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Will Britain ever see George Monbiot’s sheep-free fantasy?

28 January 2014

11:50 AM

28 January 2014

11:50 AM

Would England be the same without the sight of sheep grazing on its ‘green and pleasant land’? Most likely not; but, then again, that might not be a bad thing. That is George Monbiot’s view.

Spectator readers will already know what Monbiot thinks of the humble sheep. Last summer he wrote about how we ‘pay billions to service a national obsession with sheep, in return for which the woolly maggots kindly trash the countryside’. ‘Britain’, he wrote, ‘is being shagged by sheep’.


BBC Countryfile took up the subject of sheep hill farming (Monbiot’s chief bugbear) on Sunday night. This method of farming has its fair share of controversies. For starters, it is heavily subsidised by the government and the EU. Many environmentalists, Monbiot included, also blame it for destroying the natural environment of the uplands, and transforming them into the ‘bowling green monoculture’ that we see today. The uplands are a prime target for Monbiot’s ‘rewilding’ plan, which involves returning much of the UK’s farmland to a ‘natural’ state, and reintroducing many of the species that disappeared hundreds or thousands of years ago (lynx, bison, wolves and bears). Monbiot also claims that the grazing of sheep on uplands contributes to flooding, as the vegetation removed by the sheep would absorb the run-off water. (It is, perhaps, bad timing to mention flooding, given that many farmers across the country – and especially in south and south west England – are suffering after weeks of flooding, which could have dramatic effects on their business in 2014.)

Unsurprisingly, this attitude to ‘woolly maggots’ doesn’t go down well with people who depend on sheep for a living. And those people deserve support: forty per cent of our food is imported (which includes a fair amount of New Zealand lamb), so we ought to be encouraging British farmers, not restricting their grazing for the sake of long-vanished wild animals. The MP Rory Stewart, whose Cumbrian constituency includes a large hill farming community, argued on the programme that ‘something really weird’ is happening:

A group of intellectuals are imposing their fantasies on this landscape, and their fantasy is that they’re living in a wilderness, and they’re trying to create a landscape that hasn’t existed here for 3,000 years. I think it’s a tragedy. There’s a place for bits of forestry, and a place for bits of bird sanctuary. But we have to protect the human.’

Such accusations are often levelled at Monbiot. His plans to ‘rewild’ the countryside have been met with a mixture of amusement and bemusement by many who live and work in these areas. But could the two aims — re-naturalised habitats, and hill farming — exist alongside one another? It’s hard to imagine: sheep and wolves are not bedfellows. Perhaps schemes such as this one in Snowdonia, which allows upland habitats time to recover from animal grazing, are the answer. But a constant battle between environmentalists and farmers almost certainly won’t solve the problem.

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Show comments
  • Steve

    I think what to take away from this is that humans are a n integral part of the modern British landscape and we aren’t going anywhere for the foreseeable next few millennia.

    The fantasy of a “wild” Britain as envisioned by some is simply that, a fantasy.

    Reintroducing larger mammals is not going to be helpful. They’re gone and have been gone for a long time. When large birds of prey were introduced they only compounded the crisis for the smaller less popular birds.

    So I think what we need is a system that helps the human communities in the countryside operate as environmentally considerate as they can while still making a living and not unduly interfering with their communities.
    Meanwhile what land we do dedicate back to the wild should be simply left to the species we have now, with maybe culls on the larger pest species, maybe fencing off.

    I think urbanite environmentalists are failing to realise that as far as the UK is concerned, there is effectively no such thing as pure wilderness.

  • Steve

    The reintroduction of apex predatory birds has done nothing but contribute heavily to the crashing populations of the smaller native birds of Britain.

    I imagine reintroducing other predators in a heavily populated country with already pressured small animal populations will only lead to further declines in their numbers.

    Wolves might help cut down the deer numbers in Scotland, but for the hassle they’ll cause to sheep, other livestock and family pets, I figure it’d be better all round to continue marksmen culls. At least that way someone is employed.

    The UK has been a human landscape for thousands of years, rewilding is a fantasy. Just another continuation of half-assed human introduction of species without real thought put into it.

    Conserving the maintaining the wild spaces we have is more than enough.

  • Ciaran_J_Goggins

    They can be difficult buggers to catch in the dark.

  • Patrick_worms

    I’m surprised this has turned into a political issue. It’s basic common sense: land with woody vegetation on it absorbds water, land without it absorbs less and erodes more. That’s why floodplains below forested catchment areas rarely, if ever, flood, while those below denuded areas often do: the water has nowhere to go but donwhill. And trees need not be antinomial with sheep farming: by maintaining good soil quality, buffering rainfall and providing wind shelter, trees help sheep farmers. Just think of Normandy sheepfarming: sheep grazing in apple orchards. So why this proposal – to plant and regenerate more trees on hills – is controversial is beyond me.

  • La Fold

    Isnt Moonbat the man who said that he would have no problem with wild rhinos roaming britain?

  • artemis in france

    Is this the same Moonbat who loves wind fards? so they’re not a blight on the landscape then, George?

  • Colonel Mustard

    What are Monbiot’s views on immigration? It seems his re-wilding plan has disregarded over population.

  • John Smith

    Its undeniable that sheep have, in particular, changed the Lake District landscape

    • ButcombeMan

      The Lake District is a man made landscape true enough. I doubt all those Japanese would come to see it if it was wilded. Tourism is a big industry.

      • Steve

        Trees have a habit of blocking sweeping views.

  • Paul W

    I am in some awe of the courage of George Monbiot standing up to a vested interest whose outcomes are a cruel living for the short lived lambs, the terribly exploited ewes not to mention the characters misguided enough to struggle on ever diminishing returns (so they tell us). And this wretched vested interest cannot stand up for itself – they need subsidies. For what? To bugger up our high moors ecology and then complain if we want to re-introduce wolves, lynx and bears.

    And don’t get me started on the Somerset Levels (I live there on an island!). Crops cannot be grown here because of the wet conditions (clue is in the name, the levels are also known round here as the “wet moors”) so apart from some pathetic sheep being grassed out on the flood margins the only gainful farming is stock rearing – there seems to be little significant dairy production. Withy gathering little exists these days.

    Let the levels flood normally and get the proper ecosystem back (pre-Roman). There are a few remote communities that can be reasonably protected and even provided with limited causeway links.

    Re wild – yes yes.

  • WilliamAshbless

    Monbiot would also like to abolish trawler fishing but doesn’t have any alternative work for the people of coastal towns who’d become unemployed.

    • Steve

      I think we all know by now Monbiot doesn’t really envision humans in his perfect world.

  • Crumbs

    If looking for trees, it might be necessary to plant them. Otherwise you might just get bracken, which sheep keep down very effectively, and which is no use to man nor beast.

    • Alexsandr

      bracken is poisonous to most breeds of sheep. The farmers have to cut the bracken to stop it encroaching.
      Some breeds can eat it.

      • Crumbs

        I didn’t know that, Alexsandr. I do know that it doesn’t like being trampled by hard little hoofs.

  • Tom M

    I thought this article was about George Monbiot but then it became clear when I got to this bit:

    ‘A group of intellectuals are………….”

  • Count Dooku

    I actually support efforts to rewild the UK by planting millions of trees and reintroducing species.
    This is what the Greens should be doing rather than their Eco-fascist obsession with co2 and wind farms.

    • HookesLaw
    • Daniel Maris

      Some rewilding and reforestation would be good. In some areas it could create viable local tourist economies – weekend safaris to see the bears, wolves, wild hogs, golden eagles etc They could build elevated walkways into the rewilded areas. Would be a good job creation programme in some areas.

      On the other hand I do like my British lamb.

      • Trailer Trash

        Think I should point out here that there’s very little chance that a rural economy based on building paths and walkways, selling cream teas and tour guiding will be able to replace both the quantity and quality of employment created by a production based rural economy based on agriculture and forestry. Quite apart from the frankly patronising employment future that a tourism and service economy would provide country dwellers (‘you can be a waitress or shovel carrier but otherwise move to the city’), it would lead to the loss of highly skilled professionals from rural areas, such as vets, mechanical engineers, grassland scientists, foresters, agricultural mechanics, animal nutritionists, accountants, solicitors etc. etc. as active management of the landscape came to an end. You would condemn those who live in rewilded areas to menial jobs, predominantly on minimum wage. Worse still, most of the jobs would be in the service sector – does no-one else see echoes of a colonial past where we force the ‘natives’ into roles that conform to our cultural stereotypes whilst at the same time limiting their active interaction in their own lands or in processes that determine the shape of its future?!

      • Steve

        Last I checked a tourist economy, a world power does not make.

        Bears and stuff are cool but they’re not going to keep Brits housed, fed and employed.

  • wycombewanderer

    Given that lamb and mutton are the staples for many of the UK’s new arrivals, how does he propose to feed the quickest growing proportion of the population?

    • HookesLaw

      Australians New Zealanders Canadians? Americans French?

      • Daniel Maris

        Ours tastes much nicer.

      • David Kay

        Apart from france, as them countries are outside the EU, the lamb would be subject to EU importation taxes. Most of our lamb used to come from NZ. The EU put an end to that. Vote UKIP

        • ButcombeMan

          NZ lamb has not ended. I have seen it in several supermarkets
          Waitrose best new season lamb is from Polled Dorsets. Some is produced on the Mendips.

          • David Kay

            its is still highly taxed. Years ago all you got was NZ lamb. Not no more. The EU put an end to that to support french farmers

  • Hexhamgeezer

    I wish Moonbat would be consistent. If he doesn’t like economic subsidies I could supply a long list of activities are a bigger waste than UK sheep farming. Bird scramblers and photo-voltaics for staters, not to mention EU regional funding for EU kleptocrats.

    Has he ever been near the Pennines? It is nowt like a ‘bowling green monoculture’.

    • WilliamAshbless

      Greens have no credible economics. On the one hand Monbiot argues against subsidies, on the other he’s all for solar and insulation subsidies. Should subsidy allocation be done on basis of cost benefit analysis, treaty obligations (CAP), alleviating economic externalities, or whim? Green Party economics makes no attempt to answer these questions.

  • MichtyMe

    Can’t comment on the English countryside but in Scotland there has been a big reduction in the numbers of sheep in the uplands. In the past sheep farmers were subsidised on a headage basis and the land was overstocked. That changed when the subsidy was allocated on acreage and the sheep are now gone from many locales. Countryside is changing, ground that was grazed to the roots is now sprouting into silvan diversity, future woods and groves in place of barren and degraded landscapes.

    • HookesLaw

      Thats good – I was going to comment that grazing seems OK but over grazing is wrong.

      At least Monbiot’s desire to return us to prehistoric times marks him out as a good socialist.
      Rory Stewart’s point is surely totally correct.

    • anncalba

      Yep, Scottish farmers are going out of business every week. We’ve had 8 dairy farms gone in the last three years, milk imported from France instead. Sheep farmers struggling to make use of otherwise unproductive land, the soil too thin for growing trees or anything else. Lovely that where you live you now have “sylvan diveristy” – we have useless scrub.

  • Eddie

    Oh dear, Camilla. Nul points for mixing up Britain and England.

    Monbiot’s utterances about ‘woolly maggot’ sheep referred to Britain. You have changed that to England. Is that carelessness, arrogance or ignorance?

    Anyway, George Monbiot actually lives in Wales, so the sheep he solemnly stares at through his window won’t be English ones!

    • Hexhamgeezer

      I wonder. though, if they’re English breeds. Probably are – fkg imperialist culturally arrogant incomers!

      • the viceroy’s gin

        …careful there, they’ll have you reported to Brussels for that species-ist slander.

      • MichtyMe

        Possibly Suffock Crosses, perv’s.

        • Hexhamgeezer

          I wonder, perchance if Moonbat has had a bad experience with a woolly maggot that has coloured his views of the dopy bggrs?

    • HookesLaw

      She has not mixed them up, she was refering to a poem by Blake to add a little colour to her reportage.

      In this she is on a par with the inestimable Eddie Waring who put the town of Leigh in the history books by referring to its ‘dark Satanic mills’.

      • Eddie

        Actually, I see the headline has been changed from ‘England’ to ‘Britain’ – so thank you Camilla for reading the comments and correcting errors.
        That is the opposite approach to the average BBC producer, who would defend anything always against criticism by ‘the little people’.
        I am aware of Blake and have read most of his work actually (unlike most who merely know one of his verses as put to music in Jerusalem). I know his words were not ‘Britain’s green and pleasant land’ – though I also know Wales and Scotland to be less overcrowded and green than most places in England now.
        And Monbiot does live in Wales – where people are outnumbered by sheep at a rate of 4 to 1. He’s probably just sick of seeing the woolly lawnmowers… Me, I like em, despite their utterly staggering dimness.

  • James

    The poor old Moonbat. I know we shouldn’t laugh but honestly …..

    • Q46

      If we get dinosaurs back, he won’t feel lonely any more.

  • Magnolia

    Mr Monbiots’s plans for wolves etc. would exclude the people from upland environments, never mind the sheep. I do not want to go rambling with wolves.
    I love sheep but the lowland ones are suffering at the moment as they paddle around in mud at their feeding stalls and they are generally getting drenched (which they hate even though they can stand it) in their soggy fields. The upland sheep will be luckier, having a better gene pool to stand the more open conditions and their grazing area is likely to be more rocky, more free draining, partially shrub (heather) covered and over a larger area, where respite can be sought.
    We in fact need more meat from our kinder upland areas and perhaps more trees in lowland fields for summer sun protection of the animals and more field barns for winter protection for sheep rather than to give the landscape over to anarchic wildlife, much of which will die of starvation or cruel but necessary hunting.

    • Hexhamgeezer

      Agreed. I don’t want to have to fend off wolves and bears when having picnics with the kids up on the Roman Wall.

      The man is a grade ‘A’ t!t

      • Baron

        Hexhamgeezer, a nice one, that’s why his name rhymes with idiot.

      • R Dent

        How boring! I recently holidayed in Transylvania where bears, wolves and wild dogs are part of the fauna. A can of pepper sprayed was carried just incase however such attacks are quite rare. Finding bear dropping as the sun went down lent an element of excitement to the end of a days walking. Luckily, Keith Vaz wasn’t waiting to greet me at Luton Airport – a fate arguably worse then mauling.

        • Hexhamgeezer

          Yes but Transylvania doesn’t have Greggs and I suspect that my corn beef slices might drive the bears mental.

        • Ciaran_J_Goggins

          A bear dropping at sunset and in the woods too….yes life doesn’t get much more exciting than that!

          • DerekGHaslam

            Need a panic button for that? My son P.C James A Haslam of Kings Lynn will “fit up” eco warriors for a reasonable amount.

            • Ciaran_J_Goggins

              Run away you sad little loser and stop pretending to be respectable people you nasty little brain dead troll. Does the psychiatric orderly know you are on the internet?

              • DerekGHaslam

                What is respectable about perjury, theft and attempted blackmail? It is all going public soon. No jail perhaps but suicide will be preferable to the public backlash. Bet you wish you had never taken me on now. How is Marcus?

                • Ciaran_J_Goggins

                  I have telephoned your psychiatric outreach team they are very worried that you have failed to keep three appointments, that you are no longer staying at the caravan, and more importantly what they found under the bed. Please contact the team as a matter of urgency, you know it makes sense, but then again perhaps not.

    • Paul W

      Wolves are fine. Go and seek out how many hundreds of people are savaged to death by packs of wolves in Europe.

      Then go and compare that to deaths from eating dodgy lamb and mutton. I haven’t looked but I’d say the figures were the same.

      Yes, there are occasional lamb kills by wolves but probably less than from fox kills in this country.

      At least if we have wolves again, there would be fewer and better dispersed foxes and fewer fox hunts – hooray!

      • launcher

        Nurse! Nurse!, the screens.

      • David Kay

        Wolf attacks may be rare but they do happen. I go fell running on my own. I wouldnt go unless i had a rifle for personal protection. Maybe Moonbat hasnt thought it through. More wolves = more guns

        • Paul W

          David – Good reply and your sources were interesting.

          However, I think since the worst of the events given, humanity has plagued itself on the world seven fold the odds are now just a little uneven in our “favour” with the animal kingdom pushed to the margins that we in our beneficence permit.

          I admire your fell running and, to the extent you may trip over a sleeping she wolf causing her to get protective, you may have a problem. But she’ll hear you coming a mile off.

          They are generally efficient hunters and pack or singly hunt down big stuff like dear and bison – your skinny fell runner build would give them little of interest to cover the effort of the fight.

        • Paul W

          Sorry David if I insulted you by calling you skinny. I do not know of course if that is the case – but I am sure you see my point.

          • David Kay

            you can call me what you want. This is the internet, and im big enough n ugly enough to take it. But please dont confuse me with one of them wimps who put on a pair of trainers with shorts and vest and run across the hills. I wear boots with 40 lb of kit on me back and run up a mountain. As an ex soldier i like to keep fighting fit. If its not rainin’ its not trainin’ and if its not snowin’ then im not goin’.

            I share your luv of nature, but i dont think youve thought it through to the correct conclusion. Wolves are man eaters. If like me, you are passionate about the wolf, buy one of these. Im just waiting for the cat to pop his cloggs before i get one


            • Paul W

              Handsome dogs, why wait for the cat to shuffle? By the way, I am not actually an animal sentimentalist – I just dislike the gratuitous toll our species exacts on the helpless animal kingdom..

              Regarding the “insult”, I have a view that the internet, for my part anyway, is a medium where normal standards of all kinds should be maintained – old fashioned but, I think not wrong. Decency costs nothing.

              I won’t change on the wolf – individuals should be allowed to pit themselves against true nature at reasonable risk. This risk averse society is why our city centres are prowled by child like shouty, sweary morons.

              I have walked dozens of miles alone in the High Arctic and further south in Scandinavia and always carried a rifle and never it used except to scare. I have friends who have had closer encounters. Polars are scarier than wolves in all ways. Browns are not cuddly either.

              Not many wolves in Scandinavia; too many hunting rifles.

              Similar to you I have some military history and until some 15 years ago, did a little fell running. Older now with a buggered and strapped right knee, I walk the levels several miles daily with a lighter pack than yours but, with all the essentials – perhaps 25/30 pounds. No wolves here; just subsidised sheep and stock cattle – boring, pathetic and a shocking waste of taxpayers money. Let the levels go back to nature; sea marsh, bogs and island communities. We can put in the odd causeway for modern day commuting from the money saved from the subsidies.

  • BarkingAtTreehuggers

    I am always impressed by 1) Owen Paterson’s ability to drum up business for GM crop corporatists with regards to farming (listing supposed worldwide food shortages) when in fact large parts of Britain are no longer farming at all and 2) his inability to take personal responsibility for acres upon acres of land remaining flooded for more than four (!) weeks without an action plan in place.

    • Alexsandr

      how is the flooding anyones fault?
      Someset flooded because it rained too much. Its not helped by having a large part of its catchment area in the Mendips, which are limestone and so allow water to just run through the strata and straight into the rivers
      The levels are a man made landscape. natural would be a boggy brackish marshland.
      dredging rivers is not the answer. Making a river flow freely will exacerbate flooding lower down. We need to find ways of keeping water in the catchment areas of rivers, not dumping it downstream. Not covering the land in concrete will help, but so would more vegetation.

      • mark

        Where will it flood lower down? lower down is the sea at sunny Bridgewater which is also on the levels and it is perfectly possible to dredge to the sea.

        • Alexsandr

          so you don’t live in Bridgewater or Highbridge then?

      • Makroon

        I believe that is the informed view. But with the media circus and Paterson backing off as fast as he can, I fear we will have more expensive and pretty pointless dredging.

        • HookesLaw

          I doubt the tendency for self pity and selfishness we see increasingly developing will mean the locals will be willing to take on board your logic.

          ‘ Increased dredging of rivers on the Somerset Levels would not have prevented the recent widespread flooding because of the sheer volume of rainfall. On tidal stretches of rivers, silt immediately begins to return to the river following dredging. Where dredging increases river flows, it can also make flooding worse downstream.’

          There is (in true HIGNFY tradition) a wonderfull magazine ‘Dredging Today’ which, although the link seems slow, points out the scale of work uindertaken which the locals seem totally ungrateful for – not least since we are paying for it.

          ‘an estimated 1.5 million tonnes of water … off an area of the Levels spanning 65 square kilometres – the biggest pumping operation ever undertaken in the county.’
          ‘The Somerset Levels has a history of flooding dating back centuries. The tidal range in the Bristol Channel is the second highest in the world – with high tides causing flood water to back up along the rivers across the Levels and Moors.’

          “Nationally we spent £45m in the last financial year on river
          clearance, including dredging and weed removal and de-silting work was last carried out on pinch points on the Parrett and Tone rivers in November. However, dredging is often not the best long term or economic solution and increased dredging of rivers on the Somerset Levels would
          not have prevented the recent widespread flooding.”

          Do not expect the BBC, or SKY, to do anything to pull up the locals in their misery and inject a bit of truth – rather we should all wallow in it. (OK I’m a cynic)

          • the viceroy’s gin

            …and don’t expect you global warmingist Camerluvvies to do anything but squeal approvingly that it’s all due and caused by your socialist envirowhacko fetishes.

      • ButcombeMan

        The levels are a man made landscape in exactly the way much of the Netherlands is, indeed the drainage system was constructed with Dutch expertise.

        The flooding now is substantially man made also. Dredging more or less stopped 18 years ago.

        Nutters in the Environment Agency seem to have had a semi secret Moonbot seizure to re wild the levels as a huge nature reserve. They forgot two things, lots people live there now and properly managed, the land, like the Netherlands, can be highly productive.

        Land subject to the water covering for the time period the Environment Agency have achieved, cannot recover quickly, almost everything dies. A few water birds prosper but nothing else does well, wildlife is wiped out.

        We are dealing with a Labour inspired and approved policy in an .area where Labour has almost no support, it is nearly all Tory v Libdem.

        Owen Patterson is struggling with it. If Cameron had the brains, he would call Patterson in and quickly announce that charity begins at home, this is a world class emergency. Dredging and proper land management to be reinstated with budget guaranteed and provided out of immediate savings in the DfID expenditure.

        • artemis in france

          At last the voice of reason.

      • ButcombeMan

        So none of your family live there then in uninsurable homes and unworkable farms?

        Although I think your remarks about dredging are infantile because they lack empathy for the population, I do agree about some reforestation, some of the Mendips do now have far more trees than 100 years ago.

        • Alexsandr

          I dont live in somerset, but my home has flooded twice. So I have studied the issue and dont believe dredging is the panacea you suggest. Not least because of what it does further down. I would fear disputes between settlements as to whether dredging was good or had caused flooding elsewhere.

      • Steve

        Humans build on floodplains. Humans wonder why their stuff floods.

        Hurr durr *scratches head with a vacant stare*

  • english_pensioner

    Its probably the same environmentalists who are responsible for the flooding of the Somerset levels, they want to return them to the state that they were some hundreds of years ago.
    Do the Dutch have these idiots? If so we can expect Holland to be largely removed from the map when they return it to its natural state without all the dykes, etc.

    • HY

      “Do the Dutch have these idiots?”
      Yes they do, and Brussels has plenty more!

      “Under an arrangement originally proposed by the Dutch – designed to satisfy European targets to protect the habitat of migratory birds – the Hedwige Polder was supposed to be returned to the sea”

    • Makroon

      The Dutch decided decades ago not to “polder” the whole of the Zuider Zee, pretty much like us not trying to “polderise” the Wash.
      You should educate yourself by reading Alexandr’s comment above.

    • ButcombeMan


  • the viceroy’s gin

    “But a constant battle between environmentalists and farmers almost certainly won’t solve the problem.”


    Actually, the battle is with government, which both subsidizes these agricultural practices and makes sweet cooing noises to environmental extremists, like Monbiot.