The best nature books to read this spring

Spring is a great time to dive into a good book in the refreshing weather - our team of bookworms have reviewed the best nature books to read this spring 

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Orchid Summer

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 Jon Dunn (Bloomsbury, £20)

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Orchids are the most beguiling plants in our flora. Some use sexual deception to lure pollinators, others forge underground partnerships with fungi and many have a tantalising tendency to appear in profusion in one year and vanish the next. By his own admission, Jon Dunn has fallen under their spell, with a bad case of orchid fever. It’s a compulsion that led him to leave his home in Shetland and spend a summer seeking every species in Britain, from the early purples of spring to the last of the autumn lady’s tresses. 

Travelling with him is pure delight. Dunn is a fine nature writer, whose descriptions of locations are eloquent and often poignant, as so many orchid habitats are at risk. He is an erudite authority on orchid identification, while his digressions into their uses as aphrodisiacs, their promiscuous tendency to form hybrids that bamboozle botanists, and tales of their curious place in human affairs are constantly entertaining. Who knew that a helleborine chemical compound that stupefies pollinating wasps was administered to Hitler by his physician?

Orchids are the stars here but the orchid enthusiasts we meet – such as novelist John Fowles, Queen Victoria’s orchid grower and a professor suspected of transplanting rare species so as to claim kudos for their discovery in unlikely places – provide telling insights into human nature and the grip these charismatic flowers can maintain on the minds of botanists.

Reviewer: Phil Gates

The Old Man and the Sand Eel 

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Will Millard (Penguin Viking , £14.99)

“It’s catching, not fishing,” his grandfather chided as Will Millard boasted of his latest carp fishing exploits. Fish caught from overstocked commercial pools, where the banks are sculpted and the undergrowth neatly clipped, is a wholly different world to the Fenland drains and rivers where Will’s grandfather had taken him as a child.

Following his grandfather’s death, Will begins his angling odyssey afresh. He casts for different species in various places, with a clear, more open-minded perspective. As he rekindles his love for angling, so he learns more about himself.

His awareness of the environment and eye for wildlife resonated as I read, and Will writes with a genuine sense of humility. He is well scarred from a life of travelling and exploration, but his experiences have made him wise. He avoids drifting too deep into memoir, and relates with humour and reflection.

A close shave with poachers in the depths of West Africa is only mentioned because a night beside a canal behind Watford Gap Services has prompted the reminisce. Will has a great depth of knowledge but is also self-aware and happy to walk more carefully the paths down which he once ran.

I often judge an angling book as I would a day’s fishing. If, half-way through, I couldn’t care if another fish is caught, then I know the remaining hours will be a pleasure. As a result, too many books sit on my shelves half-read – this is not one of them. 

Reviewer: Kevin Parr

A Black Fox Running

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Brian Carter (Bloomsbury, £14.99)

Talking foxes? My hackles raised, the naturalist in me was sceptical… but I was bowled over by this darkly magical tale. Set on Dartmoor after the Second World War, it focuses on Wulfgar – a heroic dark fox with “a brush almost as black as the peaty soil” – and his interactions with foxes, otters, badgers and other animals as they battle to outwit vile Scoble, a lonely trapper burning with hatred for their kind. Scoble is aided and abetted by a lurcher called Jacko, a canine psychopath who (unlike the wild creatures) kills purely to satisfy his bloodlust.

There’s plenty of crunching bones and death, both natural – among predator and prey – and inflicted by human traps, spades and guns. But this bleak realism is balanced by gorgeous nature writing, teeming with earthy scents and sounds, and beautiful descriptions of Dartmoor’s wilderness through the seasons.

Much of the action takes place in the dark or half-light: we’re led at whisker-level over moors and streams into fields and woods as both hunters and hunted travel the landscape. The animal characters joke, grieve, love, form alliances and even have visions. Yet no other book has given me such a powerfully visceral sense of what it might be like to be a wild animal.

First published in 1981 but largely forgotten, Brian Carter’s brilliant tale is now billed as a “lost classic” – rightly so. I can’t get its brooding, gothic imagery out of my head.

Reviewer: Ben Hoare

Swell 

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Jenny Landreth (Bloomsbury Sport, £8.99)

Jenny Landreth is a swimmer, of that there is little doubt. Her vivid descriptions of the meditative peace found in a good swim shine with the liquid intensity of sunlight reflected on rippling water.

Swell, a Waterbiography, tells the story of the early female swimming pioneers, interwoven with Landreth’s own swimming journey, from head up, slow lane, breast stroker to ice-breaking veteran of the iconic Tooting Bec Lido.

Landreth dives deep into the murky misogyny of swimming history, from the Victorian segregation of male and female bathers, to the ludicrous early swimming gear – women were expected to swim in voluminous dresses, shoes and corsets at a time when men swam naked. It is hard to believe now, but women were even arrested for swimming in public, and the first serious women swimmers were chaperoned at all times when competing.

There are many heroes to discover, such as 1920 Olympian Hilda James, the first British woman to learn crawl; the suffragettes who staged swim races to protest their right to vote; and the first amateur women’s swimming clubs, who campaigned for training, and equal access to pools that were open to men, but closed to them. 

There are legendary contemporary characters too, such as Freda Streeter, the chain-smoking Dover matriarch who has coached hundreds of successful Channel swimmers – among them Dr Julie Bradshaw MBE, who swam butterfly to France (as if it wasn’t hard enough already).

Ultimately I found myself immersed, thanks to Landreth’s clear love of both the water and those brave women whose stories she uncovered. Asking why women swim, she answers her rhetorical question perfectly: “In a place with nowhere to hide, we are freed, in a way that men don’t need to be freed. We can be ourselves, liberated.” 

Landreth’s book is a celebration of liberation, and an essential read for any serious swimmer.

Reviewer: Rosee Woodland

Owl Sense

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Miriam Darlington (Guardian Faber, £15.99)

Match the softest, quietest plumage with rapier-sharp talons and hearing, and you have a killer combination, literally. Owls also – more than any other birds – resemble people, thanks to their upright posture, flat faces and penetrating gaze that meets ours. Miriam Darlington delights in exploring such owly adaptations in the follow-up to her highly acclaimed debut Otter Country.

A refreshingly perceptive and modest guide, Darlington sets out to uncover the ecology of all five British owls (barn, tawny, little, long- and short-eared). It’s a familiar approach, but the immensely readable text swoops through myth and legend, too. Owls were often seen as portents of death and ill omen, yet have also been associated with wisdom, prudence and far-sightedness. 

Among many fascinating revelations, we learn about the importance of eye colour. Yellow (little) signifies a daylight hunter, orange (long-eared) indicates mainly twilight activity, while dark brown (tawny) points to a nocturnal specialist. Darlington meets plenty of fellow owlaholics along the way (even Florence Nightingale became inseparable from her orphaned little owl). She helps check barn owls chicks, watches a dissection of a tawny, visits an owl festival in Serbia and even joins a psychologist who uses a captive ‘therapy’ owl to treat mental health issues. At one point, as the author crouches on Dartmoor, a hunting short-eared owl almost lands on her head, before, at the last moment, realising its mistake.

Reviewer: Ben Hoare 

The Wanderers

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Tim Pears (Bloomsbury, £16.99)

The Wanderers is the hypnotic second installment in Tim Pears’ West Country Trilogy, picking up where The Horseman ended.

The son of a poor ploughman, 13-year-old Leo Sercombe is making his way alone in the world: he “knew not whether he was blessed or cursed. Wealthy or poor. Free or bound. Joyful or desolate. In time he might discover.” Between the summers of 1912-1914, he travels the West Country, picking up jobs – dogsbody for a pack of gypsies, a few days’ work at a fading copper mine, a season as an ill-paid farmhand. 

His nomadic story is interspersed with that of his beloved Miss Lottie, who’s stuck behind on her father’s Devon estate (from which Leo was banished) battling the expectations polite society has for a young lady. That both Leo and Lottie are mourning the loss of the other is never explicitly detailed, but Pears leaves it hanging between the lines, ringing loud in the hollowness of Leo’s restless, itinerant existence, and the silences of Lottie’s lonely life. As in The Horseman, rural living is conjured up exquisitely, the reader sinking into the rhythms of the land. Pears describes a way of life that’s infused with an unspoken nostalgia, as we know how much will change after the Great War, and he cleverly shows things drawing to a close without having to mention the conflict that looms large on the horizon.

Reviewer: Lucy Scholes

The Last Wilderness

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Neil Ansell (Tinder Press, £16.99)

On a map, some parts of Scotland look ferociously wild – with tight contour lines, deep lochs, huge forests and almost no tracks or human dwellings. I often ask, what can be there and will I ever get the time to explore? 

Fortunately, Neil Ansell has devoted his life to the roads less travelled – especially where there are no roads. Here he spends a year on a number of expeditions roaming the extraordinary peninsulas from Mallaig to the Sound of Mull. The names, beautiful though they are (Knoydart, Morvern, Morar, Ardnamurchan), are not as important as Ansell’s journey to find wilderness – or perhaps escape mundanity. He camps on empty beaches, walks over seldom-conquered peaks, steps through forests where only deer tread. Occasionally he meets wild human spirits – fellow wanderers and bothy hunters – and he has extraordinary wildlife encounters with otters, eagles and even pilot whales. 

The undercurrent seems to be Ansell’s internal restlessness, his need to be alone in the wild coupled with tackling a serious heart problem. Worst of all, his ability to hear high-pitched sounds is deteriorating – his “the journey into silence”. This means no more sandpipers and willow warblers – a heartrending loss to someone who loves the natural world. And yet the remaining beauty seems enough for him to find peace. 

Reviewer: Fergus Collins

Yorkshire

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Richard Morris (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25)

We all have our preconceptions about Yorkshire, its landscape, people and history. Our thoughts will be a mix of straight-talking characters, dales, moors and rivers, heavy industry, classic seaside resorts, Emmerdale villages and gritstone towns.

In his lyrical history, Richard Morris takes us on an epic journey through England’s greatest county in search of Yorkshire’s identity. With a strong personal connection to the county, Morris weaves in stories of everyday Yorkshire folk alongside the more obvious names from history. 

Inevitably with a subject as vast as our largest county, it’s impossible to cover every aspect of what makes Yorkshire special. Instead, the author focuses on linking the social history to its industry and landscape. He illustrates how the geology of the county has influenced everything from its landscape to its trade, industry and communications. On a journey through Yorkshire’s three ridings, Morris takes us through the Roman occupation, medieval era, Civil War, the Industrial Revolution and into modern times.

It’s fascinating to discover the extent to which Yorkshire has been at the heart of England’s history and that through trade, whaling and emigration, the county has had a significant impact on the wider world. This is a welcome addition to the bookshelf for the Yorkshire enthusiast, as well as those seeking their first introduction to this magnificent county.

Reviewer: Chris Gee

Walled Gardens

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Jules Hudson (National Trust books, £30)

For centuries, walled gardens have provided food and flowers to great houses. Starting as simple medieval enclosures, they evolved into powerful status symbols and centres of world-class expertise. During 20th century most were lost and abandoned but, happily, today many have been revived.

Presenter, archaeologist and historian Jules Hudson describes himself as “an enthusiastic amateur gardener” and here he explores the British walled garden in the context of Britain’s historical and cultural heritage. Hudson reveals the clues apparent to “anyone who knows what to look for” that will tell the story of a garden’s past, and applies this knowledge to 12 walled gardens, all of which are publicly open. From the Blickling Estate in Norfolk that was the family seat of Sir Thomas Boleyn, father of Anne, to Chartwell garden in Kent that was built brick by brick by Winston Churchill with his own hands, the stories are fascinating. 

I poured over the beautifully illustrated plan of what a complete and perfect walled garden might look like in part one of the book, but otherwise, horticultural information is scant. There are few named plants, either edible or ornamental, which felt like a missed opportunity.

The list of walled gardens to visit at the end of the book is great. Ultimately this is an insightful guide for anyone wanting to visit gardens on days out.

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Reviewer: Lucy Bellamy