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  • Writer's pictureCrone

From the large ecosystem to the tiny

My two Audible listens – I tend to have a fiction and a non-fiction on the go at the same time - are Cornerstones, by Benedict MacDonald, and The Last Ranger by Peter Heller. In a period of pure synchronicity, both books over the course of one day’s listening went into detail about the ecological impact of the return of wolves to Yellowstone Park.

It goes like this.

With all the wolves poisoned, trapped, shot and otherwise extirpated, deer and elk numbers increased. What’s more, the ungulates could stand around in big groups and eat an area clear. They really like willow and aspen and cleared out all these trees from the banks of the rivers. That meant a lot of birds and small mammals, an absence of beavers, and also the erosion of the riverbanks and a change in the course of the rivers. That meant the loss of many little insects and fish. Which led to the loss of insectivorous birds as well as ospreys and eagles.

When the wolves were reintroduced, all this changed back and there was a huge increase in biodiversity. Not so much because there are fewer ungulates, but because they take a few bites and then move on. They also stopped gathering in such huge herds. The wolves changed their behaviour as well as their numbers.

In Cornerstones, MacDonald addresses other species who have a huge impact: beavers, eagles, whales, aurochs and horses, bees and trees. He talks about how denuded, simplified and lacking the UK ecosystems are. It’s an excellent study and reinforces the sense of interconnections and complexity. How goshawks protect bullfinches; how dead trees feed the land; how whales feel krill.

The Last Ranger has made me long to visit Yellowstone. The main character’s love for the land is tangible. But what I especially appreciate here, which is not apparent in the other book, is the love and compassion for individuals as much as ecosystems. I have complained before about how the rewilding movement – and environmentalism in its broadest form – seems blind to the sentience of the individual. This is the dichotomy I try to erase in my culture work… while death and suffering will happen, while animals will be killed and eaten by other animals as part of sustaining natural processes, this does not negate or even diminish their “mattering”. It’s not a choice between one and the other. It’s a move toward seeing both as tied in. It is individuals, with their differences and their experiences ad their individuality, who are entangled into cultures and ecosystems. They are not quantities but qualities.

That point about the wolves changing behaviour even more than numbers points toward this.

And on that behavioural change, ecologists term it something like “a landscape of fear” – suggesting that the deer are always afraid and scared of being eaten. My friend Gay counters that this is not true: just as you can see herds of zebras and gazelles grazing around well-fed lions, so deer are not afraid of wolves unless they are hunting. Even then, only a small percentage of wolf hunts are successful – 80% of the time, something stops them… maybe being seen to soon, or having a prey animal face up to them… it is not a foregone conclusion, a sheer matter of killer versus terrified victim.

Me, I skate between two views, as usual. How about “a landscape of attention”? Predators always need to be alert as food is never guaranteed. For vegetation eaters, the vivifying stimulation of awareness is conjured by the presence of predators.

And this brings me to the fox.

MacDonald says that foxes and badgers are in an unusual state: in a complete ecosystem they would need to be wary of wolves and lynx. The absence of these animals means that the activities of foxes on the creatures they prey upon are out of balance. In eating large numbers of birds’ eggs or small mammals, the number of foxes can put those creatures at risk. Foxes certainly have cause to fear humans, like all creatures do, but we tend to be rare in the countryside and at night. Likewise, badger behaviour is different in the UK from their behaviour in continental Europe, where there are wolves. Badgers will eat hedgehogs – and MacDonald seems to suggest that the number of badgers (potentially eating the declining population of hedgehogs) is an issue.

I must admit to feeling a little sad about that as the sociability and conviviality of English badgers appears a desirable state for the animals…

And as for the purported impact of cats and foxes on small mammals, neither seems to be inhibiting rodent antics in my garden.

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Sep 20, 2023

I read the links to both books and I like how you've tied the two together in your post. I've come across the Yellowstone and wolves example before but I like your clear summary of the interconnections. Also interesting is the idea of "attentiveness vs fear" and the difference of behaviours in an incomplete ecosystem. And what would seem like the big, big problem of ever striking an enduring balance, And of course the behaviours in your own garden. Fascinating!

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