Hope is natural, hope is wild


I wish there was a literature around smell pollution and how it can affect wild nature, masking the systems where smell is an attractant or deterrent, as there is about noise pollution and its effect in masking the natural sounds of wild nature (1). I am plagued by back garden bonfires that smoke endlessly, filling my home with its acrid smell if I have been too late in shutting all the windows. Smoke from an adjacent bonfire has also filled the ravine woodland that I enjoy so much, forcing me to walk elsewhere until it usually disperses overnight. I wonder what else in the woodland takes offence at the smoke? Would it put roe deer off from navigating the wood – is it an impending danger sign to them, does it mask the smell of humans? But it is the oppressive smell of domestic livestock excrement that really gets to me, as it hangs around day after day. It is why I won’t walk sheep infested hillsides, not that there is much wild nature to observe there anyway. Muck spreading is where the smell really travels, though, and which I have great difficulty with - breathing it in leaves such a bad taste in my mouth and a fervent desire to punch someone for destroying what I hoped would be a good walk - I have no choice but to abandon the walk and go elsewhere. This has happened in that ravine woodland, the smell of muck spreading in an adjacent field taking days to clear from the wood and thus effectively closing it to me. A couple of weeks ago, I was met with the same when was I about to set off walking through a woodland that would lead me to a coastal cliff and good views of waves, sea birds, sometimes the larger jellyfish randomly making their way, and ever hopeful of seeing again an otter swimming close along the coast. I just wasn’t going to make it through that smell, not knowing where it would persist and prevail, such is the extent of the operation of the culprit, an industrial scale dairy farmer. Instead I travelled five miles along the coast and swapped a cliff view of the sea for some rock pool hopping.

It is hard for me to live in a country that gives over more than half its area to domestic livestock

There is a distinct injustice when the impact of bonfire makers and muck spreaders impinges far and wide – some days I can even smell the cattle on the moorland edge just above me. Let me say that I have never walked a wilderness where the smell of excrement from the animals of wild nature has been oppressive, nor whatever other smells they produce, although I wouldn’t want to get too close to a rutting animal or scare up a skunk. It is said that you can smell elk and moose, but it’s more likely that they smelt me first when I saw them in Yellowstone. Both have an acute sense of smell that allows them to sense danger from predators like the wolf, as well as differentiate between different woody food sources (2-4). As you can gather, it’s hard for me to live in a country that gives over more than half its area to domestic livestock even without thinking about this as a denial of space for wild nature. As I have written elsewhere, and so often, it is axiomatic that farming has to be withdrawn from land if it is to restore its native ecology (5) and for that to happen, the link between land and income must be broken, that the land has to have a break from farming (6,7). This doesn’t really get through to people, so brainwashed are they by the constant propaganda of the fake rewilders like Knepp that all you need is a bunch of cattle – such as from this braindead small farm podcaster that “you do get scrub land & native trees such as oaks only when you have herds of grazing animals present” (8). Perhaps that should be rewritten, as all you need is a gullible people that believes the propaganda (9) along with the farm subsidy and agri-environment payments (£415k pa) plus a whacking income from property, safaris and camping (£890km pa) and a bit from the sale of organic meat (£120k pa) all of which totals an income of £1.425m a year for Knepp (10).

The context of the income from the production of meat at Knepp materialised in support of a change of tack that I have noticed in selling its benefits - that Knepp and other potential Knepp-alikes are of value in soil restoration. Thus as well as aiding the environment at Knepp in terms of ”biodiversity, pollinating insects, water quality and flood mitigation” and “guaranteeing healthy lives for the animals” that produce “meat that is healthy for us”, this system of “natural grazing” also “accelerates soil restoration” (11). Then we get the mantra - “Using herbivores as part of the farming cycle can go a long way towards making agriculture sustainable”. For Izabella Tree, partner of Charlie Burrel at Knepp, to then use this as an argument against veganism brought back memories of when I was a Council-member of the Soil Association, an organic charity, whose fervent ideological wedding to the Norfolk four-course agricultural rotation system that is based on nutrient recycling (muck spreading) would be undermined by livestock-free systems used in vegan agriculture, although I see in its guidance after I left that stockless systems are allowed to exist (12). Ms Tree is riding the crest of a wave of admiration since publication of her gush-fest book on Knepp, in spite of its contradictions (13) and should have felt at home writing this article in the Guardian, particularly since Patrick Barkham, its natural history correspondent, has given reams of free publicity to Knepp (9). It must therefore have been a bit painful that the central tenet of her article was rubbished in a comment to the article by George Monbiot who also writes for the Guardian (14). Even so, he is no dispassionate observer of Knepp, as his partner Rebecca Wrigley is the Chief Executive of REFARMING (Rewilding) Britain, and Charlie is its Chair (15). Indeed, he described what Ms Tree and Charlie had done at Knepp as “beautiful” (14) but that the sums didn’t add up if all farms adopted a Knepp-style production system, as it would only produce 3.3% of current beef consumption – “as a general model it’s a formula for starvation”. Monbiot noted that a “plant-based diet would use far less land, releasing more for rewilding”.

A Peoples Manifesto for Wildlife

I have taken to referring to Knepp as a “meat factory”, as a signal to delink animal grazing there from the over-blown claims of ecological restoration, convinced as I am that it is only an extensification of agriculture, and that the in-migration of species is mostly due to the scrub development that happened precisely because there was no herbivore pressure to begin with in the southern block – thus breaking the myth that cattle have been the drivers of landscape at Knepp (9, 13). Ms Tree using Knepp as an example of sustainable agriculture – albeit it trashed by Monbiot - may suggest a toning down of the herbivore rhetoric at Knepp, putting the emphasis instead on it being an agricultural improvement. That would be great if they also ditched using the word rewilding, but that’s the word that’s got them famous, and so they are not going to bite the hand that feeds them. That this is so, is shown by the juxtaposition of an auto-puff piece from Charlie and Ms Tree that does use rewilding but not herbivores, along with the “ten commandments” from the “Ministry of Rewilding” in A Peoples Manifesto for Wildlife launched this last week by Chris Packham. This needs a bit of explaining – Packham rounded up a group of his pals to write a series of essays highlighting what they thought were some of the most critical concerns affecting the UK landscape and its species (16). These are presented as a series of 18 themed Ministries, each accompanied by ten commandments, as a form of Manifesto – “a set of informed ideas from a parliament of strong, independent voices. Ideas which, if implemented today, would make a huge difference for wildlife tomorrow”. Packham says he wants to take party politics out of nature conservation, but then oddly says that we need a greater political consensus on what needs to be done for nature. He wants conservation policies to be informed by sound science and fact, but surely this would expose the fallacies of interpretation at Knepp, and so I fear it will not be rigidly adhered to. Either way, Packham is bucking for a publicly-funded quango dubbed “LIFE UK” to take over. Meanwhile his admirers are touting him for sainthood if not a knighthood.

Given the elevation of these pals of Packham to ministerial rank when none of them has had any such experience, or polled the views of other people, nor to my knowledge sought election in any representative capacity, you may not be surprised at some mocking comments, such as “It's a comfortable middle class suburban view” (17) “it needs pulling into a coherent policy that takes account of realities of 60 million people. At the moment it’s just an exclusive club's shopping list" (18) “Self appointed Ministers? How rather exclusive” (19) “who were the 17 experts, who chose them, and why?” (20) “it seems a little ambiguous about its intended audience. Despite the 'People's Manifesto' title, CP's introduction seems to make it clear that it is aimed at uniting people and agencies already identifying with 'the conservation movement' (whatever that might be)… there isn't enough emphasis on how every one of these issues is of vital, everyday importance to the lives of people who are NOT involved in "conservation"”(21) and “such a 'manifesto' is problematic, George. No mention, for instance, of egalitarian ecoliteracy!” (22). You might have guessed that the “George” was Monbiot, and that he was the rewilding minister. As I found with his book Feral, he’s not the one to lay out a route map and his essay and commandments in the Manifesto conform to that (23,24). He chucks in a target of rewilding 10% of our uplands, but doesn’t say how, as he also doesn’t say how habitat recovery and wildlife return can happen in our national parks so that they are worthy of the name. He fails to make the big leap, as I will explain. However, before that, you would have thought Monbiot’s contribution to what he hoped would be an ecologically more complete future would have been given underpinning by the Ministry of Trees. That it was not, is evidence of the pals network operating when the Minister is Jill Butler, an ardent fan of the fantasies of Frans Vera about grazing and woodland creation, and on the Advisory Board of Knepp (25,26). No big visions for expanding native woodland from her (27). Instead we get the pet obsessions of these herbivorists of creating new wood pastures to mimic mediaeval forests, deer parks or ancient wood pastures; new open grown trees to be the ancients of the future, especially pollards, to “ensure continuity of this distinctive heritage feature of the countryside”; and “Re-wild trees – allow trees and shrubs to establish by themselves naturally in grazed, landscape scale areas” (27). How do you rewild trees? How can tree and shrub establishment be regarded as in any way natural when that grazing itself will not be natural in the absence of any regulatory factors? Doesn’t Butler keep up with current affairs, and have seen the total demolition of Vera’s theory of woodland creation, as evidenced by the requirement now for there to be a massive reduction in the number of herbivores in the Oostvaardersplassen, along with tree planting on 300ha, so that the vegetation can recover from the ecological meltdown that occurred from massive, unchecked overgrazing (28-30)?

Most radical in seeking to correct the mistakes of the past

Of all the contributions to the Manifesto, that of Mark Avery, erstwhile Conservation Director of the RSPB, is the most radical in seeking to correct the mistakes of the past (31). He believes that our national parks are not worthy of the name. Thus he wants to downgrade them to Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which within our system of protected areas, is absolutely accurate in putting them on par with all the other protected landscape designations across Europe that are made up of farmland, such as Regional Park, Landscape Park, Protected Landscape Area, Natural Park, and National Heritage Area (31). Avery goes further by renaming them to Upland Nature Areas (UNA). This is consistent with the Addison Committee Report of the 1930’s that chose to eschew the term national park, but its choice of national reserve was not that much better (32). Avery then has the guts to go further than the Addison Committee - to make the big leap by using money saved by withdrawal of farm subsidy from UNAs for a land purchase fund so that more and more upland land is publicly owned (33). (I made a similar proposal 17 years ago (34)). Further to that, he sees a continuation of payment of grants for environmental action on upland farms, but only on the basis that each payment is a down-payment on eventual purchase by the taxpayer rather than as a subsidy. He also recommends re-nationalisation of the water companies so that under public ownership, much larger areas of land would be managed for the general public good, including recreation, biodiversity, carbon storage and flood alleviation. Avery adds to this a Public Forest Estate where the plantations of conifers would undergo transformation to native woodland (I alluded to this in a consultation response in 2009 on the long term role of the PFE in England (35)). He identifies that this increasing bank of publicly owned land for nature needs a new Government Agency to acquire land and manage it for the future, bringing us into line with most other countries that also have a state-owned systems of land for nature (36). The Agency can then play a key role in policy development and action for this land bank being a test bed for reinstatement of former native species such as beaver, Golden eagles and lynx “once rewilded, partly reforested, and allowed to regenerate from intensive overgrazing”.

His final commandment is to artificially maintain small areas of overgrazed sheep walk in the Lake District, and driven grouse shooting in the North York Moors, as lessons to future generations of how wildlife-poor upland areas once were. I don’t think this is a mocking irony, more a testament to how badly things can turn out when wild nature is never given a voice. Moreover, all wildland enthusiasts will tell you that it’s not possible to develop a value system for wild nature without having a comparison. Up until now, that would be because there was no wildland to learn from, only wildlife poor upland areas. Given the proposals, the stark difference between wildland and the small areas of overgrazed land will become readily apparent, a salutary lesson that must teach us not to make the same mistakes of the past. Avery has identified the need for public ownership of land for that wildland to exist – it is recognition that wild nature can only flourish when the link between land and income is broken, that the land has a break from farming. Unlike Monbiot, and so many others who thoughtlessly seek to rely on the impossibility of farmers ever foregoing income and giving over their land to long term ecological restoration, Avery has seen through that and come up with the proposal that breaks through that intransigence. Given that other issues addressed in the various Ministries, such as pesticide use, wildlife crime, lead shot toxicity, driven grouse shooting, failures of nature conservation, the distancing of people from nature, are all derived from and characteristic of farmed landscapes, then Avery’s commandments of removing agriculture in the uplands makes a meaningful contribution to all those. It is worth quoting Avery’s summary (31):
“Capital land values will fall in the uplands with the removal of subsidies and a clamp down on wildlife crime (which underpins the profits of grouse shooting) so government will be able to acquire land at below current, falsely-inflated, prices. Then, through public ownership, landscape-scale regeneration of upland ecosystems can proceed at a rapid pace”

Something you will note is that conservation NGOs weren’t involved in the Manifesto, but this did not stop them from extolling their own virtues on the back of it, claiming to already be carrying out some of its aims - even the Soil Association got in on the act (37-40). Fortunately, Mark Avery gave no role to the conservation NGOs in his proposals for a land bank in the uplands, preferring instead a Government Agency to have responsibility. I don’t know whether he has the same prejudice against conservation NGOs that I have, but the need for these NGOs to chase funding, often agri-environment funding, is its biggest wildlife failure as it ties the land to farming (41). As Avery notes, this publicly owned land will be funded by public money, and thus without it being linked and therefore trapped by agriculture.

Risked nullifying the very economic trends that were currently favouring a wild area approach

Given Monbiot’s Ministry of Rewilding, and Mark Avery’s explicit invocation of the need for rewilding upland areas brought into public ownership, you might have expected REFARMING Britain to have popped up and pushed out some propaganda other than just on their Twitter feed. It may be that it is too busy for now in preparing the propaganda blitz that will mark the launch of their “Summit to Sea” project in mid-West Wales (42). I could not reveal the name of the project when I first wrote about it last year, nor that Bwlch Corog was likely to be the only core wild area land in a wide partnership that will stretch from the summit of Pumlumon to the coast at the Dyfi Estuary (7,43). My response to when that proposal had been circulated for comment was that it was truly uninspiring for any ambition for really wild land. It ducked the need for engagement in specifically paving the way for the paradigm shift away from mainstream conservation that has to happen for core areas. I noted that there may be confusion with the project name as the National Trust already had From Source to Sea (44) and I later found Summit to Sea, an independent outdoor retailer on Anglesey (45).

Other comments at the time were that it did not sufficiently differentiate core areas involving no impactive or extractive activity - it did not mention non-intervention or non-extraction; that it did not distinguish itself clearly from the large scale multiple usage as advocated by traditional conservation; that setting habitat targets like "herb-rich grasslands" and "blanket bog" were just like the aims of regular conservation organisations; that there was too much focus being placed on farming interests so that all it may achieve is relatively limited rewilding and a lot of ecosystem service cash into farmers’ pockets in a mixed use landscape, thus taking much of the pressure off the farmers to comply; that it risked nullifying the very economic trends that were currently favouring a wild area approach, by enabling the continued practice of unprofitable extractive land use; that the best scenario would be letting land prices fall and buying large areas; that there was a strong likelihood that the various partners would adopt different approaches to land use, aiming for different levels of wildness so that the result could be an overall lack of coherence and significant dilution of principles; that care had to be taken not to water down the interpretation of rewilding just because it was easier to acquire funding for a soft definition and interpretation, and which would lead to operating much more at the bottom end of the rewilding spectrum because money and political will was more accessible. Note again the suggestion of land purchase as a means of taking it out of farming use.

What should have been a real embarrassment for REFARMING Britain

In relation to that dilution of principles, it has already become a reality before the project has even started because of the efforts of Alastair Driver of REFARMING Britain to “mainstream” rewilding (46). His peripatetic wanderings, telling everyone he meets that they too are on the spectrum of rewilding given their current management practices, has been a glad handing to please everybody, but which has redefined rewilding away from its origins (47). Then in a very ill-fated blog, Driver sought to dissociate reinstatement of former large carnivores from rewilding (46) which he obviously thought would be a winning point with the less committed (48). That this was a very foolish approach is shown by Avery’s greater openness to the principle and practice of reinstatement of former native species, as well as providing through his proposals for public land ownership the kind of space that is needed (see above). This foolishness was also confirmed by it catching the attention over in America of Dave Foreman, one of the originators and pioneers of rewilding. Foreman was being interviewed in the first of a series of podcasts by the Rewilding Institute. When asked if he was discouraged in how far rewilding had progressed or how far there was yet to go, Foreman reeled off some positive examples from around the world, but then said this (at 17:55 in (49)):
“So [rewilding] caught on around the world. In some places it gets sort of modulated and the concept weakened. In fact I just saw an article about this Rewilding Britain group that wants to mainstream the concept of rewilding and get away from emphasis on wolves and lynx and that sort of thing, which I think is twisting the name”

Notwithstanding what should have been a real embarrassment for REFARMING Britain, details of the project will emerge in October, along with recruitment of a Project Director, and so you will be able to judge for yourself whether it is a “twisting” of the name (42). Since REFARMING Britain will have needed to find financial support, my wild guess is that it has been successful in a funding bid for a Project Implementation Grant from the Endangered Landscapes Programme, and so you could just read the Guidance for Applicants to find out what is going on (50). This explains that application to the Endangered Landscapes Programme was by invitation only, and that Grants will be awarded for a period of up to 5 years, starting from October 2018. I suspect that to comply with project eligibility, REFARMING Britain applied on the basis of a project that established large scale systems of continuous or ecologically-connected habitat. This reinforces my first impression about the proposal that this aim, and its short term funding, will mean it is yet another short-lived aping of Living Landscapes/Futurescapes/Nature Improvement Areas that does little for wild nature, but keeps agriculture in place. I am also wondering, if my guess on the funding is correct, how Charlie avoided a conflict of interest in being a member of the Oversight and Selection Panel that was responsible for recommending which projects should receive major grants from the Endangered Landscapes Programme, as well as being Chair of REFARMING Britain (51).

Foreman says in his podcast that “part of the goal of the Rewilding Institute is to really stand square for the fundamental concept of rewilding, and to begin to really promote that and argue for all the parts of it, and why it’s essential, otherwise rewilding sort of softens and made more palatable” (49). You would think that REFARMING Britain would feel the same obligation, but it is hard to see any evidence that anyone involved with it actually has knowledge of the fundamental concept. In his book from 2004 on Rewilding Northern America, Foreman writes of his joy and hope when he released a black-footed ferret as part of a reinstatement of this endangered species in to prairie dog territory in northern Chihuahua, Mexico (52). He said though that this “priceless moment was too rare, because most of the time we humans continue to domesticate, simplify, and kill the wild pulse of evolution”. He admitted to not being optimistic – that the exuberant optimism that drives modern society is irrational. But he does have hope, and in his podcast he also talked about hope. He notes in his book that Tom Butler, erstwhile editor of Wild Earth, had written that hope is natural, that hope is wild - "Hope transcends reason. It is a country apart from logic, data, and prediction. Hope is a wild country. It's natural. Like biophilia, it may be a fundamental human trait" (53). Butler's argument was that the capacity for hope - an ability to conjure a mental picture of a better day tomorrow and yearn for that day - would have been a key trait of natural selection to reinforce in hunter gatherers, a central fact of their existence being the boom and bust nature of daily life. If the hunting was poor, they would go hungry, but having hope of success the next day would have been a powerful tool for survival. In learning from this, Foreman believes that “conservationists can rewild nature only if they are lifted up by wild hope”. That Mark Avery has come up with such radical but right-minded proposals gives me wild hope that real rewilding is possible, something that I am unlikely ever to get from REFARMING Britain.

Mark Fisher 25, 29 September 2018

(1) The natural sounds of wild nature, Self-willed land September 2018


(2) What Elk Leave Behind: A quick guide to reading elk signs, PJ Delhomme Elk Network


(3) The Science of Scents: How Well Can Deer Smell? Outdoor Hub


(4) Moose Biology, Mooseworld


(5) Written evidence submitted by Dr Mark Fisher, BRX0049. The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum inquiry, Environmental Audit Committee


(6) A science-based movement for wilding, Self-willed land February 2017


(7) Moving past process to outcome – the manifestation of wild land, Self-willed land September 2017


(8) Farmerama Radio (@farmerama__) Twitter 20 Sep 2018


(9) More zombie ideas in ecology,  Self-willed land March 2018


(10) Fair, J. (2018) Unbridled Nature, BBC Wildlife 36(9): 60-65


(11) If you want to save the world, veganism isn’t the answer, Izabella Tree, Guardian 25 Aug 2018


(12) Soil management on organic farms, Soil Association technical guide 2003


(13) Mark Fisher (@markwilderness) Twitter 6 May 2018


(14) COMMENT: George Monbiot 25 Aug 2018 10:06


(15) About us, Rewilding Britain


(16) A Peoples Manifesto for Wildlife, Draft One, Chris Packam et al


(17) bronwyn (@terrierview) Twitter 19 Sep 2018


(18) bronwyn (@terrierview) Twitter 19 Sep 2018


(19) Ginny Battson (@seasonalight) Twitter 19 Sep 2018


(20) Gwyn Griffiths (@Gwynthegriff) Twitter 19 Sep 2018


(21) Michael Bosley. Comment on Is this the wildlife manifesto for you? Mark Avery blog SEPTEMBER 20, 2018 AT 11:04 AM


(22) Ginny Battson (@seasonalight) Twitter 19 Sep 2018


(23) Reflections on Feral, Self-willed land January 2014


(24) George Monbiot, Ministry for Rewilding, A Peoples Manifesto for Wildlife, Draft One, Chris Packam et al (expanded) 96-102


(25) Rewilding and the Knepp conference lectures, Ancient Tree Forum blog 19th October 2017


(26) Advisory Board, Knepp Wildland project


(27) Jill Butler, Ministry of Trees, A Peoples Manifesto for Wildlife, Draft One, Chris Packam et al (expanded) 109-111


(28) Oostvaardersplassen: ingrijpen in een incompleet, natuurlijk systeem, 25 apr 2018


(29) Provinciale Staten Flevoland nemen advies Commissie Van Geel over, Provincie Flevoland  11 Jul 2018


(30) Aantal grote grazers terug naar 1100 dieren, 18 sep 2018


(31) Dr Mark Avery, Ministry of Upland Ecology, A Peoples Manifesto for Wildlife, Draft One, Chris Packam et al (expanded) 91-95


(31) Category V: Protected Landscape/Seascape, World Commission on Protected Areas , IUCN


(32) The continuing destruction of our native trophic pyramid, Self-willed land 21 February 2018


(33) Conservation biology and the repair of our damaged and degraded ecosystems, Self-willed land April 2018


(34) Farm Subsidy Into Land Purchase, Self-willed land March 2001


(35) Question 8 - The long-term role of the Public Forest Estate in England: consultation Part 3: What respondents had to say - a collection of illustrative quotations, FC England December 2009


(36) Fisher, M., Carver, S. Kun, Z., McMorran, R., Arrell, K. and Mitchell, G. (2010). Review of Status and Conservation of Wild Land in Europe. Project commissioned by the Scottish Government


(37) A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife – the tipping point that wildlife needs? Debbie Tann, Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust19 September 2018


(38) Time to act on wildlife manifesto, Harry Barton, Devon Wildlife Trust 20 September 2018


(39) Stride out for wildlife with Chris Packham, Leiscester and Rutland Wildlife Trust 20th September 2018


(40) How we support Chris Packham's People's Manifesto for Wildlife, Soil Association 21 September 2018


(41) The moral corruptness of Higher Level Stewardship, Self-willed land August 2013


(42) Prof Alastair Driver (@AliDriverUK) Twitter 10 Sep 2018


(43) Rewiring an emptied food web, Self-willed land January 2018


(44) From Source to Sea: working with water, National Trust 2008


(45) Summit to Sea,


(46) On a mission to mainstream rewilding, Alastair Driver, Rewilding Britain 17 May 2018


(47) The loss of a great activist against dewilding, Self-willed land May 2018


(48) Using functional traits - walking rewilding and wolves straight into the criticism of Goldilocks Standards, Self-willed land June 2018


(49) Episode 1: Dave Foreman On The History and Definition of Rewilding, Rewilding Institute August 30, 2018


(50) Guidance for Applicants, Endangered Landscapes Programme


(51) THE TEAM - Endangered Landscapes Programme


(52) Foreman, D. (2004) Rewilding North America: a vision for conservation in the 21st century. Island Press.


(53) Butler, T. (2001) Optimism and Hope, A wilderness View, Wild Earth 11(3/4)(Fall/Winter 2001-2002) 8-9


www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk