The Idiot in the Meadow II

There is a reason why the word “savanna” only seems synonymous with images of places like the Serengeti – wildebeest, lions, elephants, rhinos, giraffes etc: apart from the few places in the world that still have wild megafauna (let alone biodiversity), the rest of the world’s grassland ecologies have been falling apart since their keystone species went extinct thousands of years ago.

Could somewhere like Britain ever have been a savanna? Savanna, tundra, steppe…call it what you will, where there was megafauna, there will have been grassland and open-wood pasture, rather than dense forest.

Artists impression: Late Pleistocene Eurasia, by Mauricio Anton; taken from the blog “when Europe was an Ocean”

Modern day elephants show us how such giants kept woodland succession in check.

In a sense, all that time a go – across places like Europe – instead of going extinct with those species and their environments (as they reverted to scrub and forest), it is as though we tried to cling on to them.

Traditional European farm fields and commons – grazed grassland, scattered trees, hedges and woodland edge; maintained by people, a handful of domesticated species and megafauna-like machinery – they are in some ways like echoes of those older ecologies. But, as they have faded, the drive for survival – to cling on – has led (ironically) to us laying siege against the Earth; steadily exceeding its boundaries and pushing its form beyond recognition: Don’t get me started.

“Strangely like war”, this drive pushes us deeper into the shadows of an Anthropocene future – but what are we winning? Have we we almost forgotten – in any tangible sense – what we have lost?

In Britain – said to be one of the most environmentally degraded countries in the World – it is easy to feel at ease with the landscape, when you look out across its parks and countryside. Perhaps this is because we can’t remember what it used to be like, or we have become quite comfortable looking at a landscape so heavily shaped by humans.

Cury, P and Daniel Pauly (2020) Standing up for a sustainable world, Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc. Pages: 384–395,

Then again, you wouldn’t think that the word “rainforest” could be synonymous with Britain either would you? But there you are – it really can – there was a radio 4 programme about them recently…

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