Restoring the Wild: sixty years of rewilding our skies, woods and waterways

By Roy Dennis

William Collins, 2021

Hbk, 452pp; black-and-white photos

ISBN 978-0-00-836881-4; £18.99 

Only one person could have written this book. Roy Dennis has been involved with numerous projects to restore lost species, initially for the RSPB and then through his own wildlife foundation. As expected, the three species on the cover – Osprey Pandion haliaetus, Red Kite Milvus milvus and White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla – get much of the coverage, but he has also been involved with projects on the Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula, Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos, Eagle Owl Bubo bubo, White Stork Ciconia ciconia, and a number of high-profile mammals.  

Roy offers us a very personal approach to the subject. This is a book about the trials and tribulations of making projects happen, and he doesn’t say too much about the animals themselves. He deals primarily with the early stages of new projects, from the initial idea and discussions, through fact-finding missions, knowledge gathering and implementation. For projects that are taken forward, there is the breakthrough moment of the first releases, and the subsequent monitoring of progress in the wild. 

Translocations of high-profile species take time to set up, require permits and licences, and face opposition from landowners and farmers, as well as from fellow conservationists. Much of the work to make them happen involves phone calls, meetings, report writing and form filling. Setting out the scale of this task helps to show just how challenging it can be, but the level of detail provided is perhaps overdone. There are long sections based on diary-style accounts of Roy’s relentlessly busy itinerary. Only occasionally does he step back to survey the bigger picture, and it is in these sections that the book is at its most interesting and powerful.   

The tone remains mostly optimistic but exasperation bubbles to the surface at times, not least in a long chapter headed ‘Bureaucracy’. Someone with reservations about Osprey releases in Wales is described as having been ‘got at’ by the RSPB – and yet, in the nicest sense of the term, Roy has been ‘getting at’ people for decades. He has done more than anyone else in Britain to promote positive attitudes towards species translocations.

One aspect of the book frustrated me just a little. Amid calls for more and more species to be brought back and, increasingly, for new species to be introduced, there is a tendency for anyone who urges caution to be labelled as lacking vision or as having no genuine passion for conservation. That, I think, is both untrue and unhelpful. The relative merits of new projects (especially for species that may never have been common here) must be considered carefully. The implications are far-reaching and irreversible. There are potential impacts on other wildlife and a feeling that the ‘wild’ in wildlife can be diminished if humans take on too dominant a role in picking the species we wish to see, before rearing them in cages and setting them free. Discussions have become increasingly fractious and it is easy to lose sight of complexity and nuance when considering the pros and cons of each potential new addition to our countryside. There are powerful arguments and, lest we forget, passionate conservationists on both sides of this debate.

Ian Carter

Issue 5
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Restoring the Wild

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