Sunday book review – Regeneration by Andrew Painting

This book introduces a strong voice in nature writing to the world. This is Andrew Painting’s first book and it is a cracker.

Painting works for the National Trust for Scotland at Mar Lodge Estate in the Cairngorms. This book is about the very long-term regeneration of habitats and wildlife that are underway, and are planned for the future. It’s the equivalent of Isabella Tree’s excellent Wilding, but for the Scottish uplands. Here we are dealing with Scots Pines, Red Deer, Golden Eagles, mountains, lochs and a very large area. This is illustrated early in the book as the author tells us that it would take a fit person around three days to walk the estate’s boundary, and that boundary encompasses 30,000ha, four of the five highest mountains in Scotland and a total of 15 Munros – Knepp, this isn’t.

It’s an inside story and is described as a celebration of the acquisition of the estate by the National Trust for Scotland in 1995. But, as best as this reader could tell, it is an honest account of progress to date and the massive challenges ahead. Of course, I don’t know what the author didn’t tell us, but the book is full of frank explanations about the tensions of estate management in the current ecological, social and political context in Scotland.

Mar Lodge has for centuries been a sporting estate and still is, but driven grouse shooting and intensive muirburn have ceased. Salmon fishing and deer stalking continue, as does walked up shooting.

There are three main sections of the book, about woodlands, moors and mountains, and within these there are chapters on particular components of those habitats and the issues that arise with their conservation. And so we meet Scots Pine, Hen Harriers, Curlews, Alpine Sow-thistle and Downy Willow, amongst others. There is much discussion of rewilding (and the NTS do not plan to reintroduce Lynx to Mar Lodge), and it is a very grounded discussion informed by real experience of ecology and society. If you have read George Monbiot’s Feral, Isabella Tree’s Wilding, Benedict Macdonald’s Rebirding and Derek Gow’s Bringing Back the Beaver then you’ll want to read this book, but even if you’ve never heard mention of rewilding you will enjoy this book for its insights into nature and into nature conservation.

If you are a member of the National Trust for Scotland, as I am, you should read Regeneration to find out how some of your money is being spent – you’ll get a warm feeling from the book.

Tricky issues are not avoided and are dealt with, often with some humour. The author gets bonus points from me for his use of the word ‘synecdoche’ near the end of the book in relation to a rare plant in a landscape – I’m sure no readers of this blog will need to look it up but I did, and I’m grateful to Painting for that small addition to my vocabulary.

The jacket illustration, including the back cover and the bits that fold inside the book, by Abigail Salvesen is beautiful. If only that Buzzard-like raptor under the tree were erased, replaced or redrawn, it would score 10 out of 10 from me. Its design, composition, execution and content are quite lovely. As it is, I’ll give it a 9 out of 10.

For a first book, or any book, this is a great achievement. Yes, it’s about the place where the author works but that doesn’t necessarily make the writing any easier, and it is certainly about much more than this wonderful location. It’s a compelling and enjoyable read. Andrew Painting’s Regeneration deserves to win prizes.

With the slow pace of change in the uplands it might be a good 25 years before we get a sequel updating us on how things are going. For me, that would be far too long to wait to read more of this author’s thoughts and experiences.

Regeneration: the rescue of a wild land by Andrew Painting is published (on 18 March) by Berlinn


10 Replies to “Sunday book review – Regeneration by Andrew Painting”

  1. Sounds like it hit the spot for you.
    It’s certainly uplifting to walk in that part of the Cairngorms and see regenerating trees rather than herds of red deer and I look forward to the slow disappearance of muirburn parches. I wonder if the Trust’s relationship with Cairngorms Connect is discussed. I suppose as a NTS member I could write and ask, but having Mar Lodge on Deeside join up with the others on Strathspey really would start to connect across the whole mountain range.

  2. Sounds pretty good Mark and I think I will get a copy to read. I have to say though I do have some problems with the National Trust. While it is really good that they have banned Driven Grouse Shooting and intensive burning of moorland, at the same time I find it very regrettable indeed that they have not joined the Cairngorms Connect project and that they refuse to contemplate the reintroduction of animals like the lynx and bear.
    I understand that they say they can’t afford to do away with deer stalking and walk up grouse shooting. A pretty poor and short sighted excuse in my opinion when one considers what the increase in tourism would bring to them from people wanting to view any new wild animal reintroductions,
    If NTS joined Cairngorms Connect and did not stand in the way of reintroductions I would certainly consider joining them, otherwise, no.

    1. They came under intense political pressure locally to drastically reduce the scale of their intended deer culling which would have meant deer fencing wasn’t needed to aid forest regeneration. Sadly they ended having to although I don’t know if that’s still the situation. I suspect strings were being pulled behind the scenes and some of the ‘local’ opinions weren’t that local or were prompted. I think conservation organisations in general have to be able to deal far better with public consultation exercises than they do at present. They have a right to put forward their views too and an expectation they’ll be treated seriously by other parties. They do also have a duty to present relevant information so the public can make informed decisions and/or question those they do make (e.g do you realise that deadwood you dislike and want removed is vital for lots of wildlife?). I find without an educational aspect or even presenting relevant information properly that public consultation exercises are usually an utter disaster for conservation. The one exception I can think of to that the pro conservation sentiments still got discarded.

  3. Apologies in advance for going slightly off subject, but another NNR where NTS have done fantastic restorative work for upland habitats, in difficult circumstances where they don’t have full control of the land is Ben Lawers in Perthshire. Decades long pioneering work on montane willows and upland scrub is paying off now. Doesn’t seem to attract the interest that Mar Lodge does, but is equally spectacular.

  4. Following Mar Lodge on social media is certainly interesting. They give great updates on their restoration work. One day I might even find a way to get there w/o driving a car.

  5. Fantastic work by NTS and I’ll certainly be getting the book.

    What I wonder, though, is which of the two, 1400 ha of Knepp and 30,000 of Mar lodge is actually the most biologically productive ? I vividly remember explaining to senior Scottish civil servants why Greenshanks in the Flow Country, which seemed ridiculously extravagant in the scale of their habitat demand couldn’t ‘shuffle up’ – because, of course, their habitat was so infertile and unproductive of the food they needed.

    Current conservation – and rewildling – always seem happier with the remote uplands to the extent of some even advocating that all better land must be farmed. But richer lowlands produce more of everything – including wildlife and surely the experiences of the last year must also make a strong case for wilder land closer to people.

    1. Roderick – i guiess it’s just like nature reserves – you’ll get more Dotterel at Mar Lodge than Knepp, but more Purple Emperors at Knepp, and we’d like both please.

  6. Once again you get this completely erroneous. Like everybody else through social media you still concentrate on the star species and assume that because you have them then biodiversity wise everything is tickyiboo, but you’re wrong. These star species attract the funding and the crowds, I wouldn’t expect many people to visit these sites just to see corn spurry, – Spergula arvensis least of all get funding for the plant. But this plant is just as important as any emperor or stork. None of you have the slightest notion of the biodiversity of Knepp, because you either have no idea on what your looking for or simply don’t bother to look. You are enticed by corporate PR to see these ‘star’ species, that’s your day, it stimulates your focused interest and you drive home content having paid £50.00 having seen one. There’s more to connected conservation than just seeing a purple emperor.

    1. Thomas – Once again you don’t know what you are talking about. I’ve read the book, I’m guessing you haven’t since it isn’t out yet. Downy Willow – that’s really charismatic megafauna for you.

      You sometimes come across as cross – did you get out of bed on the wrong side again today?

    2. I am not enticed by corporate PR in fact I am repelled by it and the thought of paying an entry fee to see anything natural or to stay in a knobbish glampsite or to be allowed into somewhere by “timed entry” would be such a surrender to regimented disposable income vampiry that I will deferably be keeping my plarstic card away from any hand-held terminal or code-reading device except when paying for goods in a proper shop and not so that I can get a message asking me if I enjoyed my visit to which the answer is “No – not now you intruded on my time”. I wonder if gorgeous pouting Elizabeth Denham can prosecute people for digital stalking – I feel a letter brewing …

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