Category Archives: Books

Book review: A Year in the Woods, Colin Elford

A friend bought me ‘A Year in the Woods: The Diary of a Forest Ranger‘, by Colin Elford. I picked up the book with a certain apprehension – the second-hand bookshops’ natural history shelves are stuffed with glossy tomes under that kind of title; giving accounts either uncomfortably twee or tediously focussed on shooting, fishing, horses or birds. The cover gave me some hope, being a gentle New Naturalist-style linocut rather than a breathless photo of some generic deer in the leaves.

A Year in the Woods, Colin Elford

Once I began to read, my concerns evaporated within a few paragraphs. For this is a direct book. Colin Elford writes succinctly, writing as much as he needs to and no more. The reader can almost feel and smell the forest and its hidden life as Elford’s measured voice describes it with the kind of understated eloquence that one might be more accustomed to hearing from David Attenborough. Continue reading

Book review: Urban Mammals – a concise guide

In 2010, the People’s Trust for Endangered Species produced Britain’s Mammals – a concise guide, which I said was “a rich delight to read”. So when I heard that another book in the same series was on its way, I was naturally interested. That book is Urban Mammals – a concise guide. Unlike its predecessor, the cover credits the author, former biochemist and erstwhile Edinburgh Fringe performer David Wembridge, who works as Surveys Coordinator for PTES.

Urban Mammals, a concise guide (PTES)

Urban Mammals is an interesting and well-presented tour through a selection of mammals that might be found in Britain’s urban environments. In the introduction, it gives the striking example of Jennifer Owen of Leicester, who in 30 years managed to identify over 2,500 species of plants and animals in her own suburban garden, including four that were new to science. This leads on to an interesting discourse on the extent and value of urban habitats, and the inevitable difficulty in defining them. Then it is onto the guide, which forms the main body of the book. In this, a selection of mammal species are given a page or more of description. Interspersed amongst these guide pages are various boxes and case studies which add background – for example, two pages on bats in buildings by another author. These are valuable but sporadic, and do make it difficult to know whether the book is best used as a guide that one should browse, or a reference book to read through systematically and enjoy. Continue reading

Book Review: Flowers in the Field, Faith Anstey

The small learned society is a mainstay of British amateur natural history. Continuing the work of the gentleman-naturalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, amateur enthusiasts today still provide a formidable body of data and research on the subject of British wildlife.

Flowers in the Field, Faith Anstey

I’ve been lucky enough to sit on both sides of the blanket-covered table at many such local societies over the years, be it a horticultural society, a natural history society, or even a women’s institute. It is often after the lecture (when I’m giving it, anyway) that the interesting part begins; and I am struck by how some members of these modest institutions seem to be the storehouse for a unique depth of local knowledge and wisdom that cannot readily be accessed any other way. That enjoyably fascinating – and slightly scary – feeling the novice gets when talking to someone with a wealth of knowledge and experience was also engendered in me when reading Faith Anstey’s newly-published book, “Flowers in the Field, how to find, identify and enjoy wild flowers”. Continue reading

Book review: Britain’s Mammals – A Concise Guide

The People’s Trust for Endangered Species are really keen on mammals – did you know that they own a large nature reserve on the Isle of Wight… for bats?

Britain's Mammals

Well, mostly for bats, although obviously the dear old red squirrels and dormice get a look in. But PTES don’t go on about it much. What they do much more obviously is campaign, and research mammal conservation in Britain. Now, they’ve written a British mammal guide book, and its pretty good. Britain’s Mammals – A Concise Guide is exactly what it says. It is quite definitely not a field guide, and thus dispenses with all the necessary cruft of identification features, males and females, summer and winter pelts, yadda yadda. Instead the book presents a small, very precise pen portrait of 64 selected mammals of the British Isles, including some extinct and introduced species. Each page is packed with knowledge and up-to-date information that shows the expertise of the PTES has been put to good use. Continue reading

Book review: Atlas of Rare Birds

The Ranger is a keen patron of second-hand book shops. When I find one, my first port of call is invariably the natural history section.

Atlas of Rare Birds

Being familiar with many such shelves, one gets an idea for the sort of material that gets left upon them. Rare indeed are the nineteenth-century illustrated treatises on invertebrates that I seek out. However, by contrast most second-hand bookshops are groaning under the weight of thick, glossy coffee-table tomes about horses, dogs and most particularly birds. Yes, the big bird book is a genre littered with dismal failures, which can largely be characterised by the repeated efforts of publishers to promote a set of lovely and lavishly-reproduced photographs by engaging some hack to write a few token words to fill the white space around them. So it was with some interest that I received for review a copy of the ‘Atlas of Rare Birds’ by Dominic Couzens. Written alongside Birdlife International by an authoritative and well-known British birding writer, this was a book with potential. Was it really possible to combine a large-format book on birds with some worthwhile content? (Thinking of buying this book? Read on for an exclusive discount offer for Naturenet readers!) Continue reading

Book review: Dormice, by Pat Morris

Review by Rowan Adams ‘Dormice’ was first published in 2004 as part of the British Natural History Series. This revised edition is now a paperback instead of a hardback, there are no colour photographs inside, and I counted over 20 typos. But I can forgive all that. Not just because the layout is wonderfully clear, and Guy Troughton’s black-and-white illustrations are so informative and beautiful, but above all because the content is utterly superb.

Dormice, by Pat Morris

 

The book is subtitled’A Tale of Two Species’ on the cover, because it is mostly about our native dormouse, the hazel dormouse, but also covers the introduced edible dormouse. Both hazel and edible dormice are European species, but the edible dormouse was foolishly released in Britain by Lord Walter Rothschild at Tring in Hertfordshire in 1902. To be fair, he wasn’t the only one. I’ve got a copy of Edward Step’s’Animal Life of the British Isles‘, published in 1921. There are four pages on’Squirrel’, and then less than half a page on’Grey Squirrel':

‘Some years ago the caged specimens in the Zoological Gardens, Regent’s Park, had become so numerous that some of them were given their liberty… British naturalists of a not-distant future will probably have to include two species of Squirrels in their lists.’

Pat Morris says,’The edible dormouse is a prime example of the principle,’Act in haste, repent at leisure.’ Continue reading

Book Review: ‘Owls’ by Chris Mead

‘Owls’ is the first volume in the new British Natural History Collection from Whittet Books, and it seems very collectable to me.

' Owls' by Chris Mead

The first thing you can’t help noticing is that it’s a superbly crafted hardback, just the right size and shape to be carried and read almost anywhere (I wouldn’t trust myself with it near a bath, for example). The paper is good quality, the pages are not just glued but stitched, and the text is cleanly laid out. On almost every page there’s a black-and-white illustration by Guy Troughton, beautiful as well as informative. Perhaps even more incredible, now that editing and proofreading are so endangered, this book provides a safe habitat for them. Of course I may have missed some, but in a book of 138 pages I only found one spelling mistake and four other very minor typos – fewer than you’d find in a single paragraph of most magazines, websites or even books these days. Continue reading

Book Review: Flowers in the Field, Faith Anstey

The small learned society is a mainstay of British amateur natural history. Continuing the work of the gentleman-naturalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, amateur enthusiasts today still provide a formidable body of data and research on the subject of British wildlife.

Flowers in the Field, Faith Anstey

 

I’ve been lucky enough to sit on both sides of the blanket-covered table at many such local societies over the years, be it a horticultural society, a natural history society, or even a women’s institute. It is often after the lecture (when I’m giving it, anyway) that the interesting part begins; and I am struck by how some members of these modest institutions seem to be the storehouse for a unique depth of local knowledge and wisdom that cannot readily be accessed any other way. That enjoyably fascinating – and slightly scary – feeling the novice gets when talking to someone with a wealth of knowledge and experience was also engendered in me when reading Faith Anstey’s newly-published book, “Flowers in the Field, how to find, identify and enjoy wild flowers”. Continue reading

Book review: The retreat of reason (Anthony Browne, 2006)

A friend lent The Ranger a book for his entertainment; “The Retreat of Reason: Political Correctness and the Corruption of Public Debate in Modern Britain”. This provocatively-titled pamphlet was written in 2006 by Anthony Browne; a former journalist and now Policy Director for the Mayor of London. The pamphlet has had considerable influence and has been praised by many commentators. The journalist Melanie Phillips called ita tremendously important pamphlet about political correctness… which explains just why Britain has apparently lost its senses“. AC Grayling, in the New Statesman, praised Browne’s “eloquent voice“.

The Retreat of Reason: Political Correctness and the Corruption of Public Debate in Modern Britain

Much has been written about this publication, especially about the views on immigration and race contained within it: either critical of the author’s attitude (Julian Petley, Fifth-Estate-Online; Dave Hill, The Guardian), or supportive (AC Grayling, New Statesman; Stormfront). It’s probably worth pointing out that although the British National Party do sell the book online, as is often mentioned, they seem to be rather critical of it, ironically complaining that “Browne goes all PC again by taking another swipe at the BNP“. I found the substance of ‘The Retreat of Reason’ disappointing: poorly argued, more of an exhortation to the uncritical than any attempt to form a rational position to persuade others. I didn’t think it a racist book, nor is the author a racist. But what was startling and unexpected to this Ranger was the remarkable section that Browne, a former environment editor of the Times, wrote about environmentalism, and on biodiversity in particular. Do biodiversity, pollution, protected species and habitats have a bearing on political correctness? Surprisingly, Browne thinks they do, and makes some striking assertions whilst explaining how. Continue reading

Review: The Rough Guide to Ethical Living

Book reviews by guest blogger Ray Harrington-Vail of the Footprint Trust

The Rough Guide to Ethical Living

The Rough Guide to Ethical Living claims to “cut through the greenwash” . From tea to trainers and pensions to plane-tickets, the guide impressively claims to look at “all the problems and ethical options” and recommend resources to help you make a choice. The editor, Duncan Clark, works for Rough Guide and has written a number of successful Guides on a diverse range of subjects. This one, sadly, falls short of the mark. The book falls at the first post with its claim to be “climate neutral” due in part to tree planting. They would do well to see what the good Dr Rackham has to say about that (see my review of his recent book). This Rough Guide goes on to further undermine its own green credentials by the fact that it’s printed in Italy. The main problem with this book is that it appears to have relied heavily on contributions and guidance from various interest groups, and has failed to dig deep enough to be objective on some issues. One example of this is that it reports all the harm done to the environment by the processing of leather, but does not point out the harm done by in the manufacture of plastic alternatives. Very good if you only care about cuddly animals in isolation, not so good if you’re looking at the survival of planet earth! The animal rights focus of this book means that myths about vegan food being always better than meat and diary are repeated. It’s a point of view, but there are two sides to that story – Clark could have mentioned that in some cases the poor quality land used to produce meat cannot be used for crops and would be better left for livestock and wildlife. It also fails to give both sides in the animal testing argument ” there are environmental scientists who support animal testing. These points are not made. The book is not utterly toothless however, questioning propaganda from ‘ecoballs‘ claiming that the product “magnetizes” water to get clothes clean ” which is unscientific rubbish. It’s a shame that Rough Guide did not take the time to really explore the subject ” as they did with their Climate Change book (separate review follows). Don’t spend your money on this book unless you can get it second hand.