Idea of rewilding Britain ignores economic impact

Just as I was hoping that no one would mention Wolves[1] until the next football season, writer George Monbiot has outlined a vision for the rewilding of Britain where wolves can roam free.  His latest book also calls for the re-introduction of beavers, bison and lynx too, arguing that it would create a tourist attraction and improve biodiversity.


It’s a vision that is at odds with many commentators when it comes to how we use our land – the global focus is very clearly on how we can be more productive as an agricultural industry, whether in terms of management or application of technology.  Yet Monbiot’s talking about reducing our farmed area and output, with Welsh sheep farmers directly in his line of fire for unproductive agriculture. He also claims that the single farm payment is a scheme that delivers ‘maximum ecological destruction.’ Again, this is a view that appears at odds with the wider world, with anyone in the UK farming industry able to tell you that the direction of travel of agricultural policy is towards developing and enhancing the environment (some would say excessively so).

Phil Bicknell_186_275

The arguments for rewilding appear idealistic to say the least - you have to go back hundreds, if not thousands, of years to find a Welsh hillside or Lake District uplands where sheep weren’t present and integral to the communities that live there. More importantly in my view, they ignore the economic impact. Without our uplands, we wouldn’t have a UK sheep industry. Farmgate sales of lamb are worth over £1bn to UK agriculture, while lamb exports generated £382million in 2012. Whether it is sheep, cereals, or cider apples, the reality is that when UK farmers produce more, it’s also good news for the UK economy. The raw materials that leave the farmgate are the source material for the largest manufacturing sector in the UK - our food processors - and that equates to jobs and economic growth.


We have tremendous natural resources in the UK, and that’s not only our arable lands where we have one of the highest yields per hectare of anywhere on the planet.  Our hills and grasslands are also a part of that, despite what Monbiot calls for. Our maritime climate might make the great British weather a topic of continual discussion, but it typically means good grass growing conditions in the west of the country.


It almost goes without saying that the premise of the book is so unlikely as to be wishful thinking. Most people realise, accept and value the fact that farmers have helped to produce the patchwork landscape we have today. It’s a landscape that not only produces our food, but also supports a diverse environment, supports jobs, underpins tourism and contributes greatly to the economy.


To be fair to Monbiot, he does say that his vision is there to be ‘questioned and challenged.’ As a resident of the Welsh town of Machynlleth, I imagine one or two of his farming neighbours may be doing just that should they bump into him on the street in the weeks ahead.



[1] Phil Bicknell is the NFU chief economist and is a long-suffering supporter of Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club, and the Wolves’ second successive relegation in 2013 means they are the first English club to suffer the drop from the first to the third tier in successive seasons twice.

  • Posted by: JohnPosted on: 08/06/2013 21:32:00

    Comment: Not sure this article says a whole lot. Anyhow, I recommend the science of landscape ecology to all farmers. And encourage everyone to re-address the use of economic growth and production based arguments as a path to sustaining biotic life on this planet.
  • Posted by: Paul LewisPosted on: 08/05/2015 15:04:32

    Comment: I assume when referring to Monbiot's book you mean 'Feral'? (You didn't say.)

    Your claim that he doesn't address the economics of the matter is unfair; he raises the topic more than once. In fact, he makes the claim that - factoring in subsidies - sheep farming on Welsh hills is actually a net lose to the Welsh economy. He goes on to propose alternatives that he believes would instead be economic gains.

    It is not as if the book was written in ivory-towered isolation either: he recounts various discussions with interested parties - including farmers, not all of whom are opposed to rewilding, or re-purposing of land.
  • Posted by: TanyaPosted on: 16/06/2015 11:04:23

    Comment: Hear hear John and Paul. We are dependant on this planet and the balance of life. A wise person once said to me 'Imagine yourself a rich man counting all your money whilst holding your breath. What runs out first? Then you will realise what it is you really need.' Jobs and economic growth won't mean jack if we poison our air, soil and water. Farm wisely, work with the environment and ecology, and allow people like George Monbiot to have their place too, as they are the balance we need to corporate greed.
  • Posted by: Mike PerryPosted on: 10/07/2015 11:21:18

    Comment: It is very myopic to think that high biodiversity and a rich landscape of multi species can't be good value and good business. Areas like the Cambrian mountains in Wales could become extraordinary destinations for people wanting to visit Welsh Rainforests, wildflower meadows and watch wild animals. This dismal melancholic desert could be turned into a mini Yosemite national park with imagination and long term commitment. The area is so vast that areas of sheep grazing could still be maintained. Look whats happened in parts of Africa.. areas of Africa that were once poor and badly maintained are now booming with eco tourism.
    The only thing holding us back is imagination and political commitment to the environment which is not based on the current agribusiness model.
    Mike Perry (Pembrokeshire)

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