Sheep are eating the planet. This is only one of many things I took away from reading George Monbiot’s book Feral, subtitled Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding. If you are interested in man’s relationship with the natural world and preserving the wild spaces still left to us on this planet it is definitely worth a read.
One thing it settled for me was my stance on sheep as a vegan which till now had been a little woolly (I’m so sorry). I had done some research into farming practices and, as with most of these things, had a general sense that it is always better not to commodify animals because from there it’s only a hop, step and jump to treating them as money making machines and not living beings. As a rule I don’t trust humans to do the right thing when money is involved and unfortunately nothing has served to change my mind so far. This means I tend to take a guilty until proven innocent approach to animal produce.
That said, sheep roam much more freely than most animals and it’s hard to justify the creation of man made fibres as wools substitutes on an environmental basis. Basically there’s no easy answer – something I felt all too keenly when I was questioned on the parameters of my veganism. What about honey? What about oysters? What about wool?
But Feral opened my eyes to something, which now seems obvious. There are dramatic consequences to rearing large quantities of sheep on our wild and open spaces. In the UK sheep are often placed to roam in areas where the hills makes the land unfit for any other type of farming. Land that is considered wild and under conservation will still allow sheep grazing. Flashback a thousand years ago and most of these areas would have been covered in forest. That land was cleared for timber and for grazing at a time when we didn’t fully understand the importance of preserving our forests. And the reason those forests will never return to those areas is not because they are gone for ever. It is because the incessant grazing of sheep means that nothing can grow.
The earth is nothing if not resilient. Trees would return slowly but surely. But they won’t as long as we keep mowing the lawn. This is frustrating when you learn that sheep farming is heavily subsidised and kept alive more in the interest of preserving the culture of the industry than it is for any real demand for wool. Wool is incredibly cheap because we’re producing so much of the stuff. I would rather see the sheep fenced out and the growth of more British forests. By the rest of the world’s standard the UK is an arid country. Our wildlife has been beaten into submission for a long time to the point where it barely rears its head. Bird song grows dimmer every year and though our deer population is certainly out of control you’re unlikely to see much else in the country aside from livestock.
But the natural world is so important, not just to preserve out environment against the threat of global warming but also to preserve life for it’s own sake. The non-human world around us gives us joy and maybe we won’t realise how much until it is completely gone. There are steps we can take to reverse this decline now and plant some roots for a greener, more beautiful and chirpier landscape. Although sheep might not seem like the likeliest of culprits they are actually an invasive species and their total domination of our hillsides should not be taken lightly.