Your regular nuclear advocacy programming will resume shortly. As a (disputed!) environmentalist I like to keep thinking and learning outside my direct area, and in other spaces that engage my passion. Hence I have been sitting on a copy of Feral since the day of release which I finally managed to read recently while flying to-and-from Spain (yes, when you live in Australia that’s more than enough time to read a book!). This is not a book review. You will find plenty of those for Feral if you want one. Suffice to say, I think the book has serious merit. I hope you will read on.
Australia remains a wild place. This is a country where the crocodiles eat the people, and the pythons eat the crocodiles. This sparsely inhabited continent is home to the oldest continuing human cultures on earth and an extraordinary collection of world-famous wildlife. We have a bird that can disable a large dog, the most poisonous snakes on the planet, and kangaroos that get pretty aggressive if you walk through their lie on the golf course. So the concept of “rewilding”, as raised by George Monbiot in his most recent book Feral, might, at first consideration, seem inapplicable. If George is as determined to experience death-by-nature as some of his exploits suggest, he could do worse than to emigrate and settle down-under.
Feral is a decidedly UK-centric book. The state of affairs outlined by Monbiot in the Cambrian Desert, and the almost surreally prescriptive approach to managing so called “wilderness” areas in the UK, seems an extreme case of a society seeking to tame nature. This is a point Monbiot drives home repeatedly with reference to evolving conservation practices in continental Europe. So I suspect he knew what he was doing; writing this book for his homelands. It seems those homelands could use a heavy dose of what Monbiot yearns for: self-willed landscapes, reforestation and the deliberate reintroduction of several keystone species to the British Isles.
Nonetheless there is much in Feral that is squarely applicable to South Australia and Australia more broadly. While Australia remains very wild, that’s in part because, as a whole, the place is a bit too big, and the environment and critters a bit too tough, for it to be any other way. But we have nothing like a functional, mutually supportive relationship with our wilderness, particularly in the parts of Australia where most of us actually live. As Corey Bradshaw says, “the simple truth is that South Australia’s biodiversity and ecosystems are in shambles”, with only one percent of our state budget allocated to the environment, including the EPA. We may never be able to control this continent as they attempt to do in Britain. That doesn’t stop us from degrading it to hell.
I am fortunate to have access to a substantial patch of land that is as close to pre-colonial vegetation as South Australia has left. Acquired by a family generations ago, this land (which I will refer to as “the property”) has never been cleared, disturbed or “developed” for economic purposes. It is one of the remaining islands of biodiversity on the mega-farm that otherwise is the Fleurieu Peninsula. Much of the surrounds is sufficiently denuded to fool a visitor into thinking that’s all the vegetation the peninsula can support. Particularly in years like 2014, where the summer was long and the rain came late, it is easy to be fooled by the parched and dusty land. It looks tough. How could biodiversity thrive here?
The property gives lie to this perspective. Dense stringy bark and red gum forest stands over a thick understory. Wild flowers abound. Kangaroo, echidna, shingleback lizards, geckos, skinks, snakes and birds will keep you company whether you like it or not. On my last two visits I have noticed new arrivals in the form of some very large deer . I have seen one fox… curiously, on the farm side of the fence line. That may be related to the seeming absence of rabbits in the property. Healthy coastal Australian forest doesn’t really suit rabbits. I have jogged through the field where I saw that fox and was lucky not to twist a knee on the minefield of divets from the dairy cattle. Ferals and farm animals seem to work quite well together.
As Monbiot describes with such wonderment in Feral, forests grow and I don’t mean up. They expand to reclaim territory given a sniff of a chance. Evidence of this tendency abounds along the property’s more remote fencelines. That forests will do this is decidedly good news. At now over 400 parts per million carbon dioxide, we will need to draw down atmospheric CO2 as part of our climate change action. Nothing we have devised for this task, technologically speaking, can compare to the potential of regrowing our forests. Or, as Monbiot would doubtless clarify, permitting them to regrow as they certainly will with perhaps a bit of an assist to speed things along. Places like the property, preserved by the grace of nearly a century of rolling foresight, provide a bio-bank that could reforest great tracts of the Fleurieu. If that’s what we wanted.
It seems, for now, that we don’t want that at all. I have seen this forest encroachment smashed back to the fenceline with absolute prejudice. I can see the economic thinking in action against the emerging scrub: “Don’t even think about establishing something of value that might stop me making money from my land”. It’s not that I necessarily blame the landowner. We have alienable property rights for very good reasons. But the management of Australian agricultural land seems hopelessly substandard, and the management of South Australia’s environment overall is clearly woefully inadequate. From my drives around the peninsula, particularly in late, dry summers, it would take a lot to convince me that maintaining this extraordinary level of cleared land is doing anyone any favours, either environmentally or economically. As Monbiot so brilliantly coined, the land is sheep-wrecked. We can do so much better.
But agriculture in Australia gets a free ride from our expectations of good practice. At the bottom of the property lies a permanent spring. Here, again, forest once began to escape. You may imagine my dismay when I returned to find the farm side of the spring had been cleared and bulldozed to create a watering place for cattle. Day in, day out they will befoul a watersource that departs the property clean, carrying this pollution downstream and ultimately into the ocean to no doubt damage coastal environments. Private property rights are trampling sensible environmental protections.
That’s the sort of vandalism for which our forestry industries would be pilloried if they were to so much as do it accidentally. It would be a blatant breach of the Code of Practice under which they operate. This was a document I had a significant hand in revising via an extensive stakeholder consultation process in 2005/06. More than one forestry stakeholder remarked, in that tone that is used by those who are one step short of total resignation, that every 30-60 years they disturb an area while maintaining strict buffers of 20-40 metres from pools and streams (see section 2.2.1 and 3.2.1), which are then promptly shat in by cows when the stream leaves the forest, and then overrun with topsoil runoff from the poorly managed potato farm. Cutting down trees is a hard thing for any environmentalist to love. But why in God’s name do we not codify our agricultural practices, relevant to about 60 per cent of our land mass, to the extent that we do for our private and public forestry practices? The potential gain in environmental health and biodiversity preservation is huge.
That may be just the problem. It’s a matter of gains, and chasing gains requires vision, hope and proactivity, when environmentalism instead seems hard-wired to respond to threats of loss. In Feral, Mobiot suggests that we are terribly bad at actually dreaming of something better, and may have stopped asking ourselves: just what we are managing our land for, and why? The cessation of enquiry of that type is the pathway to normalisation of practices like springs being bulldozed for cow-toilets, and acceptance of that being just the way things are done.
That’s not the way things are done. That’s the way we are doing things. We can do things differently.
It is willingness to do things differently that saw wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the USA, with a remarkable resultant trophic cascade that increased the biodiversity of the park and reined in the exploding deer population. It is trophic cascades that Monbiot would love to see in Britain with the return of wolf, lynx, beaver, boar and other species, and the landed class seems determined to stand in the way.
We can hardly brag. Our own bit of anti-trophic insanity is the dog-proof fence, an expensive exercise in keeping dingos out of vast parts of Australia. This is done, ostensibly, in the name of protecting sheep. In reality, by excluding the mesopredator, we are also protecting foxes, feral cats, and, to the point of becoming a problem to vegetation cover, kangaroos. That all means the dingo fence is a disaster for our smaller mammals, marsupials and our birds. I’m hardly the expert, but I do wonder if a few more dingos might also mean a few less invasive deer…
Feral was a welcome journey into the possible. I have been doing what I do for long enough now to understand that we have a changing world on our hands and change is the only certainty. Fighting for stasis in our environment is, and always has been, foolish and misguided. It is only much more recently that I have become excited again about just how good the change to come could be… if we want it to be.
Australia is a wonderful place to live. If we have the sense and the courage we can make it so much more wonderful yet. We can have healthier and more productive land that is more resilient to climate change, and rebounding biodiversity that is part of an integrated and more harmonious approach to our occupation of this land. We can have these things. The first step, surely, is learning that it is possible.
 That this Code it is only now in the process of being revised is something I am just a little bit proud of. In terms of Government policy, that represents reasonable longevity!