Pelagic Publishing, 2019, 300 pages
Hbk £19.99 ISBN 9781784271886
Review by Peter Taylor
Reading this book as both a rewilder and a birder, I expected that an author with a media background would hardly do a good job of rewilding, let alone cover the science of Britain’s historic and prehistoric wildlife. But Macdonald’s book has really surprised me. I have learned much I did not know about Britain’s early bird faunas, and even the history of its mammals. The level of treatment and scholarly references is on a par with conservation science books.
The breadth of treatment is impressive. The scope covers a look at Britain at the height of the Holocene (about 8000 years ago) well before agriculture; the different forces shaping the landscape then and through to the present; ownership and economics of wild areas; habitat impacts like drainage of wetlands; and the range of rewilding projects now underway and their implications for birds.
The journalese surfaces often enough, especially when treating issues of grouse moors or the wholesale slaughter of predators during the 19th century, but core concepts are all handled well, including vegetation dynamics, economics, land ownership, conservation goals, and the interplay of ‘let nature take its course’ with orthodox interventionism on behalf of particular species.
Some doctrinaire rewilders might take exception to the uncritical acceptance of Franz Vera’s thesis on how wild grazers would have kept Britain’s woodlands relatively open. For many of us ecologists, Vera was simply stating the obvious, and given the wild grazing animals of Britain prior to the neo-lithic cutting of forests and settled agriculture, nobody really assumed a closed canopy forest would have existed. The pollen evidence in peat-bogs and lake sediments makes clear that there were patches of open country. Red deer, moose, possibly wild horses and certainly wild cattle, beaver and boar, all would have shaped the forest, most particularly the watercourses. Scrub and coppice willow and hazel would have abounded, though perhaps not the extensive heaths that would follow deforestation. Britain was certainly a wild mosaic of wetlands, uplands, forest, wood and riverine pasture. And this, of course, could provide a base-line for rewilding objectives.
Rebirding notes that pelicans hung on much later than 6000 BP when they were on the menu of Neolithic lake-dwellers of the Somerset Levels – then a vast wetland free to meander at Nature’s will. But, Macdonald understands that we cannot re-create the past. For a start, some keystone species are extinct and many absent from Britain and problematic to re-introduce. It has always been a challenge for rewilding ecosystem dynamics – one can mimic the grazers with ancient breeds of domestic stock, and even introduce wild grazers, but we are a long way from bringing back the Wolf and the Lynx. The author hardly touches the issue of predator-prey dynamics, spending more time on showing up the ecological and economic nonsense of vast areas of moorland devoted either to grouse or deer shooting.
On the birds, MacDonald makes rather a lot of the absent wryneck and red-backed shrike, two birds that last nested when I was a young birder, both of which have suffered from changing land-use – the wryneck from the loss of anthills in old pasture, and the shrike from the decline of large insects. He covers the systemic loss of insect food under the intensification of agriculture and uses the Knepp Estate in West Sussex as an example of what can return once agriculture is removed. The book does not explore a radical programme of making agriculture more organic and wildlife friendly.
The author is weak on climate cycles – drawing attention to white stork nesting on St Giles Cathedral Edinburgh, in the 13th century, but not to the 1000 year climate cycle which then went through the Little Ice Age, before peaking again in the present century. He refers to climate change as “a large-scale threat to biodiversity” that can only be countered by rebuilding the ecosystems we have lost. Yet, in contrast to the detailed exploration of other issues, he is perfunctory on this “large scale threat”. For example, speculating that dotterel, snow bunting and ring ouzel might lose habitat if they are pushed beyond their ‘warming mountain’. There is evidence of climate zones moving up mountains, but of the order of 100m in half a century – with no instances of declining populations attributable to changes in temperature. The uplands, especially the Scottish Highlands, have come under some intensified visitor pressure and the cause of any recent declines, in dotterel for example, would be compounded. In fact, a recent UN review of all threats to global biodiversity rated climate change well below habitat loss, intensification of agriculture, poaching, exploitation of resources like fisheries, pollution and invasive species.
I thoroughly recommend the book and applaud its breadth and detail. Any birder will gain a good grasp of the rewilding agenda, and any rewilder will find much to learn about birds and their place in wilding schemes.