BW: If we have 75% of the world’s heather habitat in the UK, where have we gone wrong? GM: BW: GM:
and bare rock. And there are few significant moves by the National Trust to do anything about it, beyond Ennerdale. Worse still, the Trust tells stories about the land that are simply not true. For example, it says: “Increasingly we recognise the value of places such as this for clean water, for storing carbon in precious peat-rich soils, for food and for nature, and of course for recreation, tranquillity and inspiration. Farmers are critical for the delivery of many of these things.” In reality, the best protection for clean water supplies, soil carbon and nature is the reduction or cessation of farming in crucial places. For example, if you want to prevent floods and ensure a steady supply of water downstream, the best means of doing so are to allow trees and other dense vegetation to return to the hills, to get the sheep off (which compact the soil), to stop the dredging of tributaries by farmers and to de-canalise the rivers. Why does it tell these tales?
BW: Rumours have it that the Government is still trying to sell off the Forestry Commission. How can we stop such a Government? GM: The fightback against the first attempt to flog the forest estate was impressive, not least because it was started and led by an independent campaigner. I think the Government would struggle even more were it to try again, not least because some key NGOS, which should have led the first fight, have now been shamed into defending the forests. Let’s hope so at any rate.
BW: Your article The Population Myth talks about how seeing population growth as the number one environmental issue shifts the blame from the rich to the poor. Is there not the same problem for British wildlife, with the rich dictating what lives on their land? GM: Yes, there’s an analogy to be drawn there. Characteristically (though not exclusively) large landowners are far more conservative and hostile to wildlife than the majority of the population. Their slaughter of Hen Harriers and other raptors, their extreme hostility to the reintroduction of wildlife that so many people would love to see (such as Beavers and White-tailed Eagles) is as stupid as it’s unpopular. There are a few more enlightened owners, and I hope very much that the ethos begins to change. But we also need far better regulation and enforcement.
BW: Why are more communities not taking the ‘Mull initiative’ and promoting and protecting their birds and wildlife? GM: Good question. A lack of awareness, perhaps, Writer, journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot of how effective it can be in terms of creating and sustaining local employment. I hope very much that others learn from the experience. Heather is typical of the vegetation that occupies land that has been repeatedly deforested. You can see similar landscapes of low scrub all over the tropics, where repeated cutting and burning has taken place. There it is lamented by conservationists. Here, we fetishise it and maintain it by cutting and burning. Imagine what a Brazilian conservationist would say if she saw that this is our favoured method of protecting the natural world. She’d think we’d gone mad, and she wouldn’t be far wrong. I see the monotonous, monocultural moorlands that conservationists celebrate as a mark of failure: failure of vision and failure of ecosystems.
If all farm subsidies were stopped and each farm given a hive of bees to manage the land for, do you think farming could change its direction and survive? Without farm subsidies, farming in the lowlands (which tends to be profitable without them) would remain more or less the same, except for one crucial difference: the value of land would fall sharply, allowing new entrants a foothold. Farming in the uplands would cease overnight: it is wholly dependent on public money. I’m not advocating that, but I am suggesting that we should be asking some searching questions about what we are getting for our money, and why we continue to pay a fortune to have the natural world wrecked, our homes flooded and our carbon stores depleted.
BW: Could a different Government do any better than the present one in looking after our birds of prey, which are being slaughtered on grouse moors? GM: It couldn’t do much worse. The current Government has not only turned a blind eye to the abuses perpetrated by large landowners, it has actively collaborated in them, during the attempts to kill Buzzards on behalf of Pheasant shoots. When the minister for wildlife and biodiversity is one of the largest landowners in the country, with a Pheasant estate and a grouse moor among his properties, and blocks any legislation (such as the liability of estate owners when their gamekeepers kill protected raptors) and hobbles any agency which might curtail the destructive activities of the class to which he belongs, any change has got to be an improvement.
CONTROVERSIAL Some conservation groups seem to be engaged in little more than slightly modified farming