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“Wolves, the Icing on the Ecosystem Cake”

For the last 25 years, award winning author, passionate animal advocate and environmentalist Philip Lymbery has been on a mission to end factory farming by documenting and exposing its devastating effects on the world´s ecosystems.
“Wolves, the Icing on the Ecosystem Cake”

Philip Lymbery with his dog friend Duke

On his first visit to Helsinki to launch the Finnish translation of his first book “Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat”, The Wolf Action Group had the privilege of meeting Philip to know about the effects of factory farming on our globally disappearing wildlife. Learning about the hard facts and inconvenient truths of eating animal products in a world afflicted by hunger, poverty and climate breakdown may seem daunting to most of us, but aided by his suave public speaking skills and profound knowledge of his cause, listening to Philip is both a heart-wrenching and inspiring experience.

Described as one of the food industry´s most influential people, Philip´s journey to becoming chief executive officer of Compassion in World Farming started at an early age during a family holiday with an up-close and personal encounter with a barn owl. “I remember being fascinated by the way it moved, its self-will and character, not just as a species but as an individual.” This fascination was the spark of what became a lifelong passion for the natural world that later on took him as an ornithologist and wildlife tour leader to many distant lands such as Costa Rica, Morocco and the United States in search of “all the amazing creatures living in the wild”.

But it was another chance encounter, this time with the wisdom of a former dairy farmer what finally set Philip´s course; learning about the animal cruelty and ecological ravages of factory farming moved him so deeply that at once he decided to devote his lifework to giving animals lives worth living.


Wildlife´s disappearing act

Becoming involved with Compassion in World Farming allowed Philip to cross the continents and witness first-hand how as a result of the global expansion of industrial agriculture, wildlife had been pushed out of the picture. “I started to see what was happening to the farmland birds, bees, butterflies, as well as to all sorts of creatures you don´t usually associate with farming at all: penguins, polar bears, elephants, jaguars, orang-utans, rhinos. Their fate was intimately connected to industrial agriculture.” 

Scientific evidence supports Philip´s observations: the latest Living Planet Index report produced for WWF by the Zoological Society of London states that since the 1970´s 60% of wild mammals, birds, fish and reptiles have disappeared due to human activities.[1] As documented in “Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat”, the way we produce our food is one of the main culprits.

The resource-intensive animal agriculture industry is mainly powered by the chemically-soaked corn and soy prairies of the US mid-west and the deforested basin of the Amazon. The continuous expansion of industrial monoculture practices has been the driving force behind deforestation, soil erosion, ocean dead zones and biodiversity loss at a global scale. “The way we feed ourselves has become a dominant activity affecting wildlife and the natural ecosystems on which our existence depends on. As nearly half of the world´s usable land surface is devoted to agriculture, the key lies in bringing together the demands of wildlife and food production. Few people recognize that the beef, milk and bacon they buy may be contributing to the demise of iconic wildlife,” says Philip.

Nowadays there is increasing global concern about the urgent need to halt the dramatic loss of biodiversity. Analyses have revealed that 83% of all mammals have disappeared since the dawn of human civilization[2]. To Philip it´s clear that nothing less than a fundamental shift in our understanding of humanity´s relationship with the natural world is needed. “How we look at nature will determine the kind of planet we will leave for our children. In the early days, mankind was trying to get established and nature was seen as the enemy, we didn´t understand that our lives depended on it.”


Where there is a will there is a way

The many years spent investigating the negative effects of industrial agriculture on wildlife have allowed Philip to meet the bad and the ugly but also the good of today´s farming practices. While many farmers still hold on to the capitalist mind-set of maximizing the profits and externalizing the environmental costs, there are many positive examples that prove how food production and environmental protection can and should go hand in hand. “During my travels I’ve met many, many farmers, who have rejected cruelty and waste. There is an added value in wildlife-friendly farming.” By bringing farm animals back to the landscape, nature starts coming back to life and without the use of chemicals and the deforestation wildlife can regain its foothold but, can farm animals share the land with wild ones such as predators? “Coexistence is possible and it has been proven in many places, for example in the Italian Apennines where sheep farmers sell local “predator-friendly” certified wool. Where there is a will there is a way. I have seen the thrill people get with the prospects of seeing charismatic wildlife such as bison, jaguars and wolves. Wildlife ecotourism is another example of how protecting nature enriches the local economies,” says Philip.

The icing on the ecosystem cake

To Philip, the presence of predators such as wolves represents the pinnacle of a healthy habitat. “They tell me that so much else is doing well. Through education we can show people how large carnivores are really the icing on the cake of a thriving ecosystem. It´s hard to overestimate the positive role of large carnivores in nature.” As explained in “Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were” Philip´s second book, bringing livestock back to the land is compatible with the presence of wild predators. “Economic compensation schemes support farmers who keep their livestock on the land and suffer losses from wildlife depredation, though studies have shown that the actual livestock deaths attributed to wolves are only 0.1 to 0.6% of all deaths, a minor threat compared to disease, accidents and birth defects,”explains Philip. At the same time, he points out that there is nowadays scientific consensus showing how lethal control of depredation from pack animals such as wolves creates more problems than it solves as it breaks their social order.[3] “We actually make things worse by killing predators. There are many other strategies for preventing attacks such as electric fences, guardian dogs and increased human presence. Everyone wants to see a wolf and other iconic species.“

Telling it as it is

“Wolves are being the scapegoats for bad animal husbandry. By blaming them, farmers don’t have to answer back about livestock losses. It´s the same with many other species such as badgers in the UK, intensive farming has been the main responsible for the dramatic decline in wildlife species,” says Philip. Does he think the media has been partly responsible for this scapegoating? “The media has a very important role in this too as it likes to sensationalize information in order to capture people´s attention. Sharks for example suffered tremendously after the movie “Jaws” was released and this fact has not helped us in any way to preserve our life support systems.”

Governmental responses to environmental degradation often do not reflect the expert recommendations. How do we build a bridge for science to reach the policy-makers? “We have to tell it as it is. Factory farming is one of the major drivers of wildlife extinction. We have to tell the story backed by strong scientific evidence and make sure we mobilize the public opinion. It´s not easy, as politicians mostly focus on how to get re-elected. They usually know what needs to be done but they stick to what will get them re-elected.  In 50 years of industrial agriculture we have lost half of all wildlife. We have just 12 years to make a change. Factory farming is the main driver of climate change,” stresses Philip.

Generation L is for last 

In many ancient cultures owls have been represented as a symbol of wisdom and prophecy, perhaps due to their ability of seeing through the darkness. Tellingly, Philip´s message comes with a sense of urgency and foreboding. “The future of the planet lies in changing what we eat. We are the last generation that can change things. If we´re not to look at a world where the wild things were, we better learn how to live with them side by side, making them part of a living landscape where food production and wildlife coexist,” says Philip.

Our species is bringing about the sixth mass species extinction in the Earth´s history and general ignorance and indifference of its implications are probably our gravest dangers. What drives Philip trough these difficult times? “Seeing animals happy keeps me motivated in my work. To see how they are excited to start another day, seeing the joy in Duke´s eyes (Philip´s rescue dog). Animal welfare is not only about giving animals a life free of suffering but also about bringing joy to their lives.”

By showing some of the many inspirational people who are actively giving farm animals better lives and ensuring there is a future for wildlife, Philip´s message is -above all- one of hope. What would he like his legacy to be? “Having put in place the stepping stones to end factory farming and creating a better world for people and animals. We have been myopic and unable to see the obvious, it´s time that we extend our compassion to animals.”

Luonto-Liiton susiryhmä / The Wolf Action Group, 2018.
All images courtesy of Philip Lymbery.


[2] Mammal diversity will take millions of years to recover from the current biodiversity crisis

Matt Davis, Søren Faurby, Jens-Christian Svenning, 2018.

[3] Predator control should not be a shot in the dark. Adrian Treves, Miha Krofel, Jeannine McManus, 2016.