by Richard Coniff
You don’t have to look far to see the woolly influence of sheep on our cultural lives. They turn up as symbols of peace and a vaguely remembered pastoral way of life in our poetry, our art and our Christmas pageants. Wolves also rank high among our cultural icons, usually in connection with the words “big” and “bad.” And yet there is now a debate underway about substituting the wolf for the sheep on the (also iconic) green hills of Britain.
The British author and environmental polemicist George Monbiot has largely instigated the anti-sheep campaign, which builds on a broader “rewilding” movement to bring native species back to Europe. Until he recently relocated, Mr. Monbiot used to look up at the bare hills above his house in Machynlleth, Wales, and seethe at what Lord Tennyson lovingly called “the livelong bleat / Of the thick-fleeced sheep.” Because of overgrazing by sheep, he says, the deforested uplands, including a national park, looked “like the aftermath of a nuclear winter.”
“I have an unhealthy obsession with sheep,” Mr. Monbiot admits, in his book “Feral.” “I hate them.” In a chapter titled “Sheepwrecked,” he calls sheep a “white plague” and “a slow-burning ecological disaster, which has done more damage to the living systems of this country than either climate change or industrial pollution.”
The thought of all those sheep — more than 30 million nationwide — makes Mr. Monbiot a little crazy. But to be fair, sheep seem to lead us all beyond the realm of logic. The nibbled landscape that he denounces as “a bowling green with contours” is beloved by the British public. Visitors (including this writer, otherwise a wildlife advocate) tend to feel the same when they hike the hills and imagine they are still looking out on William Blake’s “green and pleasant land.” Even British conservationists, who routinely scold other countries for letting livestock graze in their national parks, somehow fail to notice that Britain’s national parks are overrun with sheep.
Mr. Monbiot detects “a kind of cultural cringe” that keeps people from criticizing sheep farming. (In part, he blames children’s books for clouding vulnerable minds with idyllic ideas about farming.) Sheep have “become a symbol of nationhood, an emblem almost as sacred as Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God,” he writes. Much of the nation tunes in ritually on Sunday nights to BBC television’s “Countryfile,” a show about rural issues, which he characterizes as an escapist modern counterpart to pastoral poetry. “If it were any keener on sheep,” he says, “it would be illegal.”
The many friends of British sheep have not yet called for burning Mr. Monbiot at the stake. But they have protested. “Without our uplands, we wouldn’t have a UK sheep industry,” Phil Bicknell, an economist for the National Farmers Union pointed out. “Farmgate sales of lamb are worth over £1bn” — or $1.7 billion — “to U.K. agriculture.” The only wolves he wanted to hear about were his own Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club. A critic for The Guardian, where Mr. Monbiot contributes a column, linked the argument against sheep, rather unfairly, to anti-immigrant nativists, adding “sheep have been here a damn sight longer than Saxons.”
Mr. Monbiot acknowledges the antiquity of sheep-keeping in Britain. But the subjugation of the uplands by sheep, he says, only really got going around the 17th century, as the landlords enclosed the countryside, evicted poor farmers, and cleared away the forests from the hillsides and moorlands, particularly in Scotland. Britain is, he writes, inexplicably choosing “to preserve a 17th-century cataclysm.” The sheep wouldn’t be in the uplands at all, he adds, without annual taxpayer subsidies, which average £53,000 per farm in Wales.
He proposes an end to this artificial foundation for the “agricultural hegemony,” to be replaced by a more lucrative economy of walking and wildlife-based activities. He also argues for bringing wolves back to Britain, for reasons both scientific (“to reintroduce the complexity and trophic diversity in which our ecosystems are lacking”) and romantic (wolves are “inhabitants of the more passionate world against which we have locked our doors”). But he acknowledges that it would be foolish to force rewilding on the public. “If it happens, it should be done with the consent and active engagement of the people who live on and benefit from the land.”
Elsewhere in Europe, the sheep are in full bleating retreat, and the wolves are resurgent. Shepherds and small farmers are abandoning marginal land at an annual rate of roughly a million hectares, or nearly 4,000 square miles, according to Wouter Helmer, co-founder of the group Rewilding Europe. That’s half a Massachusetts every year left open for the recovery of native species.
Wolves returned to Germany around 1998, and they have been spotted recently in the border areas of Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark. In France, the sheep in a farming region just over two hours from Paris suffered at least 22 reported wolf attacks last year. But environmentalists there say farmers would do better protesting against dogs, which they say kill 100,000 sheep annually. Wolves are now a protected species across Europe, where their population quadrupled after the 1970s. Today an estimated 11,500 wolves roam there.
Lynx, golden jackals, European bison, moose, Alpine ibex and even wolverines have also rebounded, according to a recent study commissioned by Rewilding Europe. Mr. Helmer says his group aims to develop ecotourism on an African safari model, with former shepherds finding new employment as guides. That may sound naïve. But he sees rewilding as a realistic way to prosper as the European landscape develops along binary lines, with urbanized areas and intensive agriculture on one side and wildlife habitat with ecotourism on the other.
In northern Scotland, Paul Lister is working on an ecotourism scheme to bring back wolves and bears on his Alladale Wilderness Reserve, where he has already planted more than 800,000 native trees. He still needs government permission to keep predators on a proposed 50,000-acre fenced landscape. That’s a long way from introducing them to the wild, on the model of Yellowstone National Park. Even so, precedent suggests that it will be a battle.
Though beavers are neither big nor bad, a recent trial program to reintroduce them to the British countryside caused furious public protest. (One writer denounced “the emotion-based obsession with furry mammals of the whiskery type.”) And late last year, when five wolves escaped from the Colchester Zoo, authorities quickly shot two of them dead. A police helicopter was deployed to hunt and kill another, and a fourth was recaptured. Prudently, the fifth wolf slunk back into its cage, defeated.
Rewilding? At least for now, Britain once again stands alone (well, alone with its 30 million sheep) against the rising European tide.