Reconnect with the wild side

Aaron Millar calls us to let go and rewild this summer

Feral is a delicious word. It means to be ‘in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication’. After the confines of a long winter, feral is something we may all yearn for and deserve.

I bumped into the word by pure serendipity. One afternoon I tuned into a radio talk by the writer and environmentalist, George Monbiot. Feral is the title of his book, but the subject – and what made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up – is rewilding.

His story begins in Yellowstone. In 1995 a small number of wolves, having been hunted to near extinction, were reintroduced to the National Park. For the previous 70 years, the deer, without a natural predator, had devastated the landscape and reduced the vegetation to almost nothing. Despite the best efforts of smart humans to intervene, the situation was out of control.

But the wolves had an immediate impact: as expected they killed some deer, but their greatest effect wasn’t in culling numbers, but in changing behaviour. The deer stopped going to certain areas where they knew they were vulnerable. As their grazing ceased, forests regenerated and birds and other small animals returned – in an ecological blink of an eye, the ecosystem began to flourish.

But something even more amazing happened too – the wolves changed the behaviour of the rivers. As the forests grew, they stabilised the banks of the rivers, fixing their course and providing better habitats and a more balanced ecosystem. Unbelievably, the reintroduction of a single species changed the physical geography of the entire 3,500 square mile Yellowstone National Park.

Except it’s not unbelievable at all. The Gaia hypothesis, put forward by James Lovelock almost 50 years ago, proposes that the earth is a self-regulating system. Everything is connected – insects, flowers, wolves, deer and humans all affect and sustain the conditions for life on earth.

This idea underpins the proposition of rewilding. If we step back, nature will self-regulate. And the evidence is everywhere we care to look: in the presence of whales increasing krill populations in the southern oceans, in the regeneration of the Caledonian Forest by the Trees for Life foundation, even by the return of trout to the River Wandle in south London. The planet will heal itself.

“Monbiot envisions Serengeti on our doorstep, a world where we allow space for nature to flourish and where we allow nature to flourish us too”

But this is contrary to much contemporary conservation, which, with the best of intentions, seeks to reconstitute the earth to some prior state: to maintain this meadow, to restore this heath, to protect this marshland. Rewilding isn’t about preservation, it’s about letting go. Tear down the fences, seal up the ditches, replace what you have removed and then walk away.

In framing our ecological challenges in a positive, future-focused way, rewilding is unique. We can’t restore what was, but perhaps something new can begin. Rewilding tells us that we needn’t despair; if we trust in the inherent systems of the earth, there is hope still.

And perhaps there’s hope for us too, which brings me back to the word feral. “We have evolved in a world of horns and tusks and fangs and claws,” Monbiot says. “We still possess the fear, and the courage, and the aggression, required to navigate those times. But in our comfortable, safe, crowded lands we have few opportunities to exercise them.”

This doesn’t mean doing away with civilization, nor does he want us to retreat from nature – if we disconnect from the planet we risk losing sight of who we are, and what we are fighting to save. On the contrary, he is seeking a deeper connection to the animal inside of us through enhanced engagement with, and delight in, the natural world.

He envisions Serengeti on our doorstep, a world where we allow space for nature to flourish and where we allow nature to flourish us too.

If you feel the same and hear that call of the wild, then maybe it’s time you went feral too. Here are three of Britain’s wildest places. Dive into them this summer.

The Inner Hebrides, Scotland:
Take a sea kayak to the remote islands of the Hebridean Sea and you will feel like you have left the real world behind. For something special, wild camp on Iona: a beautiful island and the perfect setting for a wilderness retreat.

The Cambrian Mountains, Wales:
Straddling the Snowdonia and Brecon Beacon National Parks, these sparsely populated hills are filled with raw natural beauty. But it’s also, according to Monbiot, an example of the devastation caused by over-grazing of livestock. Go to better understand his argument and imagine the empty landscape rewilded with life.

Dartmoor, England:
Walking in Dartmoor can occasionally feel like stepping onto another planet; vast swathes of its 368 square miles are still absolutely desolate and empty. Hike hard into a distant corner and leave the comfort of civilisation behind.

Aaron Millar blogs about personal development through exploring the world at