This is a monumental book of over 600 pages. It is everything one would expect from one of the UK’s greatest ornithologists; breadth, depth and clarity.
This book, the author stresses, is about the uplands and about birds, but it isn’t just about upland birds. That’s true, but it is very birdy nonetheless.
It acts as a sort of companion volume to Ian Newton’s earlier New Naturalist, Farming and Birds, which dealt with the bottom right half of Britain whereas this deals with the top left.
Major themes of the book are farming, forestry and grouse shooting and the book ends with a chapter on rewilding. The list of characters who crop up through the book’s pages includes sheep, deer, foresters, conservationists, raptors, gamekeepers, waders, peatlands and the occasional wind turbine.
The book is well illustrated (in contrast to some recent New Naturalists I have reviewed here, so credit where credit’s due) with colour images of species, landscapes and land uses – they enhance the book. There are a few graphs, but I would have liked a few more – I like graphs. The reference list is long and appears fairly comprehensive and will form a useful jumping off point for those who want to delve even deeper.
This is not a book you could possibly read at one go – your arms would ache too much for one thing. But it is an enjoyable read, chapter by chapter. As we have come to expect, each chapter has the framework of telling the reader what they will get, giving it to them and then summing up what they have been given. Knowing that, I tend to read the first few paragraphs of each chapter, then the last few, and then the bits in the middle (and then the end again) and I recommend that approach.
Of course I read the chapter ‘Raptors, Grouse and Gamekeepers’ a couple of times. It’s fair as far as the science goes but I’m not on exactly the same page as Ian when it comes to his conclusion. He writes ‘Raptor killing is the main issue that divides grouse-moor managers and conservation organisations, which otherwise have much in common‘ but I’m not sure that is right any more, if indeed it ever was. Raptor-killing is a high profile issue but moorland burning and drainage, and damage to protected habitats and sites are also pretty big ones. It’s not all about birds of prey. And Ian’s last sentence ‘Only dialogue and compromise on both sides is likely to lessen this conflict‘ just flies in the face of over three decades of dialogue which have produced no change in behaviour up on the moors. Ian does not spell out what that compromise would look like so it’s almost as if he doesn’t know – just like the rest of us. But the biological analysis of the issue is, of course, sound although I think the Murgatroyd et al. paper of last year deserves a bit more highlighting (perhaps at the expense of some older studies).
The penultimate chapter on rewilding is very good. I think it is the most interesting chapter in a book that has no dull chapters.
The second-most interesting chapter is the short last chapter, Some Final Comments, which starts with the sentence ‘Despite their scenic beauty, the hills and mountains of Britain provide some striking examples of human land abuse‘ and makes the point that rewilding is the only land use that could be regarded as essentially restorative in nature. Maybe we should be paying for it to happen argues the author. Where might it happen? I’d say that grouse-moor dominated National Parks would be a good place to start but the author of this book doesn’t quite get to that point here.
This is a monumental book, and you should read it.
Uplands and Birds by Ian Newton is published by Harper Collins.