Sunday, January 26, 2014


(The following appeared in the Sunday issue  ( 1/26/2014) of the NYT. It is a very interesting short essay about an important environmental issue that has not been getting adequate coverage)
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 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 underway 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 to Europe. Until he recently relocated, Mr. Monbiot used to look up at the bare hills above his house in Machynlleth, Wales, and seethe 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.”
“I have an unhealthy obsession with sheep,” Mr. Monbiot admits, in his book “Feral.” “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 — more than 30 million nationwide — makes Mr. Monbiot a little crazy. But to be fair, sheep seem to lead us all beyond the realm of logic. The nibbled landscape that he denounces as “a bowling green with contours” is beloved by the British public. 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 Britain’s national parks are overrun with sheep.
Mr. Monbiot detects “a kind of cultural cringe” that keeps people from criticizing sheep farming. (In part, he blames children’s books for clouding vulnerable minds with idyllic ideas about 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,” a show about rural issues, which he characterizes as an escapist modern counterpart to pastoral poetry. “If it were any keener on sheep,” he says, “it would be illegal.”
The many friends of British sheep have not yet called for burning Mr. Monbiot at the stake. But they have protested. “Without our uplands, we wouldn’t have a UK sheep industry,” Phil Bicknell, an economist for the National Farmers Union pointed out. “Farmgate sales of lamb are worth over £1bn” — or $1.7 billion — “to U.K. agriculture.” The only wolves he wanted to hear about were his own Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club. A critic for The Guardian, where Mr. Monbiot contributes a column, linked the argument against sheep, rather unfairly, to anti-immigrant nativists, adding “sheep have been here a damn sight longer than Saxons.”
More soberly, the 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 Mr. 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.”
Mr. Monbiot acknowledges the antiquity of sheep-keeping in Britain. But the subjugation of the uplands by sheep, he says, only really got going around the 17th century, as the landlords enclosed the countryside, evicted poor farmers, and cleared away the forests from the hillsides and moorlands, particularly in Scotland. Britain is, he writes, inexplicably choosing “to preserve a 17th-century cataclysm.” The sheep wouldn’t be in the uplands at all, he adds, without annual taxpayer subsidies, which average £53,000 per farm in Wales.
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 4,000 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, the sheep in a farming region just over two hours from Paris suffered at least 22 reported wolf attacks last year. But environmentalists there say farmers would do better protesting against dogs, which they say kill 100,000 sheep annually. Wolves are now a protected species across Europe, where their population quadrupled after the 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. Mr. 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 he 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 northern Scotland, Paul Lister is working on an ecotourism scheme to bring back wolves and bears on his Alladale Wilderness Reserve, where he has already planted more than 800,000 native trees. He still needs government permission to keep predators on a proposed 50,000-acre fenced landscape. That’s a long way from introducing them to the wild, on the model of Yellowstone National Park. Even so, precedent suggests that 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 30 million sheep) against the rising European tide.
Richard Conniff is the author of “The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth.”


Nick Sollogub said...

Mr. Monbiot is an example of someone who is pushing for a paradigm shift in his country when it comes to sheep. He wants a change and he wants it to be immediate in order to preserve his countries land. His opposers argue that the sheep bring in such revenue that it is ignorant to reduce or remove them. This is an example of weak sustainability. They are willing to use up all of their resources, or natural capital, now in order to create manmade capital (money). Through this capital created now they would be able to enhance technology in order to survive in the future. Monbiot comes across as a supporter of strong sustainability because he is more concerned with preserving and conserving natural capital than he is in money.

What I think this entire article is overlooking is that every keystone species at one time or another was an invasive species. Ecosystems are always evolving. Prey and predators, populations and species are always fluctuating. So for Mr. Monbiot to state that by removing the sheep it will allow for nature to go back to the way it was, is an absurd thought. At what point could you ever say that this was land in its original state? The 17th century? the 1st century?

Ultimately this article shows the main argument that comes when the environment is involved; Which is more important, money or nature? Up until recent decades this was no question, but as population increases and resources decrease this issue must be addressed.

Nick Sollogub

Leah DeEgidio said...

This article raises an issue that all environmentalists seem to face, profit or the protection of the natural world. I understand the issue of overgrazing and how detrimental it can be to a habitat, however Mr. Monbiot is asking for a change that may be too drastic for England. I think there can be a compromise between eliminating the sheep from the area and keeping them from degrading the land. Mr Monbiot is trying to label a profitable species as invasive and I don't believe he is going to be successful.

Anonymous said...

Dillon Addonizio

The problematic lack of predatory animals exists world wide. Each country or region wasting time debating on what should be deemed more important. The two sides being habitat and species diversity versus monetary gain. As long as profit is held as a measure for success there is very little hope for the environment in which we belong. There is one earth and it must be saved. With this mentality reintroducing predators is without question allowing habitat and species diversity to be regulated as it should be. Given the right circumstances nature will self regulate as it has always done. This idea should be implemented throughout each country and not just in natural parks or concentrated areas. Education is the key to ensure less problems between human society and "reconstructed" habitats.

Anonymous said...

There is good and bad to the idea of rewilding, while it can help in the process of creating more biodiversity and can help with species control, safety, especially in this particular case, is of great concern. Bringing wolves back into an area where people are not used to having them could cause a great deal of safety concerns for the people that live there, therefore I don’t know how I can entirely support that idea.

That being said, if the sheep population is causing damage to a National Park Area, an area that is supposed to be protected by the government in the first place, then certainly I think that the people of Britain need to be paying attention to it. Yes, the sheep industry brings income to the country, and has for a long time, but if the population of sheep is destroying the lands on which they live, how are the sheep going to continue living there anyways? If the problem continues, then the sheep will no longer be able to live in the wasteland they created, let alone any other species, and it will be very hard for the vegetation and life to grow back the way that it used to be before the sheep arrived, which could be a major economical setback for them in the future.

Even though the cut back on the industry might bring a set back to their economy in the short run, in the long run, it is economically beneficial because tourism and other things devoted to the sheer beauty of the place could be used instead of over-farming a species that is hurting the natural environment. They can’t expect to overuse their provided resources and have no set back from it, even if the sheep is a cultural icon.

Leanna Molnar

Anonymous said...

I would have to agree that in theory, rewilding in Britain could be an overall constructive process, in that it would help to promote and improve biodiversity while simultaneously eliminating or at least minimizing the issue of overgrazing. However, by definition, the reintroduction of a species of wild animals can be quite a difficult topic to wrestle with when taking into consideration the security of the people who live in the specific area of interest.

John Muir once said, “Nature’s object in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them, not the creation of all for the happiness of one.” I believe this quote can offer a solution to the controversy faced by the idea of rewilding in Britain. In order to restore the grasslands and also keep the UK sheep industry afloat, there needs to be some sort of equilibrium between nature and the people. They should not replace sheep with wolves only to begin restoration of the deforested uplands and a National park, but at the same time the multitude of sheep should not be ignored for the opportunity of maximizing production and profit. I don’t believe that you have to pick one side or the other and I think that is where the main problem lies. If the people who support the environment and the people who support the UK sheep industry could come together and find a middle ground, I think they would find that their problems would start to dissolve.

Gina May

Dylan Hirsch said...

The article highlights a conflict that happens across all the disciplines of environmentalism; the industry's negative effect on the natural ecosystem, but the positive effect on the industry that supports thousands of people. Mr. Monbiot takes the classical environmental scope, that protecting the ecosystem is of the utmost importance, and at any cost to industry or the societies that these industries build. Although I do agree with some of the points that Mr. Monbiot makes, I do think he could have been more specific in his claims to bring the ecosystem back to "how it use to be". Since ecosystems naturally change over time, and the fact that sheep have been herded for human's needs for thousands of years, I think Mr. Monbiot could have been more specific in his aims; thus, I do not agree with the claim all of the sheep should be removed, but I find it of the utmost importance to return this ecosystem to a more sustainable state than it is presently.

-Dylan Hirsch

Anonymous said...

Mr. Monbiot's idea of rewinding posses a question that we have been faced with for decades; continue boosting our economy or save our planet? In my opinion, Mr. Monbiot's proposal of rewilding, though it may benefit the environment, seems unrealistic. Although reducing the number of sheeps in the UK would help nature from being destroyed, I don't feel increasing the number of wolf's would do any better. Sheeps have been around Britain for a long while therefore most people know how to treat and care for them. Also, there is a possibility that these people have never been in close contact with wolfs so the safety and security of the citizens in the community might been in danger.

Also, if we do as Mr. Monbiot suggest and get rid of all the sheep, where will they continue living? I do believe that there is a sufficient way to help nature rebuild itself from the "damage" sheeps have caused, however, Mr. Monbiot's way of doing it will ultimately fail.

Anonymous said...

Mr.Monbiot's article displays the opposite sides of the environmental issue. He uses the interesting topic of sheep to describe how willing people are to use up the available resources in order to make a profit. While there is much opposition to the elimination of the sheep population from Britain, Monbiot makes a convincing argument. Rewilding the area would not only benefit the environment, but it would open up opportunities for new forms of income. Ecotourism is beneficial to all. It would provide jobs while bringing in more money from tourism. Tours would also raise awareness about rewilding and environmental preservation.

-Haylei P

cynthia romero said...

This article brings up the usual "profit or nature?". I believe that Mr. Monbiot can compromise and achieve his goal in many different ways that are less extreme. I see his point of view and I understand that it might hurt the economy but it would be beneficial in the long run and for the greater picture.

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