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George MonbiotGeorge Monbiot attacks subsidies to sheep farmers and grouse moor owners

Friday, 4 July 2014

Guardian columnist George Monbiot gave a powerful speech to a packed audience at the Baptist Church yesterday evening, as part of the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival.

He attacked the the "monoculture of the white plague" ie, the farming of sheep, and the giving of subsidies to grouse moor owners. Without subsidies, he told the audience, there would be no hill top farming. "UK agriculture is more destructive than anywhere else on Earth."

This Government has nearly doubled the subsidies to anonymous, grouse moor owners who use the money to destroy wildlife and burn their land. These subsidies have serious consequences for us in the valleys and were in fact 'a flood subsidy'. The moors should not just be 'chicken runs for grouse'.

These subsidies cost £250 from each of us, and most of the money goes to the very richest landowners such as the Duke of Westminster.

He started his talk by describing the environment in our islands during the inter-glacial era as one where elephants, rhinoceros, hyenas and lions flourished. Even 9000 years ago, there was a temperate rain forest from Scotland to Spain. Today, just 12% of land is covered in trees compared with over 30% in Europe and the rest of the world. 

The UK is unique in Europe in having no trees on its uplands. Why?

He described moving to Wales in between Snowdonia and the Cambrian mountains. Wherever he went for a walk, it was dead. No insects, very few birds and no trees. Just sheep. "There was as much biodiversity as a multistorey carpark." Only the road verges were vibrant with different plants and insects - because the highway authorities kept the sheep fenced out. Away from the road verges, it was like the "aftermath of a nuclear winter".

It is ironic, he argued, that European campaigners want the Amazon forests protected from cattle ranchers while here we protect the ranchers from trees.

Heather moorland and pasture are fetishised as the ideal state of nature. And we wonder why there are floods downstream, and we keep losing species.

George Monbiot's solution is rewilding. It costs comparatively little as all that must be done is to reintroduce species such as beavers or pine martins and let nature take its course. 

He gave the example of Yellowstone National Park in the US. A few wolves were re-introduced. Soon there were many more plants, trees and other animals. Even the rivers started meandering more. The wolves preyed on the deer, which had been clearing the land of plants. He said that the re-introduction of pine martins in Ireland had led to a decline in grey squirrels and a great increase in red squirrels.

It isn't only the environment which gets rewilded. So does the human spirit which needs a rich and varying countryside.

He praised local groups such as Ban the Burn and Source which are already helping to move along the rewilding route. There is going to be a national group committed to the idea of rewilding some of our land.

On being asked whether all the Yorkshire Moor should be reforested, he said that farmers should have a real choice. They should be offered their subsidies to do others things with their land than just breeding sheep. Rewilding could also renew dying communities.

On asked about whether there should be a register of landowners, he said in France or Spain, you could go to the Town Hall and find out who owns the land. That's not possible in this country.

George Monbiot's book on the subject is - Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life.


See also:

HebWeb Forum thread: George Monbiot and rewilding the uplands (July 2014)

Report of the meeting from from Upper Calder Valley Plain Speaker