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12 May 2021

Roy Dennis’s Restoring the Wild chronicles 60 years of rewilding Britain

Now 81, Dennis is possibly the UK’s most senior and influential conservationist you may never have heard of.   

By Kathleen Jamie

Ospreys are expected to arrive home to breed any day now. Two hundred and fifty pairs now nest in the UK. Red kites can be seen turning aerobatics above the M40. Perth has become the first UK city in 400 years to host resident urban beavers. There are golden eagles again in Ireland, ­although they are struggling. More successful are white-tailed eagles, which have been reintroduced to the UK in recent decades.

“Rewilding” is the catchphrase but that makes it sound easy. Roy Dennis prefers “ecological restoration”, which gives some hint of the sheer slog, determination, vision and time it takes. Now 81, Dennis is possibly the UK’s most senior and influential conservationist you may never have heard of. He has spent a long career in the Scottish Highlands designing projects to reintroduce or translocate species such as those above. His work ranges from assessing landscapes to building nest-boxes. His successes have always arrived in the teeth of opposition, often from so-called allies.

Restoring the Wild covers Dennis’s career, which he built on the profound knowledge of ecology and species interaction. It is a book based on his diaries of 60 years, which reveal the sheer number of reports, town hall lectures, licences, risk assessments, ­acronyms, obstacles and setbacks before the excitement comes. It is exhilarating to read of the first young sea eagles being collected from Norway and flown to Scotland – with the help of the RAF – and readied for release. After an unsteady start in the 1970s, by 2015 there were 100 pairs breeding in Scotland. (The 100th pair nested on Hoy, Orkney. It was quite the homecoming as the last sea eagles had been sighted on the island in 1873.) On the Isle of Mull, the birds are estimated to be worth £5m a year to the island’s economy, generated from wildlife tourism.

Born in 1940 in Hampshire, Dennis came to Scotland as a young man, first to the famous Fair Isle bird observatory, which is presently being rebuilt after a disastrous fire. His career unfolded through every conservation and wildlife organisation, until Dennis ultimately founded his own trust. It was, and is, a life of equal parts field work and meetings, meetings, meetings. Admittedly, many of the meetings were fact-gathering expeditions to countries that live amicably enough with bears or wolves. Discussions centred on the possibility of bringing back the top predators, without which no ecosystem can be complete.

[see also: Gaston Fébus and the thrills of the chase]

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Dennis, however, fears that he has missed a moment. Bolder action years ago could have led to more reintroductions, but in recent decades opposition, especially to “charismatic species”, has become formalised. Dennis is meticulous rather than strident, and not apparently political. He seems to get on well with owners of large estates rather than contesting their right to own them. “A few really enthusiastic people with large landholdings and sufficient funds could have forged new and exciting ecological pathways,” he says. But others object that a vast private estate fenced off for wolves, as was once mooted by a landowner, is still a vast private estate that excludes the public – a hobby ground for the super-rich.

Now that beavers are back, largely thanks to early work by Dennis and his colleagues, lynx could be the next mammals to be reintroduced, having been made extinct in the UK more than 1,000 years ago. Quiet and elusive, they could be released to go about their woodland business but for “the incredible opposition of farmers, politicians and even some conservationists”. The preparatory work is all done, and animals could be sourced from successful captive breeding programmes in Spain and Portugal. All that remains is to “get on with it”, says Dennis. The lynx is one thing, the wolf quite another. Wolves remained in the UK long after the lynx were gone, but of course they cannot simply pad across a land border as they have done lately in the Low Countries. Could Scotland carry wolves, nowadays? The naturalists say yes. But it’s hard to convince a public which knows nothing of wolves save what they read in fairy tales.

Wolves were hunted, and as Dennis says, it is easier to reintroduce a species that was simply exterminated, if its habitat and food source were left intact. Today, the mounting complexities of a changing climate and dearth of food mean it’s not as simple as opening a cage and letting animals go. But it is more imperative to act. Dennis says half of land and sea must be restored or “rewilded” to avert climate and ecological disaster.

Now, in the late stages of an extraordinary career, he is handing over to the young. Dennis credits a lot of people over many decades as allies and collaborators, but strikingly few of the names are female. The careful future of ecological restoration must involve a lot more women than hitherto.

The work does have a future. In March, Scotland’s largest community buyout of land was completed, with 5,200 acres ­passing from private hands to the Langholm Initiative, a charity intent on “rural regeneration, climate action and ecological restoration”. As Dennis says, it’s time to get on with the task.

“Surfacing” by Kathleen Jamie is published by Sort Of Books

Restoring the Wild: Sixty Years of Rewilding Our Skies, Woods and Waterways
Roy Dennis
William Collins, 464pp, £18.99

[see also: Watching Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher, I wonder why we like to imagine animals are our friends]

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This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die