Sunday book review – Cottongrass Summer by Roy Dennis

This book reminds me strongly of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac which is a classic of the ecological literature, and I can think of no better comparison to give you an idea of its content and of this book’s quality and worth. Like Leopold’s book, this book is set largely in the area where the author lives (but in both cases they travel around) and is a series of short essays on wildlife and land use through the year. In this case, the 52 short essays are grouped in the four seasons.

A common structure for the essays is to start with an observation of a species or place, fill in the background and then muse on the wider picture and implications for how the world could be better. It’s a simple and effective way to tell a story.

I first met Roy Dennis in 1986 when I started working for the RSPB, for that summer in the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland and I had to check in with Roy, the Highland Officer (now he’d be called the Regional Director), to be inspected and to gain the benefit of his local advice and knowledge.

Roy was one of the few people in the RSPB of whom I’d heard and I was keen to meet him. He made a strong and good first impression on me – a lovely voice (a Hampshire accent), a lovely smile and a wealth of knowledge and opinions, but showing every sign of being a strong character with whom one shouldn’t mess.

That was at the beginning of my 25 years at the RSPB but toward the end of Roy’s period of employment. After a few years Roy had headed off on hs own and that chapter of his life has gone very well.

That all seems a long time ago and I looked Roy up and was slightly surprised to see that he had his eightieth birthday back in May. So this book is from an elder statesman of the conservation movement, one of its doers and one of its thinkers. So it ought to be well worth a read and I assure you it is.

It is a book of ideas; ideas about how the future should be, but rooted in the present and with knowledge of the past. It’s not a book about what Roy did, it’s a book about what Roy thinks. And he has thought long and well about the highlands around him and how they could be. So we read much about reforestation, habitat recreation and restoration, species reintroductions and that stuff called rewilding. Roy has been talking and thinking about these matters for a long time and travelling the world to see what others do. This gentle intellectual book is a good introduction to many lines of thought.

Roy was widely considered to be a bit bonkers when he was talking about these matters in the mid 1980s. I was glad that at a Raptor Study Group Conference a few years back, when Roy was sitting at the front, and I think he asked me a question, I was able to tell the room that we all thought he was a bit crazed back then, but that he was right and we were wrong. I think that Roy has honed his arguments and his advocacy style over the years.

You should read this book for pleasure and for stimulation. And it has an attractive cover.

I don’t often comment on the price of books that I review here, largely because there is no such thing as the price of a book these days, but this book is really, really cheap and so represents exceptional value – buy two and give one to a friend.

Sand County Almanac was published 70 years ago and has sold over 2 million copies in over a dozen languages. Hint!

Cottongrass Summer by Roy Dennis is published by Saraband on 16 July.


8 Replies to “Sunday book review – Cottongrass Summer by Roy Dennis”

  1. I remember at an RSPB (reserves?) staff mtg years ago Roy was trying to insist that reserve managers must follow the rules about some aspect of bird reintroductions (can’t remember the detail, can you?). Anyway, you pointed out that this was rather ironic because he wasn’t known to be a stickler for following the rules in his days at RSPB, and that got the biggest laugh of the day. The book sounds great and I think he also has one on bird reintroductions coming out soon.

  2. Had the pleasure of knowing of Roy for most of my adult life and knowing him for the last few years. Love the level of insight that takes left field, with time and perseverance, to mainstay. Eagerly await mid July.

  3. He really is a brilliant bloke and yet another example of how Scotland in particular as well as conservation in general have benefitted from someone ‘down south’ relocating here, his Hants accent is magic. He definitely gives off the air of being a good bloke, but at the same time won’t put up with any crap and the wringing of hands is not something you’d associate with him. That goes along way to explain why he’s achieved so much and unfortunately others haven’t. I believe I heard that he’s got a book on rewilding/reintroduction coming out too and I bet this current book is fascinating – I remember RD once stating that black storks were a native species, his insights are definitely original and valuable.

  4. Ordering my copy now – Roy is a hero to generations of full time conservationists [Im one] anda legion of volunteers. Never suffered fools gladly but thats whats made him so effective – not just Red Kite Sea Eagle and Osprey reintroductions but a legion of other initiatives when he was the “Highland Officer”. I also owe him a great debt of gratitude in getting my autobiography published..thanks again Roy and really looking forward to reading this!

  5. I shall certainly be buying a couple of copies. I once applied, and was rejected for, a job as his assistant in the Highlands office, but he seems to have managed OK without me. Our paths have crossed a few times though, mainly in connection with documenting the re-introductions of red kites and white-tailed eagles, and he is always entertaining company with forthright views. Roy is an irrepressible force in UK nature conservation, and was an inspiration to many a young birdwatcher and proto-environmentalist growing up in the 1960s and 70s. He was always rubbish at climbing trees, mind.

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