Sunday book review – Restoring the Wild by Roy Dennis

Roy Dennis is a ‘name’ in ornithology and nature conservation – he was the warden of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory from 1964-70 (following Ken Williamson and Peter Davis), the RSPB’s person in the Highlands (under various job titles) from 1970-90 and, ever since, an independent conservationist mostly involved with species reintroductions and habitat restoration. This book is mostly about aspects of those last two periods and so takes us back to 1970 and partly even beyond then.

It’s a wonderful book, steeped in knowledge and experience of nature and of the more practical ends of nature conservation. The book says quite a lot about the three species depicted on its cover but also about Grey Wolf, European Lynx, European Beaver and Brown Bear as well as touching on other reintroduction projects such as Cirl Buntings and White Stork and other potential projects. And it’s not all about Scotland, nor even the UK, we are taken to Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Italy, Romania and further afield, as Roy runs projects, gives advice or drops in to learn from what others have done. No-one else could write this book from personal experience – it’s a treat.

I particularly enjoyed learning of Roy’s work on providing nest boxes for Goldeneyes, and this take us back into the 1960s in part, and his description of their early days of colonistion of the Highlands (and of their high numbers, in winter where distilleries discharged their waste into the sea). I remember finding a brood of Goldeneye ducklings on a loch on Speyside in the 1970s and the feeling that I was being given a massive present to witness these cute ducklngs which were then a very rare sight. But in reading Roy’s account of things one gets the impression that he was thinking big even in the 1960s as he was nailing a nestbox up a tree in some Highland wood, and he hasn’t stopped since.

Where I have personal knowledge of the events sketched out in this book, then Roy’s accounts all seem true to me. Indeed, I think he errs on the side of generosity in not pointing out where the RSPB was too cautious for too long, and he rarely criticises others. He also notes that the RSPB increased its work on reintroductions with species such as Cirl Bunting and Common Cranes, and interventions with Black-tailed Godwits, but he could also have mentioned Corncrakes.

I’m a fan of Roy’s work, and he is an engaging and persuasive public speaker. His rich Hampshre accent is still intact and is a joy to hear (although it used to make some of us smile when he started a sentence with ‘We crofters…’ in an accent from the south coast of England). But I am also a fan of his writing (I made his previous book, Cottongrass Summer my joint book of the year last year) and this book is a joy to read, and gives plenty of information but also food for thought. Read what he writes about Eagle Owls for example.

Restoring the Wild is published in mid April but if you don’t sign up for a copy now you risk delaying the treat that is in store for you.

Six out of 10 for the cover? I like The Needles (see here) but the birds are only OK.

Restoring the Wild: sixty years of rewilding our skies, woods and waterways by Roy Dennis is published by William Collins (publication date 15 April but widely available to pre-order).

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3 Replies to “Sunday book review – Restoring the Wild by Roy Dennis”

  1. Very much look forward to reading this book Roy Dennis has so much experience of wildlife reintroductions and the associated issues and management, that his publications are always a “ must” to read. Thank you very much ,Mark, for reviewing it on your blog.
    Not sure I agree with your 6/10 for the cover. I think it is rather good with Osprey , Redkite and WTE. over the Needles on the IoW. I think 9/10. but the Osprey and red kite could be slightly larger.

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  2. As Alan says a must read. Cottongrass Summer was a brilliant and thought provoking read and I cannot imagine this new book being any less so.

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  3. After Cottongrass Summer Restoring the Wild is a must read !

    I'm a huge admirer of Roy's work. When I was appointed Forestry Commission national conservation officer in 1985 I was given a chunk of money to develop a conservation programme. I admit the one but of personal whim was to allocate £10,000 to the artificial nesting pioneered by Roy. Working with Tony Hinde, FC Head ranger, Roy advised on artificial Osprey nests, floating Diver islands and Goldeneye boxes. Egg collecting was still a serious problem for Ospreys and they would nest too close to roads and people - our eyries went way back in the depths of the forest, miles down locked and gated forest roads and none were ever robbed. By 1991 FC North Scotland eyries had fledged 61 chicks. I did a little experiment to see if Goldeneye could spread beyond Speyside 800 boxes as far south as Kielder on the Scottish Border. It didn't work - about that time resurging Pine Martens discovered the boxes, but I'm sure the reality was that Goldeneye were at their southern limit. It wasn't a waste - Goosander loved them.

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