Where the Wild Things Were


Beyond Conservation. A Wildland Strategy. Taylor, P. 2005 . Earthscan Publications Limited , London . 296 pp. (278 + xviii). £19.99 (approximately US$34.66) . ISBN 1-84407-198-7 .

In Maurice Sendak's popular children's book, Where the Wild Things Are, written more than 40 years ago, the hero, Max, who has been sent to his bedroom for a series of misdemeanors, watches in his wolf suit as the bare walls and ceiling sprout leaves and turn into a jungle overlooked by a silvery moon. He sails across an ocean, in and out of weeks, and over a year to a land where the wild things are. They gnash their terrible teeth and show their terrible claws, but he says, “be still,” and tames them with a stare. They become frightened and, perceptively, call him the wildest thing of all. After being crowned king of all wild things, the fun begins. But as time passes, he eventually becomes homesick. Leaving the wild things, which gnash their terrible teeth in dismay, he sails back home to his bedroom and finds his hot supper waiting for him.

Although we have lived with wild things for most of human history, many are now extinct. Early hominids shared Europe with the auroch, giant Irish elk, woolly mammoth, scimitar-toothed cat, woolly rhinoceros, hyena, and hippopotamus. As agriculture and human settlements expanded and forests and other wild lands were converted, species gradually disappeared. In Britain the brown bear survived certainly until ad 750 and possibly to the time of the Domesday Book. The last beavers were recorded in the 1300s, wild boar were common to the late middle ages but then disappeared, and the last wolf died in the 1600s. Today, we are left with 44 species of land-breeding mammals, the most common of which are voles, shrews, rabbits, rats, mice, and moles. In North America, the losses of species have been more dramatic. Since the seventeenth-century arrival of Europeans, some 500 species of animals, fish, and plants have disappeared, a rate of between one and two species a year.

Bringing back some of these lost animals is now part of an emerging conservation agenda that seeks to be more proactive than in the past. In this welcomed book, Beyond Conservation, Peter Taylor says we have been too defensive in the past and that conservation is still not relevant to the mainstream economy. Here he seeks to set out a strategy to “rewild” our industrialized landscapes and so bring us closer to nature. Is such integration possible, or is it all a bit too late? It would be easy to make the mistake of thinking that the division between agriculture and nature began when the first seeds were sown 10,000 years ago. In truth, though, this separation was never complete until this industrial age had taken full effect. Thus, there are three levels of possible integration: biodiversity in the field that contributes a service to food production; whole-farm integration with mosaics of different land uses; and whole landscapes in which ecological restoration can occur. All have been a focus of recent efforts to make agriculture more sustainable.

What prospects are there, then, to bringing back some of the more iconic wild animals of industrialized landscapes? Rewilding is described by Peter Taylor as “putting a new soul in the landscape.” It aims to retrieve something lost and perhaps even to create something quite new. Three chapters in the book detail the potential for large-scale landscape change for Coed Eyri in Snowdon National Park, for the reestablishment of the Caledonian forest in Scotland, and for a rewilding of Dartmoor in Devon. A further chapter usefully summarizes efforts to create new networks and corridors, including woodlands, wetlands, coastal marshes, and wild rivers. Then follow chapters on the requirements for restoring the herbivore and carnivore guilds, again mainly with a focus on the U.K. landscape. All of this will require some coordinated policy for both agriculture and conservation and some big shifts in public thinking. Are we ready for this, he wonders?

Many of the animals and birds being proposed as possible reintroductions have long since disappeared from our memories. Bringing them back would change the land and change the people too. Some reintroductions have been relatively uncontroversial. The White-tailed Eagle was eradicated in 1916, reintroductions attempted from 1959, and breeding successful in the Western Isles of Scotland from 1986. Forty-five years of effort have led to a population of 11 pairs. The Great Bustard has been reintroduced from Hungary to Salisbury Plain and has so far survived foxes and motor cars. Tarpan and Konik horses have been brought in to help in the managed grazing of coastal marshes and reed beds, and Chillingham cattle, relatives of ancient aurochs, have been put back into some forests.

But it is the next cohort of introductions that will excite controversy. Beavers have been proposed for release into habitats in Kent and Scotland, but hitherto rejected for fear that their escape would lead to habitat destruction. Others are talking about elk—could they be introduced as part of the Wicken Fen project to the northeast of Cambridge? Wild boar are already present in four or five herds across southern England, and the policy question centers on whether they should be permitted to remain or be hunted out. But the greatest of all controversy would come with predator introductions, particularly wolves, bear, and lynx. Bear get better press than wolves but are unlikely to be seriously proposed. Lynx do not carry so much public concern and might be permitted. Wolves, though, would be an extraordinary attraction if introduced into a landscape large enough to support active packs. I suspect many would love to see them in the wild, while at the same time feeling the visceral fear that wolves seem to provoke.

Taylor also touches on one of the enduring mysteries of U.K. landscapes. This is the phenomenon of alien big cats. About 1000 reports of sightings per year are reported. Individual testimonies seem convincing, even though some people may be mistaken. As with the Loch Ness monster, the photos mostly are blurred and confusing. Could there really be such wild animals out there in our crowded land? And, if so, are they escapees from zoos or circuses or deliberate releases by pet owners or welfare activists. If they are present, are they breeding? Once there have been a number of sightings in one location, the animals inevitably receive a popular moniker—the Beast of Bodmin, the Fen Tiger, the Surrey Puma. In this way, they enter popular mythology and increase the likelihood of people seeing something that may not really be present. We are, however, still left with sheep kills and horse mutilations that seem to point only to big cats, yet officials have searched at some locations for weeks with little success. The lack of hard evidence is strange. Is it because they genuinely do not exist, or are they really so elusive that we cannot locate them in the landscape?

Or maybe there is something more subtle in all of this? Perhaps we simply would like to sustain some wild mysteries and stories that are not resolved to a final truth of presence or absence. Alien big cats continue to occupy a boundary between mythology and nature. What, then, does this rewilding agenda mean for conservation and agriculture? Some rewilding does mean the creation of completely separate habitats, but most implies an overlap, a sharing of the landscape for its various functions. It should be possible to have food-producing systems that complement and enhance nature. There is now growing confidence that we can indeed make the transition to sustainable agricultural and food systems that both protect and use nature. This will require some rethinking about the very idea of farming and its redefinition as a multifunctional activity rather than just focusing on food production. The new model farm produces wholesome food that people want to buy and eat, and it contributes to the production of a large number of environmental goods and services. It coexists with wildlife and links people to the land directly via the food they eat and places they know about and can visit. Perhaps we may indeed see a rewilding that reshapes our land, as well as ensures positive outcomes for both farming and conservation.