I’ve been looking forward to reading this book – but with some trepidation. I know the author just a little, he bought me lunch once, and I chose my words carefully and somewhat guardedly with him. Why? Because he is the editor of the Shooting Times.
So I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, except that it would probably be cultured, well written and stimulating because that is what his writing is like, including his Twitter account. And so when a copy arrived on Thursday, on publication day, I was keen to see what it was like. The book has a good index and I was somewhat relieved to find that my name wasn’t in it, but somewhat nervous to see the name of a friend there. But Patrick’s meeting with Chris Packham at Waterloo Station was slightly teasing, but mostly positive, and sounded just like I could imagine a chat between the two of them might be. They have more in common than most would realise.
So, casting aside any preconceptions I have spent much of the last two days reading this excellent book. It will, for sure, be one of my books of the year for 2022.
The shape of the book resembles that of Michael McCarthy’s 2010 work, Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo, being a series of chapters focusing on birds, declining bird species, and talking to the people who like them, study them and/or conserve them. There are some great conversations in these pages and a wide range of characters from a good spread of perspectives. People are interesting and I know a couple of handfuls of the people who get walk on parts in this tale. They all sounded like the people I knew. I got the impression that Galbraith was slightly more interested in the people than the birds at some stages. That’s fair enough and not meant to be a criticism as there is a lot of information about the species which form the avian stars of the 10 chapters; Corncrake, Kittiwake, Capercaillie, Turtle Dove, Lapwing, Black Grouse, Bittern, Hen Harrier, Grey Partridge and Nightingale .
There are two things that this book doesn’t do. First, it hardly mentions the organisations involved in the conservation of these 10 species. That’s interesting and quite a good idea in many ways. All that baggage has disappeared from here. Second, the author doesn’t lean very much on the research that has been done on these birds, and which is the basis for their conservation. It felt to me as though the author was more bent on reporting people’s views than evaluating them and choosing the right way, the most effective way, forward. That makes this book an interesting book, but not really an important one in the sense that it charts no course forward. There are no references for the reader to go and check whether any quotes are backed by evidence.
I didn’t find the Hen Harrier chapter the most interesting of them all, but it was good. Amongst others, the author talks to Luke Steele, Stephen Murphy and Linsay Waddell. All are given sympathetic treatment. I was interested to read Lindsay’s criticism of Red Grouse shooting on pages 58 and 59, and to be told that three out of four Natural England staff disapprove of Hen Harrier brood meddling (page 50), but it’s unclear where that figure comes from.
In the Capercaillie chapter (on pages 155-7), a gamekeeper tells us, or tells the author who reports to us, that crows are a problem, and Red Foxes are a problem, and Badgers are a problem and Pine Martens are a problem, and deer are a problem and deer fences are a problem. If I recall correctly, wet springs are also a problem. It wouldn’t surprise me if we lost Capercaillie from Scotland – after all, it’s happened before, but so long ago that we would struggle to know exactly why.
Considering the author’s day job, he gives others space to be quite outspoken about the ills of intensive game shooting and releasing large numbers of non-native captive-reared birds. Good for him.
This is a very good book. The author is an exceptional talent in that few could write so well about the species, the places, the people, the history of it all, and throw in poems, songs and insights into shooting, farming, cookery and eating too. The variety of views in here mean that we will all alight on things (as I have in this review) that we like, and some others that we dislike. And we will tend to believe the things that we like and not believe the things that we don’t like – that’s what people do. But in nature conservation, as in all other areas of human life that depend on doing things, you do need to insert some facts, firm facts, and some analysis, to find the effective way forward. I can see why the author hasn’t done much of that – for one thing it would change the character of the book a lot – but it does mean that the reader shouldn’t expect this book to be a secure guide to the future. But it is a cracking read – I read all of it in just over a day, and it wasn’t a chore, it was a great pleasure. Many readers of this blog will love reading it. Maybe I should give the author lunch?
The cover? Smashing! I’d happily give it 9/10.
In Search of One Last Song: Britain’s disappearing birds and the people trying to save them by Patrick Galbraith is published by William Collins.