Last week, Freight Books read…

Feral, by George Monbiot

Feral, by George Monbiot. I’ve been meaning to review Feral since I finished reading it at the beginning of the summer, but never knew quite how I’d tackle it. Instead I bought it for nearly everyone I knew, and this sated my desire to shout about it a bit. However, the late arrival of All the Birds, Singing last week means I haven’t finished it yet, so I am left with a perfect Feral-shaped gap to fill.

This book changed the way I viewed the countryside. Utterly. I grew up in a very rural environment, surrounded by crops, grass, cows, chickens, foxes, thick hedges and thicker accents, to name but a few (only two of those things stayed the same when I moved to Glasgow, and boy was it a shock).

Oh and sheep.Lots of sheep.

I see sheep very differently now. In fact, you could probably sum Feral up in one phrase as a crusade against sheep. It would be wrong to do so, as he talks about many other things, but the sheep do stick in the craw somewhat. It is like this. Most of our National Parks are all about the rolling hillsides, the carefully managed land, all open to the wide skies and populated with heather and moorland and sheep. But this was not always the case; indeed only a few hundred years ago these hillsides were covered with mixed woodland and thick scrub, home to all sorts of plants and animals that are now lacking. Monbiot lays the desertification of these areas wholly at the door of the sheep. Like the rhododendron, it is an alien species that our native plants have no protections from, and as such cannot recover from such insistent grazing.

But there are plenty of other aspects to this book that are as entertaining and possibly more interesting than Sheepwrecked, as that chapter is called. The most lyrical sections are auto-biographical moments from Monbiot’s life, fishing for mackrel in a kayak, for instance, and these pulled strongly on my homesickness strings. We are also given an insight into the frankly awful figures surrounding land ownership in Britain, and Scotland in particular. When taken on a tour of re-introduction programs, particularly that of the European wolf (introduced into every country in Europe, barring Britain and the ROI), I was particularly struck by one near-throwaway comment. That we spend so much money and put so much pressure on developing countries to protect and live alongside dangerous animals (tigers in India, lions and hippopotami in Kenya) and yet kick up a fuss if there is any suggestion of any remotely dangerous animal being returned to our shores.

Monbiot advocates the reintroduction of predators and other mega fauna into our wild spaces, which should then be allowed to go wild – to be set free to mutate freely rather than ‘conserved’ at the state our great-grandparents left them in.

There are problems with his argument, but then the subject he chooses is massive, and above al it is a book designed to create a dialogue that does not begin and end with the National Trust.

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