Tim Bonner: Ignorant, unjust – and bad for the environment

***addendum December 13th***

[I’m indebted to Tim Bonner himself for the title of this post, though I will try to avoid using as many logical fallacies as he does…

I mean, just look at the man:

Case closed!]


Ahem… Rewilding has been earning itself some flack lately in the UK, mainly from people representing the interests of farmers and landowners. The latest email bulletin from Rewilding Britain provided a great example, alongside remarkable news that beavers are back in Scotland with the security of legal protection, and that the UK government says it will put £15m towards ‘natural flood management’ which may or may not include support for re-introduced beaver populations in England & Wales too (hint: it should). At the end of the mail they provided a few links to mentions of rewilding in the press, including this article by Tim Bonner, CEO of the Countryside Alliance:


I couldn’t find any links to a critique of his positions online, and most of the comments under the piece were supportive (probably because you have to register with Conservative Home in order to leave a comment – too much for most people to stomach I’m sure!) or from the same general political outlook. RB have so far limited their response to an ‘of course, we disagree!’ in the original mail, so I thought I’d help out by shooting some of the fish in Bonner’s Barrel…

He begins:

Land ownership, land rights and land use have always been central to progressive politics. From the Russian revolution through to Scottish land reform legislation, the ability of the majority to impose its will on the landowning minority has been irresistible to purveyors of social change.

Progressives are cast as the enemy of an embattled minority group of landowners & farmers. The examples jump immediately to those crazy bolsheviks in Russia and dastardly scots attempting to have a say over who controls their land. Guilt by association – anyone questioning land ownership or attempting reform is dangerous and will probably pave the way for mass confiscations, socialist tyranny and eventual famine and societal collapse. Also ‘landowning minority’ plays the victim and attempts to obscure the truth that this ‘minority’ in fact wields enormous power, well beyond the limited influence exerted by progressives or any other typical member of society. The stats for Britain again: ‘70% of land is still owned by less than 1% of the population’, and ‘nearly half the country is owned by 40,000 land millionaires, or 0.06 per cent of the population’. Things are even worse in Scotland, which

[…] has the most concentrated pattern of private land ownership in the developed world. The degree of concentration is evident from the fact that a mere 432 landowners account for half of all Scotland’s privately owned land– such land (since not much more than 10 per cent of Scotland is in public ownership) accounting, in turn, for the bulk of the country (‘Towards a comprehensive land reform agenda for Scotland‘ (pdf) – via this excellent 2014 article by George Monbiot which also touches on the situation in England)

– a legacy of their centuries-long colonisation by the major power centers in England.

Bonner continues:

The problem, however, is that with, very few exceptions, land use policies enacted to punish land owners and dismantle traditional land use systems have proved disastrous both for the countryside and the populations it feeds.

It’s all about ‘punishment’, you see. Nothing to do with fairness or redistribution to those who have been disenfranchised. ‘Traditional land use systems’ conceals more than it reveals. If something’s ‘traditional’ does that mean it’s beyond reproach and the best possible way of doing things? A wide diversity of well-established systems of peasant farming were eradicated by formal and informal acts of enclosure in England, Scotland and elsewhere, to be replaced first by sheep (‘eaters of men‘ as Thomas More described them) and eventually by the current ‘traditional’ approach to farming, involving heavy use of toxic chemicals, huge petrol-hungry machines and plant and animal domesticates that are so sickly they can only survive by being constantly doused with industrial medicines. All of this saved labour resulted in people being booted off the land and swelling the urban population which Bonner and his ilk then abuse for trying to have a say in the management of land which was basically stolen from them and their forbears. And if he wants to talk about dismantling traditional land use systems it might be worth mentioning at least in passing that agriculture itself was born out of exactly this process – invading the lands of hunter-gatherer peoples, cutting down their forests, draining their wetlands, depleting the wildlife that sustained them to the point where it was no longer viable to live according to their age-old traditions until finally they were forced to adopt the same methods of neolithic subsistence as the encroaching farmers.
Mark Fisher provides a brief snippet from Nicholas Crane’s recent book, The Making of the British Landscape which describes one way this probably happened:

Amid what he describes as a burgeoning biomass around 9,200BC, while the tundra retreated, horses and reindeer disappeared from southern Britain and were replaced by elk, roe deer, red deer, boar and aurochs. He describes the aurochs as quick, agile and a match for hesitant wolves, their favoured habitat being level, low-lying, fertile and open – “woodland would not have supported the rich grassland they depended upon. Congregating in herds on floodplains and valley floors, they were the biggest beasts in Britain”. It was, however, their “preference for valleys and floodplains that put the herds in conflict with humans who used these landscapes for routeways, foraging and hunting missions”. They killed aurochs, which were a source of red meat and raw materials like bone and hide, the bone being used to make scrapers for cleaning hides. Crane sees the eventual demise of the aurochs in Britain as being the most conspicuous casualty of the farming onslaught competing for the low-lying, level, fertile land – “Aurochs took to grazing in surviving tracts of marginal wetland, but eventually they lost this last-chance reserve, too. By around 1350BC, Britain’s largest mammal had been driven to extinction”. (link)

Back to Bonner:

From the millions of Russians who starved in famines caused by Stalin’s collectivisation to the hungry population of Zimbabwe today, ideologically-driven rural policy has failed almost without exception. On a smaller scale, some ‘community buy outs’ funded by the Scottish Government after the first round of its land reform legislation have struggled to become financially sustainable without the external cash injections traditionally provided by ‘lairds’.

More stalinists and another Official Enemy in the form of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, whose ‘fast track’  reform of repossessing land from white farmers (hint: if you live in Africa and you haven’t got black skin you probably got where you are now thanks to a series of atrocities perpetrated on the indigenous population) predictably turned him into persona non grata among western hypocrites who otherwise have no problem dealing with murderous despots around the globe. Mark Curtis writes:

There is little doubt of the urgent need for radical land reform in [Zimbabwe]. By the beginning of the ‘fast track’ programme, around 4,500 mainly white large-scale commercial farmers still held 28 per cent of the total land; at the same time, more than one million black families, or around 6 million people, eked out an existence in overcrowded, arid, ‘communal’ areas, representing around 41 per cent of the land – essentially the land allocated to Africans by the British colonial government. This situation created ‘a significant land hunger in Zimbabwe’, in the words of Human Rights Watch. (Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, pp.118-9)

But I suppose I should concede that a need for reform doesn’t guarantee success when government officials actually attempt to put this into practice. Usually they have their own interests in mind at the same time. As far as I understand the mid-20th century collectivisation of farms under Stalin, it wasn’t a response to land inequality so much as an attempt to boost productivity and skim off the surpluses so that city-dwellers could devote themselves wholly to the nascent heavy industries. Mugabe apparently handed out many of the confiscated farms to members of his parliamentary cabinet who had little or no experience with farming. As for the situation in Scotland it remains to be seen how things pan out but Bonner’s comparison is clearly absurd and intended to shut down a fair consideration of the attempts they’re making. Besides, is it any wonder that small-time farmers with limited funds and none of the benefits of inherited land and/or property would have difficulty competing from the outset in a cut-throat system that rewards the kind of economies of scale only possible in huge mega-farms? Clearly Bonner doesn’t consider market fundamentalism or doctrines of efficiency, progress, productivity etc as dangerous ideologies which have driven the rural policies of enclosure, mechanisation, depopulation and gigantism leading to the current sorry state of Britain’s landscape in an impressively short space of time.

Shortly after the Hunting Act was passed Peter Bradley, then a Labour MP, wrote one of the most honest explanations of the perverse approach of some on the left to rural policy. Having stated that the ban was “class war” he went on to explain why Labour MPs had pursued it so obsessively: “Labour governments have come and gone and left little impression on the gentry. But a ban on hunting touches them. It threatens their inalienable right to do as they please on their land.”

Only leftists engage in ‘class war’. If they didn’t feel the need to stir up trouble everything would be just fine. Excluding people from the land they once lived on and denying them a right to have a say in how it’s managed does not constitute ‘class war’. I don’t know why he feels the need to include this paragraph. Presumably it’s meant to hurt the Evil Progressive Reformers in some way by exposing some secret dark machinations driving their behaviour? To me Bradley’s comments just seem factually correct. Anyway, why doesn’t it surprise me he’s in favour of sport hunting… An online search for ‘tim bonner rewilding’ brings up this tweet from October 14th:

The more contradictory nonsense I read about ‘rewilding’ the more it’s clear that we hunters have been doing it for years

which surprisingly links to the Rewilding (anarchism) page on Wikipedia. I can’t tell if he’s mentioning this form of rewilding (the one that most speaks to me) merely as an attempt to discredit the landscape rewilding that predominates in the UK or if he actually appreciates an aspect of it. ‘Contradictory nonsense’ and reference to anarchists would indicate more guilt by association (I somehow doubt he views anarchism in a positive light!), but then his attempt at creating a new hashtag (on which, sadly, this appears to be the sole tweet thus far) seems to lay claim to some of the ideas espoused by the ‘anarchist’ or human rewilders. In a response below the tweet he writes that ‘my wildfowling club involved in managed retreat on estuary 20 years ago…no grandstanding just good management’ which leads me to believe it’s the ‘[rewilding] emphasizes regenerative land management techniques employed by hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists, as well as development of the senses and fostering deepening personal relationships with members of other species and the natural world’ part of the wiki page which he relates to. I’d be interested to hear more about the kind of ‘management’ his wildfowling club was involved in, but somehow I doubt rewilders would welcome it unreservedly, mainly because of the sporting aspect. I suspect their view would more closely align with this quote from Roy Haiyupis, a Nuu-Chah-Nulth elder and ‘cultural specialist’ from the northwest coast area of the US (my emph.):

Respect is the very core of our traditions, culture and existence. It is very basic to all we encounter in life. … Respect for nature requires a healthy state of stewardship with a healthy attitude. It is wise to respect nature. Respect the spiritual. … It is not human to waste food. It is inhuman to overexploit. “Protect and Conserve” are key values in respect of nature and natural food sources. Never harm or kill for sport. It is degrading for your honour. … It challenges your integrity and accountability. Nature has that shield or protective barrier [that], once broken, will hit back at you. (quoted in The Earth’s Blanket by Nancy Turner, p.130)

Finally, Bonner gets round to the main thrust of his article:

Which brings me on to the latest attempt at radical land use change: the strange and almost indefinable cult of ‘rewilding’. This ideology seems to have grown out of a number of strands including those who seek to reintroduce flora and fauna, in particular ‘charismatic’ mammals (charismatic megafauna) such as wolves and lynxes to their historic range; those with a John Muir-ian belief that man’s intervention in the environment is always a ‘bad thing’; and those who see a debate about land use as central to counter-acting global warming. To a greater or lesser extent, they all share the belief that their proposals should over-ride the rights of existing landowners and users, and the cultural landscapes they have historically created. To a greater or lesser extent, such proposals also seem to be motivated by political, as well as practical, aims.

‘Cult’ – nice value-neutral terminology there! Without quotes this whole paragraph is just a series of strawmen – what, to Bonner (after his exhaustive research conducted, we must assume, entirely in good faith), the ideology ‘seems’ to be. ‘To a greater or lesser extent’ is a particularly slimy way of making sweeping accusations without taking the responsibility to point out actual examples which might prove his point … to a greater or lesser extent. He may have a point with the ‘John Muir-ian belief that man’s intervention in the environment is always a ‘bad thing’’ – a philosophical aspect to some landscape rewilding which I’ve critiqued on these pages, and which others have started speaking about in wider-reaching publications. But he’s at least aware that some human management practices are celebrated by rewilders, whether we’re talking about indigenous lifeways or the active role for humans in restoration projects like Trees For Life. The whole feeling of optimism infusing the various forms of the movement stems precisely from this belief that it’s actually possible for us humans to ‘intervene’ in a positive way!

As for over-riding the ‘rights of existing landowners and users, and the cultural landscapes they have historically created’, a) you have to ask if they deserve to have these ‘rights’ honoured if it can be shown that their behaviour actually degrades the land for no real benefit and b) it’s flatly wrong to say that rewilders don’t consider this (a little too much in my opinion, but then I’m in a particularly radical wing of the ‘cult’). George Monbiot, one of the leading voices behind landscape rewilding in Britain, wrestles with the problem of how to avoid ‘ethnic cleansing’ of traditional sheep farmers in Wales for a whole chapter of his book Feral before coming to the conclusion that altering the conditions attached to their subsidies would leave them unscathed:

[S]heep farmers in the Welsh hills receive an average of £53,000 a year in subsidies while their average net farm income is £33,000. Keeping livestock, in other words, costs them £20,000 a year, though this gap may diminish if the price of lamb continues to rise. But, under the Common Agricultural Policy, if you want your subsidy payment, one of the few things you are forbidden to do is nothing. The Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition rules specify that if you do not keep the land clear, you forfeit everything. There is no requirement to produce anything; you must merely stop the land from reverting to nature, by either ploughing it, grazing it or simply cutting the resurgent vegetation. The purpose is to prevent the restoration of the ecosystem.

So here, perhaps, is the resolution of the conundrum that caused me such trouble: this rule should be dropped. Those farmers who are in it only for the money would quickly discover that they would earn more by lying on a beach than by chasing sheep over rain-sodden hills. Those who, like Dafydd and Delyth, believe in what they are doing, and have wider aims than just the maximization of profit, would keep farming. Where the life and community associated with raising sheep are highly valued, farming will continue. Where they are not, it will stop. Large areas of land would be rewilded, and the farmers who owned it could receive, as well as their main payments, genuinely green subsidies for the planting, reintroductions and other tasks required to permit a functioning ecosystem to recover. The alternative is the system we have at present: compulsory farming, enforced by the subsidy regime. (pp.180-1)

A lot of effort has also gone into researching the attitudes of farmers and the general public in areas of Europe that have seen reintroductions of some the larger mammals like boar, lynx, wolf and bear, on balance with positive views of the situation even from the farmers. As for political as opposed to practical motivations presumably this is some kind of right wing code meant to denigrate political aspirations and suggest that they’re completely divorced from practical realities. What’s wrong with being motivated by political aims? Isn’t maintaining the status quo, with all its inequity and environmental damage, a deeply political aim as well?

Next Bonner asserts that ‘All that those who recycle the mantra of ‘rewilding’ [including renegade conservatives ‘Bright Blue’ who have raised Bonner’s ire by hosting an article by Rewilding Britain’s Helen Meech] are actually doing is advertising ignorance of the reality of the British countryside’. What is this ‘reality’?

First, it is best to start with some facts. Most important of these is that almost the entirety of the British landscape has been created and maintained in its current form by man. With the tiny exception of a few very high mountain tops, the countryside we love (and the polling is very clear that we really do love it) is man-made and unnatural. Perhaps the best example of an adored created landscape is the Lake District. Man and sheep created that extraordinarily beautiful countryside: they maintain it and, crucially, are also part of it. Millions come to walk on the fells that Wainwright wrote about – or even just to gaze at them – but it is no more a ‘natural’ landscape than a ploughed East Anglian field. Even Wordsworth’s daffodils are an introduced species.

I don’t know why some people take such delight in pointing these things out. Are they trying to depress their listeners, educate them, dispel their childish wonder, or stake a claim to virtue in the beauty still visible in the bones of a ‘working [read: enslaved and dying] landscape’? I feel like responding: “Yes, I know that nearly all of the woodland left in this country has been heavily managed by people for hundreds, even thousands of years. I happen to think that has degraded the ecosystems they supported. But there’s still plenty to value there, irrespective of the demands still being made on it (less since the fossil fuels took off). Furthermore there’s still lies a potential for a return to what once was, no matter how many times this gets frustrated.” Bonner finds the Lake District ‘extraordinarily beautiful’. I found it kindof sad, boggy, quiet (apart from when the wind gets up), rugged. Undeniably beautiful but in a bleak, harsh sort of way. Somewhere to visit, not to stay. The polls say ‘we’ love ‘the countryside’. Fair enough, I can’t argue with that. I know it’s possible to love somebody, however, knowing that not everything is right with them, and feeling the desire to help them heal the damages that have impacted them and to realise their inner potential; to get back to who they really are, or as near to this as is still possible. Aldo Leopold wrote that:

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise. (link)

That’s my burden, living with eyes just starting to widen to the astonishing litany of abuse – both historical and ongoing – written in the landscape everywhere I turn. That’s also my constant marvel, at how living beings resolutely struggle to re-emerge, live, eat, reproduce and die as well as they can in the few ways that are still possible alongside this culture which seems to be purposefully destroying everything it possibly can.

Second, ‘rewilding’, in the context of the UK, is increasingly used to describe any environmental pipe dream which challenges current land ownership and use. Perhaps because the purity of simply withdrawing all management or human impact on large areas of our crowded island is so obviously impossible, we have now entered a surreal phase of redefinition. A recent select committee inquiry used the phrase ‘managed rewilding’ in its call for evidence, a charity included a session on ‘rewilding a golf course’ in its annual conference and even the primary cheerleader, ‘Rewilding Britain’, describes the restoration of a chalk stream, the ultimate in intensively managed watercourses, as ‘rewilding’.

Again, the primary motive is really to challenge farmers and landowners, presumably just for the sake of it. ‘So obviously impossible’ eh? We’ll have to see about that. He gives no further reasoning, and just goes into a few cherry-picked examples of supposed surreality which will probably evaporate on closer inspection (maybe I’ll look into them later) so this whole paragraph is basically an incoherent splutter. Oh, and the old favourite: reductio ad absurdum.

I would argue that anyone really interested in conserving the countryside and improving our environment should be rejecting this sort of nonsense, and instead engaging with the huge opportunities that post-Brexit rural policy presents. After all, most of the really damaging impacts on our countryside and in particular the uplands in the post-war period – from tax breaks for planting commercial conifer plantations, to subsidy for draining upland bogs, to the idiocy of headage payments which pushed sheep numbers to completely unsustainable levels – have been the direct result of government and EU policy.

Huge opportunities such as those infamously listed to the tune of Jerusalem by the Telegraph in the wake of Brexit? Among the many deranged and dishonest examples of supposed benefits, alongside ‘crooked cucumbers,’ ‘cheap tennis balls,’ ‘no EU human rights laws,’ ‘stop EU child benefits,’ ‘fewer chemicals restriction,’ ‘drop green targets,’ and of course ‘straight bananas’ was this one:

Searches of the Countryside Alliance website yielded no results for these terms:

soil erosion
climate change

(‘Peak oil’ returned 30 results, but these all pointed to pages dealing with how best to cook pheasant and other game meats!) Admittedly this isn’t very ‘exhaustive research’ either, and maybe someone who is a CA member can confirm whether these remarkable blind spots are in fact representative of their broader output and campaigning priorities. I trawled through the ‘related articles’ in their ‘food and farming’ section and found this article on the recent ‘State of Nature‘ report, which, while it accepted the findings that:

Between 1970 and 2013, 56% of species declined, with 40% showing strong or moderate declines […] Of the nearly 8,000 species assessed using modern Red List criteria, 15% are extinct or threatened with extinction from Great Britain’

and admitted that ‘it would appear to be grim reading […] incredibly alarming’, still proceeded to line up with the NFU in denying that farming practices bore significant responsibility for the decline of wildlife, had a go at the RSPB for having the temerity to do so, and asserted that farmers have already ‘begun to [deliver] biodiversity benefits’ and that management for sport hunting also made for good conservation. Perhaps it does, and State of Nature does acknowledge that ‘wildlife-friendly [sic] farming schemes’ have ‘bucked national trends’. Either way there seems to be little understanding or acceptance, much less any call to action, over many key issues related to farming and its ecological and social impacts. Presumably issues such as the damage caused by herbicides, pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, problems related to soil erosion and flooding (according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation ‘if current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s top soil could be gone within 60 years’ – for the UK I heard there were 100 harvests left), weather instability due to climate change, and the impacts of peak oil on the ability to maintain current rates of production as well as on how this is done – none of these appear to register, I would guess because following the implications through would jolt – even invalidate – their own political ideologies. Naomi Klein observed this phenomenon among conservative climate change deniers in the US:

Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. There is simply no way to square a belief system that vilifies collective action and venerates total market freedom with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that created and are deepening the crisis.

At the Heartland conference—where everyone from the Ayn Rand Institute to the Heritage Foundation has a table hawking books and pamphlets—these anxieties are close to the surface. [Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute] is forthcoming about the fact that Heartland’s campaign against climate science grew out of fear about the policies that the science would require. “When we look at this issue, we say, This is a recipe for massive increase in government…. Before we take this step, let’s take another look at the science. So conservative and libertarian groups, I think, stopped and said, Let’s not simply accept this as an article of faith; let’s actually do our own research.” This is a crucial point to understand: it is not opposition to the scientific facts of climate change that drives denialists but rather opposition to the real-world implications of those facts.

What Bast is describing—albeit inadvertently—is a phenomenon receiving a great deal of attention these days from a growing subset of social scientists trying to explain the dramatic shifts in belief about climate change. Researchers with Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project have found that political/cultural worldview explains “individuals’ beliefs about global warming more powerfully than any other individual characteristic.”

Those with strong “egalitarian” and “communitarian” worldviews (marked by an inclination toward collective action and social justice, concern about inequality and suspicion of corporate power) overwhelmingly accept the scientific consensus on climate change. On the other hand, those with strong “hierarchical” and “individualistic” worldviews (marked by opposition to government assistance for the poor and minorities, strong support for industry and a belief that we all get what we deserve) overwhelmingly reject the scientific consensus.

For example, among the segment of the US population that displays the strongest “hierarchical” views, only 11 percent rate climate change as a “high risk,” compared with 69 percent of the segment displaying the strongest “egalitarian” views. Yale law professor Dan Kahan, the lead author on this study, attributes this tight correlation between “worldview” and acceptance of climate science to “cultural cognition.” This refers to the process by which all of us—regardless of political leanings—filter new information in ways designed to protect our “preferred vision of the good society.” As Kahan explained in Nature, “People find it disconcerting to believe that behaviour that they find noble is nevertheless detrimental to society, and behaviour that they find base is beneficial to it. Because accepting such a claim could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional predisposition to reject it.” In other words, it is always easier to deny reality than to watch your worldview get shattered, a fact that was as true of die-hard Stalinists at the height of the purges as it is of libertarian climate deniers today. (‘Capitalism vs. the Climate‘)

So perhaps Bonner is projecting when he views leftists and progressives as taking any opportunity to stick it to the landed gentry rather than having a genuine interest in protecting, preserving and repairing the damage done to the environment and only coming into conflict with farmers and landowners when they undermine or stand in the way of these efforts. He can’t view their concerns as legitimate without calling into question his own belief system, so he must therefore view them as sworn enemies in a culture war, who he must stand up to in defense of his identity – tightly bound up with his conception of the Countryside; what it Is and how it should be kept that way. (By the way I don’t claim to be immune to this ‘cultural cognition’. For example, raised as a dedicated suburbanite, I’ve never made a living from farming, so there aren’t so many obstacles in the way of my accepting strong critiques of agriculture, and I don’t feel the same visceral aversion to nondomesticated life, especially the predators “out there in the Natural World” just waiting to attack my livelihood at the first available opportunity. I can understand why farmers get worked up over city-dwellers lecturing them on how they should operate, when their own lifestyles have been made possible in the first place by the same industrial-scale methods they now deplore.)

Bonner concludes:

Now is the time to agree what outcomes we want from the countryside, which will include everything from food, to water, to carbon capture, and create a new system of payments which will allow farmers and the rural community to deliver them. Real conservatives should forget the dubious rhetoric of ‘rewilding’, and focus on the delivery of public goods and sustaining the cultural landscape of the British countryside.

Drawing up the battle lines: ‘agree’ what ‘we’ want as ‘real conservatives’ and prepare to fight those who have different ideas. Nice to see carbon capture on the list, I suppose.

I conclude:

Some people are impervious to reason or persuasion either on political or practical levels. It’s probably a waste of time attempting to engage with them, so direct your attention to those who will listen and perhaps lend you their support if you deliver on your promises and prove your worth. Fortunately the young rewilding movement seems to have significant public support on its side, which might help it to deliver some genuinely positive changes for the much-abused communities of wild plants and animals on this island. If these changes also benefit humans so much the better, but we should remember that what’s good for humanity is not necessarily what’s good for agriculture. In fact the correlation most often goes the other way.

There’s another Countryside out there waiting for us to make our alliances with it.

***Epilogue, December 13th***

Derek Yalden’s list of mammals gone extinct in the British Isles over the last 15,000 years:

Common name




Mammoth Mammuthus primigenius 12500 b.p. Climate
Saiga antelope Saiga tatarica 12400 b.p. Climate
Arctic fox Alopex lagopus 12400 b.p. Climate
Lemming Lemmus lemmus 10500 b.p. Climate
Arctic lemming Dicrostonyx torquatus 10500 b.p. Climate
Narrow-headed vole Microtus gregalis 10500 b.p. Climate
Pika Ochotona pusilla
10000 b.p. Climate
Wild horse Equus ferus 9330 b.p. Climate
Giant elk Megaloceros giganteus 9225 b.p. Climate
Reindeer Rangifer tarandus 8300 b.p. Climate
Wolverine Gulo gulo 8000 b.p. Hunting
Northern vole Microtus oeconomus 3500 b.p. Climate
Elk Alces alces 3400 b.p. Hunting
Aurochs Bos primigenius 3250 b.p. Hunting
Lynx Lynx lynx 200 A.D. Hunting
Brown bear Ursus arctos 500 A.D. Hunting
Beaver Castor fiber 1300 A.D. Hunting
Wild boar Sus scrofa 1500 A.D. Hunting
Wolf Canis lupus 1700 A.D. Hunting
Muskrat Ondatra zibethicus 1935 A.D. Hunting
Coypu Myocastor coypus 1987 A.D. Hunting

Note that all the extinctions caused by ‘hunting’ (except the wolverine, for reasons I’ve not been able to establish) happened after the arrival of neolithic farmers, now thought to have first occurred around 8,000 years ago. Proponents of the Overkill theory will dispute some of the earlier ‘climate’ verdicts, insisting that human hunter-gatherers played a part, but otherwise:

About 300 years ago, the Wolf died out [sic], and in the previous century the Gray Whale. Brown Bear, Elk, Beaver, Aurochs, Wild Boar and Lynx also occurred naturally in Britain until, variously, Bronze Age, Roman or later times (Table 1), but were exterminated by some combination of habitat change (caused by farming) and hunting (either to eliminate pests or to exploit fur, meat and other attributes).

In other words, direct responsibility for the extinction of these mammal species, along with many others in different families and likely many more to come, lies with farmers, whether through deliberate policies of extermination (mainly with the predators), overexploitation for meat or other market commodities, or the indirect (but entirely predictable) effects of clearing forest and wetland habitat in the unchecked spread of arable farmland across the country. And now they insist these creatures have no right to reintroduction because ‘there isn’t enough space’ or ‘we need the land for crops & livestock to feed our growing population’. Well, what gives agriculturalists the right to occupy all that land in the first place, to the detriment of all but a handful of domesticated species (and a few more wild plants and animals adapted to field conditions)? And why is the domesticated human population growing if not because of that very same theft of biomass from the rest of the living community? The changes farmers have made to the British landscape are staggering, here illustrated by Yalden:

If there are about 285 million wild mammals in Britain, there are also about 21 million breeding sheep, 4 million cattle, 0.8 million pigs, 0.75 million horses and of course 38 million adult humans (other pets, such as dogs cats, rats, rabbits and guinea pigs, not out in the countryside, are additional to these). All these are very large mammals by the standards of the British fauna, and their biomasses are considerable. To put them in context, the biomass of all the wild mammals amounts to about 2% of the total, while the domestic ungulates contribute 56% and humans 44% [something doesn’t add up here…]. Put another way, there is now only about 64% of the biomass of wild mammals in the countryside that there used to be when the countryside was covered in woodland 6,000 years ago when Elk, Wild Boar and Aurochs accompanied the Roe and Red Deer […] However, the biomass of all mammals, domestic plus wild plus human, is about 33 times greater than it was then. This is a measure of how enormously we have changed the ecology of the countryside. Grasslands, with or without fertilizer, produce much more growth each year than woodlands, so can support more grazing animals, and in turn they and our other crops support us. (ibid.)

To paraphrase Derrick Jensen, it’s about experience: if your experience is that all your food comes from agriculture then that is the land management practice you will defend because your life depends on it. This explains why hunter-gatherer cultures lived alongside the above species for many thousands of years whereas farmers, when they arrived, killed them off in a relatively short period of time: the former depended on them for food and other essential aspects of existence such as clothing, tools and shelter whereas the latter derived their primary subsistence from other means and therefore did not need to pay close attention to how they treated them, nor keep the same traditions of respect or strong conservation ethic observed in all intact hunter-gatherer cultures, past & present. In fact, as we see throughout history up to the present day, cultural traditions among farmers more often encourage antagonistic, even sociopathic behaviour towards nondomesticated species, as success in farming would most often depend on how well they were able to subdue wild plant and animal populations, aka ‘weeds’ and ‘pests’, which competed with or predated their crops and livestock. (When was the last time you heard a fairy tale depicting wolves in a positive light?) … Hence rewilding efforts will always play second fiddle to the ‘food security’ provided by agriculture – unless we are able to shift our dependencies in some way back onto the same ecosystems and species, via the same process of reintroduction and restoration.

A final thought: don’t farmers have a moral responsibility to repair the damage they and their forebears have done? At least they could stop sabotaging the efforts of those who are trying to do this work – even if they do obtain the majority of their food from agriculture in the meantime.

I’ll send you on your way with this lovely rewild-y prose-poem by Jensen:


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6 Responses to “Tim Bonner: Ignorant, unjust – and bad for the environment”

  1. mainstreetuk Says:

    This is a really good post. This information needs to be out in the world. Thank you for writing it.

  2. Ian M Says:

    Mike Daniels, appropriately enough from the John Muir Trust, pitches in on the ‘rewilding will exclude humans’ concern:


    Rewilding is not about excluding people. None of the advocates of rewilding I’ve spoken to have ever suggested that. Cameron’s statement that rewilding is about ‘a richer biodiversity and a natural order of things that excludes mankind’ is spot on – apart from the last three words. They can be deleted.

    As James Hunter argued so well in his book ‘On The Other Side of Sorrow’, the regeneration of the land goes hand in hand with the regeneration of the people. Current land management practices support a tiny number of jobs per hectare. Few rural dwellers are employed directly on the land; nor do they hunt or get firewood or food from the land on which they live. This can change. But only if the environment is enriched on a scale big enough to create a host of new niches for wildlife, and new opportunities for sustainable rural employment.

    I’ll try to find link for the part about researching attitudes of European farmers and lay-people towards the larger mammals, especially predators. In the meantime here’s another RB article on Norwegian and Scottish attitudes towards Lynx:


    Looking at Switzerland, which has around 170 lynx, there are around 50 sheep lost to predation each year. Anti-predator measures include guard dogs (which you also see in Spain), keeping lambs away from the forest edges and shepherding the sheep more closely. Sheep are kept away from grazing in wooded areas. In Switzerland, lynx kill around 7,000 roe deer a year.

    Studies suggest that if there are deer available then lynx, and wolves, will choose to eat deer rather than sheep (see, for example, Roger Panaman, 2002. Wolves are returning. ECOS Vol.23, no.2). In some areas of Scotland, deer densities are higher than sheep densities. This, combined with the open hill nature of sheep farming in Scotland, would dramatically reduce the risk to sheep.

    So there are many ways to mitigate loss of livestock and live with predators. In Sweden, for example, farmers are paid for having lynx on their land. The payment they receive depends on how many lynx there are. This indicates the value that society puts on the lynx, keeps predator losses to a minimum, and acknowledges the difficulties they can cause farmers.

    Top predators bring many benefits. Lynx help to keep deer numbers down and so help to protect young trees growing. This would help Scotland increase its tree cover and encourage much greater biodiversity. In addition, lynx can help farmers by reducing the fox population and the associated damage that they cause farming.

  3. Ian M Says:

    Thanks mainstreetuk, I do my best 🙂

  4. Ian M Says:

    So… over a hundred views of this post in the nine days since it was published and nobody else has anything to say? Come on guys, don’t be shy!

  5. Ian M Says:

    Another in-depth analysis of the Countryside Alliance’s beef with rewilding, this time looking at a submission they made to the Environmental Audit Committee – who are currently holding an inquiry into ‘The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum’ and soliciting views on the role of rewilding in the ‘conservation and restoration of habitats and wildlife’.


    Lots of juicy bits, much of it sitting well with my above positions but speaking with more authority from the conservation viewpoint. Like me the author, Simon Phelps, can’t resist the lure of the ad-hominem, only his dig is more satisfying & substantial than mine, and aimed at the CA in total rather than just its figurehead:

    The claim of ‘working for everyone who loves the countryside’ is an extremely bold one and one I see little evidence of. Millions of people love the wildlife found in the British countryside, yet I do not see the Countryside Alliance joining forces with conservation charities to help save our declining wildlife. Countryside is a vague term, but ‘rural way of life’ is even vaguer and I wonder if it is so vague as to mean next to nothing. I am not an expert in the work of the Countryside Alliance, although I do follow the publicity they put out via Twitter quite closely, and it seems to me that when they say ‘life in the countryside’ they mean people, not wildlife. I would also suggest that they seem to focus on a certain group of people more than others; that being shooters and hunters. I am happy to be corrected on these assertions, if someone from the Countryside Alliance wants to share with me more on what they do and what their focus is (aside from the pathetically trivial case of trying to get Chris Packham sacked, which obviously occupies much of their time).


    I find it extremely intriguing that of all the issues covered by this inquiry, the Countryside Alliance decided to respond solely to the issue of rewilding. Whilst rewilding is obviously an important issue, one which I am very pleased to see the Government considering, a strong case could be put forward that of all the points raised by the inquiry, it is the least pressing. Of a random selection of other organisations’ evidence submissions that I skimmed over, all of them responded to all of the issues in one document. That the Countryside Alliance have only responded on rewilding alone could be interpreted in many ways. Could it be that they are overly concerned about it? Is it a high priority issue for them? What about farming and farming subsidies?

    His main argument is that while there may be confusion about what people mean by rewilding this isn’t reason enough to discard it completely. Furthermore a strict definition would exclude a lot of nuance couched in the term, which he views as offering more of a ‘continuum’:

    There can be no single definition of rewilding as it is a continuum, a gradient, a philosophy. It will mean different things to different people and can be used in different ways, depending on the context. I believe that rewilding has a few main components that are in common across all rewilding approaches: minimal intervention by humans, process led (ecological processes, like succession), limited use of targets, moving away from focusing on single species, landscape scale, reinstating lost ecological processes and lost species.

    (Although he does admit that it can get confusing when the label is applied to many different projects.) On the charge that rewilding is ‘pursued as an ideological, rather than practical’ he responds that:

    Rewilding is, due to its relative infancy, heavily rooted in ideology, but it is an ideology that is progressive and uplifting, restorative and powerful. Rewilding is practical, it has key principles that can be applied to the land and sea and indeed the case studies put forward on the Rewilding Britain website show it in action, so the Countryside Alliance are wrong here. Rewilding has arisen precisely because of the mounting challenges faced by conservationists trying to stem the tide of biodiversity loss.

    He deals with the claim that ‘the British countryside is admired at home and around the world because of the way it is currently managed’ this way:

    I’d be interested to see their evidence for asserting that one of the reasons people admire the British countryside (another vague and loaded term – what is meant by ‘countryside’? which part of it?) is for its management. I am guessing (because it is not referenced, like the whole of the submission unfortunately) that by ‘managed’ they mean ‘farmed’, and by ‘countryside’ they mean the farmed bits; lush green cattle pastures, neat hedgerows, bare uplands. What about the kind of habitats rewilding seeks to create? Native woodland, wetlands, meandering rivers, meadows – I imagine people also love these, maybe more so than our agricultural and upland deserts.

    Perhaps the strongest part of the article comes in his response to the statement that ‘‘rewilding’ land management practices result in the loss of agricultural land or reduction in productivity of the land’, which I was delighted to see him challenge head on:

    It is true to say that at the heart of the rewilding ideology is a desire to see more land completely given back to nature and farming ceased. I believe that this stems from the huge losses that have taken place (and are still continuing) and a desire to see the conservation movement become more forceful in the way it operates. You could argue that for too long the conservation movement has been too passive in the face of loss. Rewilding is the fight back, a logical reaction to decades and decades of ‘traditional’ methods failing and modern farming failing to do enough to halt the declines.

    It’s still referring mainly to the over-grazed uplands but there is a lot of common ground here, at least rhetorically, with those (including myself) who see rewilding as a reversal of the whole process of domestication. It starts in the marginal places, the last to be colonised, ‘pasture-ised’ by the dominant culture, and from there it can spread down into the valleys and along the rivers, chasing the domesticating urge back to where it came from, undoing not ‘decades and decades’ but centuries and millennia of damage and ecological simplification. The only thing missing from the analysis is where the rewilding +humans+ can find a home and ally themselves to that process. Hint: ecotourism isn’t going to cut it!

    There’s a great link in there to a project I’d never heard of in East Anglia to restore some of the wetlands that were almost totally destroyed by draining for agriculture, the Great Fen Project. Phelps thinks this should just be called ‘ecological restoration’. Maybe, but in terms of undoing domestication it’s probably the most clear-cut example of rewilding I’ve ever heard of in this country. From what little I understand of it there’s a human history attached to that corner of England and embedded to some extent in the same lost ecology too. It was home to one of the last great resistance movements against empire culture in this country around 1,000 years ago. In restoring the ecology we give ourselves the opportunity to regain something that was lost in us.

  6. Ian M Says:

    Speaking of attitudes towards wolves, here’s a page looking at how they’re viewed in the various Native American cultures:


    The Navajo word for wolf, “mai-coh,” also means witch, and a person could transform if he or she donned a wolf skin. So the Europeans were not the only ones with werewolf legends. However, the American tribes have an overwhelming tendency to look upon the wolf in a much more favorable light. The Navajo themselves have healing ceremonies which call upon Powers to restore peace and harmony to the ill, and the wolf is one such Power.

    “The caribou feeds the wolf, but it is the wolf who keeps the caribou strong.”

    -Keewatin Eskimo saying

    Native American tribes recognized the wolf for its extreme devotion to its family, and many drew parallels between wolf pack members and the members of the tribe. Also, the wolf’s superior and cooperative hunting skills made it the envy of many tribes. Finally, the wolf was known to defend its home against outsiders, a task with which each tribe had to contend as well.

    Some examples of the wolf appearing throughout Native American religion and mythology include the following. The Eskimos told of an old woman, Qisaruatsiaq, who was abandoned and forced to live by herself, and who eventually turned into a wolf. The Sioux called the wolf “shunk manitu tanka,” or “animal that looks like a dog but is a powerful spirit.” Cheyenne medicine men rubbed warrior arrows against wolf fur to bring better success in hunting. The Nootka celebrated spiritual ties to the wolf, in a ceremony whereby they pretended to bring back to life the chief’s dead son, by wearing wolf clothing. The Cherokee would not kill a wolf, believing the dead wolf’s siblings would enact revenge. They also imitated the wolf’s walk to help ward off frostbite to their feet. The Crow dressed in wolf skins to hunt. The Mandan displayed on their moccasins wolf tails, signs of success in battle. Women of the Hidatsa tribe rubbed their bellies with wolf skin to alleviate difficult childbirth. The Cree believed divine wolves visited earth when the northern lights would shine during winter. The Ahtena would prop dead wolves up, sometimes feeding them ceremonial meals. Chippewa myths tell of wolves supplying humans with food and hides. The Delaware tribe thought a change in weather might be announced through a wolf’s howl. The Hopis include Wolf as one of the Katchinas, the costumed dancers who represent the powers of the universe.

    Would be nice to live in a society that made peace with – and allowed space for – the other large mammals with whom we share this planet. That’s unlikely to happen while we maintain our rigid dependencies on the small band of domesticated species. Native American tribes didn’t (to my knowledge) keep domestic animals for meat or milk, or if they did they certainly didn’t depend on them the way European agriculturists do*. Thus they would have stayed on the same playing field as the wolves, hunting the same game animals such as buffalo, caribou and elk, possibly in similar ways. No need to view them as sworn enemies in that scenario. Probably hunter-gatherer tribes in Britain would have had similar attitudes and beliefs.

    Compare that to modern policies towards wildlife perceived as impinging, even in minor ways, on money-making activities. Watch, for example, this episode of ‘Swamp Loggers’ from 30:00 and notice how they react to news of a nearby beaver dam:

    ‘Mother Nature, wind rain and snow, and landowners. I’m not about to let these rodents run me off.’ – how are beavers going to appear in the stories he tells his children?


    * – hmmm, I might be talking crap here… I’m wondering about first nations in the north of America centered around caribou. I don’t know the ins and outs of their relationship with the herds – did it approach European levels of domestication, such that modern Sami people are said to ‘farm’ reindeer? The Evenk people in Siberia would be another example. It would be interesting to see what their attitudes to wolves were/are like. Will report back!

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