Sunday book review – Shaping the Wild by David Elias

This is David Elias’s first book and it is a cracker. The name might ring a bell with readers of this blog as he wrote a guest blog here almost five years ago (Dead from the neck down).

This is a thoughtful, knowledgeable and loving account of upland Wales, its wildlife and its land use. Loving, but not sentimental. Whereas the author says that we will need farmers to deliver the changes that are necessary for upland farming (or any farming) to be truly sustainable, he also writes (from decades of experience) that very few of the farmers he met knew much, or even cared much, about the wildlife on their land.

All the important issues are touched on and examined in this book, mainly through the prism of an intimate knowledge of a single upland farm. We are led gently through many of the ins and outs of conifer plantations, blanket bogs, overgrazing, climate change and more. Also the author touches on the crazy economics of hill farming – it only makes a nominal profit because of public subsidy (that’s your money propping up a bankrupt system – those are my words).

This book is also a very welcome primer into current Welsh environmental policy. With political devolution it is increasingly difficult for (let’s leave the English out of it) the Scots to know how things are going in Wales, and vice versa. Many of the issues will be the same in Snowdonia, the Lake District and the Cairngorms but the deployment of solutions, and their nomenclature, is now very different. It’s quite difficult to catch up on these changes if it isn’t part of your job to do so, and a book like this one is a real boon as a very grounded and intelligible overview of what’s happening.

The quality of the writing is very high, in my opinion. The book is a lovely, gentle but thought-provoking read.

The illustrations by Peter Hanauer are very attractive and very relevant to the text. Iolo Williams’s foreword is just what you want a foreword to be, and is written by one with knowledge of the area, of its wildlife and of the author.

The cover? I think it’s fitting and attractive. I’d give it 8/10.

Shaping the Wild: wisdom from a Welsh hill farm by David Elias is published by Calon, University of Wales Press



My forthcoming book, Reflections, will be published on 4 July and already can be ordered.

Details – click here.


3 Replies to “Sunday book review – Shaping the Wild by David Elias”

  1. Hi Mark,
    I would appreciate it it you could say what format the books you review will be available in: Print, Ebook, and audio.
    Thank you.

  2. This is a definite read!!! Wales from my viewpoint at the other end of the country looks as if rewilding is effectively dead in the water at present. Unfortunately the opinions of those who actually live there back this up. This book looks as if it will help give a bit more desperately needed insight into that. When the Welsh hill farming community gave a resounding raspberry to plans for rewilding (e.g. not one square inch of farmland to be given over to it) the conservation organisations had no plan B.

    If being nice, accommodating and conciliatory to the farming community doesn’t work then……? I suspect the people of Gloucestershire might have something to say though if they ever link the dots between the billion pounds of flood damage they suffered in 2007 and the publicly subsidised sheep grazed bare Welsh hills in the upper Severn watershed.

    As the author has been honest and upfront about the majority of the farming community not giving a fig for wildlife then he really should get the equivalent of a standing ovation from us. The incessant claims from the NFU and others that the farming community is dedicated to conservation isn’t rather harmless hyperbole it’s propaganda that some people swallow hook, line and sinker, others retreat from questioning it so the crappy status quo continues. Over the years an absolute fortune has went to farmers in various agri-environment schemes and by god we have so very, very little to show for it. Why might that be? As with the actual economics of grouse moors the likely answer is one that will be very awkward for some so the question never gets asked.

    I’ve been out a couple of times with a local raptor worker (ladder carrier/holder) who’s had extensive experience with local farms over a good few years. Since it doesn’t cost them anything or any inconvenience they’ll mostly be OK with barn owl and kestrel boxes being put on any trees that haven’t been converted into logs, or in old out buildings. That’s about it the vast majority of farmers here won’t do anything to help wildlife. In fact according to the raptor worker there’s at least one farmer in the district whose hobby involves blasting anything that moves on his land – anything – with a shotgun. I might have heard a buzzard being shot over farmland just outside Falkirk myself.

    The highly successful Wild East initiative in East Anglia which asks landowners to give part of their property over to ecological restoration was started by three farmers. Private companies, public utilities, estates etc got behind it brilliantly, big success. The one sector where the response was disappointing is….farming. So in reality farmers showed little interest in helping wildlife as reported by other farmers who were genuinely interested in doing so. Yes there are conscientious farmers, but they are very much on their own within their ‘community’. Yet this weekend a mouthpiece on the utterly execrable GB News just regurgitated the same old guff about how good a job farmers do of protecting the countryside, everybody nodded along with it – farmers good, greenies bad.

    Any respect due to farmers doesn’t extend to letting them or their friends make unjustified claims, that’s lying. According to someone who should know the same farmers on the lower Tay complaining about how beavers are impoverishing them are all driving shiny new range rovers, given my experiences with Lewis crofters I can believe it. When propaganda dominates progress won’t.

  3. Thank you Mark for pointing me in the direction of what sounds to be a ‘must have’ book and thanks also to David Elias for writing it.

    I have been trying to engage with my local political representatives on environmental issues for a while now and, pun intended, I have to say its an uphill struggle. It sounds as though this book may help me be better primed.

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