What to read? I know many of us are not the readers we once were. I know I get distracted by social media and internet ramblings too. So, when I recommend books to read, I want to keep it to the minimum and I want those books to be well written, tell a story a
nd be readable. I think it helps if the reader can relate to the story being told; so here are my ‘essential’ five reads for the mountain leader and mountaineering instructor.
This is a very timely selection as the book which I believe holds the key
to our upland management systems has just been published, English Pastoral by James Rebanks, but first, the essential list.
Please start with Feral by George Monbiot. It is superbly well written; it tells a story of ‘rewilding
’. It’s an addictive image, the book is very well researched, has passion and cannot be ignored. It introduces to us a rather sad concept, that of the ‘sheep-wrecked’ uplands. Our hills have
been over grazed. But overgrazing is not a simple story and before we start to blame the famers, we need to look at things from their point of view.
Book two; A shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks. There are a few ‘shepherd’ book’s around at the moment, but this is the book that ad
vances the story from the timeless classic by Thomas Firbank; ‘I bought a mountain’. As hillwalkers and mountaineers, we need to know a little more about the lives and the histories of those who farm our uplands. This community, and it is strongly held together by the Welsh language here in Snowdonia, is the beating heart of our rural social systems. The farming community participate in village life, in rural shows, in councils, committees and forums. They volunteer to help out, the culture is helping out and they will seek ways to help each other and their default setting is, actually, to help strangers. We have at times abused this hospitality.
Book three. Rewilding is fantastic buzzword and there are some brilliant rewilding schemes underway, particularly in Scotland. I love ‘em, they thrill, me they excite me, but they are not simple proje
cts. My third recommended book is deliberately called ‘Wilding’ rather than ‘re-wilding’. You should read it to find out why. It is the story of the Knepp estate in Sussex. A farmed estate where the owners realised that whatever inputs they inputted; the outputs never exceeded them. They sort of gave up and let the estate re-wild itself. But rewilding needs a guiding hand for all sorts of reasons and the story is quite complex. This book by Isabella Tree tells that story and it’s a key one in our journey towards understanding the land better.
My fourth essential read is Rebirding - Rewilding for Birds, by Benedict MacDonald. It didn’t buy this book. I stupidly thought, that although I’m keen on birds, when it comes to rewilding, I want the bigger picture. Actually, this book fills a lot of the missing pieces. You may have heard the story that Britain was forested from Land
’s End to John O’Groats. Wrong. Think about it; how did garden birds evolve to live in our garden shrubs, but hunt on the lawn? Where did chough’s go to eat when they famously love sheep cropped grass? And so, on and so forth. If you enter any woodland, even a
native one, you won’t see that many birds, they live and feed on the edges. Then there were the mammals, where did those woolly mammoth and aurochs live? They were not woodland creatures; they lived on plains. So, the old idea of a continuous forest is wrong. Our landscape did have woodland, but it also had clearings maintained by the large h
erbivores. The large herbivore numbers were kept in check by the top predators the carnivores of the day. So, we had a patchwork quilt of meadowland, scrub, and woodland, and that’s what garden birds evolved to live in, they have adapted to living in gardens.
And so, we come to number five. And it’s James Rebanks again. We are not going to get a wilder, more natural countryside if we don’t work with famers. We need to understand the journey they have been on; a political journey and it is laid bare in James’s latest book English Pastoral. Again, we mustn’t be put off by the title. This is UK and Ireland Pastoral really, but James Rebanks, is based in England and you need a snappy title so English Pastoral it is. Once again, as with the other books in this list, this is an immensely readable and enjoyable book, you'll probably read this more than once. The way Rebanks writes shows graft and craft, like that of a farmer, interrelationships and interludes combine to a seemless whole and a journey through a thought process. This by a man who's put his money, his family and hard work where his mouth is. There must be more unsung James Rebanks's amongst the farming community we, as lovers of the great outdoors, should get to know them better.
All these tales are worth reading just for the joy of the English language, never mind the importance of the message. This final book is the best book, so far, on nature friendly farming. Nature friendly farming is achievable. Find out more; there is an active group (you can find them on Twitter @NFFNUK) that promotes, and celebrates, nature friendly farming. Take a look at the farms around you. Swapping fences for hedges, allowing some trees to mature, leaving some lower branches on trees, reversing upland drainage, allowing rivers to flow freely and returning to old school rotations. These are all achievable things that we should 100% support our farming community to achieve.
In conversation, although from totally different worlds, you ‘ll be surprised how often walkers and upland farmers have common ground to discuss (even if it’s just slagging off the Government of the day!). We need to befriend these people, they hate disposable barbecues, fly camping and wildlife persecution too.
So, love rewinding, find out more about the Scottish schemes, http://cairngormsconnect.org.uk/ is a good place to start, but look out for and celebrate nature friendly farming, it’s probably the best and most achievable way forward. Oh, and make sure you read English Pastoralm by Jmaes Rebanks. You can buy it here https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/James-Rebanks/English-Pastoral--An-Inheritance/24837345
or at your local independent bookshop.