Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Accepting The Consequences

We - or most of us at least - live in cultivated, domestic landscapes. The places in which we live are molded and shaped by human action, and what wildness does exist persists where we have allowed it - or failed to notice it. It is upon this backdrop of suburbs and cities, of supermarkets and cornfields, that most conservation must take place. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it is an undeniable fact of reality. Even in the most distant corners of most countries, anthropogenic influences are still ever-present, and there are people trying to make a living. There are spots, some larger and some smaller, where people are mostly absent, but rarely wholly. In the Scottish highlands, shepherds make their living, in the north of Scandinavia, Sami herd reindeer, and in the Balkan mountains, hunters and farmers base their livelihoods off the land. Here in Denmark, while we have several areas of relatively wild and connected landscapes - significantly more than most people realize - these are still generally used by at least some people. Most of our forests are logged, either by the state or private landowners, our meadows are grazed by livestock and bordered by intensively managed agriculture, and even our biggest and wildest places, such as the hinterlands of the Jutlandic west coast, are often used by the military as training areas. Sometimes these human activities are mostly unrelated to and unaffected by whatever conservation may be taking place. Sometimes the human activities may be directly dependent on them, but in most cases this does not hold true, and in all cases, the presence of people must be taken into account.

I write about this in part because I have recently been reading and listening to a wide variety of perspectives on conservation and nature, and in part due to the influence that a book by the name of Landmarks, written by Robert Macfarlane, has had on me. The book I will return to later, but for now I will focus on these differing perspectives. It is awfully easy to surround yourself in an echo chamber, an environment in which only agreeing opinions are heard, and in which arrogance and negligence often blossoms. I am, as readers of this blog will probably know, a big advocate of rewilding, and the radical forms of it at that. I follow the movement attentively, and generally have much less interest in traditional conservation, as I see it, to put it bluntly, as a failed attempt, in many cases not worth continuing. This is not of course a commonly held opinion, and even rewilding as a whole is still a relatively niche part of conservation, albeit one which is rapidly expanding. When reading about subjects such as rewilding, about reintroductions and habitat restoration, it is easy only to see the sources you agree with, and become distant to all dissenting voices. It is not that you do not know that they're there, that you don't realize there are people who disagree - of course you do, they're the obstacle that must be overcome for conservation to take place. And that's just it. These dissenting voices, these people who disagree, or at the very least take issue with some parts of conservation and rewilding, they are quickly reduced from real, flesh and blood individuals, with their own motives, worries and passions, to nothing but "obstacles", problems that must be overcome for real, true progress to be achieved. 

A natural area, part of a reserve in fact, nonetheless clearly influenced and surrounded by human activities. Image from

When the beavers were first reintroduced in Denmark 17 years ago, there was relatively little protest. To this day, most people, even landowners, are generally fine with their presence in the country. Still, there were some who were against their return, and who continue to be, and there are many who are bothered by them, who want them culled and managed, even if they don't want them wiped out. It is important to remember the effects that these activities have on people. While some conservation endeavors, such as designating marine reserves, help pretty much everyone, including the fishermen, this is not always true, far from it. The beavers were a great benefit to this country's nature when they returned, as they have been so many other places, but to the farmers and foresters who had their fields flooded and their trees felled, these benefits were less clear, and relevant. The benefits were to the country as a whole, to its ecology and culture, but to some individuals, the main changes witnessed were, undeniably, negative. 

This is not to say that I agree with them, that I want the beavers eradicated or even in any way culled. I don't. The point is that while their return was undoubtedly and overwhelmingly a good thing, all actions have consequences, and we must never forget that. The return of wolves across Europe has resulted in the loss of farmer's livestock, not nearly as many as reported - most of those were caused by stray dogs- but some nonetheless. The resurgence of seals in the North Sea has lead to declines in some fish stocks, and though these are mostly minuscule compared to the effects of overfishing, this has been problematic for some fishermen. These conflicts are typically heavily overstated, and many of the issues could be avoided or alleviated, but the very fact that there is this conflict, that there are problems which now need to be alleviated, which people must spend time and money to sort out, is a consequence of conservation, of rewilding.  

"Damage" inflicted to a plantation by beavers, though in this case the area was state owned.

It is so very, very easy to demonize and antagonize those who stand in our way, who serve as roadblocks to our efforts. What we must always remember is that, with the exception of a few people who are simply misguided - such as the biologists who rejected reintroductions on the basis of comparisons with invasive species - most of those who oppose concepts such as rewilding do so out of personal and often very justified concern. For those who treasure the uplands of Britain as they are today, reforestation projects and the introduction of predators to prevent the extensive overgrazing that is taking place would be a genuine threat to this landscape that they love. To those who are concerned for the safety of their livestock and crops, the return of wolves and large wild herbivores is a wholly valid concern, even if it often is overblown. This does not mean that what these people want is right - I think the benefits of reintroductions and other forms of rewilding far out way the downsides - but it does mean that we must at least realize the consequences of our actions, and temper our gloating when we succeed with the knowledge that, while our work has been predominantly positive, we have hurt some people. 

Returning now to that book, Landmarks, I should probably start out by saying what exactly it's all about. The book centers on the language that we use to describe nature and the landscapes around us, and how so much of the intricate and complex vocabulary that we once used to detail the natural world is now increasingly going lost. What that book really drove home to me, as it recounted the author's travels to remote rural regions across Britain to gather vanishing terms and sayings from those who still remembered them, is how deeply connected many of the shepherds and other people living off the land really are to their environment. Their effects are hugely damaging, yes, and in my opinion fully justify the actions currently being taken to remedy them, but those people have something that so many of us today have lost, even of those who work in conservation - a deep, genuine connection to their environment, built not just of passion but also very much out of need. This may sound odd - surely a connection to nature built from a love of it is better than a more utilitarian one, right? Well, to try and explain my point, allow me to list a few words from the book describing wetlands.

A Slack is term for a soft or boggy hollow, used in northern England and Scotland.
To Stoach is an Essex and Sussex word for churning up waterlogged land, the book citing what cattle do in the winter as an example.
A Fideach is a Gaelic word for a stretch of green salt marsh which is flooded at high tide.
A Gwern is a Welsh word for an alder marsh.
A Breunloch is a Gaelic term for a dangerous sinking bog that may appear green and grassy. 

Now, let me contrast this with the sort of terms we in conservation typically use when describing nature. The sum of an areas species is its Biodiversity, the ways in which it happens to benefit humans is its Ecosystem Services, its level of wetness is its Hydration. These are all useful terms, practical when discussing conservation, but they are also, for lack of a better word, hollow, devoid of life and culture. They are the kind of words used by people who are describing nature, rather than people living in it. When we see a branch covered in moss or lichen, we say "it's covered in moss or lichen". When some rural Scots see a branch covered in moss or lichen, they say it's Foggit. What noise does a covey of partridges make when they break from cover? Do they flap or flutter? No, they Zwer. Tons of languages have the word "Biodiversity". In Danish you say Biodiversitet, in Bosnian you say Biodiverziteta. It's all the same word with minor variations, a general term that crosses nations and cultures but has no deeper meaning in any of them, lacking all forms of uniqueness. Everyone says Biodiversity, but nobody else says Stoach.

A Gwern. Copyright Zoonar/Joerg Hemmer.

Tying all of this together, the point that I am trying to make is that while we may detest the damage being inflicted upon our landscapes by the people living there, such as the shepherds in the British highlands, we always need to remember that the people inflicting said damage are not the villains, and more than that, they actually often have an even deeper appreciation for the land than those seeking to improve and protect it. Many of the inhabitants of the highlands, with their sheep and their cutting and their burning, may be destroying the habitats of countless species and inflicting incredible damage to the soil, but they are doing it for the best reason possible - namely that they think they're protecting a landscape that they love, to which their lives are deeply connected and which has supported their way of life for centuries if not millennia. The dreadfully sad part of the whole situation is that, up until relatively recently, their activities were actively preserving the landscape. It was a barren, denuded landscape, but a mostly stable one, whose (limited) species richness persisted across the ages. Then came industrialization and globalization, and it all ramped up - more deer, more sheep, more burning and more grazing. The world simply doesn't accomodate the landscape they are trying to protect - the sort that results from centuries of persistent levels of burning and grazing. Even if we wanted to preserve this landscape, which admittedly those who support rewilding don't, we wouldn't be able to in this age of "more, more, more".  

How does this relate to the consequences of conservation, more specifically rewilding? The fact of the matter is that we are changing these landscapes, and in a way that has never happened before. The pattern in nearly all parts of Europe up until now has always been one of ecological degradation or stagnation, where biodiversity is either actively falling or remaining the same. This revival of the landscapes, where previously extinct species and habitats return, is something new, and will require that the old ways and cultures either change or die out. The latter will sadly most likely happen on its own anyway, but an assisted murder is murder nonetheless. The best we can hope to do is to ensure that the old cultures adapt to the new conditions that we are implementing, but this will require them to abandon traditions and ways of life that have persisted for many generations, not to mention coping with the annoyance and potential danger of the surging populations of large herbivores and predators. These are the consequences of our actions - the destruction or alteration of things that have lasted for ages. While rewilding may be the beginning of a new era, it is also very much the end of an older one, and that fact must not be lost on us.

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