- This book review is written by Erik Meijaard, a biologist with Borneo Futures.
- Cottongrass Summer, a new book by the British author Roy Dennis is a breath of fresh air among the mountains of doom and gloom reads about the environment, the climate and wildlife. Without skirting the problems he has faced in his long wildlife conservation career, Roy manages to leave you with a sense of hope. If we all work hard enough, despite the many set-backs, we can turn things around, and make wildlife thrive once again, even in the ecologically degraded British Isles.
- One reason why you may want to read Cottongrass Summer is that it was written by an 80-year old ‘diehard’ conservation expert who has, throughout his entire life, done what he thought worked best in conservation, even when some ‘experts’ called him bonkers.
- This book review is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Cottongrass Summer, a new book by the British author Roy Dennis is a breath of fresh air among the mountains of doom and gloom reads about the environment, the climate and wildlife. Without skirting the problems he has faced in his long wildlife conservation career, Roy manages to leave you with a sense of hope. If we all work hard enough, despite the many set-backs, we can turn things around, and make wildlife thrive once again, even in the ecologically degraded British Isles.
One reason why you may want to read Cottongrass Summer is that it was written by an 80-year old ‘diehard’ conservation expert who has, throughout his entire life, done what he thought worked best in conservation, even when some ‘experts’ called him bonkers. The thing is, he was right all along. What Bruce Willis in Diehard was to German terrorists and the New York Police Department, Roy Dennis was to the conservation establishment, egg thieves, bird shooters and politicians with short-term vested interests.
Through 52 short chapters, across four seasonal sections – Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter – Roy Dennis explores particular conservation challenges, the politics of conservation, ecology, wildlife behavior and the many relationships between wildlife, the environments and people that use or abuse these environments. The chapters are mercifully short, sometimes simple, for example his elation in seeing osprey chicks survive torrential rain – having seen many die in past rainy episodes, or sometimes longer and philosophical about how humans need to recognize their dependence on nature if they have any chance to survive. It is an easy read, but definitely an eye opener on many topics that will make you yearn for more information.
One thing I really like about this book is the constant reflection on ecological interconnectedness and relationships. The story of growing populations of badgers and pine martens negatively impacting species like oystercatchers and even ospreys through egg predation, because the big predators like lynx and wolf are missing, is illustrative. It shows that conservation strategies favoring one particular species can have unintended negative consequences on a range of other species in need of conservation management. This is a story I am only too familiar with in orangutan conservation.
A thorough understanding of the relationships between species, the land, and people using the land is essential in effective conservation. But such relationships are highly complex. What I like about Roy’s approach is that he dares to think big, basing his interventions on a thorough understanding of the natural history of a particular area, including how people and their livestock use the land, and how this affects species. Such skill sets are rarely taught these days to ecologists, who may be educated about particular ecological theories, but are rarely asked to step back from a big problem and see it for what it is in all its socio-ecological complexity, rather than what theory says it should be. Natural history, or its modern equivalent, should once again be on the curriculum of conservation students, teaching them to get out, observe and think, and see every new conservation challenge in its own particular context requiring a specific, often hands-on solution. As Roy writes, ‘successful nature conservation is a skillful blend of experience, observation, knowledge and perception, rather than solely a science’.
While this book is mostly about ecology, the interactions between and among species and their environments, there is also a strong political element. This is expressed quite beautifully in the Summer chapter ‘The bonnie heather hills of Scotland’, where Roy argues powerfully for allowing ecologically barren heather hills used for grouse shooting and sheep grazing to revert back to natural forests. This resonates with the views of another well-known British conservationist, George Monbiot, who has similarly argued against the subsidized degradation of British wildlands or their use for singular, private interests such as grouse or deer shooting. These ideas support the call for a political overhaul of land use systems and their financial support in Europe and other parts of the world. With his call to expand all current protected areas and take marginal agricultural land out of production, ultimately covering 30-40% of all land in natural ecosystem, Roy Dennis echoes ideas such as Half-Earth by E.O. Wilson.
Roy has fought much of his life for change in British and European conservation. His instrumental role in the successful return of species like golden eagle, white-tailed eagle, osprey and red kite to the British Isles, and more recently red squirrels and beavers to areas where they had become extinct, shows that this change is possible. His focus on these iconic species has helped to get public and political buy-in and support for rewilding.
Roy recently appeared in national media headlines, as ‘an octogenarian conservationist dangling from a rope’ over an eagle’s nest, who helped bring back the golden eagle to Britain. Many people are interested in such stories and support further conservation efforts. Not everyone agrees of course and the rewilding of Britain remains an uphill struggle – eagles, for example, are still being poisoned and shot. But I believe that there is hope for other iconic species that should be returned to Britain like white stork, bearded vulture, moose, lynx or wolf, or allowed to expand, like wild boar and beaver. I dearly hope for Roy that he will be around to witness the moment a lynx-kitten emerges from its woodland den in the Scottish Highlands.
Of course, the book has a pessimistic undertone. What else would you expect in writings about the ecologically degraded “wet desert” of Scotland, as it is described in Roy’s book in reference to the writings of Fraser Darling. Peregrine falcons disappearing because of illegal persecution and wild cats (or ‘wood cat’, as Roy prefers), because of hybridization. Wildflowers, rare where they should be common (with tips to help spread them). Seabirds and their sand-eel prey in rapid decline. Etc. Still, this is not a pessimistic book, and nearly every chapter leaves the reader with a sense of optimism about a better future that is there for the taking, if only we want it badly enough.
So, cynics among you turn away, this book is not for you. To me this book is about belief and love. Belief in a better world where wild animals and plants can once again thrive alongside people. And a deep love for the natural world around us.
Header image: Zoom Earth satellite image of western Scotland.