Sunday, April 05, 2015

On cat islands and the wider potential of rewilding

I'm still fond of a old post of mine that I had made back in January 2011, "What the cats of Houtong say about the population of Taiwan". That post, drawing on a September 2010 post I made at my blog, examined how the Taiwanese village of Houtong, located just outside the capital of Taipei, has managed to find new life after its coal mining economy went under thanks to its large feral cat community.

Visitors' raves on local blogs have helped draw cat lovers to fondle, frolic and photograph the 100 or so resident felines in Houtong, one of several industrial communities in decline since Taiwan's railroads electrified and oil grew as a power source.

Most towns have never recovered, but this tiny community of 200 is fast reinventing itself as a cat lover's paradise.

"It was more fun than I imagined," said 31-year-old administrative assistant Yu Li-hsin, who visited from Taipei. "The cats were clean and totally unafraid of people. I'll definitely return."

On a recent weekday afternoon, dozens of white, black, grey and calico-coloured cats wandered freely amid Houtong's craggy byways, while visitors captured the scene with cellphone cameras and tickled the creatures silly with feather-tipped sticks.

I went on to connect this with a variety of phenomena, including the decline of peripheral communities, the rise of international migration and tourism in Taiwan, even the demographic regime of the cats themselves. I had fun.

Last Saturday, I reported on another cat community, this one an entire island, in Japan. Early in March, The Atlantic featured a Reuters photo essay by Thomas Peter depicting the cats of the Japanese island of Aoshima. As one source describes it, Aoshima--located off of the coast of the major Japanese island of Shikoku--is an island with an aging human population and a rapidly growing cat population. This latter gives it some economic heft that it would otherwise ave lacked.

A remote island in southern Japan is home to 22 people and more than 120 cats.

Aoshima is a dwindling fishing community of elderly people who live mainly off retirement benefits. The cats were originally brought over to the island to deal with mice plaguing fishing boats. But they've since multiplied as there are no natural predators.

Tourists have been flocking to the island off Ehime prefecture on a ferry that runs twice twice a day. Cat lover Makiko Yamasaki, 27, said: "I came here looking to relax. And as for how is it? Well there is a ton of cats here, then there was this sort of cat witch, who came out to feed the cats, which was quite fun. So I'd want to come again."

Many more photos are available at the links, if you are curious.

The specific phenomenon of the "cat island" or "cat village" seems to be relatively common in East Asia. I have also read of the Pacific-coast cat island of Tashirohima received attention after being spared by the 2011 tsunami. What these communities, in Japan and Taiwan and perhaps elsewhere, all seem to share in common is a recent sharp decline in human populations, coupled with a growth of cat populations. It's reasonable to imagine that, in decaying human settlements, cats might do reasonably well, taking shelter in human constructions and feeding off of prey. The extent to which this is sustainable may be another question entirely. The cats of Aoshima, at least, seem to depend on regular feedings. Can they count on these indefinitely into the future, as Aoshima further depopulates? Will cat tourism bring in enough income to keep the whole cycle going? Will it lways do so?

This specific phenomenon fits within a broader context of rewilding, of the return of wild animals and ultimately wilderness to peripheral areas experiencing depopulation. One example of this is the return of wolves to East Germany in the past decades, aided in part by the depopulation of much of rural East Germany. Another example I'm personally familiar with is the gradual return of woodland to Prince Edward Island over the past century, as subsistence agriculture has disappeared and marginal lands fallen out of production.

It is estimated that in the early 1800s, forests would have covered some 95 per cent of this province; the average age of these trees would have been in the hundreds of years.

[. . .]

According to the State of the Island’s Forests report in 2002, only 9,000 hectares of this hardwood dominant shade tolerant forest remains in scattered patches throughout the island. By 1900, the population of PEI had drastically increased to 100,000 and only about 30% of the land was left in forests. During those 100 years, much of the best forested land went under the axe or was burned to make room for agriculture. Many species of mammals were extripated from the island forests, such as bears, fisher, marten, and piliated woodpeckers. Of those remaining forests, many had been disturbed by cuttings, fires, and cattle grazing. Another big problem was the introduction of diseases that has devastated the American Beech and American Elm on PEI as well as other areas.

[. . .]

According to the State of the Forest report in 2002, only 9,000 ha of forested area on PEI is in a late sussessional shade dominant forest state, typical of the Acadian Forest. That accounts for less than 2% of the entire island, that at one time, was entirely covered in trees. Since 1900, there was a gradual increase in forest coverage, mostly due to farm abandonment. Today, approximately 50% of the island’s land mass of 560,000 hectares is forested, but much of it is in poor condition, growing on poor worn-out agricultural fields. Much of the this has grown up into what’s termed old-field white spruce. This is an even aged stand of poor quality trees, growing on poor quality soils.

In the decline of the human population of many regions lies the potential for a managed return of wilderness. The Rewilding Europe website goes into great detail about the potential for rewilding projects around Europe. The Landscape Institute's James Richardson looked at eastern Portugal, suggesting that rural depopulation could be environmentally advantageous. (Perhaps also economically, if eco-tourism becomes popular?)

We arranged to meet with Pedro Prata, the lead advisor of the Western Iberia locality of Rewilding Europe in the Coa valley around 3 hours north of Idanha-a-Nova. Rewilding Europe is an organisation that aims to ‘rewild’ areas of Europe undergoing land abandonment. RE see it as an opportunity for the regeneration of land that has been misused for hundreds if not thousands of years and their ideas support many of our own. The Mediterranean climate and soils are actually ill-suited to the kind of agriculture practiced north of the Pyrenees and Alps.

Pedro showed us around their reserve which they have purchased from local landowners, and through planting native trees, grazing by native breeds of horse and cattle (in association with the Tauros Project), as well as reducing fire, are beginning to establish a regenerating ecosystem in the Coa valley. Although Rewilding Europe is mainly focused on nature conservation, its rewilding projects have important associated effects such as local employment in ecotourism, helping to balance the water table through vegetation as well as having a positive effect on game species such as partridge and rabbits which spill over from the reserve; hunting is a very important activity in Iberia.

We were able to learn many things from the visit including the vulnerability of traditional and sustainable cork-oak forests when too high a percentage of trees are harvested, removing their natural fireproofing. We learned that the area generally receives a good deal of water, but that this water falls seasonally and is often stored centrally and not distributed, or is lost to evaporation or surface run-off before it can be captured by the soil. We learned that despite appearances, the local areas do not provide the amenities such as reliable transport, education, employment and health care that would otherwise keep young people in the area.

A key thing that we have come to appreciate is that there are reasons that people have abandoned the land, and that we should not be trying to address the issue by forcing people, through our strategies, back into agriculture in inherently difficult areas. The abandonment will be used in our respective projects as an opportunity to encourage ecological regeneration, and the boost in productivity and economic activity that this can bring through a reconsideration of the value of nature and through outdoor pursuits.

The project prompts questions about areas of the UK that, were it not for subsidies, would also be undergoing abandonment, such as our sheep-grazed uplands and intensively managed grouse moors. In the UK, the positive effects of rewilding on these bleak areas would be easy to appreciate – native reforestation and the benefits to flood reduction, water quality, carbon storage, biodiversity, diverse and increased economic activity, recreational activity to name but a few.

Can we take, from the growth of the cat island phenomenon and the wider context of rewilding, clues as to how we should react to the future of rural depopulation? I am actually being serious when I say that we can and we should.


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