ECOS 38 (1): Book Review: Wild Kingdom by Stephen Moss

Wild Kingdom

Bringing Back Britain’s Wildlife

Stephen Moss

Square Peg
304 pages,
ISBN 13: 9780224095655
Hardback RRP: £16.99

Review by Gavin Saunders

Chair of BANC and woodland social enterprise manager.

Wild comfort zone?

I feel rather guilty being honest about my reaction to this book. I know Stephen Moss a little, and respect his energy and output and his influence on TV natural history programming. But Wild Kingdom didn’t do it for me. That may say more about me than about the book. Maybe I’m just tired of reading this sort of slightly paternalistic ‘explanation’ of why we need nature and what dreadful things are being done to it and what wonderful things plucky conservationists are doing in the face of these horrors. And maybe the fact that Stephen can’t help but keep coming back to birds gets a bit annoying to a non-birder like me. But I realise my reaction to this fairly innocuous book is something I need to explore more deeply.

I can’t come at this with the eyes of someone with no prior experience of UK wildlife conservation, and if I could, perhaps I would find the book an enjoyable tour through an unfamiliar world.  Stephen has a pleasantly easy manner in explaining things to a lay reader, avoiding jargon for most of the time, but inevitably the coverage becomes simplistic sometimes, and necessarily, if perhaps frustratingly selective.

But I’m left with a nagging feeling that while this book is written consciously for a non-conservationist audience, unconsciously it’s talking rather safely to those who are already in the know. And I suppose I hear an echo in that, of how much of the conservation movement behaves, much of the time.

The sections of the book follow the usual division of Britain into broad habitat types, with which conservationists feel most comfortable: farmland, woodland, uplands, rivers, coast, urban etc. This isn’t how most non-conservationists classify the landscape. The rather sweeping condemnations of farmers, gamekeepers, fishermen and the other usual suspects are made on the implicit assumption that ‘we’ know better and want better, ‘we’ presumably being the rest of the population.  However sometimes it becomes clear that the ‘we’ is a rather select group of enlightened conservationists. While describing the general public’s reaction to the proposed sale of the public forest estate in 2010, Stephen says “much of this undoubtedly sincere and deeply held passion to save our woodlands from privatization was based on an erroneous belief [that woodlands are intrinsically natural]”. This sounds like latent disgruntlement that conservation NGOs didn’t get the chance to take on the ownership of the forest for themselves.

Disappointingly, the clichés used for the chapter headings – ‘Down on the Farm’, ‘The Wild Wood’, ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, ‘The Urban Jungle’ – are carried through into some of the descriptions of the issues. It’s not that the points are not well made: the recognition that conservationists’ focus on protecting the rare rather than the commonplace has simply allowed the commonplace to become rare; and the recognition that nature reserves are not enough. But somehow it never moves beyond the cliché. The subtitle of the book – Bringing back Britain’s wildlife – never seems to manifest itself beyond the now-usual examples of otters, beavers, peregrines, bitterns, Avalon Marshes and the Knepp Estate.

There’s an attempt to ground the progress of the book in a series of first-person mini tableau-vivants, as we see Stephen in the middle of a reedbed, on a boat below a seabird colony, or listening to a dawn chorus, before he zooms back out to a pseudo-objective perspective to continue his description of his themes. But it’s an awkward structure, and I was never clear when personal experience finished and attempted objective commentary began. That’s especially the case when he ventures into subjects like grouse shooting and raptor persecution, where, although I share his point of view, the scarcely-veiled vituperative statement stands uncomfortably next to the more factual.

In all, this is a well-written book which tries to cover a huge subject in an accessible way. Stephen Moss is not someone who simply plays it safe, but somehow unknowingly what he has produced here is an example of conservation writing which remains inside its comfort zone, while worrying about existential issues which can only be tackled by dumping that comfort zone completely.

The book feels like it was written in a rush, by someone with a Reithian instinct to inform, a strong recognition that conservationists need to be positive rather than simply doom-laden, and a painful sense of frustration and powerlessness as the nature he loves continues to disappear. If it had been twice the length and more open about those three sometimes conflicting ingredients of information, education and entertainment, it would have done more justice to the subject and the author.

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Saunders, Gavin “ECOS 38 (1): Book Review: Wild Kingdom by Stephen Moss” ECOS vol. 38(1), 2017, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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