No Lions please, we’re British

You have to (yes, it is compulsory) love a book that includes the following: a section on the reintroduction of vanished species to Britain; in that section, a table naming species with an estimated date of extinction in Britain; a rating of their suitability for reintroduction; a heading, “Reintroduction efforts so far”; an entry simply stating “Lion”; and the comment “The clamour for the lion’s reintroduction to Britain has, so far, been muted”. Just lovely.
I have thoroughly enjoyed, and been terribly upset by, George Monbiot’s “Feral”. I cannot do it justice. A great quality of the book is its hopefulness, coupled with an awareness of the possible. It can be strident, but it is in no way unrealistic. He is fair in admitting his prejudices, and in the time and thought he gives to views that disagree with his own. His description of Alan Watson Featherstone, and his growing admiration for him, is delightful:

I have developed a number of prejudices, which until now appeared to be rational: against people who believe in the significance of coincidences; against people who maintain that plants grow better if you love them; against people who live at the Findhorn Foundation…; against men with ponytails. Alan belongs to all of these categories, yet he resembles none of the stereotypes I have, perhaps unfairly, constructed around such traits.

His is one of the most engaging minds I have come across.

The lion is of course native to Britain*, only having become extinct about 11,000 years ago. Australia’s recent history of extinction is distressing, and the distinct nature of Australia’s fauna means that it is not possible to reintroduce most animals. In some cases, a remnant population has been discovered on an island, or where an extinction is local, it has been possible to repopulate from another part of the country. However, in terms of restoring an ecosystem to health, a replacement has to be found. I think the first time I came across this was in a suggestion in “The Future Eaters” by Tim Flannery that Komodo dragons could be introduced to replace now extinct local reptilian megafauna. More recently, there have even been suggestions that elephants could be introduced into the Northern Territory, in part to help deal with introduced African grass species. Of course, that is part of the problem, the number of introduced species introduced within the last century or so into a set of unique ecosystems.
The crazy extent of this is set out in “Feral Future” by Tim Low, “the untold story of Australia’s exotic invaders”. Leaving aside questions of livestock that commenced arriving with the First Fleet, Australians well know and rue the introduction of the rabbit and the fox. More recently, we are seeing the countryside ruined by the cane toad (deliberately introduced in 1932, and that introduction seen as an act of genius). What is fascinating is the 19th century Acclimatisation Societies, organisations of learned men (I am not aware of any female participation) determined to spread the world’s animals and plants between all nations. In 1862, the Governor of Victoria sought to have monkeys released into the native forests. “They wanted South American alpacas in our mountain chains, Himalayan pheasants in Gippsland, ostriches and antelope in the outback…” Fortunately they failed in many of their endeavours, but we live today with their successes. I met Tim Low a number of years ago when he spoke at a conference I arranged. If I had power, he would have money and be in charge of something big and important, but I do not. I recommend both of his books, but make sure you read them in the right order. He felt that “Feral Future” ended on a bit of a low note, and wanted to be encouraging, so followed it up with “The New Nature”. Unfortunately, I was entranced by the second book and so sought out the first, and ended up with the downer he sought to avoid.

*well, lion bones have been found in the Netherlands, which is close

“Feral” by George Monbiot
“Feral Future” by Tim Low
“The New Nature” by Tim Low
“The Future Eaters” by Tim Flannery

Read them all!


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