Throughout the French Pyrenees, large paint letters are stamped out on high mountain roads: ‘Ours Non’, No to Bears. Bears were reintroduced by the French government in the late 1990s, starting a long ferocious battle with shepherds and sheep farmers. At the last bear release in 2006, hundreds of farmers mobbed the release site, daubing red paint and smashing windows and lighting fires. This summer bears chased 200 sheep over a cliff edge, sparking demonstrations and demands for the bears to be removed from the Pyrenees. When state wildlife experts visited the affected area, a group of farmers fired shots towards them and slashed their car tires.
Over decades, centuries, farmers had sought to eliminate the predators that were tormenting their flocks. No sooner had they succeeded, the government reintroduced them – only this time from Slovenia, and as a protected species. The state introduced a predator that preys on flocks and forbade shepherds from touching them.
The Pyrenean bear is an example of what has been called ‘rewilding’, the reintroduction of species that had been hunted out of existence. Rewilders want to bring the bear back to the UK – an even less suitable location – along with the lynx and the wolf. Rewilders hate sheep and they hate sheep farming. The environmentalist George Monbiot says that sheep farming has turned the Lake District into a ‘desert’, with only a small proportion of the species that would populate a wild forest were it allowed to go to seed.
Yet the Lake District is not an ecological model; it is a landscape that has been made and remade through continual work and effort. What is beautiful about the Lakes is not only the shapes of the fells and crags revealed by sheep cropping, but the ways in which the hills are criss-crossed by the paths of people and their animals. The sheep farmer James Rebanks says that he looks down from a fell and sees a landscape ‘crafted by largely forgotten working people’: ‘a unique man-made place, a landscape divided and defined by fields, walls, hedges, dykes, roads, becks, drains, barns, quarries, woods and lanes’ (1).
It is the shepherds who know what nature is and how it works. If you talk to a high mountain shepherd, who lives in a hut for months on end, he knows every rock and crag, the call of every bird, all the moods and rhythms of the weather. He knows nature because he works upon it. Similarly, the families who have farmed the Lake District for generations are welded into the landscape; they are grounded in a place in a way that we can barely imagine.
Rewilders’ version of nature is a fantasy, committee-room nature. It was people sitting in committee rooms in Paris who thought that it would be nice to bring back the bear. Perhaps they imagined nature films of roaming bears and their cubs, or thought of the bear logo on Pyrenean produce. The ideal of wilderness comes from people who rarely experience it, or only experience it in an aesthetic or fantastical manner, as some kind of antidote to the jaded effects of urban life. (The US environmentalist Timothy Treadwell romanticised the bear and lived with them for years, but he did not know the bear, anymore than children know bears, which was why he was entirely surprised when a bear eventually attacked and ate him).
It is by working upon nature that we come to know it in its reality. Before agriculture and farming, nature was a mystical world peopled by spirits and animated by mysterious forces. With agriculture, people started the business of taking hold of nature and attempting to mould it; they knocked up against the reality of animals, plants and rocks. Slowly, ideas of spirits and mystical forces began to dissipate, and incipient scientific understandings developed: they came to understand how plants reproduced, what they required to grow, how animals could be bred and tamed.
The first agriculture required a battle against wild nature – the clearing of forests, draining of swamps and killing of wild animals. The first civilisation in the Nile Valley was founded on the sweat of those who cleared the beast-ridden swamps, dug irrigation channels and built protective walls. The Russian biochemist Verdansky wondered at the ‘unbroken, indefatigable’ labour required to tame the ‘humid forests and marshes’ of ancient China: ‘to subdue these and bring them under cultivation – destroying the forests and ridding them of their animal inhabitants – would have taken tens of thousands of years’. He quotes the comment that ‘Literally trillions of men and women have made their contribution to the contour of hill and valley and to the pattern of the fields. The very dust is alive with their heritage.’
This collective experience is preserved in myth, such as in the labours of the Greek hero Hercules, with his contests with hydras and monstrous beasts that are terrorising villages and towns. Hercules’ labours recapitulate the origin of civilisation, the work that was required for the founding of cities.
Rewilders complain that the wolf has been unfairly demonised, as if it is only fear and misconception that are preventing packs of wolves from happily loping around English hills. Yet the demonisation of the wolf is the legacy of the centuries of wolf hunts, the paying a bounty for wolf tongues, the effort of making a land where flocks are safe from attack. Indeed, the British landscape owes its distinctive idyllic quality partly to the successful elimination of the wolf, which was possible as an island. The elimination of the wolf was the work of our ancestors – something they won for us, for our peace – yet now rewilders want to undo this work and reverse it.
Of course, there are still genuine wildernesses in the world, largely in areas not suitable for agriculture or in unpopulated regions which have been set aside. People can still go to these places to experience an untouched raw nature that seems to be outside of human time and history.
But the Pyrenees or the Lake District are not wildernesses. Indeed, the main visitors to these areas are walkers, whose interests very much coincide with those of the sheep farmers. Walking in a forest is fine for a bit but after a while is very dull: you see nothing and could be anywhere. Without sheep there would be no views below 2000m in the Pyrenees and none at all in the Lakes. Grazing allows you to experience the mountains as mountains, rather than as the same old trees stretching in all directions.
Pyrenean sheep farmers have told me that they feel that they are being pushed out of the mountains; they feel that the powers that be are hostile to them and their way of life. Conservationists argue that the numbers of sheep lost to bears each year are relatively few, about 300 out of 600,000, and that far more animals are lost to illnesses and accidents. Yet the issue is not only the losses sustained, but the meaning of these losses. The threat from the bear isn’t an accident; it’s an attack. The state has reintroduced a predator that is protected and has 150 people monitoring its wellbeing. Farmers have been forced to build defences, to put up electric fences, bring back mountain sheep dogs and full-time shepherds.
Reintroducing marmots, beavers or kites is one thing, but when it comes to predators of flocks there is a line. To take the side of the bear is to take the side of the hydra against Hercules: it is not only an attack upon farmers but upon civilisation.
(1) James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life, Penguin, 2015