When nature dies - the impact of the human species


It’s hard to feel anything but hatred for the person who has been killing the naturally regenerating young trees on my local moor by ripping off branches each year, leaving eventually a monstrous, headless dead stick standing as evidence of this person’s hatred. Of all the ways of persecuting trees, this seems the most spiteful. It is infinitely more heinous than the casual tree felling of the long-weekend campers in local woodland, their illicit stay always characterised by the inevitable fire that has to be fed, or the feeble attempts at aping some backwoodsmanship construction that they have seen on television. Why can they not fell a tree at ground level, rather than leave a metre high stump? Too lazy to bend over, and too lazy to differentiate between oak and sycamore, the latter at least being more expendable in terms of reducing the presence of this non-native in our ancient woodlands. These are the abuses of the publicly-owned moorland and woodland around me, the selfishness of the few unconstrained by any fear of supervision from an incompetent local authority more concerned with farming agri-subsidy than protecting public spaces (1). But what of the private realm, is there more care of nature if it is a resource that ostensibly supports the owner’s subsistence? It does, of course, depend on the level of your wherewithal.

A safe and undisturbed space for birds

It is claimed that Charles Waterton set up the world’s first wildfowl and nature reserve in the 1820s when he enclosed 120ha or so of Walton Hall, his estate near Wakefield, by erecting 4.8km of high wall around it (2,3). The intention with the enclosure of his land was to create a safe and undisturbed space for birds, free from the attentions of poachers, and where he was “assiduous in learning all his teeming population could teach” (3). Waterton was an explorer of tropical rain forests in South America, an ornithologist who first published accounts of his wanderings there, and in NW America and the Antilles, in 1825 (4). While he was away on his explorations, he had instructed his gamekeeper not to shoot anything on the estate, and this prohibition was continued and maintained within the walls where Waterton created a range of niches for bird species. There were holes in a ruined wall for starlings, tunnelling in a bank with pipes for sand martins, a heronry established in woodland, stone and wooden chambers built on a ruined gateway to attract barn owls, his lake and its island becoming a home for every species of duck and wildfowl, and kestrels thriving alongside all of these as the keeper was forbidden to shoot them (5). He would later, in 1838, publish the first of three volumes of Essays on Natural History where his observations on wildlife and nature were documented (3). Waterton was not selfish: he wanted others to share in his bird “paradise” throwing open his park garden to school parties, and “all the associations of working people, choral, scientific, or mechanic, which abound in Lancashire, and the West Riding of Yorkshire”, providing cups and a fireplace where the visitors could brew tea (3).

While keeping out the greater excesses of country landowners and their gamekeepers who “do not imitate his charming experiment with his park and water” (5) Waterton is an early example of the one eyed approach to nature that pretty much characterises the contemporary conservation industry. His artificial habitat creation favoured bird species over others, albeit tolerant of avian predators, to the point of excluding foxes and badgers from within the walls for the potential harm that may have been done to his birds (6). However, Waterton also has the distinction of attempting to protect nature against the pollution and destruction of early Victorian industrialisation. A soap and vitriol factory set up in 1839 on the northern boundary of his land led to his trees there having “succumbed to the abominable effluvia arising from these works…the odour from which was disagreeably offensive, as well as very detrimental to both animal and vegetable life” (2). Many hundreds of trees were seriously injured, the lake polluted, with Waterton seeking first to reason with the owner of the works, but resorting to a long-running court case when that failed. The award of eleven hundred pounds for the injury sustained, as well as an injunction to prohibit the continuance of the works, was only a starting point for recovery since many trees continued to suffer long afterwards (2).

In spite of his wealth in property, being in debt was his greatest horror and so Waterton was careful with his money, ensuring that he was able to undertake his various explorations (2). The wall had taken five years on and off to build because he paid for it firstly from using up his savings in gold sovereigns - he disliked paper money - and then as income from his estate allowed him to do so (7). He is described as having an ascetic lifestyle because, unlike other landowners, he had no carriage of his own (7) was prone to disperse his publishing income through charitable giving to the poor, and he would point out that the wall had been built from the money “he had saved from the wine he did not drink” (2). That he didn’t sweat his land for maximum personal aggrandisement is in keeping with his desire to provide an unspoiled safe refuge for wild nature that did not exist outside his wall.

Getting paid to do nothing

I note this about Waterton as a counter to an article a couple of weeks ago about a sheep farm in Wales that made me angry. It was pitched as a good news story, the installation of a hydro-electric generator, taking flow from a stream on a farm of “290 acres of steep and boggy pasture land” in the Brecon Beacons, earning the farmer £10-15,000 a year (8). It was described in the article as an unexpected pension for the 72 year old farmer, and a “simple way” to keep rural Wales populated. Farmer Williams is quoted as saying:
“I would say micro-hydro beats farming. This is the best pension we could possibly have. Most farmers put all they earn back into the farm but have to leave when they cannot go out in all weathers ... Now I get paid to do nothing!”

Well, you could argue that he already gets paid to do nothing because of his receipt of direct farm payments as subsidy under the European Union (EU) Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)(9) but he should be aware of the recent calls from the Welsh Government that “Welsh farmers must quickly wean themselves off an over-reliance on CAP subsidies” (10). I got even more angry when Farmer Williams added that “one little stream has doubled the value of my farm because it is producing a bigger income than I can make with 300 ewes” - but don’t ever think that this new income source means that he is going to give up sheep farming on his land. He got to the truth of the situation with this:
“The hill farm does not provide enough for a family. Hydro power is an added incentive to stay. It will definitely keep farmers like us on the land”

I don't have this rose-tinted view of hill farmers shaping the landscape or forming some sort of cohesive community. Thus the message here was that income from this hydro-electric scheme, plus the CAP subsidy that farmers rarely acknowledge receipt of, is going to keep sheep farmers on the hills, continuing to pollute water courses and degrade landscapes. Must we always enslave marginal landscapes for extractive purposes, rather than make some reparation to wild nature? The anger I felt was in recognition that a few months earlier I had witnessed the impact of the installation of a hydro-electric scheme in the foothills of Snowdonia. The mechanical digger, the stacks of piping, the new access tracks carved out of the landscape leading up to the Egryn gorge and where an intake weir would be constructed on the stream (11) - all will leave a scar on this landscape that may never be healed. There was also evidence higher up the hill of the impact of an earlier period of extractive exploitation in the Egryn/Hafotty Manganese Mine of the nineteenth century, leaving a snaking trail of opencast pits and spoil down the hill (12). The one consistent presence though throughout the centuries would have been the sheep and their degrading actions.

Man's assault on nature

In one of those remarkable coincidences, I picked up a second-hand book a couple of days later in nearby Harlech that entirely enunciated my misgivings about the ecological consequence of sheep. This was Before Nature Dies, a 1970 translation of Jean Dorst’s record in two parts of how the human species has transformed (Yesterday) and is continuing to transform (To-day) the earth’s surface and its wild nature (13). Had it been published in English in 1965, rather than the French of the original (14) then it may have rivalled Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, in the public mind (15). Carson’s book from 1962 is credited with inspiring the modern American environmental movement, as it had a strong ecological message that humans were endangering their natural environment through the hazards of industrial society, the environmental dangers of the pesticide DDT being a focus of her concern (16). However, Dorst, a professor of zoology in Paris, took a longer historical view, “sketch[ing] the principal ravages of man since the era of the discoveries, with particular emphasis on birds and mammals”. He traced “man's assault on nature” by continents, listing them in the “chronological order of their devastation”

Dorst understood how dangerous the human species had been since its first appearance on earth – “Human beings have always exerted a far greater influence on their habitat than any other species of animal and, even in the remote past, they upset the balance of nature to their own detriment”. It is a theme he constantly returns to, noting that “if it was possible to regard humans in the distant past as a natural element like any other animal, it was a purely temporary condition” because although ancient humans may not always have exerted a dominant influence on their environment, it was nevertheless an influence often prejudicial to its own interests – “Unlike most other animal species, man is capable of destroying his habitat long before feeling the effects of this wantonness”. Thus man, because of his intellect, could not be “a simple element in a truly natural habitat once he has crossed a certain threshold of civilization”

He saw this threshold as being the transformation from hunter and berry-gatherer to shepherd and farmer — “As the earth in its primitive state is not adapted to our expansion, man must shackle it to fulfil human destiny. In order to satisfy our elementary needs, especially for food, we have to transform certain habitats to increase their productivity directly or indirectly”. In this, Dorst recognised that our “activity has tended to simplify the ecosystems, to channel their productions in a purely human direction” and that our impact on nature would “never be comparable to that of any other zoological species, since, in addition to the instinctive biological behaviour common to all animals, man has cultural traditions and beliefs capable of modifying his simple actions and reactions”. Thus he saw that “primitive, pre-industrial societies had already gravely injured a number of natural habitats, and some animals doubtless vanished during this period. The ravages were, of course, limited, but humanity already possessed the germs of self-destruction which developed dramatically during subsequent phases of its history”

A weapon of sufficient power to modify natural habitats

Dorst was clear about the dangers of the arrival of pastoralism – “The impact of shepherds on their habitats was far more extensive than that of the hunters. It consisted essentially in a regression of closed habitats (forests) and an increase of open ones (savannas, steppes)……… Shepherds were largely responsible for destroying vast areas of the world, especially in the Mediterranean region and the Near East, long before industrial civilization began its ravages”. He also noted that the pastoral economy set up domesticated animals in competition with their wild ancestors, leading to the loss of the latter in their native state as they were subsumed into domestication. But the human species had made use of an even greater force for destruction before pastoralism, “a weapon whose power was out of proportion to his feeble technical skill: namely fire……Thus primitive man already possessed a weapon of sufficient power to modify natural habitats, opening the way to accelerated erosion and devastation. Layers of ash, carbonized debris, and even burned tree trunks prove that fires ravaged large areas on the northern plains of Germany and Belgium during the Mesolithic Age”. Later, in the Neolithic, it was the usual procedure of shepherds “to burn trees, bushes and, in general, all living species, which were then replaced by annual herbaceous plants… Farmers also set fires after a hasty clearing of the fields; so the two worked together to destroy the forest and replace it by open habitats. The landscape was thus completely transformed, erosion accelerated, and rivers and even the climate affected”. The transformation of habitats in this way was made worse because “man often tends to increase the number of domestic animals, causing overgrazing with disastrous consequences to the balance of both the soil and the biological communities”

Against the backdrop of disaster that he records, including the extinction of hundreds of forms of birds and animals, the abuse of pesticides, and pollution of land, sea and air, Dorst believed that “nature should not be preserved merely because it constitutes the best safeguard for humanity but also because it is beautiful”. Thus we had to continue with the “setting up of natural reserves under public control, where it is forbidden to modify habitats or to disturb flora and fauna in any way. Nature is thus left to herself”. He was clear though that this was not enough, that there had to be a “reconciliation of man and nature” and a "rational use" of the land and sea were the solution. He set out conditions, such as “only lands with a definite agricultural potential should be converted into fields and pasture. Too often, men have tried to utilise poor marginal soils, which have quickly become permanently degraded”

He was aware of the pressures on nature arising from overpopulation, noting that it had taken 600,000 years to reach 3 billion, and then giving the accurate prediction that this would double in only 35 years. He attributes this to the human species having succeeded in overcoming threats to life through hygiene and medicine – he could also have listed our avoidance (mostly) of being predated – and concluding that a limitation on human fecundity is thus “no more unnatural than vaccination and treatment of diseases by antibiotics”. But his ultimate condition for us had an irrefutable message (13):
“Whatever metaphysical position is adopted and whatever place is given to the human species, man has no right to destroy a species of plant or animal on the pretext that it is useless. We have no right to exterminate what we have not created. A humble plant, a tiny insect contains more marvels and greater mysteries than the most wonderful edifices we can construct”

There will be those who will argue that the use of traditional knowledge, especially of indigenous people, will be implicit in approaches to rational use. However, that which is put forward as traditional knowledge/wisdom/use is often very fluid. It certainly needs serious critical evaluation before it has any widespread contemporary role, particularly when there are pressures to blur the line of nature protection by the advocacy of its use in conservation. In reviewing the impact of early humans, Dorst sought example amongst the primitive tribes of today, alighting on the overgrazing that results from pastoral societies like the Masai of East Africa, where cattle are not just food but a symbol of wealth and power as well. He pointed to the practice of shifting cultivation that is still in use in many intertropical regions, and which has been and is the cause of continuing deforestation through slash and burn. Dorst also noted the living by fishing, hunting and gathering of Australian aborigines. He was aware that gathering in this situation implied more than just an opportunistic harvest because it also involved what he called a “conservation practice” as fragments of tubers of bush tucker plants like bush potato (Ipomea costata) and yam (Dioscorea transversa) were replanted to produce a new crop. He then sounded a warning note of caution about the scale of the impact of their hunting activities (13):
“It should, however, be observed that these Australians when hunting may set fire to 30 or 50 square miles of savanna in order to catch or locate their prey”

The domestication of fire and then species

In gauging the key events that led to the civilisation of the human species, the Dutch sociologist Johan Goudsblom concluded that learning to control and domesticate fire over 400,000 years ago inevitably involved foresight, cooperation, the renunciation of “primary impulses” and the exercise of discipline in the tasks of gathering fuel, keeping it dry, and feeding the fire with it - “There was no instinct specifically directing people to care for fire; it was a cultural mutation, requiring a civilizing process” (17). As they came to rely increasingly on their fires for cooking and heat, people also came to rely more on their fire regimes. Clearing land by burning the vegetation had the advantage of driving wild animals from refuge, making them easier to hunt. It created open spaces where grasses and shrubs would spring up, which in turn would attract more game. It was a convenient manipulation of the landscape by a nonhuman, destructive force that is self-generating, but which is also blind as well as, like wind and rain, purposeless – “No matter what it touches, if the material is flammable, it will be consumed”. The human monopoly of fire separated us from all other organisms, and made us the dominant species on the earth and its ecological manipulators. The implications for deforestation were enormous (18):
“In many ways the distinction…between foraging and farming as a means of altering the forest is a difficult one to sustain. In many societies there was, and is, a seamless continuity between the two, with the validity of the distinction decreasing the nearer it comes to the present. In reality, both used fire, the foragers, almost certainly more than the farmers”

The domestication of the wild force of fire must be the first example of the tending, guarding, and exploitation of a natural force by the human species, a difference in behaviour and power increasingly moulded by cultural standards, and which set us apart from other species (17). Once fire was incorporated into human life, it was a natural progression to think of extending care and control over other natural resources by selecting plants and animals, and guarding and protecting them against competing species and parasites. In this way, human communities created high concentrations of plants and animals that could provide them with food and useful products. This is what led Goudsblom to suggest that the use and control of fire may have initiated the second great ecological transformation of the earth—plant and animal domestication—giving it a significance way beyond the mere burning of vegetation for hunting. It was an "integral part of civilising and civilisation"

Biological diversity in managed lands that is erroneously viewed as wild nature

The contemporary lauding of the cultural use of fire is a particular problem, as it has taken on the mantle, especially in Australia (19, 20, 21) of being a natural process missing from the landscape in the same way that grazing is regarded in NW Europe (22) both creating a particular type of biological diversity in managed lands that is erroneously viewed as wild nature. The Kakadu National Park is an archaeological and ethnological reserve, located in the Northern Territory of Australia. It is in the traditional ownership and habitation of aborigines, but was leased in 1970 to the Director of National Parks to be jointly managed since 1979 as a national park (23). The large number and diversity of features of "human events and living traditions", of places imbued with strong spiritual associations - such as archaeological and rock art sites - were amongst the reasons for the park being added to the list of World Heritage Sites in 1981 (24). The ethnological connection is summed up on the park website (25):
“Kakadu is considered a living cultural landscape. The traditional owners Bininj Mungguy have lived on and cared for this country for more than 50,000 years. Their deep spiritual connection to the land dates back to the Creation and has always been an important part of the Kakadu story”

The aborigines of the Northern Territory regard fire as "sacred and embedded" in their culture, using it as an “important tool for managing and expressing ownership of country” (26). The fire management used in the park since it was set up thus attempts to mimic traditional burning practices. However, disquiet has grown at the decline in population of unique and threatened species in Kakadu, some by as much as 90%, others disappearing completely (27). Specific causes have been identified, a lethal combination of increased fires and feral cats (28) as Professor John Woinarski explained (27):
“Sixty per cent [of the lowlands] gets burnt every year and many of these possums and bandicoots which are declining rapidly at the moment need woodlands that have at least five years without burning, and only about 3% of the lowlands are within that age group. Frequent fires get rid of hollow logs and undergrowth that provides shelter for many of these native species so cats can pick them off much more readily”

Woinarski said the current fire regime needed to be substantially limited, with the extent of fires reduced to about half the current level. A comment below the article from what appears to be a biological scientist in Australia warned that it could not be “overstated how mismanaged the fire regime has been, not just in Kakadu but in many parts of Australia. That whole trope of Australia being a continent shaped by fire has proven really dangerous, because it gave people carte blanche to just burn every ecosystem under the guise of management, despite warnings from many ecologists that the precept could not be universally applied” (27). That this is more than just a personal opinion is given weight by the draft management plan for Kakadu National Park that was open to public comment until recently (26). In the section on the active management of fire to maintain “park values” there is an admission that “there is now compelling evidence that recent and current fire regimes are a major contributing factor to the decline of many plant and animal species in Kakadu (and elsewhere in northern Australia), and inappropriate fire regime is a major threat to many of Kakadu’s threatened species and its threatened ecological community”

The explanation given was that many threatened and declining species were associated with or dependent upon relatively long unburnt areas, these providing the opportunity for tree and shrub regeneration so that there is habitat with plants of mixed age. However, the current frequency of fires in some areas was leading to a more uniform habitat, resulting in a decline of suitable habitat for wildlife, and thus to the loss of such as the Northern Brush-tailed Phascogale, Fawn Antechinus, Northern Brush-tailed Possum, Brush-tailed Rabbit-rat, Black-footed Tree-rat, Pale Field-rat, Arnhem Rock-rat, and may also be implicated in the decline of the Northern Quoll and Nabarlek (28). An action in the management plan to support the need for more long-unburnt patches, proposed mapping of important areas for threatened and significant species and threatened ecological communities, so that these areas could be protected from unsuitable fire regimes.

It should be noted that when Australia was first colonised by people some 50,000 years ago, it was a land in which wildfires sparked by lightning took place at the end of the dry season, when the land was at its most flammable, before it gave way to the wet season (29). Aboriginal people have altered that pattern, developing firestick management regimes, setting fires early in the dry season as the vegetation in different landscapes, of floodplain to plateau, dried out sufficiently to burn (20, 29). The extent of this “Indigenous burning” probably varied from place to place depending on climate and vegetation – “we might expect that Indigenous peoples living on the coast or on rivers influenced fire regimes differently to those living in rainforests, or in regions with little surface water” (20). In his recent book about the Australian bush, Don Watson explains that the bush is “made of the effort to create and the effort to destroy” (30). He notes that “when people speak of aborigines living in harmony with their environment they mean these two forces were in some way reconciled”. The destruction and creation is the outcome of considerable manipulation of the land by regimes using fire, by the building of “weirs, fish traps, canals and aqueducts, by various forms of cultivation, planting, gardening and harvesting….They lived in harmony with the environment, but only after bending it to their purposes”

If you think that is purely polemical, then consider that in introducing his theoretical paper on the importance of habitat selection to wildlife conservation and management, Professor Douglas Morris wanted to be clear about what human actions are so that we understand the consequences for biological diversity (31):
“One fact is indisputable. The negative impacts of humans on the rest of biodiversity exceed those of any other species, and probably any other taxon, in the four-billion-year history of life on Earth. We reduce the densities of some species, and increase those of others. We alter, manipulate, destroy, and even move, habitat. We change the spatial context of habitat, habitat neighbours, the nature of edges, the relative abundance of habitats within the landscape, and the landscape itself. We change the structure of ecological communities, the geographical distributions of species, and the rules of regulation, succession, and assembly. And, we have a myriad of effects that we barely recognise, and about which we know even less, across all relevant scales”

This is obviously true of all systems of traditional knowledge - in the past and of today. The historical extent of the firestick farming by aborigines is, anyway, contentious, as the popular notion that aborigines carried out widespread burning of the Australian landscape has been shown to be vastly overstated. A study of charcoal records from more than 220 sites in Australasia dating back 70,000 years found that the arrival of the first humans about 50,000 years ago did not result in significantly greater fire activity across the continent over and above wildfire (32). The study showed that bushfire activity dropped from about 28,000 years ago, and then increased again 18,000 years ago, a pattern consistent with shifts between warm and cool climatic conditions. This suggests that fire in Australasia predominantly reflects climate, with colder periods characterized by less and warmer intervals by more biomass burning. It was the arrival of European colonists more than 200 years ago that broke this pattern and led to a substantial increase in fires. Overall, this evidence may suggest that it was only in the relatively recent past of a few millennia that aboriginal burning became a systemic part of aboriginal culture (30). Whether this is the case or not, it is certainly true that the current system of firestick farming in Kakadu National Park is following what may be a long tradition of being harmful to wild nature.

The EU did not address animal welfare in Inuit hunts

Tradition and an indigenous way of life is also at the core of a bust up between Greenland and the EU, in this case about “traditionally hunted” seals (33). The EU banned the import of seal skins in 2009 on the basis of animal welfare issues such as such as shooting, netting and clubbing, but it gave an exception to indigenous members of the Inuit homeland (34):
“The placing on the market of seal products shall be allowed only where the seal products result from hunts traditionally conducted by Inuit and other indigenous communities and contribute to their subsistence”

Quite how it could be judged what would be traditionally hunted is not given in the Regulation. The Inuits of Greenland say that their methods for dispatching seals are humane. Most hunters use rifles so that the description of this traditional hunting practice as being “a centuries-old way of life” is a bit wide of the mark (33). As it is, the dispute is about the collapse in the market in the EU for seal skins since the ban, so that even with the exception available to them, exports of seal pelts by the Inuits of Greenland have plummeted by 90%, leading to the assertion that the “impact on subsistence economies in Greenland’s 60 coastal communities has been catastrophic”. How catastrophic is explained by Rasmus Holm of the Greenlandic Hunters and Fishermen’s Association - “To a large extent it’s the last call for a lot of the hunters. If the current crisis continues, they won’t have any alternative but to claim social security”. But the special pleading comes from Karl Lyberth, a hunter who used to be Greenland’s minister of fishing - “It’s a tragic situation for us. A lot of people in the EU don’t understand our way of life”

A party of Greenland seal hunters journeyed to Strasbourg to lobby the European Parliament, gaining the support of Denmark’s foreign minister, Martin Lidegaard during his recent visit to Ilulissat, in western Greenland (33). He was “bewildered by the EU’s lack of empathy for their plight and a policy that prioritises the interests of animals over those of humans”. He believes that “the seals here have lived a very good life” that they are “hunted in a very sustainable way. The meat is eaten by the Greenlanders and the fur is then sold. That’s as sustainable as it gets”

The irony is that the EU ban was challenged by Canada and Norway in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that led to its final report (35) expressing “concerns that the EU did not address animal welfare in Inuit hunts given that the overall objective of its Regulation was based on animal welfare concerns, and that the ambiguity of some of its conditions could lead to a use of the exception for hunts that should in reality be characterised as primarily undertaken for commercial purposes”(36). In response to this, the European Commission came forward with a proposal for amendment of the Regulation that has the following recognition in the preamble – “A genuinely humane killing method cannot be effectively and consistently applied in the hunts conducted by the Inuit and other indigenous communities, just like in the other seal hunts” (37). The amendment would however put conditions on the sale of seal products from Inuits such that their hunting is “conducted in a manner which reduces pain, distress, fear or other forms of suffering of the animals hunted to the extent possible taking into consideration the traditional way of life and the subsistence needs of the community” and is “not conducted primarily for commercial reasons”. If the European Commission uncovers evidence that Inuit hunts are conducted primarily for commercial purposes, rather than for subsistence needs, it may restrict or prohibit the placing on the market of seal products from these hunts.

The continued trade ban and the conditions on trade of Inuit seal products proposed in the amendment has the backing of Members of the European Parliament (MEP)(38) with the WTO having put a deadline of 18 October 2015 for this amendment to be put in place (35). The European Commission might want to consider how it is going to ensure compliance by the Inuit with the new conditions that will be applied to their exception. The continuing support for the general ban of trade of seal products in the EU of course does nothing to stimulate the seal fur market, and thus meet the demands of the Inuit who will face greater scrutiny of their activities once the Regulation is amended. There was though a call by MEPs on the Commission and EU member states to “mount awareness-raising campaigns to counter widespread negative portrayals and misunderstandings of seal hunts conducted by Inuits and other indigenous peoples” (38). Will it be fact or fantasy?

The privileging of indigenous people

I have a real issue with an alleged subsistence way of life being dependent on the export and sale of a natural resource, a so-called traditional living of indigenous people being propped up by an international trade in fur. The Inuit, however, are not the only indigenous people to be privileged in Europe, the rights of the Sámi people of northern Norway, Sweden and Finland are seemingly more important than the rights of wild nature in what are often strictly protected areas, something that Jean Dorst would likely not endorse (see earlier). I came across this a few years ago, when working on drawing up a register of wilderness areas in Europe for the European Commission (39). Wilderness is not a legal definition in the protected areas of Europe (40) not even in the state-owned Erämaa of Finland, the so-called wilderness areas designated under Finland’s Wilderness Act 1991, but which are to preserve the cultural heritage and reindeer herding livelihoods of the Sámi people (41). Instead, in compiling an initial list of protected areas that may have a wilderness characteristic, a proxy was used of strictly protected areas across Europe classified under the IUCN Categories Ia & b that met a minimum size criteria of 3,000ha. Large protected areas in IUCN Categories II (National Park) and VI (Protected area with sustainable use of natural resources) that could contain a strictly protected core area of sufficient size were also identified. Local knowledge was then needed to appraise those protected areas against a set of wilderness criteria that included no habitation or settlements, no habitat management or wildlife management, no motorised access, no road building and no extractive use of natural resources. On the basis of that appraisal, two categories of protected area were sifted from the initial list: those meeting all eight of the criteria were assigned to Category A as wilderness; and those meeting five or more were placed in Category B and considered to be wild areas that have the potential to become wilderness if measures were taken to remove barriers to that transformation (39).

It was when the final check was being done, during a verification process with national data managers of each country, that the implications for these privileged rights within protected areas became apparent. In the case of Sweden, Olle Höjer of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, upgraded the Category B rating of four of its national parks to Category A - only one of its national parks had met all of the criteria - and while none of the restricted nature reserves (IUCN Cat. Ib) had qualified for Category A, he upgraded 28 of them from Category B to Category A. He justified this by example of Sarek National Park, which he described as being a vast natural landscape that had a significant level of restriction of activity. He guessed at the reason why this park had been put in Category B:
“Perhaps this is because of the Sami people have rights to have reindeer herding and use snowmobile in the area? However even so there are large areas of Sarek that is not under such regime/intervention”

Sámi given exceptions to regulations in protected areas

While the regulations for Sarek National Park do contain a range of restrictions, and which also cover the other three parks he upgraded, there are exceptions in the regulations to those restrictions for Sámi people in exercising their “immemorial rights” under the Reindeer Husbandry Act (42). The same is true for Vindelfjällen Nature Reserve, one of the 28 reserves Olle upgraded to Category A, where “Reindeer husbandry may be undertaken without hindrance of the above regulations…in accordance with the Swedish law on reindeer husbandry” (43). Thus it should have been up to Olle to substantiate what parts of the national parks and nature reserves are unaffected by the Sámi people because if you or I were to visit Sarek or Vindelfjällen, we would face a range of restrictions, such as not being able to disturb grazing reindeer, climb in trees containing nesting predators, fell trees, fish, hunt, operate motor vehicles or motorboats, take off and land aircraft, take a dog, or conduct commercial activities. However, the Sámi are given exceptions in these regulations for national parks and reserves such that they can pretty much do all of these, including using off-road vehicles like snowmobiles.

It is the Reindeer Husbandry Act that privileges the Sámi people in Sweden, since as well as establishing the right, based on “immemorial custom”, to the “use of land and water to sustain themselves and their reindeer” it also defines the reindeer herding area where the rights are exercised irrespective of ownership of the land (44). Since this covers a contiguous area of 33.5% of northern Sweden (45) then all protected areas in that region will be affected. Olle, however, was keen to point out that not all wilderness areas in N Europe are protected – “I believe the basic analysis ultimately should be applied on all known areas irrespective of protection level” his approach being to “divide the analysis, i.e. separate [the] degree of naturalness and ecological qualities from management regimes and restrictions”. This would be very convenient for Olle because it would allow him to overlook the exceptions to restrictions on activity afforded the Sámi. It also fitted the assertion he made that Sweden “has the majority of both protected and unprotected wilderness and wild areas in Europe (except Russia)”. If Sweden has so much wilderness, even if not protected, then why does it consider that it has the capacity to support a wolf population of only 210? Could it be that the wolves are a threat to reindeer herding?

That this is the case is evidenced by the intransigence of Swedish authorities to adequately address its failings in the strict protection of wolves under the requirements of Annex IV of the Habitats Directive (46). Swedish Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren was warned in December 2010 (47) that a letter of formal notice for failure to comply would be sent if Sweden did nothing about the unfavourable conservation status of the Swedish wolf population; the ceiling of 210 set for the number of wolves in Sweden under A New Predator Management Act 2009 (48); the licensed hunting of a strictly protected species under the same Act without the conditions for derogations set out by Article 16 of the Habitats Directive being met (46) and the risk that repeated licensed hunting could lead to an erroneous cull of up to 15% of the wolf population each year. The most telling indictment in their breach of the Habitats Directive was that Sweden has reduced the area in which wolves can freely distribute within the country by excluding their presence, presumably by lethal control, from the reindeer herding area in northern Sweden, a parliamentary decision from 2001 on the distribution of wolves that was reconfirmed in a later report of the predator survey Goals for Predators (49). In reaction to the Swedish government allowing the licensed shooting of a further 20 wolves in a hunting season opening a few weeks after receipt of the warning letter (Sweden had already allowed the licensed hunting of 28 wolves in early 2010) a formal infringement procedure was launched by the EU with a Letter of Formal Notice being sent (50). This was followed up six months later with a Reasoned Opinion the next phase of the infringement procedure, and which requested Sweden to amend its wolf policy, giving it two months to comply (51). Fast forward four years to this June and Sweden is delivered a second Reasoned Opinion because it is considered to have established a systemic practice that infringes the Habitats Directive, by allowing a licensed hunt in 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015, and which threatens the growth of the local wolf population in reaching a favourable conservation status (52). Sweden has again been given two months to respond with measures taken to remedy the situation, or the Commission may decide to refer Sweden to the EU Court of Justice.

Redefining wilderness in Norway

Norway has a particular problem of grazing in strictly protected areas to do with their uplands being state grazing commons that encompass about 11% of the upland area in Norway, and where usage rights, including grazing, hay cutting, hunting, wood collection and fishing, are managed by Mountain Boards (40). Given the likelihood of herded semi-domesticated reindeer as well (as averse to wild reindeer) the 32 IUCN Category Ia and 43 IUCN Category II protected areas identified for Norway qualified as Category B. This was not disputed by Norway’s Directorate for Nature Management, as relayed by Rebekka Borsch, Senior Advisor in the Norwegian Environment Agency, which confirmed the grazing in all the protected areas, but then expressed “doubts regarding whether this project is fully developed and useful” and claimed “The rationale behind and the future use of the Wilderness register is rather unclear to us”. The game was given away that this was a disagreement about the criteria chosen for the register, because in the unguarded correspondence trail between colleagues in Norway, it was alleged that Norway already had a list of wilderness areas, these being defined as areas “lying at least 5 km in a straight line from the nearest infrastructure development”(53). Two-thirds of these wilderness areas exist in the statutory “Sámi reindeer grazing area” where the “Sámi population has on the basis of immemorial usage rights to practice reindeer herding” (54) that grazing area constituting 40% of the land area in a contiguous block in northern Norway (compare maps in (53) with (55)). Given this, and that the other third of the wilderness areas appear to be in the southern uplands where there are state commons, then Norway is treading its own path for what can be defined as wilderness, and solely on the basis of an absence of built infrastructure.

Traditional land use is closely connected to indigenous culture in Finland

This can also be said about Finland, where only two of its national parks amongst the protected areas identified, met all the criteria to be in Category A, the IUCN Categories Ia&b, II and VI of the rest all being Category B. This categorisation was disputed by Mervi Heinonen, Senior Advisor of Finland’s Natural Heritage Services, who upgraded 11 national parks and all of the strictly protected areas (IUCN Category Ia&b) to Category A. He also upgraded almost all of the IUCN Category VI areas, which include the 12 large wilderness areas designated to preserve the cultural heritage livelihoods of the Sámi people (see above) to Category A, as well as upgrading their IUCN Category from VI to Ib. This was his explanation:
“Although reindeer herding and hunting to locals is allowed, it is now widely agreed that considering the quality and quantity of local land use in comparison to the vast protected land area, and also to the fact that traditional land use is closely connected to indigenous culture in the Sámi homeland area, the Wilderness Reserves, National Parks and large Mire Reserves in the North that previously were in IUCN category VI should be reassigned to category Ib”

As you would expect, the reindeer husbandry Act prescribes a reindeer herding area, the use of which is regardless of ownership or tenure of the land (56) constituting 33% of the land area in a contiguous block in northern Finland (57). You don’t have to be a Sámi to herd reindeer in this area, just live permanently within that area and be approved as a member by a reindeer herding association (56). Nevertheless, this herding area is where the Sámi wilderness is located, and where Mervi upgraded both the register Category and the IUCN Category of so many protected areas in spite of the impact that modern approaches to reindeer herding have. Thus it is acknowledged in Finland, as it is in Norway and Sweden, that in the 1960s, the so called “snow mobile revolution” led to a change in the relationship of herders with their animals as they no longer ski or walk with reindeer (58). Other mechanical aids came later, such as off-road vehicles, motorbikes and helicopters. You have to have money to buy these vehicles, and the guns they use, so any notion of this being a subsistence living is a nonsense because the meat from reindeer is being farmed for sale, like any other livestock.

It was reasonable for Finland to classify its 12 Sámi wilderness and other extensive protected areas in northern Finland in IUCN Category VI, since the use of these lands for reindeer herding has not had the same impact as the centuries of agriculture has had in farmed land, the guidelines for this category indicating this distinction (59). However, while the category is not designed to accommodate large-scale industrial harvest, the low-level non-industrial use of natural resources compatible with nature conservation allowed of this category is entirely inappropriate for true wilderness, the identity of which was the aim of the selection criteria for compiling the wilderness register. It is also inappropriate in the allegedly strictly protected areas that are classified in IUCN Category Ia, and which are herded with reindeer in Sweden, Norway and Finland, as it is counter to the presumption of “non-consumptive use” of strictly protected core areas of IUCN Category II national parks, but which don’t exist in Sweden, Norway and Finland because of reindeer herding (59).

Unfortunately, the guidelines for protected areas classified in IUCN Category Ib, while they should be “free of inappropriate or excessive human use or presence”, do allow use by indigenous peoples to maintain their traditional lifestyle and custom (59). The guidelines have had this allowance since 1994 (60) in contradiction to Mervi’s assertion that the updated guidelines from 2008 "allow for a less strict interpretation of category Ib compared to the 1994 definitions”, using this to justifying his upgrading of the Sámi wilderness areas from IUCN Category VI to IUCN Category Ib (61). Does the use of snowmobiles, off-road vehicles, motorbikes and helicopters fit with being “free of inappropriate or excessive human use or presence”, and that it should “offer outstanding opportunities for solitude, enjoyed once the area has been reached, by simple, quiet and nonintrusive means of travel”? This is a privileging again of indigenous people (and other reindeer herders in Finland) since non-indigenous people - in one of the updates that there is in the 2008 guidelines - only get their “spiritual values and non-material benefits” protected in this category of protected area (59). It should also be noted that while the protection of "cultural values” should not hazard the primary objective of an IUCN Category Ib area “to protect the long-term ecological integrity of natural areas”, the presence of semi-domesticated reindeer in the reindeer husbandry areas puts at risk the true wild state of the native mountain reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) and competes for habitat with the wild native forest reindeer in Finland (Rangifer tarandus fennicus) (61). There is another privileging of the Sámi and other reindeer herders in Finland that comes from the exclusion of wolves from strict protection under Annex IV of the Habitats Directive within the statutory reindeer herding area defined in the Reindeer Husbandry Act (46,56). This gives out a bad signal that reindeer herding is more important than the lives of a native carnivore, but at least the Finns went to the trouble of making a case to the EU for an exception to strict protection of wolves in the reindeer herding area, whereas Sweden in having a policy of exclusion of wolves from its reindeer herding area has not even had the integrity to do the same.

The extent of true wilderness in Europe

The aim in compiling the wilderness register was to identify the extent of true wilderness in Europe. Because none of the Scandinavian countries were able to delineate those parts of their protected areas where the criteria set for Category A are fully met from those parts that only qualified as Category B, they were taken out of Category A and put into a Category A/B (wilderness/wild area) in the final register (39). A link to the report on the register has been up on the Wilderness in Europe webpage for over a year in the usual process of gauging reaction before it is published under the imprimatur of the European Commission (62). It remains to be seen what reaction will come from Sweden, Norway and Finland to this A/B categorisation, and whether they will seek to have the report modified.

We are the most dangerous species. Human use of natural resources very quickly advances past a simple need to subsist, the traditional knowledge of indigenous people being a sliding scale of ever increasing manipulation and destruction. Because of this incorrigible behaviour, it will never be a panacea to argue that humans can be trusted if they have some anthropocentric or mystical notion of a closer relationship with nature. Would you eschew the use of fire, guns and all manufactured technology, willingly submit yourself to the possibility of predation, and be able to live within wild nature without manipulating and dominating it? Whatever you want to call it, wilderness, non-intervention, no-take, strictly protected, we have to accept Jean Dorst’s prescription of “setting up of natural reserves under public control, where it is forbidden to modify habitats or to disturb flora and fauna in any way. Nature is thus left to herself”

Mark Fisher 5 July 2015

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