Conservation legend Roy Dennis: ‘We’re facing an ecological crisis, but it’s exciting too’

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As he strolls beside Loch Garten in his fleece, binoculars around his neck, Roy Dennis looks every inch the spry, bird-loving grandad that he is. With his soft Hampshire burr and genial demeanour, it seems like he wouldn’t say boo to a goose. First impressions are deceptive, however. Dennis is the most significant conservationist you’ve probably never heard of, and possessed of a radicalism that would startle the most outspoken young environmentalist.

The first hint emerges when Dennis, who is 80 and still climbs trees, remarks that no one over 60 should vote. He explains that older people are making decisions over the climate crisis and wildlife loss that they won’t be around to be accountable for; he recently decided voting should start at 12, the age of his youngest child, Phoebe, but she told him it should be 14. It is easy to say radical things, but Dennis’s vision of how to halt the extinction crisis and restore lost habitats and species in Britain deserves attention because it is rooted in 60 years of pioneering conservation action.

Conservation is always a team effort, but without Dennis’s labours there would be many fewer white-tailed eagles, osprey and red kites over our skies, no beavers in the rivers and fewer red squirrels in the trees. Today, well past retirement age, Dennis is busier than ever, overseeing ambitious reintroductions, building artificial nests for golden eagles, giving online talks, and discussing his new book, Restoring the Wild. Like Dennis, the book is modest, deeply informative and profoundly hopeful, in that it shows a new generation how to bring back lost species.

In the 1980s and 1990s, efforts to save wildlife in Britain “weren’t doing very well”, says Dennis as we walk in the Scottish Highlands, where he began protecting the country’s sole osprey nest (from human egg thieves, mainly) in 1961. “Today it’s very worrying because we face an ecological crisis, but it’s exciting too. There are suddenly all these people who say: ‘Let’s rewild.’ I love seeing young people saying: ‘Let’s get on and do it.'”

Dennis with a young osprey in the Cairngorms.

It’s an important lesson. “When you suggest something, you get all this opposition,” says Dennis. “When you start doing it, the difficulties just disappear. Once it’s successful, the opposition claim they were supportive at the beginning.”

His latest rewilding success – he prefers “ecological restoration” – is to return white-tailed eagles to England, where the raptors have been extinct for 240 years. For two summers now, young birds have been taken from nests in Scotland, where 140 pairs breed after their reintroduction in 1975. There were dire predictions that the eagles would seize sheep, be shot dead or simply starve from lack of food but since the juvenile birds have been “translocated” to the Isle of Wight, the Roy Dennis Foundation has been overwhelmed by emails of sightings across southern England. “Many said things like: ‘I never ever thought I’d see a white-tailed eagle being chased off by three red kites over my house.’ Both have been reintroduced,” says Dennis. “The food supply in southern England is fantastic for eagles. I didn’t realise there are so many rabbits and hares. And we didn’t know the seas around the Isle of Wight are full of mullet and cuttlefish.”

The well-fed eagles are not troubling livestock. Instead, they are delighting people with their epic excursions, logged on tiny tracker tags attached to the birds. One took a day trip over central London. Others have taken up temporary residence in Oxfordshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk, dwarfing the local buzzards.

The Roy Dennis Foundation is involved in dozens of restoration projects. I picture a Highland office packed with bright young ecologists. But Dennis doesn’t do offices. “The bigger the office, the less work you get done,” he says. The foundation is just him, an ecologist based in Stamford and various friends who climb trees to help build artificial nests.

Dennis’s love of birds began during a childhood roaming free in the New Forest of the 1940s. He reared three abandoned shelducklings that would fly behind his bike in formation, and kept pockets full of newts and slowworms. “What that taught you goes straight to this work of moving white-tailed eagles, osprey and red squirrels,” he says. “If you’ve had that experience as a child of trying to rear animals with geese and ducks all around, you know about life and death. I could look an animal in its eyes and tell my mum: ‘I think that chick is going to die.’ I use that still. When I go to a nest or catch a squirrel, the first thing I do is have a really good look at it. I only take it for a translocation project if it’s really fit. That’s difficult to teach people.”

After grammar school, stints at bird observatories on Lundy and Fair Isle led to him meeting the ornithologist George Waterston, who became his mentor. Waterston, who died in 1980, was the first person to try to reintroduce white-tailed eagles in the 1960s. He failed, but Dennis was inspired. “He had that attitude: ‘Do something, Roy.’ If you try five things, one might fail. So get on with them.”

Over the years, Dennis has been a major player in the successful return of white-tailed eagles, red kites and beavers to Scotland, increasing osprey breeding pairs in Scotland and establishing new osprey populations at Rutland Water in England. He has also spread red squirrels across the Highlands and established goldeneye ducks as a breeding species. He has also supported numerous programmes to revitalise species in Europe, including supplying young Scottish peregrines to Germany.

Dennis with an osprey in 1990.

These successes appear simple, but in a world dominated by divergent human interests they were tortuous. Obstacles to reintroducing or moving a species, says Dennis, are rarely ecological but social, political and economic. The return of any sizeable mammal or raptor is usually fiercely opposed by those who fear it will devour lambs, red grouse or pheasants – and predate people’s livelihoods.

Dennis’s recipe for rewilding success is diplomacy. “I’ve got friends who are gamekeepers and crofters, and they are easier to talk to than most birdwatchers,” he says. He respects critics of reintroduction schemes and finds they respect him when they see him out checking nests at dawn. He describes a typical visit to a Highland estate to identify a new eagle’s nest. He’ll have obtained permission to drive in, so he doesn’t need to stop at the keeper’s cottage, but he does, and is usually invited in for a cuppa. Then Dennis will chat about what interests the keeper – the salmon season, or the deer. “Right at the end, you ask: ‘Do you think the bird is on the left cliff or the right?’ and he’ll say: ‘They’re on the left cliff,’ and then you discover he’s correct.”

If he wins round country people, Dennis often encounters a bigger obstacle: conservationists. “The most difficult opposition has usually been our colleagues,” he says. Environmental NGOs “are terrified of failure, and they won’t admit it. A young person in an organisation being bold and trying something that doesn’t work would get their knuckles rapped. But we should be looking for people who are bold enough to try.”

Conservation groups too often seek to keep things for themselves. He says colleagues at the bird charity the RSPB at Loch Garten were “furious” when he sought to translocate ospreys to Rutland Water. “They said: ‘The English won’t come up here to Loch Garten.’ My attitude has always been – we want these birds everywhere. A reserve losing its icon of specialness should be a sign of success.”

“Science” is also evoked to stop conservation action. Charity and government scientists, observes Dennis wryly, always prescribe more science – more studies, trials or his bete noire: computer modelling. In Restoring the Wild, he argues that science mustn’t be the “sole arbiter” of restoration decisions. What does he mean? “The arbiter should be a group of people. A good warden in a place like this may not have an ecology degree, but they can tell you a lot, and the same is true of a farmer or crofter who has an eye for nature. Ecological restoration is governed by experience, knowledge and a good dose of scientific research as well. But it shouldn’t be the sole arbiter.”

A beaver in Scotland.

Given cautious, failure-fearing charities, Dennis says private landowners are often “the leaders” in restoration today. But doesn’t that make rewilding an elitist hobby? “Would you rather have them foxhunting or rewilding? Rewilding can appear elitist, but it’s bringing money and good employment into rural areas.” He is convinced that many Highland estates – and particularly the young lairds who’ll inherit them – are questioning the old economic model of deer and grouse shooting and moving towards restoration.

The extinction crisis can only be addressed with “bigness”, argues Dennis. “To make any sense, ecological restoration has got to take over I think 50% of the land and sea. Others say 30%. That’s a massive amount of work. You’ve got to let people get on and do it.” Within that space, species responsible for shaping ecosystems need to be returned – wild cattle (which Dennis calls “nature cows”), beavers, lynx and more. “There is no reason not to have beavers on every river system in Britain,” he thinks. Every river, he argues, should have 25 metres of woodland and scrub between it and arable fields to stop farm chemicals, pesticides and soil washing into rivers.

His biggest regret is not pushing for the reintroduction of the lynx in the 60s and 70s. “The opposition would’ve been much less,” he says. “I’m really shocked that the lynx isn’t here in Britain.” He took mammal experts from Romania and Germany around Scotland for several days. “They said: ‘There’s loads of room for wolves, bears, lynx. You could have them everywhere.'”

Dennis believes bears would be difficult, but he has visited the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland where wolves live in suburban areas. “It’s like wolves breeding just outside Cambridge.” Will we bring back the wolf during his youngest daughter’s lifetime? “It would be shocking if we don’t,” he says. What about farmers facing potential economic losses from wolves or lynx? They’d say: Roy, you’re not losing money, you’ve got no skin in this game. “I’m going to suffer a loss with a really poor future for my children,” says Dennis. “We’ve got to have a big, functioning ecosystem or else there isn’t going to be enough oxygen or insects to pollinate crops or vegetation to stop flooding. How do you compare the public good for the whole of society to a farmer’s loss of a couple of sheep? With nature, you can’t pick and choose – we’ll have the red squirrel, but we’ll get rid of mosquitoes. If it wasn’t for worms and fresh water, the farmers wouldn’t be in business. They are not independent of nature.”

An osprey with a trout.

Dennis does not assume that the next generation will save the world, but he is heartened. “The young people are not going to give up, and it’s encouraging that senior politicians are noting that,” he says. “When you see what’s happening in the world, I cannot see that there won’t be change. It’s just obvious.”

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