Sunday book review – Rebirding by Benedict Macdonald

This book is a ‘Must read’ and a ‘Good read’ but not necessarily a ‘Must agree with’ type of book. By which I mean that it is well written and has the right mixture of interesting facts and well-explained views mixed in with a few areas where I thought (you might not) ‘Hang on, I don’t agree with that’. And that’s the type of book that grabs and keeps my attention. I recommend it highly – you should read it and I think you may well enjoy it a lot.

This book now forms the third corner of a triangle of books that you should read if you want to get to grips with rewilding. At the other corners are George Monbiot’s Feral which sets the big picture and opened many of our eyes to the ideas and the possibilities on a grand scale, and Isabella Tree’s Wilding which is a more detailed account of a more constrained place by the team who are actually making rewilding work on their ground. MacDonald’s book is about the UK and paints a convincing picture of what rewilding could do for Britain’s birds (and other wildlife, and people, but the emphasis is certainly on birds which may irritate some). Places are named, species are named and the experience of other European countries is drawn on to illustrate what rewilding could do for our wildlife.

The writing is brisk and fresh and carries the reader along with purpose. A lot of ground is covered, but covered so well that one doesn’t feel knackered by the journey.

Lest there be any doubt, MacDonald is a fan of rewilding. He makes a very good case for a future which could be better for wildlife if only we adopted it.

He’s pretty sound on the future of grouse shooting – which gets a whole chapter!

The wildlife NGOS and government get a bit of criticism for not having got on with this rewilding solution nearly enough. That’s partly fair and partly unfair. But it is interesting. What is the Defra position on rewilding? Where does it stand in the 25-year so-called plan for the environment? Some of the things in that plan sound a bit like rewilding and some of the outcomes sound as though they could be delivered through rewilding, and some of them sound as though they would be best delivered by rewilding – but does the word ‘rewilding’ pass the lips of Michael Gove or Therese Coffey at all? Not that I’ve noticed. Isn’t that odd? I think it’s odd. They should read this book!

And the NGOs? Well, I think that George Monbiot was a little unkind to them in Feral because they would say that they are doing their bit and have been for long before books exhorting them to get active came along. The Wildlife Trusts and National Trust all have their sites but I still know the RSPB landholdings better and they could certainly point to Lakenheath Fen and say ‘From carrot field to Cranes in 15 years’ and Lakenheath was a bigger practical task than Knepp ever would be with Reservoirs Act, the USAF and millions of litres of water to deal with. Other RSPB wetland sites include Ham Wall and Otmoor as well as St Aidans and a host of others, many of them wetlands, but there is Abernethy too! You might say that these are too small (well, they are, but they are a start and represent tens of millions of pounds worth of effort) or that they are rewilding-lite because they don’t have enough Bison in them but that would be a little unfair. But it is fair, again, I think, to ask what the wildlife NGOs think of rewilding because I really don’t know their position. And as the author of this book says, it isn’t the wildlife NGOs who are at the forefront of this debate it is a host of individuals. And this book provides some leadership of its own to fill the gap.

Many books about wildlife these days make a good case for nature being in trouble but end with the ‘somebody should do something about it’ chapter or that thought is threaded through the book. This is true of several books, and excellent books, by friends of mine such as Curlew Moon, Our Place, The Moth Snowstorm, Wild Kingdom and to a large extent Feral. Wilding is an exception because the solution for that site is ‘keep giving us public money and we’ll keep delivering wildlife’ which is at least clear. But we do need something more than simply ‘somebody ought to do something about it’ and that requires deep understanding of the available mechanisms to engineer land use change in our real world starting tomorrow (although you had better leave it until we know where we are with Brexit). And this book fills some of that gap too. There are good suggestions and pointers to the way forward.

This is a book that I recommend highly.

[Note: I have an Advanced Review Copy so I cannot easily comment on the look and feel of the finished article – but I’ve read the words].

Rebirding: rewilding Britain and its birds by Benedict Macdonald will soon be published by Pelagic Publishing.

Remarkable Birds by Mark Avery is published by Thames and Hudson – for reviews see here.

Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.

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8 Replies to “Sunday book review – Rebirding by Benedict Macdonald”

  1. I think that as far as 'making it happen' is concerned Isabella Tree hit it on the head in Wilding - the world wastes about a third of the food it produces every year. Cut that we can reverse the loss of wilderness to agriculture and in fact give land back to nature. That's before we even consider using less animal protein in our diet, year round growing in LED lit mines or polytunnels, artificial meat, multi cropping etc, etc, etc. Of course no matter what we eat and how we produce it wasting food will never be a good thing. So it's very much a compliment to rather than a diversion from the other ways to reduce our agricultural input, they compliment each other all part of the rational use of natural resources. It's absolutely ludicrous that the NFU can get away with claiming we have to keep massively subsidising agriculture on marginal land on the basis of maintaining food security, but say nothing about a third of our food going to landfill. Even worse they get off with it.

    I'm very pleased to see the RSPB raise awareness re food wastage damaging nature and in the People's Manifesto for Wildlife last year it was highlighted we need to look at food waste if we want to save our wildlife. So stirrings, but these very quickly need to turn into a hurricane to really get this issue into the public sphere. Switch money from subsidising the overgrazing of our hills (and grouse moors of course) and put it into public education on reducing food waste, eating healthily, where our food comes from and how we can reduce our ecological footprint, grow more of our food in urban areas which are currently close mowed deserts (and which would help in the educational process), fight the insanity of 236,000 tonnes of cereal being given to feed gamebirds that will mostly end up as roadkill, fox and stinkpit/landfill fodder. The result would be far better food security than if we keep pissing public money away on subsidising nonsensical farming, we'd have far more wildlife and a healthier, better educated public. I wonder why the NFU doesn't push for that.....

    The same issue goes for paper and timber - we could and should cut our consumption dramatically reducing everything from plantation forestry to provide fibre to selective logging of rainforest for fancy garden benches, doors and toilet seats. That means a lot of forest protected and scope for plantations to retract and natural woodland processes to return - which is happening in the UK as planted conifers are being carefully removed from former ancient woodland. If the plastic crap collected from beaches and the sea was used to make recycled garden benches there would be no excuse to cut down any tree to make one for a very long time. Fracking promises to provide loads of cheap material for making yet more plastic shite to make money from unloading on the poor consumers of the world - there's been over 100 billion dollars worth of investment for increasing plastic production in the USA! If we finally managed to deliver reduce, reuse, recycle that would be stopped in its tracks. Of course vested interests don't want that so try to push false solutions like incineration which actually requires the production of vast quantities of waste to be kept going. Business as usual which we can't afford.

    There has to be a much better effort in linking personal behaviour to protecting the natural world - we've gone backward with that, it seems that asking politicians to declare a climate emergency is about the extent of our responsibility these days. Asking the public to buy recycled toilet paper seems to be too demanding now. I'm pretty certain recycled bog roll was more obtainable thirty years ago BEFORE there was a big drive to increase recycling rates - so what is going to be done with the paper collected, are we just going to keep trying to sell it to China? The anti waste campaigning group we are trying to set up is called 6R - those Rs stand for Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Re-educate, Re-employ and Rewild, the very last of which won't be possible unless we succeed with the first three. The conservation organisations need to get fully involved with linking waste reduction with saving wildlife.

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    1. Recycled toilet paper was a push-back against the perverted sadists that made us use Izal non-absorbent shiny scratchy postage-stamp-sized single sheets.

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  2. Had a good look through an advance copy and an excellent chat with the author at the recent Cambridge Rewilding Nature and people conference......Its definitely on my 'to-read' list

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  3. Why is the RSPB repeatedly described (by Mark) as an NGO (non-governmental organisation)? Surely it's better described as a wildlife/ conservation charity?
    NGOs are not (as far as I know) membership-based. They have a different structure. Someone put me right on this if I am wrong.

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    1. James - the RSPB is an NGO and it is a charity. Some wildlife and environmental NGOs are not charities (eg Wild Justice, parts of FoE and parts of Greenpeace). So if I refer to them as a bunch I tend to use NGO.

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