Jetlag gets you up early.
On the first day back from a trip to Europe, I found myself alert in bed at 5.30 a.m. wondering how exactly I was going to fill the time till breakfast. A casual jog around the neighborhood would not normally be my first choice but it felt like a good way to ease myself back into the Montana that I call home.
After the door softly clicked shut behind me, I made my way across deserted streets which seemed to be enjoying the brief respite before the first traffic of the day. I was no more than three minutes from my house when I passed a white tailed deer munching on forbs at the edge of the high school football field. “So good to be back” I said quietly to myself before realizing I had fallen head-first into a classic trap.
Montana has animals, right? Far more than in Europe, says the conventional wisdom. The ‘Old World’ is great and all, but the wildlife there is crowded out by the people.
I spent the rest of the morning pondering how problematic such simplistic thinking can be.
Part of what I had been doing in Europe was looking at the re-establishment of nature and wild animals on long-inhabited landscapes. In Umbria, I had met with the old truffle hunter who complained bitterly about how wolf numbers have exploded across the region. Each year, in the midst of his rant, he takes out his phone and shows our group a photo of a wolf taken nearby. This year, the wolf was photographed two days previously not three hundred yards from where we stood surrounded by agricultural fields.
Wolves were not the only big critters in the midst of reclaiming the landscape. Walking through the small patch of oak forest in which the truffles grew, we came across shotgun shells indicating numerous hunts of the prolific wild boar. The electric fence separating the forest from the barley fields and olive groves showed how much competition the truffle hunter faced from the growing population of ‘cinghiale’ in the region.
A couple of hours south, I had walked with a local conservationist through a forested hillside strewn with signs of the rare Marsican brown bear. Chewed signposts, rolled over rocks, and the occasional pile of scat made it clear that this relatively mild-mannered ursine still prowled these woods, content to discretely satisfy its hunger on fruits, roots, and last year’s mast crop on the forest floor. Hunting over generations, said the bear conservationist, had probably removed the genes of the bolder bears who let themselves be easily seen.
Frequent ovate rugs of large droppings suggested that red deer – a close relative of Montana’s elk – were surprisingly common here. The roe deer buck that fleeted up ahead on the trail gave us more reassurance we were not alone. Golden eagles and distant griffon vultures soaring overheard completed the encompassing canopy of eyes whose gaze likely locked us in from all sides.
Although it is true that land abandonment and larger economic forces contribute to some of the beneficial trends for wildlife in Europe, it is a mistake to think wildlife only only exists where people don’t. On the white cliffs near where I grew up in southern England, peregrine falcons are nesting and diving on pigeons again at the same time as visitor numbers have grown dramatically. In nearby Friston Forest, fallow deer are quickly repopulating and the barbastelle bat makes regular appearances.
An hour away at Knepp Castle Estate, a full-on rewilding of former agricultural lands is occurring, supported by wildlife tours, glamping, and a niche market for artisanal meats. The profusion of animals making their way onto this rewilded landscape is taking everyone by surprise. Knepp has become a magnet for species pushed off more industrially managed lands. Purple emperor butterflies, turtle doves, and nightingales are flourishing, while a pair of white storks are sitting on eggs which, if they hatch this summer, will mark the first time these giant migratory birds have bred in England since 1416.
In the Netherlands, the wolves now crossing over from Germany and settling into the Dutch countryside are not living on remote hillsides. They are forging a scrappy existence in small wooded patches and among agricultural fields, occasionally surprising locals by walking down suburban streets. Roeland Vermeulen of the wildlife group ‘Wolven in Nederland’ thinks this kind of existence is viable even in densely populated western European countries. “As wolves are shy, mainly nocturnal animals,” Vermeulen says, “most people will hardly notice wolves are among us.” He thinks the Netherlands can support twenty two packs.
This much is clear. Places like Montana do not have a lock on wildlife. Beavers, martens, wildcats, weasels, lynx, and buzzards are all increasing in numbers in certain parts of Europe. Not only are the charismatic megafauna doing their best but numerous small animals, from beetles to voles, are all working hard to stay on the landscape. They can do it successfully, if we just lay off on the poisons, the habitat clearing, and the industrialization of their homes.
My message is not that wildlife is no longer under threat in Europe. It absolutely is. The message is that, if we are careful and compassionate, multitudes of enlivening possibilities abound. This is the message of hope that opens up, rather than closes down, the future.
In the heavily transformed landscapes humans have created, wildlife has no choice but to start at the seams. But from there, many species can work their way inwards towards the spaces we occupy and make a new living in our midst, if given a chance. Whether we are prepared to offer this chance is one of the biggest ethical questions of our times.
At the turn on my morning jog, I look up to see an osprey alight on its nest. From behind the rampart of twigs, two hungry fledglings emerge eager to see what food she has brought. The huge nest sits on a man-made pole between a footpath and a baseball field where, on game night, thousands of people will gather to cheer a home run. Meanwhile the osprey will tend to her young forty feet above the fray and calmly gaze across the crowd towards the river beyond.
Sparrow photo by Ian Sane Coyote photo by Renee Grayson