The lynx may be brought back to Britain and areas of damaged landscape could be repaired. Photo: Ruggero Maramotti/Gallery Stock
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Bring back the big cats: is it time to start rewilding Britain?

Rewilding means the mass restoration of damaged ecosystems. It involves letting trees return and allowing parts of the seabed to recover. Above all, it means bringing back missing species.

One of the few surviving accounts by the Britons of what the Anglo-Saxons did to them is Y Gododdin. It tells the story of what may have been the last stand in England of the Gododdin – the tribes of the Hen Ogledd, or Old North – in 598AD. A force of 300 warriors – the British version of the defenders of Thermopylae – took on a far greater army of Angles at a town named in Brittonic as Catraeth, which was probably Catterick in North Yorkshire. Like the Spartan 300, they fought for three days, during which all but four were killed.

The Anglo-Saxon conquest appears to have crushed the preceding cultures much more decisively than the later suppression of the Anglo-Saxons by the Normans. One indication is the remarkable paucity of Brittonic words in the English language. Even if you accept the most generous derivations, there appear to be no more than a couple of dozen, of which only four are used in daily conversation: dad, gob, beak and basket. It was an obliteration almost as complete as that of the Native American cultures in the United States.

Y Gododdin was written by one of the four survivors of the battle, the poet Aneirin. He tells how the last warriors of the Gododdin gathered in Din Eidyn, the town we now call Edinburgh. (Several Scottish cities, including Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee, have Welsh – or, more precisely, Cumbric – names.) They feasted there for a year before marching south, towards certain death in Catraeth. In the middle of Aneirin’s gory saga is something incongruous: a sad and beautiful lullaby called “Pais Dinogad” (Dinogad’s Smock), in which a mother tells her son of his dead father’s mastery of hunting. It names the animals he killed. Most were easy for scholars to identify: pine marten, roe deer, boar, grouse, fox. But for many years one animal was a mystery: llewyn, which looks like a cognate of the modern Welsh word for lion, llew. But what did it mean? Nothing seemed to fit, until 2006, when an animal bone was found in the Kinsey Cave on Giggleswick Scar, 30 miles as the raven flies from Catterick or Catraeth.

Until this discovery, the lynx – a large spotted cat with tasselled ears – was presumed to have died out in Britain at least 6,000 years ago, before the first sod was turned by the first farmer. But this find (and three others in Yorkshire and Scotland) drags its extinction date forward by roughly 5,000 years. It was likely to have been familiar to Aneirin and his people.

However, this is not quite the last glimpse of the animal in British culture. A 9th-century stone cross from the Isle of Eigg shows, alongside the deer, boar and aurochs pursued by a mounted hunter, a speckled cat with tasselled ears. Were it not for the animal’s backside having succumbed to the delapidations of time, we could have made a certain judgement, as the lynx’s stubby tail is unmistakable. But even without the caudal clincher, it’s hard to see what else the creature could have been. The lynx might have clung on in forest remnants – perhaps in the Grampians – for another few hundred years. It was survived by the wolf, whose last certain record, according to the historian of the countryside Oliver Rackham, was the beast killed in Sutherland in 1621. The lynx is now becoming the totemic animal of a movement that is transforming British environmentalism: rewilding.

Rewilding means the mass restoration of damaged ecosystems. It involves letting trees return to places that have been denuded, allowing parts of the seabed to recover from trawling and dredging, permitting rivers to flow freely again. Above all, it means bringing back missing species.

One of the most arresting findings of modern ecology is that ecosystems without large predators behave in completely different ways from those that retain them. Some of them drive dynamic processes – trophic cascades – that resonate through the whole food chain, creating niches for hundreds of species that might otherwise struggle to survive. The killers turn out to be bringers of life.

Such findings present a big challenge to British conservation, which has often selected arbitrary assemblages of plants and animals and sought, at great effort and expense, to prevent them from changing. It has tried to preserve the living world as if it were a jar of pickles, letting nothing in and nothing out, keeping nature in a state of arrested development. But ecosystems are not merely collections of species; they are also the dynamic and ever-shifting relationships between them. And this dynamism often depends on large predators.

It is not only for scientific reasons that many of us now wish to bring back missing species; it is also an attempt to rekindle some of the wonder and enchantment that, in this buttoned-down land, often seems to be missing. Where farming is retreating from barren land, and where people are beginning to question why vast tracts of the uplands should be denuded by deer-stalking and grouse-shooting industries that serve only a tiny elite, there are new opportunities for change.

At sea the potential is even greater: by protecting large areas from commercial fishing, we could once more see what Oliver Goldsmith described in 1776: vast shoals of fish being harried by fin and sperm whales, within sight of the English shore. (This policy would also greatly boost catches in the surrounding seas; the fishing industry’s insistence on scouring every inch of seabed, leaving no breeding reserves, could not be more damaging to its own interests.)

Rewilding is a rare example of positive environmentalism, in which campaigners articulate what they are for rather than only what they are against. One of the reasons why the enthusiasm for rewilding is spreading so quickly in Britain is that it helps to create a more inspiring vision than the usual green promise: “Follow us and the world will be slightly less crap than it would otherwise have been.”

The lynx presents no threat to human beings: there is no known instance of one preying on people. It is a specialist predator of roe deer, a species that has exploded in Britain in recent decades, holding back, by intensive browsing, attempts to re-establish forests. It will also winkle out sika deer: an exotic species that is almost impossible for human beings to control, as it hides in impenetrable plantations of young trees. The attempt to reintroduce this predator marries well with the aim of bringing trees back to parts of our bare and barren uplands.

The lynx requires deep cover, and as such presents little risk to sheep and other livestock, which are supposed, as a condition of farm subsidies, to be kept out of the woods. But the real reason for choosing this species first is that the lynx is magnificent. To know that Dinogad’s father’s quarry, the llewyn in Aneirin’s saga, inhabits the woods through which you walk feels like the shadow that fleets between systole and diastole.

David Hetherington, Britain’s leading expert on the lynx, estimates that at present the Scottish Highlands could support approximately 400, which is likely to be a genetically viable population.

On a recent trip to the Cairngorms, I heard several conservationists suggest that the lynx could be reintroduced there within 20 years. If trees return to the bare hills elsewhere in Britain, the big cats could soon follow. There is nothing extraordinary about these proposals, seen from the perspective of anywhere else in Europe. The lynx has now been reintroduced to the Jura Mountains, the Alps, the Vosges in eastern France and the Harz mountains in Germany, and has re-established itself in many more places. The European population has tripled since 1970 to roughly 10,000.

As with wolves, bears, beavers, boar, bison, moose and many other species, the lynx has been able to spread as farming has left the hills and people discover that it is more lucrative to protect charismatic wildlife than to kill it, as tourists will pay for the chance to see it. Large-scale rewilding is happening almost everywhere – except Britain.

Here, attitudes are just beginning to change. Conservationists are starting to accept that the old preservation-jar model is failing, even on its own terms. Already, projects such as Trees for Life in the Highlands or the transformation of the Knepp estate in West Sussex provide a hint of what might be coming. I am helping to set up an organisation that will seek to catalyse the rewilding of land and sea across Britain. Our aim is to reintroduce that rarest of species to British ecosystems: hope. 

George Monbiot’s book “Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life” is newly published in paperback by Penguin (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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Why so-called lesbian films make me nervous

The upcoming Cate Blanchett vehicle, Carol, is already being feted as a lesbian blockbuster. I should be excited, and yet it just makes me feel sweaty.

An odd thing has started to happen to me in the build-up to new lesbian blockbusters: I sweat. I’m quite sweaty as it is, but I’m probably at my sweatiest when the entire internet – or so it seems, in my panicked state – is going on about Cate Blanchett gaying up for her latest role.

And, no, this isn’t a sex thing. Yes, I have eyes; I realise Blanchett is extremely attractive (and talented, and what have you… yes, feminism). In fact, I don’t necessarily agree with this, but I’ve been told that my “type” is blonde, patrician and spikey (so, the exact opposite of me and everyone I’m related to). I can’t account for Blanchett’s spikiness, although she definitely plays spikey well. I’m also so unsure of whether Australians can be posh, that I just Googled “can Australians be posh?”. But, Antipodean or not, she has that “former captain of the Roedean lacrosse team” thing going on, right? And, yeah, she’s blonde. So, on paper, her playing a lesbian should make me sweaty for sex reasons.

But – here’s where I implore you to suspend your disbelief – that isn’t it. Along with “vigorous cheese grating” and “talking to people”, I’m adding “having to pretend to be excited about a straight woman playing a lesbian” to my list of things that make me sweat. All the hype around Carol, which looks set to be the biggest lesbian film since Fucking Blue Is The Fucking Warmest Colour (actual title) and hits UK cinemas this week, is propelling me into a frenzy of panic the likes of which I haven’t felt since I got this inexplicable pain in my nose and convinced myself it was nose cancer.

Disclaimer: I realise lesbian visibility is important. Any given lesbian can talk about the sorry state of lesbian representation in film and TV for seven solid hours. If you want to see filibustering at its finest, just ask a gay woman what she thought of The Kids Are All Right.

So why the sweat? Yes, straight actors get to put on gayness like a gorilla suit, every time they feel like having an Oscar lobbed at their head. Blanchett did “mental” in Blue Jasmine (very well, actually) and now she’s doing gay. Why panic though? Lesbian blockbusters starring almost entirely straight women are better than nothing. But lesbianism in films is cursed with being a big deal. When’s the last time you saw a film about, say, some bounty hunters who just so happen to be lesbians? (note to self: write that screenplay). No, not “lesbian bounty hunters”, I mean “bounty hunters… who are in a relationship, and both of them are women, I guess… and what’s your point?”

The panic comes from the lesbian aspect of any mainstream film being the driving force behind a hoo-hah of epic proportions. The tremendous fanfare that heralds the lesbian blockbuster is enough to give me palpitations. And this absurd pomp wouldn’t exist if lesbian representation were slightly less concentrated. Years pass without any lesbians at all then, all of a sudden: “CATE BLANCHETT IS GAYING IN A FILM AND IT’S GOING TO BE STUNNING AND BREATHTAKING AND YOU’RE GOING TO CRY SEVENTEEN TIMES AND IF YOU’RE NOT HYPERVENTILATING RIGHT NOW YOU HAVE NO SOUL AND YOU’RE NOT EVEN A PROPER LESBIAN”.

Admittedly, I haven’t seen Carol yet, so I’m going to have to reserve judgement. Perhaps I will cry seventeen times. I have seen the trailer though and, complete with a moody vocal jazz track and a woman gazing mournfully out of a rain-spattered window, it’s already starting to tick “every lesbian film ever” boxes.  

It’s all the hype, accompanied by knowing that I’m going to have to have #opinions about Carol and probably every other lesbian film, until I die, that makes me sweat. That and also knowing that, in order to be aforementioned “proper lesbian”, I’ll have to find someone to take with me to see Carol on a date, except neither of us will really know whether or not it’s a date, and, during the sex bits (of which I’m sure there are… some) we’ll have to look at our shoes and cough, and sweat.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.