2019 - REBIRDING - Benedict Macdonald


Ben Macdonald

The short-list was agreed on 16 January 2020 as follows. All were worthy contestants:
  • The Hidden World of the Fox by  Adele Brand,  (William Collins).
  • Incredible Journeys by David Barrie, (Hodder and Stoughton).
  • The Nature of Spring by Jim Crumley, (Saraband).
  • On the Marsh by Simon Barnes, (Simon and Schuster).
  • Rebirding by Benedict Macdonald (Pelagic Publishing).
  • Working with Nature by Jeremy Purseglove (Profile Books).

The judges voted on 4 June 2020 to award the prize to Ben Macdonald -- particularly note-worthy as this is his first book. 
Prof. Barry Sloan, the Chair of the Judges Panel said:

In a year when there were several strong contenders for the prize, Ben Macdonald's Rebirding impressed the judges by its ambition and scope and by the extensive research which underpins the book’s lively and thought-provoking engagement with some of the key environmental issues in the UK and their impact on our wildlife―and especially on bird life.  
Rebirding not only highlights how modern industrialised agriculture and land management practices have depleted biodiversity and bird life in Britain and compares the situation here with the much more favourable position in other parts of Europe; it also challenges the efficacy of some of the work of conservation organisations, insisting that small scale successes with some endangered species of birds will never result in sufficiently large populations to be viable, and that there is an urgent need for a network of links between conservation areas across the country. However, Macdonald is not defeatist, and nor is he afraid to be controversial. He argues for the game-changing potential of radical schemes of change, such as the rewilding of economically inefficient areas like those worked by Welsh hill farmers, or in the Cairngorms, the revision of the environmentally destructive land management of grouse moors to ensure a flourishing diversity among wild life that is threatened and dwindling, and the encouragement of new economic and employment opportunities in the countryside through the promotion of ecotourism. You may not agree with all of Macdonald’s ideas and arguments, but his book is a passionate, informed  and important intervention in one of the most pressing concerns of our time, and it deserves serious attention and a wide readership.

Review by Richard Stewart 
      The title has a superficial resemblance to Wilding, the 2018 winner, but this book covers far more than just one part of Sussex. Many parts of Europe are covered and further afield, with the emphasis on how wild life could be enriched by land management changes―not just a theoretical series of ideas but giving many successful examples. The title is misleading as the subject matter extends well beyond birds, but it was probably necessary to distinguish this book from many other recently published ‘wilding’ or similar books. The text, covering 226 pages, has a multitude of statistics and is sometimes a demanding read but this is balanced by chapter divisions into separate sections, some less than a  page in length.

Part of the text covers former events, with the Enclosure Acts seen through the eyes of the poet John Clare, then the negative effects on ancient woodlands when the Forestry Commission began its planting of quick growing conifers, then the rush to use farming chemicals that negated the more wildlife-friendly system of crop rotation that had existed for thousands of years. The author regrets the loss of beneficial large animals ‘whose numbers, size and majesty we have entirely forgotten today’, but he does praise the work at Knepp and stresses the importance of trees as hosts to a multitude of invertebrates, especially oak, willow and birch. The colour plates illustrate many successful schemes both at home and abroad, and on a very localised scale there is ‘sterile Britain’ as exemplified by two photos of the same Hampshire house, one from 1914, the other taken in 2017. The more recent one shows how it is ‘now cleansed as a result of ecological tidiness disorder’ – a succinct but meaningful three word infection. Many of the colour plates and text examples of successful wildlife enhancing schemes stress the need to ‘think big’ and ‘allow flexible movements and successful reactions to adverse circumstances’. The RSPB is criticised for not using more of its revenue in land purchases and some National Park management is criticised, with the shameful fact that the United Kingdom was 189th in 2018 world rankings for countries with biodiversity intactness. Macdonald lists the ‘big six’ to control as grouse, deer, sheep, forestry, dairy and arable farms, adding that ‘chaos, dereliction and decay’, which are among the most important elements in rewilding success, are ‘the last words you’ll hear in British conservation’. To balance this pessimism there is praise for the RSPB’s Wallasea Island development in Essex, the Great Fen scheme in Cambridgeshire and rather brief coverage of the Forsinard Flow Country work in Sutherland―all being large-scale projects.

 Here are a few comments from the judges:

 ‘He is powerfully and persuasively critical of the National Park authorities and other conservation bodies, and demonstrates convincingly the need for radical revision of government policy in this respect.’

 ‘It is heavily laden with facts and figures but it definitely doesn’t feel like it. It certainly packs a punch, well-researched, passionate with good writing.’

‘Definitely a book with a purpose, not merely observation or personal engagement, but trenchantly written studies of general and specific species and landscapes.’

‘Bill Oddie’s comment on the back cover about how “they left the best till last” in a long series of rewilding books is one I support.’

‘An agenda for radically altering the British countryside in order to enrich the environment and increase its capacity to support diverse and multiple forms of wildlife.’

‘The colour plates are much better than the illustrations in the other shortlisted titles. … Scientifically very sound, though I do not agree with all his criticisms of existing organisations and systems.’

 The winner has achieved a hat-trick of ‘firsts’ in the brief history of this award: his first book, the youngest ever winner at the age of thirty-two, and the first winner not to base their book partly or completely on land they own. 

Ben’s comment on hearing the news was: ‘My wise grandfather gave me a copy of Wild Life in a Southern County when I was eight years old. Today I am humbled beyond measure to have won this literary prize. This one’s for you, Fred Giltinan.’

Inscription in Wild Life in a Southern County given to Ben by his grandfather

on 16 May 1996. Fred Giltinan feels that Ben ‘will be ready to read [the book] when he is

12/13 years old.’