Shaping the Wild

A year ago, almost to the day, I said here that I would not be posting any blogs for a while as I was intent on finishing writing a book. Well, it took longer than I expected but I am nearly there:  Shaping the Wild will be published on 27th April this year.

For the last 40 years I have been interested in the intersection of nature conservation and upland farming. In the 80s and 90s I spent 13 years working on the Berwyn Mountains in Wales trying to bring harmony between farmers and conservationists – who had fallen out badly. I have remained interested in this lively and sometimes fractious issue ever since and, having an urge to write, thought a book could be a good contribution to the debate.  

The Berwyn proved to be too sprawling and complex to shape a narrative around, so I began to wonder if I could explore the subject by looking at a single farm. As it happened not far from where I lived was a very particular and suitable place: Craig-y-tân. This beautiful mountain farm is set in stunning landscape and is rich in wildlife. What is more I had known the farmer, Hywel Jones, for many years. I also knew his elderly aunt who was born at Craig-y-tân in 1926 and had fascinating tales about farming in an era almost lost from memory. With Hywel’s blessing, starting in 2014, I spent the next 7 years studying his farm.

What is so important about nature conservation and upland farming? 

Over the last 70 years the UK (and it is not alone) has suffered a catastrophic decline in wildlife, and undoubtedly the most significant factor in that has been the intensification of agriculture. With about 75% of our land surface (in Wales that goes up to 80%+) being farmed, it is clear that much of the fate of our biodiversity is linked to agriculture, and in the west and north most of that is in the uplands.

And we are now poised right at a hinge point. Much as I regret Brexit, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy was a disaster for wildlife. Now, post-Brexit, each of the devolved nations of the UK is finalising new agricultural support schemes. What they come up with could spell either restoration or annihilation for a wildlife rich countryside. The CAP delivered heavily subsidised food and ruined ecosystems – at huge expense to the public purse. That can’t go on: something has to change.   

What is particular about Craig-y-tân is that wildlife rich countryside and farming are already co-existing pretty well there; a full range of wildlife habitats are present whilst the land is being farmed by a local family with up-to-date farming methods. And there is a unique aspect to this in Wales: most of the country is still a patchwork of family farms and this community is the backbone of the Welsh language and culture. Hywel’s day to day language is Welsh as was his forebears who worked this rugged place for generations before him. If the balance were to tip away from family farms towards agri-business or large-scale rewilding this could precipitate a cultural and linguistic collapse that would tear at the very fabric of Wales. 

In Shaping the Wild I have been exploring this weave of interdependent threads – including myself as an outsider telling an inside story. I wanted to describe and  evoke this rich and beautiful place as I strongly believe it is what moves us that causes us to care. I also wanted to understand this issue ‘in the round’ rather than from the kind of preconceived tribal perspective that is all too common on every side. What does it really take for hill farming and nature to live in harmony? That is what Shaping the Wild sets out to explore. 

The book will be published in hardback and is beautifully illustrated with drawings by my friend Peter Hanauer.

There will be a series of events to launch and publicise the book here in Wales but for those further afield I am arranging an on-line event which any of you will be able to attend, if you would be interested. It will be on 2nd May ’23 at 7pm UK time. I will post a link to the event here in due course.

I hope to meet you there, David   


6 thoughts on “Shaping the Wild


    Hi David

    Can’t wait to read your book. I loved reading your blog so I am excited to get hold of the book as soon as possible after it is published.

    Very best wishes

    Chris Heinitz

    1. dispatchesfromtheundergrowth Post author

      Thank you Chris. I hope you are well – I had heard (perhaps via Jane) that you hadn’t been too good. If so I hope you are much better now. All the best, David


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