“Shifting baseline syndrome” is a curse of the re-wilding movement, one of a list of foes that also includes sheep, Scottish landowners and stupid EU diktats.

Shifting baseline syndrome means that every generation perceives the state of ecosystems they found in their childhood to be normal.

When we see Springwatch on TV and marvel at an adder or a coot, George Monbiot wails and gnashes his teeth for the multiplicity of megafauna that is missing.

Where is the beaver, the wolverine, the moose, the elephant not to mention the birds, insects and plants that disappeared with them?

(Yes, the elephant. We used to have them and some of our trees still have the bark protection techniques that may have evolved to counter their tusked nemesis.)

Britain is a desert because we don’t imagine it ever could be anything else and because prospect of an alternative seems alien and perverse.

Recently, two beavers escaped into the wild in Devon and the immediate response from environment minister George Eustace was to bring the critters to heel. Unbridled nature is presumptively a threat.

Missing pieces

The environment minister played to an anthropocentric disposition. Beavers are pesky foreign invaders (although they persisted in Britain until the 18th century); wild horses are freaks rather than obvious; boar are ungrateful rather than magnificent.

In this tightly-argued polemic Monbiot proposes that missing species are missing pieces. They accelerate diversity and encourage abundance.

Those beavers, like other fauna, invest and shape their environment in ways that are subtler and richer than Man’s blunt interventions. Their slowing of watercourses, for example, is the kind of work we stopped until we realised – d’oh! – that fast run-off led to lightning floods.

Creatures quickly create wondrous layers of multi-species complexity that result in unexpected delights. So, for example, the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone a few steps down the line saw songbirds prosper.

Monbiot is measured in his quest to re-introduce long-gone species. He recognises genuine concerns and a need for pragmatism. He tackles issues such as food security and economic impact with well-sourced data and level-headed debate. He is angry but he is positive. He is frustrated but he is hopeful.

Our arrested development, paid for by the EU, enacted by farmers and supported by fears of bear attacks in Aldi, diminishes not only our ecology, but our lives, physically and psychologically, he says.

It would be no bad thing if every politician, land owner and conservationist took this book on their foreign holidays, reminding themselves there is no reason the rich habitats they see from their hire car, balcony or boat couldn’t be part of their everyday life back home in Blighty.

Why, they should ask themselves, do things have to get smaller, thinner and duller when nature is aching to explode into a mighty profusion.

Feral
George Monbiot
(Penguin)
★★★★✩