The Landscape of Fear

by Tamara Colchester

While recently researching a book on hunting and the relationship between predator and prey, I came across a concept known as ‘The Landscape of fear.’

The idea behind it is that the feeding patterns of prey animals are partly dictated by the predators that surround them. ‘Owl’ squeaks a mouse, staying low in the grass. ‘Human’ breathes a roe deer as it leaps between the trees. ‘Hawk’ alarms the jay disappearing into the hedge. Every day might be their last and every meal is a watchful affair.

This does not mean that prey animals live in a state of constant fear. Herds of zebra live in close proximity to lions and hyenas in the Serengeti, just as deer live in the same territory as wolves in parts of the Northern hemisphere. What the idea pertains to is the way in which the presence of a predator keeps its prey on their toes, so to speak. Living with death as an ever-present reality seasons the way prey creatures move, eat and sleep. They watch their fellow animals with an alertness that keeps the relationship between predator and prey taut.

In this current climate of quarantine and lockdown, it is interesting to observe where we have got to as humans in this dance between predator and prey. For many years we have been the apex predator across most of the world. By hunting, exterminating or fencing the animals that threaten our lives or simply cause economic inconvenience, we have created a landscape in which we travel at will and eat at leisure. The wolf, the lynx and the bear are all long gone from these shores, allowing for a freedom of movement and sense of domination that has rooted deep in our collective psyche.

We have forgotten what it is to be prey.

The monsters that loom in the shadowlands of the mind were once literal beings. Through the black mouth of the doorway was the threat of sharp teeth and bone crunch. The modern ailment of anxiety – nameless panic running through the psyche – might well be this old fear run amok, separated from the terrors that kept us close to the fire, to one another, eyes wide as we stared into the all-seeing dark.

But perhaps our bodies remember…

An experiment in the Cairngorms called Project Wolf, in which volunteers live and act like wolves, put the Landscape of Fear to the test. The aim of the project was to recover a native woodland habitat by reducing the deer browsing pressure. If the deer are afraid, the idea goes, the young trees stand a chance. Would the presence of humans-acting-as-wolves be enough to instill fear in the surrounding deer population and stop them eating the young saplings the charity were trying to protect? (Don’t forget that to a young tree, a deer is a predator too.) Could humans find a way of being peaceful predators, without having to use force or violence?

‘As a conservation organization, we needed to find a way that didn’t involve actual killing.’ Says Doug Gilbert, the leader of the project.  ‘That was partly because, in our culture, killing is seen as bad. But it’s important to remember that herbivores ‘kill’ plants too. Many creatures that seem peaceful are predatory. Blue tits, butterflies, ants…the idea that a predator is a large, meat-eating carnivore is just wrong. We get upset about the welfare of the deer. But a wolf is not ‘kind’. It will eat an animal alive. We have cultural ethical baggage about what a predator does. What a predator is meant to be.’

Unfortunately the project did not gain the funding needed to gather the necessary data to comprehensively evaluate the effects of the peaceful ‘wolves’. Gilbert recognizes the challenges inherent in human attempts to manage our struggling ecosystem. ‘We’ve got no apex predators left because we killed them all. The problem now, is that we don’t know how to manage the animals we have left. Human attempts to create balance are hugely problematic. Frankly, we’re a bit shit at it. Pat of the problem is that we have objectives of what we want from a landscape, which no other predator has. A huge cultural and philosophical layer is laid over our natural instincts.’

Project Wolf is not the only organization engaging with the unwieldy question of balance. The re-wilding movement has been gathering momentum in the west for some time now, with increasing numbers of people showing support for landscapes in which natural processes are given precedence over human aims.

At the Dutch nature reserve the Oostvaardersplassen, one of Europe’s best known (and controversial) re-wilding projects, resident ecologist Perry Cornellison is talking me through the difficulties faced by their first attempts to allow natural processes to take control of a designated landscape.

As had been hoped, the herbivores (wild cattle, horses and deer) grazed the tree growth into submission, halting the regrowth of forest and creating open grassland. The problem was, they didn’t stop. Without any culling by rifle or the presence of other predators, the herd numbers grew as the amount of available food dwindled to way below what was needed to support the numbers living in the enclosure. The non-interventionist policy meant that many animals were left to starve through the winter.

‘In an enclosed environment like this, the animals would soon eat themselves into extinction.’ Cornellison says. He shows me around the project (now much more like the open plains of Africa, with large herds of deer, horse and cattle, but not a tree (nor lion) in sight. I think of our human impact on the planet.  Without any restraint, any fear, I wonder if humans are just as capable of consuming ourselves into extinction too.

‘Rewilding’, Cornellison says, ‘needs space.’ It also needs predators, and eventually humans too. Cornellisons ideal would be the creation of a wide network of interconnected and varied terrains in which predators and prey learn to live alongside each other again. ‘Eventually,’ he smiles, ‘people could return, but only if willing to take part within the cycle of life and death.’

The question is – are we willing to live with the threat of a predator? Whether it’s slugs that eat our lettuces, political leaders that threaten our access to oil, or lions in zoos who lash out – any threat to our wellbeing is generally met with extermination. Can we find a collective willingness to accept the reality of predatory threat back into our lives?

The unexpected arrival of Covid-19 brings this question home. It is interesting that the first response to the arrival of the virus has been the rhetoric of war. We will beat this virus, kick its ass, send it packing…

But this virus, this enemy, is too small and quick to catch. A natural process that we can’t control is momentarily outfoxing us. For the first time in recorded history the entire world is hiding. The global juggernaut, apparently unstoppable, has become still as we collectively freeze, waiting, hoping this predator will pass us by.

Far from being out there, beyond the cave entrance, it is in here, inside us, carried on the very breath that also gives us life. Can those of us who believe in allowing natural processes and a rewilding of nature allow for this natural process? Can we surrender to something greater, and so much smaller, than ourselves?

For projects like the Ooostvadersplaassen to work, it seems to me that we need to enter the enclosure. If the people propounding rewilding remain on the outside looking in, these projects are still arising from an unchallenged position of human dominance. For those of us who casually call for the return of the wolf, the bear and the lynx, does the arrival of this virus ask us to examine what it feels like for the animals that will be preyed upon? Is Covid-19 an invitation to see the benefit of letting fear alter our patterns of behaviour too?

‘What occurred at the OVP was unprecedented.’ Cornellison says. ‘We had no idea what was going to happen, and in that sense it was a wild kind of experiment. With no targets and no grids, the unexpected was allowed in.’

The unexpected has also found its way in to the global landscape. Despite the warnings and prophecies of both scientist and poet, nothing has much affected the way we humans behave until now. Abstract environmental threat hasn’t done very much to change collective human behaviour. But with the spread of Covid-19, it is astounding to see the potential for change in the way we live and how much we take.  

For all of our love of fences, the literal manifestation of division and control, we find ourselves faced with a threat that we cannot keep out, or in, for that matter. We all have to breathe. Perhaps the benefit we see in the presence of predators for the grazing animals of the earth provides us with another way of viewing our own role within nature’s cycles.

We humans are predators, perhaps the most successful the world has ever known, but it’s important to remember that we are also prey.  The irony is that the new danger isn’t the monster out there, prowling in the dark, its one that lives inside our bodies, resides within our breath.

– Tamara Colchester

Previously published on medium.com
Link to video on Project Wolf by Alec Finlay

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