- 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:
Review by Richard Stewart
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.’