Benedict Macdonald: the entire interview

The complete transcript of Inkcap's hour-long conversation with the author of Rebirding.

Welcome to Inkcap, a newsletter about nature, ecology and conservation in the UK, written and reported by me, Sophie Yeo.

This is the entire transcript of my interview with Benedict Macdonald, the author of Rebirding. I thought it was fascinating from start to end – and an important insight into the direction that conservation may go in the future. It has been very lightly edited, but only for clarity. I hope you enjoy it.

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Can you talk a bit about the process you went through in researching the book – the traveling you did, and how you arrived at the vision that you outline for nature in Rebirding?

There’s firsthand lived experience, and then there's academic and historical research.

I've been fortunate to travel for a number of years, both under my own steam and particularly through my day job, to lots of parts of the world – places like Mongolia, where there were still creatures like wild horses that we used to have here in the UK, and you can see what they're doing and the birds that are following them and their effect on the landscape. Places like Poland with bison and wolves.

But also farmland. Eastern Europe – Romania, Hungary, Croatia – places where the farms are still absolutely teeming with life and the average nightingale population of a village is 20, 30 pairs, complete with turtle doves, cuckoos, wrynecks, red-backed shrikes. And it became pretty obvious, coming back to Britain, that this country is completely silent and denuded, and it's only something you can really appreciate if you've gone elsewhere. Because none of us have a TARDIS; we can't stand in any one field and go back 200 years. But, if we could, we'd be absolutely shocked at what was missing. 

I remember waking up in Hungary once one morning, wondering where the nearest motorway was, because there was this extraordinary drone, which turned out to be honeybees. That's just the normal sound of a Hungarian village; there are hives of up to five million bees in a small village in the Carpathian Mountains. And you come back here and you spot one butterfly on the buddleia looking like it's the last of its kind. 

So I was obviously aware, after traveling to other countries, of what was missing. I was also aware, having kept birding diaries since 2000 – basically 15 years of going to places in Britain – and not hearing what was there the year before, particularly willow tit, wood warbler, turtle dove, cuckoo, nightingale. 

And everyone just sort of seemed to be accepting that that was the way of things. And I thought, ‘Well, it's not the way of things in other countries, so why is it the way of things here?’ 

When I first started writing Rebirding, I actually envisaged a much more limited book about rebuilding the food chain, because it was obvious to me that the largest invertebrates had largely gone but also that the biomass of insects here was a stunted relic of what it is even in France. You know, you go to a French wood: 50 to 100 purple emperors, white admirals, nightingales, golden orioles. So that was how it started off. 

And then the further I went back in my research, when I started reading The Historical Atlas of Breeding Birds, which is an amazing book by Simon Holloway, I began to realize that birds have been vanishing all across the 19th century, and that actually whole species, like the black tern and the ruff and the black-tailed godwit, were already vanishing at the start of the 19th century. This narrative of bird and wildlife decline, both in terms of biodiversity and abundance, goes back a very long time indeed.  

I thought, for the sake of being coherent but also for making the book more interesting and expansive, we can't go back to the age of the dinosaurs and there's no point going back indefinitely to the dawn of time. So why don't we start with the cause of all this wildlife decline in the UK – which, frankly, is ourselves. So I thought, ‘Let's start it with when the first people arrived in the UK,’ and that was when academic research began. 

Chapter one of the book took me four years to write, off and on. I think it's got well over 100 footnotes, I've read about 200 papers, talked to academics, and basically tried to trace the living history of all of the species, the keystone species in the UK, how they vanished, and how human society has changed relative to the changes in our avifauna. As soon as we settled down and started growing crops, that's when you begin to see mass deforestation: 60% woodland changes to 15% woodland in a thousand years. Even before the Romans came, we’d done the deforesting already. 

It was fascinating, the more I read, how early on we as a country destroyed our natural history compared to many of our neighbours. As early as the time of Henry VIII, people were being paid to go out to kill all of the hedgehogs, all of the wildcats, all of the kites and the eagles, in their parishes, or constituencies, to use the modern phrase. At every stage, we seem to be better at eliminating life than any other country, which is very sad, because I've always grown up thinking of us as David Attenborough and RSPB and avocet-loving nature watchers. So there did seem to be this fundamental contradiction that came out of the research, which was that, in spite of our contemporary love of the natural world, we have been the world experts in getting rid of it, as much as we now like to point the finger at other countries. 

Coming to the present day, the problem is that we're really trying to preserve, in many cases, just the relics of what's left: the last colony of a particular group butterflies that should really be widespread, or the last pair or something that's probably already been sentenced to extinction, because all the others of its kind have already disappeared. 

As I began to realize all these things, the vision for the book became bigger and bigger. And I thought, ‘Well, we can't just be protecting what we've got because that's not very much. We need to be thinking about all the things that we've lost and how we can bring them back.’ Broadly speaking, that brought me to the second section of the book, which is about rebuilding the food chain, getting back to steward animals – the beavers, the boar – and the free roaming animals – the horses, the cattle – in the right numbers, in the right place. And then rebuilding landscapes of scale. You can't have a little island nature reserve of cuckoos or curlews, black grouse, hawfinch, red-backed shrike. All of these birds use land at the hundred square kilometer level. 

We have all the space in the world – 94% of Britain isn't built upon – so then I thought, ‘What’s happening to all the space?’ That took me to the third section of the book, which is the way that we waste space in the United Kingdom, farming under sea level, farming areas that aren't supposed to be farmed: grouse moors, deer estates, which cater to very limited hunting outcomes and are really not helping local economies very much. In other words, all of this wastage actually being quite avoidable – the only areas where food production is really productive and intense is often in the arable mix farms. And looking, then, at what could be there instead. 

Because we've had these things for so long – we've had grouse moors for 200 years, forestry plantations since the close of the First World War – you need to go to other countries to find the answers. Otherwise, you just get locked into arguments about how best to manage moorland. Well, moorland isn't a habitat; moorland is an absence. Moorland is what happens when you take the habitat away; you end up with this limited set of outcomes, with heather, a bit of rough grass, red grouse, merlin, a few other species – but that's not an ecosystem, it's a lack of. 

Then I wanted to actually go further than whingeing, and set out, based on practical examples in first world countries, not just silly examples from areas of Africa with elephants or whatever, what we could actually have back here in the UK. So that that was the journey of research in the book.

One thing that came across strongly – and often comes up from talking about conservation in the UK – is the role of the Common Agricultural Policy. Why do you think the UK has suffered so much under that system, compared to its neighbours in the European Union, where the same system is in place?

The Common Agricultural Policy seems to function in a wave of degrees of intensiveness, with Britain certainly being the worst. But you've got to remember large areas of France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark are also pretty awful. Germany is still very intensively farmed but has significant national parks which actually serve the function of protecting populations and species but still has, it seemed, fairly catastrophic insect decline. Then, slowly, its effects for various reasons peter out as you get into Eastern Europe until by the time you're in eastern Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Romania, Bulgaria, and anywhere within the Carpathians, its effect is almost completely nullified and people are just farming for the village and farming for the town. And that creates the kind of pastoral agriculture not seen in the UK, on a widespread level, probably since the early 1800s.

Why Britain in particular? Well, I think we were already a very degraded landscape by the time the Common Agricultural Policy hit. You’ve got to remember spotted flycatchers halved their numbers in Britain between the 50s and 60s; we were already harming the countryside with a lot of chemicals and pesticides at that time. What the Common Agricultural Policy did in Britain was remove all of the nuances that individual farmers had been employing, whether that was not worming their cattle, whether that was keeping the old orchards, whether that was having rotational farms or fallows, or leaving ponds and hedgerows. Basically, all of these things were taken out in a terrifyingly short space of time. 

But why Britain in particular? I think we’ve always had this myth – and it is a myth – that we're self-sufficient, and therefore, that we as an island need to become even more self-sufficient. Of course, we are self-sufficient now for less than half of our food. For example, in Wales, 88% of the land is given over to less than 1% of our diet in lamb, then almost half of that lamb then gets exported out of the country. But remember, myths can be very powerful, even if they're not true.

And I think we have always had a zeal about tidying the landscape that long precedes the Common Agricultural Policy. Just a simple example would be the black-tailed godwit. For example, even now in the Netherlands, the black-tailed godwit is able to survive in cattle fields on quite a widespread basis. I think it's home to 39-40,000 pairs of black-tailed godwit. Britain is home to less than a hundred. Our lowland livestock farming became hostile for that species almost a hundred years before it did for the godwits in the Netherlands. Then, by the time you get to Poland, godwits are in all the river valleys because nobody has straitjacketed the rivers. So I think the Common Agricultural Policy, coupled with our own tidy mindset, coupled with the fact that we didn't have much left, has definitely left us the most nature deprived country for farmland – but it's not exactly as if countries like France have done well. 

There's an absolutely fascinating thing you could do on eBird where, if you search for a species like the wryneck, which is an ancient pastoral agricultural wood pasture species, and you go down to North Spain, which has just got this ancient agricultural system of hay meadows and free-roaming animals, and then you compare it almost to the border with France, you'll see whole species like nightingale, wryneck, red-backed shrike, whinchat, cuckoo, just tailing away in abundance as you get into France. That's because in the hills of Spain, nobody really wanted to change the farmland and in many ways they still haven't. So even in Western Europe, if you've got a big enough area that just went its own way and carried on with its old agricultural practices, you'll still find your vanished British farmland birds, your wrynecks, your shrikes, your turtle doves, cirl buntings, in really large numbers. So it's mainly a Western European phenomenon, but it's also a cultural phenomenon.

Your economic case for rewilding mainly rests on ecotourism. Knepp, for example, obviously has a lot of tourists now. But you think that's partly because it's unique? And do you see that model holding up when rewilded landscapes hopefully become less unique?

I do, because you've got to remember that Knepp isn’t big enough for a lot of the really big draws. For example, we know that if we look at ecotourism in Europe, it works very well with charismatic species, or species, ironically, where the chances of seeing them are actually very low. That might sound perverse, but in the Harz mountains, you have hundreds of thousands of people going to an area with lynx – hoping they might see a lynx, knowing that statistically they probably won’t see a lynx, but just being in those forests, in the presence of this animal, looking at camera traps, images, going to see some of the ones in the captive breeding program – bringing £30m to what would otherwise be quite a poor local economy. 

You do need charismatic animals and extraordinary landscapes, so it's not as if we've really seen it yet. Don't get me wrong, Knepp’s great. But Knepp is a microcosm of what we could have, if, for example, the Cairngorms was given over to a Yellowstone-type level of restoration. Eventually, perhaps not even in my lifetime, we know that tracking wolf packs brings really serious money into a lot of economies, in places like Canada and Finland. But also, you’ve got to remember, we're so far off extensive rewilding being anywhere, I think the national parks – especially in Europe, or in places like Yellowstone – don't need to be unique. They just need to be profoundly different from the surrounding landscape. 

What I was envisaging in Rebirding is that you're driving through Wales, through the farmed areas, and then when you enter Snowdonia, you are presented with something that is profoundly different and special. That's where the eagles live, that's where the lynx are, that's where the other charismatic species are – and I think that's what you actually see in Eastern Europe. You will drive through productive farmed agricultural areas, big fields. But then, when you get to somewhere like the Białowieża National Park, you know all about it. People will fly from here to Poland, stay the night in Warsaw, drive through the farmland without stopping until they get to the Białowieża because that's where the wild things live. 

So I think ecotourism works with big, bold operations. We know for example, that it worked extremely well with white-tailed eagles on the Isle of Mull. If a future colony of Dalmatian pelicans lives in the Norfolk Broads, then you're going to see a significant investment in that area. Because a lot of these species, we have to be honest, are never going to be everywhere. 

Rewilded areas work well under only a few conditions: one is converting deer estates or the grouse moors or large areas of the unfarmed Scottish Highlands. The other one is areas that are going to go under sea-level anyway, and therefore, it is eminently sensible to rewild those – so the Somerset Levels and large areas of the East Anglian coast. But we also need large areas of normality and houses and productive agriculture, and there’ll always be a strong cultural presence of pastoral grazing. 

So I don't think we're ever going to have so many rewilded areas that people are not going to drive, whether that's to Snowdonia to see wildcats or eagles, or to the Broads to see pelicans. But I do hope that some species, like the beaver, just become a commonplace fixture, and we don't need to drive far to see them at all.

And do you think the economic arguments like the ones you've made in your book can successfully make the case in what has often been quite a vicious ideological argument?

When we look at the word ‘rewilding’, a lot of the viciousness centres around the idea that we want to drive people off the land, which is almost the exact opposite of what I’ve proposed in my book. I'd love to see far fewer people living in cities and unsanitary conditions, more people in the countryside – but they can't all be living in the countryside and farming. We know for example, in 1800, over 80% of employment, of people who were working in Wales, were either sheep farmers or cattle farmers, or they were spinning wool. Well, now it's 1%. So we don't want to wait for it to be zero percent to give Wales a more diverse future. 

And I think you've got to remember, a huge amount of rewilding outcomes involve and require grazing animals – not in the intensive, pea-green field way we're seeing at the moment, but in a more extensive way. James Rebanks is doing it by moving his animals in a circular pattern, traditional shepherding. Charlie and Issy [Burrell and Tree] have got more land at Knepp, so they don't really need to move the animals –the animals move themselves. But all of these outcomes involve people. If you go to someone like Yellowstone it’s a heck of a lot more alive with rural jobs than many parts of the Welsh uplands. 

So I think it's not the economics. The economics are quite a cold thing, people don’t really react to economics – or they do at a government level, but on a public level, what people react to is people and jobs. And I think we shouldn't be apologetic about the fact that intensive farming, not rewilding arguments, certainly is killing rural communities. And we have space both for the sort of sustainable, regenerative farming practices that we're seeing practiced by people like James Rebanks and many others, and for areas that are given over to nature that sequester carbon.

I do think we do need to put a firm price on carbon because that's a billion pound industry waiting to happen. If you could really cost up what a proper peat bog or Abernethy forest locks away, compared to an intensive grouse moor or an intensively grazed pasture, you will find a whole new set of economics. But I think that's what everyone's wrestling with at the moment: putting a price on carbon capture. In my view, you are paying for your own security.

Obviously, one of the big points in your book is that conservation and rewilding need to happen on a landscape scale, involving huge parcels of land. So I was wondering, in the future, what should charities do with their existing small reserves? How should they be managed? Or should they not be managed?

Someone got in contact with me from the Mendips the other day, saying that there's this tiny little parcel of Mendip grassland left, and they have to manage it almost like a garden because it's so small. 

Now, I think there are two separate points here. The first point is you should never knock the work of people putting in a lot of effort to do something to save a species. At the same time, you have to realize that there are fundamental ecosystem laws here that say that species have to exist in meta-populations if they're going to stand the test of time. In other words, we have to join those reserves up. You know, the evolution of species hasn't given us a choice. 

A really good example I would use is the North Norfolk coast, where you have lots of individual reserves by name. I grew up birding in that area: Holme, Holkham, Titchwell, Brancaster, Cley Marshes, Salthouse Marshes. But they're all in a line, and that’s when we begin to see amazing results. The Somerset Levels is another obvious place where all the reserves are in a line. They might have different land managers with slightly different targets. Some might be managing for bitterns, others might be managing for orchids. But the fact is you’ve then rejoined the pieces. 

The problem is, these small reserves are what David Quammen would refer to as ecosystem scraps. And that's not meaning to be rude. It just means that, if you've got lots of tiny ecosystems in different places, you are tied to managing them at great cost, both in terms of labour and money. Then, you can’t put your money towards acquiring what could be completely degraded land but of a much more significant acreage. 

Knepp, for example, started with nothing. It didn't have any SSSI designations to speak of, so ironically, Knepp was free to allow nature to express itself in the way that it wanted. And I think that has to be the future, really. We've tried the other one, and it doesn't work. Most of the time, small reserves do not hold on to what they're designed to. If you look at SSSI statements in the 80s, you will find that, again and again, the areas picked were too small for the species in question. And it doesn't matter how much time and effort people are putting in. If it isn't going to work, we have to find a way to change it. 

You're presenting a vision that some would probably say was quite radical, compared to what is being done right now. I wanted to know how you think conservationists can balance nuance and conviction when putting forward visions like this?

If you try and get across a nuanced argument on Twitter, on television, in a debate with the NFU, you will lose and they will win. So that's the first thing to bear in mind: unless a story is fairly simple, it won't work – you won't get people's emotional engagement. This is the problem when you see these extraordinarily nuanced press releases from some NGOs. By the end, they've disqualified so many things that you don't really know what the press release was about. 

The nuance is incredibly important. If you read Rebirding, it's based on 500 scientific papers, and below almost every line in the book, you can follow the footnote until the end, which gives a little synthesis of the paper, and then you can follow the paper. And I've read all of the papers.

When I was writing about critical mass for red-backed shrikes, the nuances of that come to 50 pages, but had I put it in the book as 50 pages, everyone would have switched off and stopped reading it. Behind the scenes, we need to be cognizant of all the nuances. But that doesn't mean that the public narrative needs to be filled with those. That is for us, the specialists, if you like, to look after. 

For example, take the willow tit. Fundamentally, the willow tit is a bird whose habitat is best created by beavers. The nuance is that willow tits have been managing in the UK for quite a long time without beavers. However, they haven't been managing particularly well. They've often been tidied out of the scrublands where they live. Then, the starling has declined, and that's led to an increase in great spotted woodpecker numbers, and great spotted woodpeckers are now predating the nests of willow tits, which they have probably always done, but they're doing it in numbers that they've never done before, at a time when the species is already in critical decline due to habitat loss. And that's an example of nuance. Try getting that across to the public and get them engaged with willow tit conservation, and they just won’t. So I do think we need to simplify the narrative. 

I also think we need to join the dots urgently. One of the things I did in Rebirding was bring together a whole set of insectivorous species: some eat caterpillars, some eat the moths that the caterpillars turn into, some eat crane fly larvae, some eat crane flies, but it doesn't matter, in a way. If your countryside is just full of all the small insect orders, you find all of these species to be common all over the place. You go to Eastern Europe, you'll pass a cirl bunting, then a red-backed shrike, then a whinchat, then a wryneck, then a willow tit, all on the same farm – as it used to be here. And often that simply comes down to invertebrate bioabundance. 

The problem is, in getting stuck into the detail, somebody will write a 40-page paper on the feeding preferences of the willow tit in elder, without looking up and realizing that elder is the tree that beavers leave behind because it's toxic, and there might be a reason that willow tits spend so much time feeding in willow coppice and elders. It’s because those are the species that proliferate under the stewardship of beavers. So I think we have to realize that there are underlying ecological narratives here that unify why many birds are declining. 

We also need to realise that there are simple public narratives here that we need to develop, otherwise nobody will listen. Remember, people have been doing a good job of not listening to the conservation lobby for 50 years. It would be extremely unwise to repeat the same overly nuanced messages. But that doesn't mean that the rigorous science isn't always sitting there in the background, powering what we do.

I want to ask you about something you tweeted a little while ago: you were talking about some species being more important than others. Do you think we've become too hooked on conserving individual species? And do we need to move beyond that entirely? Or do you think that we need to protect these little enclaves so they can repopulate the wild landscapes that you envision?

I think the idea of species banks is a good one, as long as it's not taking up too much time and money from acquiring land. It is a trade-off because conservationists are not rolling in money sadly. If your Wildlife Trust reserve is preserving one population of marsh orchid, and you add that together for ten years and find that, actually, you could have funded a beaver reintroduction, that would have potentially transformed the fortunes of hundreds of species. 

By the way, when I was talking about ‘not equal’, I was talking about keystone species like beavers, because beavers can create the conditions for at least a thousand British species – probably far, far more because I just haven't had the time to go into the micro-moths and all the other orders. 

Beavers only really threatened species only if those species are already isolated within the human landscape. There was a moth called the marsh carpet moth, which vanished in the Netherlands a few years ago because its habitat was flooded by beavers. But, of course, the marsh carpet would have evolved alongside beavers historically, but they were left with a tiny bit of land and the beavers did what beavers do, which is flood it. You can’t blame beavers for human removal of habitat for hundreds of years. I think the beaver, and particularly animals like free-roaming horned cattle and wild boar, that I've followed in the Forest of Dean for many years, really do have extraordinary top-down effects on the landscape and should be seen as a priority. 

I think the danger is locking onto the wrong species – the example I use in the Rebirding paperback is a stone curlew. Stone curlew is a bird that actually requires quite a huge amount of exposed, disturbed soils. Probably originally its habitat would have been created by herds of elephants. But today, that often means creating these bare stony fields for the stone curlew, which means removing a lot of nuance for a shedload of other species. So I think we need to be asking ourselves, if we're burning huge tracts to keep the Dartford warbler common, why are we doing that? If we're creating stone curlew scrapes, why are we doing that? Is it because, somewhere, we've established that the stone curlew is rare and needs our help? But then, it's rare because it only frequents a tiny proportion of the ecosystem. 

If you go to the Biebrza Marshes, there's no risk of the bittern becoming extinct – there are probably several hundred pairs of bittern in there. But it's not blanket reedbed. It's not supposed to be blanket reedbed. You're supposed to have some bitterns, and then some godwits and then some lapwings in the pastures and some curlews in the rough grass and some turtle doves in the scrub and some willow tits in the beaver coppice, and it's all meant to be jumbled up together. So the biggest problem with picking the wrong flagship species is you can end up writing off entire landscapes for a much larger number of other species. 

So who do we need to persuade, and how can we get the money to kick start it? Before we can rely on the tourists coming in, where does the money come from?

Broadly speaking, two massive types of transformation need to happen. One is private landowners voluntarily turning large estates back to nature. 

We have an uneven land model in this country – but in my view, ecologically, that does carry certain benefits. For example, if a large grouse moor owner wants to turn this land back to a more wooded state with golden eagles, he is uniquely free to do so in a way that you or I are obviously not, and our NGOs are not. So I think voluntary transformations by enlightened private landowners have to be encouraged, and I think we need to shred those bits of red tape that are making their life difficult. I'm not talking about giving them carte blanche to release wolves, but certainly to regrow woodland, to reintroduce species, all of these things. If low lying landowners want to encourage fenland to develop naturally on their land, we need to encourage that too. 

Then you've got to remember there are whole landscapes where you've got clusters of thousands of small farms, like the Lake District, for example, where you can't wheel out that model. James Rebanks uses the analogy of stones turning over one by one. In other words, you only need a few enlightened farmers with good community connections and, suddenly, like on the Outer Hebrides, you can begin to see entire landscapes farming in a way that is once again sympathetic with the natural world. When I go to the farmlands of Tiree, I don't want to rewild. That would be madness – they are so extraordinarily full of life as they are. Everything is working in tandem with nature, from the way that the farmers are cutting for the corncrakes, to the way that very few people are using pesticides. So that is much more about a community-led movement that spreads a farm at a time. 

In terms of money, the private landowners often have the funding, but they don't have the support. Often, they will be prepared to fund these things themselves. But I also think we need to be creating situations where the government is using the significant money that it has to fund projects rather than to thwart them. I always remember the extraordinary amount of money DEFRA spent on eliminating the ruddy duck and thinking, ‘Well, if only they were so efficient at bringing back the beaver as eliminating the ruddy duck, we'd all have a much richer world to live in.’ 

We are the fifth richest country in the world, with enormous private resources. There is potential for NGOs to collaborate with banks in the future, which I don't think has been fully explored, particularly when it comes to carbon capture. There is de-bureaucratizing many of our NGOs so that they can spend more on land and species reintroductions. 

Then there is NGOs creating simple narratives that will increase their membership. You have to remember, three to four million people in the UK profess to love wildlife; just over a million of those are members of the RSPB. So what's happened to the other three million? There's a funding gap, and I think this is where engagement comes in. If you're trying to enthuse someone about maintaining a small SSSI, or preventing something from happening, you're very unlikely to capture the public mood. But if you can use species like beavers and pelicans to drive an awareness that we're going to be the generation that puts the paintings back in the art gallery, then I think we would see a lot more crowdfunded investment in the natural world. And I think that has to be something that we need to bear in mind. 

There are already lots of private individual projects happening across the country, but they're not quite joined up. Do you think there needs to be an overarching vision, or is that not important?

I'm in the process of founding an organisation called Restore, which hopes to bring those disparate forces together. It's in the very early stages, and you're one of the first people I've told about it, so you're very lucky. I want it to function as a completely apolitical platform for those who want to restore nature. Not conserve what is there already – that's already being handled – but bring nature back, whether that's enlightened owners collaborating together to bring the wryneck or the red-backed shrike back to their land, or even species like black-tailed godwit and the ruff. I want to be able to create a platform where these disparate projects and these inspired people can all come together and talk things over, share their ideas and share what works. And that's something I'm going to be working on over the next few years with a whole range of landowners, farmers, investors and, of course, sound scientific advisors. Let's see what happens.

Who have you got on board at the moment?

Well, I couldn't possibly say at the moment. At this stage, a lot of these people are making big leaps, by coming out of what you might call conventional positions into more radical ones. We want to make sure that we've got a proper coherent platform, before rushing out and going public. These things take time. But you'd be amazed at the extraordinary level of interest there is out there, not just among the public, but among landowners. But you're right, it risks being disparate if we can’t bring it together in a unified force.

That sounds exciting. Was this all your own idea?

It was my own idea to begin with, but I hope it will soon become other people's idea as well. And we'll have to check in in a year and see how it’s going.

Is that when you’re going to launch it?

I'm certainly not going to launch it before the middle of next year.

Great, I'm looking forward to hearing more about that when it happens. What’s the plan for bringing back pelicans and how far along are you with that?

When the media pick up my tweets, which are designed to enthuse people and sound out the public mood and debate the point that we should be bringing back the Dalmatian Pelican to the UK in the not too distant future, people always assume that I've got a little breeding colony in my backyard and we're ready. 

I think what we're trying to do at the moment with Dalmatian Pelicans is sound out the public mood, which we now know, although it doesn't surprise me at all, is almost universally positive. If I was to say that 30% of people react positively to the idea of wolves, maybe 60% for lynx, 75% to beavers and 90 plus percent to pelicans. They are obviously an animal that has captured our imagination since reading Roald Dahl as children. 

The next step is to look at: do we have the existing habitat here in the UK? I believe that we do. If you add together the freshwater acreage of our reserves and in the East Anglian fens, they actually come too close to 400 square kilometers of fish-rich freshwater, which is an extraordinary amount. Often it's very linear, but it is connected. That obviously gives the species an exciting future. Then I think it's a case of slowly winning over hearts and minds. 

I know a large number of landowners who are very excited about the proposal. But at this stage – and there are no immediate plans – it is an ongoing discussion. But could the Dalmatian Pelican come back in the next ten years to Britain? Yes, absolutely it can. And I very much hope that, ten years from now, we'll be able to go pelican watching.

Okay, your book on orchards. How did you end up writing that, and how do orchards fit into your vision of a wilder future?

Orchards were an ancient collaboration between people and nature. They weren’t broken, and didn't need fixing, and unfortunately, again, coming back to the Common Agricultural Policy, we have grubbed 90% of our traditional orchards since the 1950s. 

Orchards are farming sharing arrangements with wildlife. What do they give us? Apples, pears, plums, cherries, they give us charcoal, they give us wood, they give us cider. They also give us sheltered areas for grazing cattle, pigs or sheep. These were landscapes that were incredibly productive for wildlife, and you can see how well they work at the greater scale in Eastern Europe, where species like the wryneck are quite heavily dependent, in many cases, on orchards. But there are tragically few left. 

I started studying orchards at a place in the Malverns in Herefordshire in 2012. Me and my good friend Nick Gates started going down there in 2014. And we began to realise that species that weren't even found on many nature reserves anymore, like barbastelles or lesser spotted woodpeckers, were still thriving in this orchard. It struck us as one of the perfect farmland balances that we actually need to see more of in the future. We were also very aware that orchards are set to vanish in their traditional form by 2050. So we wanted to make sure we got this book out there to make people realise how special they were, and to hopefully encourage people to plant a lot more in the future.


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