Sunday book review – Uplands and Birds by Ian Newton

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.

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4 Replies to “Sunday book review – Uplands and Birds by Ian Newton”

  1. I shall certainly be buying this as I have all of the NNs written by Ian and the Poysers. Despite agreeing with Mark on the idea of continuing to talk to the organisations representing the criminality of DGS. The time for talking is long past, all it taught us is that the dark side is totally intransigent, unwilling for compromise but then how do you comprise on the law protecting wildlife raptors in particular but they do kill other protected wildlife too. Then there are all the habitat abuses that disadvantage most of the rest of us with high water bills, flooding , poor biodiversity, smoke pollution and poorer carbon sequestration than there should be in the uplands. Then Ian Newton does sit on the scientific panel overseeing brood meddling and the rest of the daft DEFRA harrier plan.

  2. I do so agree with your two key comments Mark on the comments in the book that “ raptor killing is the only issue that divides the shooters and conservationists” and that “compromise is the only way forward”..
    Let’s be quite clear, the killing of raptors is a criminal action closely associated with driven grouse shooting and no one can compromise with criminal activity. The many other issues include the trashing of our peat bogs and moorlands generally.
    Secondly attempts to broker compromise have been going on for years and years and what happens in practice is that the shooters, that kill our wildlife for fun, just carry on doing exactly the same thing but each year the whole destructive practices by the shooters become more and more intensive so they can shoot more and more grouse/wildlife.
    There comes a point when compromise is just not possible any more. . I am not for one moment suggesting that the shooters are on a par with Germany in the second WW but the parallel is similar. It was just not possible to accept conditional surrender by Germany and there is now, after all the efforts by the conservationists have failed, a similarity in the case of Driven Grouse Shooting, which must now be banned.

  3. Are the issues you comment on rather symptomatic of wider problems in nature conservation ? There all too often seems to be a lack of bite where bite is obviously needed. No, there isn't obviously a need for compromise - it takes two to tango, and decades of 'compromise' simply being agreeing that grouse shooters are jolly good chaps and should be allowed to get on with it is quite purely and simply wrong. Damaging activities dn't have a God given right to exist - on that basis why did we ever stop afforesting deep peats ? Where's the difference ? There is a simple, clear choicebif DGS won't stop killing Hen Harriers - do you want DGS or HH ? The RSPB opinion poll of members suggests the answer is not that complex.

  4. Compromise?...the history of conservation bodies [and a large number of scientists] attempting to work with the shooting/uplandowning fraternity has been one long sad compromise. Which hasnt worked for either side. We havent got our healthy environment [including stable bird of prey populations] and the shooters are stuck in a rut/trenches with the failed systems of managed grouse moor [only possible with high levels of predator killing and unsustainable in almost every way] and release of obscene numbers of pheasant/r l partridge and ducks [going against their own codes of ethics].....time for radical change, really radical change, starting with whole landscape initiatives.


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