 800,000 native trees and reintroduced European elk, a traditional food for both wolves and bears.
He still needs government permission to keep predators even on a proposed 50,000-acre fenced landscape, and that’s a long way from getting permission to re-introduce them to the wild, on the model of Yellowstone National Park. But precedent suggests it will be a battle.
Though beavers are neither big nor bad, a recent trial program to reintroduce them to the British countryside caused furious public protest. (One writer denounced “the emotion-based obsession with furry mammals of the whiskery type.’) And late last year, when five wolves escaped from the Colchester Zoo, authorities quickly shot two of them dead. A police helicopter was deployed to hunt and kill another, and a fourth was recaptured. Prudently, the fifth wolf slunk back into its cage, defeated.
Rewilding? At least for now, Britain once again stands alone (well, alone with its 40 million sheep) against the rising European tide.