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Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? Me, for one


SOME of my happiest hours, in the days before unco-operative knees cramped my style, were spent in solitary wandering through the English countryside, secure in the knowledge that the most intimidating animal I would be likely to meet was an unaccompanied dog or, perhaps, a cow. British cows are not, of course, without their dangers. Every year many unwary ramblers have lived to tell as much, while several, unhappily, have not. But cows are rarely encountered on the loose in woods or on mountainsides. In other countries, it’s different. The wildlife you bump into, even in comparatively built-up areas, can be seriously wild.

I remember going for a stroll along a semi-countrified path on the outskirts of Duncan, on Vancouver Island, well within sight and sound of human habitation. My walk passed without incident. However, the following day my husband, cycling along the same route, was brought up sharp when a pair of bear cubs lolloped across the track a couple of yards in front of him. As he drew up to let them pass, they disappeared into the bushes, to be followed immediately by their mother. Bristling with maternal solicitude, she paused for a few moments and stared at him, deciding whether or not he posed a threat; then, mercifully, gave him the benefit of the doubt, and padded off after her offspring. My husband – the sort of man who pats huge, slavering canines on the head and calls them ‘nice beasts’ – treasures this incident as a highlight of the holiday. I, on the other hand, shudder to think what the outcome might have been.

I did once have a close encounter of my own. It happened in Hong Kong. After scrambling up the Lion Rock in unsuitable sandals, I decided to continue my walk along the ridge and down to the Tai Po Road, where I could catch a bus back into town. The guide book warned me that I would pass through woods infested with monkeys, which could be diseased and dangerous, and should on no account be approached. Fine, I thought: I won’t approach them. The woods proved to be particularly gloomy, and after a time I became aware of a faint gibbering in the treetops. I felt slightly uneasy. Since leaving the sunny uplands, I had met not a single human being. Then, planted square in the middle of the path ahead of me, I saw the squatting forms of half a dozen or so largeish monkeys. They were looking at me. What to do? Too far to go back now. I approached them, praying. For a moment, I thought they might let me pass. Then the largest one made a quick grab for the bag carrying my map, my guide book and various other necessities and, wresting it from my grasp, began throwing out the contents, pausing to give me a disapproving stare as each rejected item hit the ground. There were no bananas. Disgusted, the animal bared its unlovely teeth and cast the bag aside. Timidly, I asked it if it would please let me collect my things and go. It glared, but did not obstruct me. Thanking it politely, I picked up my scattered possessions and pressed on, praying hard and encountering no further monkey patrols before I reached the blessed bus-stop on the Tai Po road. 

Even though monkeys don’t figure on the list of prospective candidates, I have reservations about the recent reiterations of proposals to supplement our current British fauna with additional species, on the grounds that they belonged here in the past and are therefore indispensable for maintaining an ecological balance. In particular, I recoil from the idea of re-introducing the ‘apex predators’ which our ancestors so diligently eradicated from these islands: the wolves, lynxes and even bears which once ravaged livestock and deterred exploration of the countryside unarmed.

I have nothing against a little judicious encouragement of nature. Wild flowers, for instance, are a welcome addition to roadsides and roundabouts, though perhaps it’s not such a good idea to allowweeds to grow long and lush on urban pavements. But proposals to transform this country into a replica of the past seem to me seriously misguided. Which particular past would that be? The Middle Ages? The pre-Roman era? (Goodbye, Peter Rabbit!) The era of the first hunter-gatherers? Or do romantic idealists hanker after some golden age before human beings arrived on the scene to disturb the immaculate fixity of nature, and long to re-establish that imagined earthly paradise with themselves, of course, as guardians of the perfect stasis?

It’s true that the traditional British countryside, with its hedgerows and patchwork fields, its winding lanes, its copses and woodlands invitingly innocent of apex predators is an artificial construct. The sheep-grazed hillsides and managed moorlands of the wilder areas have been shaped over the years by the needs of their inhabitants. But what’s wrong with that when it has resulted in a landscape so pleasing, so varied, and so approachable? Huge tracts of the planet are already abandoned impenetrably to nature: places untouched by human hand, where who knows what forgotten species may persist.   

Nature isn’t the slave of any status quo. It is creative, dynamic and adaptable, so why not work with nature, not to salvage some landscape of the long-dead past, but to preserve and gently improve our own small corner of the world as it has evolved over the centuries? To take as our ideal, here on these islands, not nature in the raw, but nature tamed and guided towards human pleasure and sustenance? There is no reason why such an aim shouldn’t incorporate care for wildlife, or attend to such problems as pollution, degradation of the soil, and habitat protection.

In any case, how can the extreme rewilders be sure that their efforts to manifest some idealised vision of the past will not have unforeseen consequences, in addition to the obvious problems that must follow the release of apex predators into the wild? Are they in such command of all the facts, of all the ingredients and measures of a perfectly balanced ecology, that they can foresee every ramification of the programmes they are urging on government? 

Our ancestors laboured over centuries to provide their descendants with a country adapted to human habitation. Why on earth should we be even considering policies which would return it increasingly to wilderness, reducing not only its accessibility but its already limited capacity to feed its people?

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Gillian Dymond
Gillian Dymond
Gillian Dymond is 78, a mother and grandmother living in the north-east of England.

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