Sunday book review – Wild Fell by Lee Schofield

This is a book about rewilding and joins a growing list of good books on the subject which are essential reading for all those engaged in present-day UK nature conservation (Feral, Wilding (my book of the year for 2018), Rebirding (one of my books of the year for 2019), Regeneration (one of my books of the year for 2021) and The Implausible Rewilding of the Pyrenees (my book of the year for 2021)).

Wild Fell is quite similar to Regeneration in that it is set in the uplands, in this case the Lake District, and is written by an employee of a large conservation organisation, in this case the RSPB, which is working its way through the issues of rewilding in a practical way. It’s a very good book dealing with important issues on the ground, with real wildlife and embedded in a real community of other landowners.

Lee Schofield writes very well (he has written a guest blog here – see National Parks, Beauty and Riches) and I enjoyed the way that the information was conveyed as well as the information itself. It’s a personal account of a long period managing the RSPB nature reserve at Haweswater and deals with the joys of being embedded in nature and the frustrations of not being able, always, to make the size of difference that one wants to do. We are taken to barely accessible crags to search for Alpine flowers and abroad and around the UK to look at other rewilding projects. Schofield has a good eye for the interesting and a good turn of phrase to engage the reader. This reader very much enjoyed the whole book.

There are some great anecdotes in here too. The visit of the local MP, Rory Stewart, to Haweswater was followed by a positive article written by Mr Stewart, but some time later by a volte-face and an article critical of the work he had previously praised. And this is from someone who was a DEFRA minister for while. Such is life, but it’s good to see it written down here.

The experiences with the farming community are also well worth reading, especially as a companion to Haweswater’s near-neighbour’s, James Rebanks, two books from a different perspective (The Shepherd’s Life (my book of the year in 2015) and English Pastoral). There are many nice farmers everywhere, including in the Lake District, and we meet some here and hear of their efforts, but the experience of going to talk to a group of farmers who then attack you for your work in a most aggressive way is an experience that many RSPB staff have had. The old farmer who slept through Lee’s talk and then vented as much bile in the RSPB’s direction as possible (see page 37) is replicated right across the country and he or his counterpart has been at many of my meetings with farmers in the past.

The author sticks to the RSPB line that it is farming as an industry and not farmers as individuals that is the problem, but that is such a gross over-simplification, or perhaps it is a gross over-complication, that I wonder whether it is time for the RSPB to review its position. Given that 70% of the UK land area is farmed and that it is the land use under which wildlife has suffered the most, and given that a quarter of a century, at least, of treating farmers and farming with kid gloves have not delivered much of a wildlife dividend, it might be time to reevaluate the RSPB’s approach a bit. A theme running through this book is that one won’t get much wildlife from many farmers and they won’t even be tolerant of what you do as a conservation organisation on your own land. This book is honest about the good and bad of farmers and of farming and is worth reading to get that perspective, as well as for many other reasons.

The Lake District is a World Heritage site and a National Park – one wonders why after reading this book and one wonders how, if at all, these designations have helped wildlife.

One gets the impression that the RSPB is doing a good job at Haweswater – a good job for wildlife and a good job as a tenant for United Utilities – but you also pick up hints and threads that make you wonder whether this is as much progress as could be achieved. There is a long way to go and much to do, and this book is a great read and an honest window onto the journey so far.

Haweswater used to be the home to a pair of nesting Golden Eagles and their story is told near the beginning of the book. I remember stopping in this area as a child on a family holiday, returning from Scotland, back in the early 1970s. As I played in a stream I looked up and saw a Golden Eagle – I’d been looking out for them in Scotland with my first pair of binoculars and hadn’t seen them, and here was one flying so low that one didn’t need binoculars. It was the best five minutes of the fortnight’s holiday. In a future world, will Golden Eagles recolonise this area? It will be much more suitable for them if the RSPB rewild Haweswater and if many others in the Lake District National Park make space for nature too.

The book mentions many other species which used to live in these parts but have declined massively in numbers or disappeared completely – shadow species. I was slightly taken aback by how recently there were Corncrakes and Black Grouse in the Lake District; I had assumed they were longer gone than they are. Let’s get some of them back. Rewilding has got a flavour, thanks mainly to its critics rather than its adherents I think, of being something revolutionary and utterly dramatic that ought to be approached with extreme caution, whereas the opposite is the case in all but extreme cases. Rewilding is wildlife restoration, it is undoing the harm we caused nature in the past, it is undoing dewilding and so we should crack on with it. I’d like the RSPB to put their foot down a bit. Give the likes of this author the resources and organisational support to give it a real go, do what you think is right rather than what is acceptable to every local who drives past your nature reserve. That’s the power that land ownership delivers.

This very good book will certainly be in my shortlist of books of 2022 even though we are only in February – it’s that good.

The cover? Only OK – I’d give it 6/10.

Wild Fell: fighting for nature on a Lake District farm by Lee Schofield is published by Doubleday

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6 Replies to “Sunday book review – Wild Fell by Lee Schofield”

  1. There used to be two pairs of Golden Eagles in the Lake District in the 1980s. The second pair nested in the Western fells. The great fell runner Joss Naylor knew of the birds and also knew the farmer that shot the nest out. Unsurprisingly the birds then became absent from the W Lakes and I ceased to see them in those areas in the 1990s. I saw the remaining male eagle near Haweswater about 2012, but he also died shortly afterwards. Will birds from the South Scotland reintroduction scheme be able to recolonise the Lakes? A big ask probably given the paucity of suitable prey on the high fells.

  2. I have this on order and am sure it will be as good as this review. I’m not a fan of sheep in uplands and will be interested as to what this book says about it.

  3. I’m glad you think RSPB needs to think about it’s position with regard to farming. When as a Council member in 1987 I pushed hard for RSPB to get into farming policy I assumed that, as in forestry at the time and subsequently, things were turning and would get better. We all make mistakes – mine was a mega. Like RSPB staff I’ve faced hostile landowning groups and over the years my sympathy has largely evaporated. And I’m not alone – I was good friends with the late, great Mike Shrubb, arguably the greatest farmer/ornithologist, and we were both horrified by industrial farming and the reluctance of many/most farmers to back off maximum impact even when the technology was there. I am amazed and horrified when conservationists defend ‘food security’ and ‘every bit of the countryside must be farmed’ because they may be the only people who believe the propoganda – when did you hear a farmer protest over food security when he can sell his land for housing ? or for a solar farm ? And now I’m seeing predictions of 2 million tonnes of grain going into biofuels to add to petrol – a carbon unfriendly horror which I remember Mark meeting a Government Minister to protest against. I’m fed up with the combination of outright aggression and sob stories the likes of NFU are suing to prop up a disastrous situation for farmers, the rest of us and the environment.

    1. I echo your appreciation of Mark’s remarks Roderick, for years the RSPB has been incredibly accommodating and conciliatory towards the farming community and that’s just meant it’s been used as a doormat – completely walked over. It was my direct interaction with crofters on Lewis in 2009 that really underlined to me the great disparity between how the crofting community in particular, but farming in general is actively misrepresented to the public. The victim card has been played so aggressively and proactively by them so much people are shot down for ‘having yet another go at farmers’, before anybody really has had a chance to.

      I’d love to see the RSPB turn round and broadcast to the rest of the British people how the condition of our hills is greatly increasing flood damage to homes, businesses and better quality farms in the lowlands – and how they’re subsidising it. It’s an utter scandal how the public are being kept in the dark about this. Yes indeed the contemptible NFU seem to forget about food security when farmland is being sold to developers, and they NEVER mention 30 to 40% of our food is wasted. The good farmers are the exceptions, I know a couple of them, but I also know from going about with a local raptor worker that the majority don’t give a toss about wildlife, only about telling us what great ‘con’servationists they are.

  4. There was a lot of things the RSPB could have got into to improve nature. I remember what i asked for coming up to the centenary as a staff member – Golf Courses and Fish Farms! Just think of the ‘OPEN’ being played at an RSPB reserve and its world coverage and the wildlife they can cater for! They would have added 310,000 acres to their reserves as other golf courses got the message! Fish farms in Israel are full of wildlife, why not here? I was at Lee’s opening on 11th February representing Birdwatching magazine. Lee’s book is different to all the rest as plants play a big part but plants create birds and ‘Don’t judge a book by the cover’! This is a brilliant read and forget those marks out of 10 as everyone has their own idea on a good book.

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