Reading nature books is a pleasure for anyone with an interest in natural history and British wildlife. Books can introduce you to new species, places to visit, brilliant walking routes and give you knowledge to help you appreciate and understand the natural world around you. Curling up with a good book to enjoy simple pleasure of reading is not just a way to learn new knowledge, but reading can also help you be in the moment.
Dive into a good book with our pick of the best nature books below.
Best nature books released in 2020
The Book of Trespass
Nick Hayes, Bloomsbury Circus, £20 (HB)
Nick Hayes tells a story of trespass that reveals deep truths about our society. This is a challenging book – it tackles lazy assumptions of race, class and the pre-ordained power of those with the luck to be born into land-owning. His digging into the origins of the vast acres from which we are excluded finds owners who have inherited the wealth, but not the shame, of slave-owners and land-clearers – yet have managed to spin that into an entitlement that tries to keep us from 90% of the land and 93% of the waterways.
English exceptionalism is an ugly hangover of Empire, when many of the walls that keep us out were built. But the exceptional quality of England revealed here is the iniquity of land distribution and access, and the ease with which many of us seem to accept this fragmentation of our history and our nature. We do not have to look very far before we see far more enlightened attitudes to access.
While politically radical and deeply insightful, this is not a dour book in any way. Hayes proves himself to be “brilliantly alive” – his forays across the imaginary lines that exclude us are described with a lightness of touch that brings humour into the darkest places.
This is one of the best and most important books I have read in a long time.
Reviewed by Hugh Warwick, author and ecologist
By Helen Macdonald, Jonathan Cape, £16.99 (HB)
Six years ago, H Is for Hawk charged through the international bestseller lists and left its mark on nature writing with all the raw power of a goshawk in a forest. But instead of rushing out a follow-up, Helen Macdonald has since quietly focused on writing essays and features, often for the New Statesman or New Yorker. Forty are collected here, undated and without commentary, and they’re stunning.
If there’s a theme, it’s Macdonald’s love for the non-human world, and our complex relationship with other species and places. Her range is dizzying, however. Reminiscences from a rural Surrey childhood and thrilling encounters in the wild (glowworm nights, winter woods, swarms of flying ants) sit alongside explorations of cutting-edge science and trips overseas. Throughout, she makes unexpected connections: migraines and climate change, fungi forays and hunting.
Everywhere, phrases and ideas pull you up short. Paw prints in winter snow “can be read to rewind time”. Exploring our fascination with flocks of birds, Macdonald considers the plight of refugees: “In the face of fear, we are all starlings, a group, a flock, made of a million souls seeking safety.” There are unfashionable subjects too, such as a typically open-minded visit to a Staffordshire birdkeeper’s fair (a ‘working- class’ institution ignored by most nature writers), with all its cages of fancy finches. Heartfelt, thought-provoking, brilliant.
Reviewed by Ben Hoare, author and naturalist
Cottongrass Summer: Essays of a Naturalist Throughout the Year
Roy Dennis, Saraband, £9.99 (PB)
Cottongrass Summer won’t collect the headlines that a book by a celebrity natural history TV presenter might achieve, but I can’t think of a more important book that’s been written about British wildlife in the past 20 years.
That’s partly down to who the author is: Roy Dennis, the UK’s pre-eminent conservationist of the past half century. When he speaks, we all should listen. His musings on everything from why there ought to be more dead animals in our countryside to whether we should change the common name of the wildcat are all equally eagle-eyed.
But it’s also because he writes with such conviction, clarity, insight, depth and purpose. He understands better than anyone how times have changed. When talking about the “insect armageddon”, for example, he points out how raptor declines in the 1960s were found to be linked to the chemicals that were used in sheep dips and agriculture.
Today, we know that insects are also being impacted by a new suite of chemicals, and yet there is little change. Are our nature conservation bodies less able to affect change, he wonders; are politicians more negligent or big business more powerful? “We need immediate change rather than more research,” he writes. “Governments and big business love research; it means they don’t have to do anything now.”
In just a sentence or two, he cuts to the quick. The talons of his typewriter rip open the carcass, laying bare the truth of why British wildlife is in the state it is. If you read any book about the environment this year, read this.
The Lost Spells
Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, Hamish Hamilton, £14.99 (HB)
With its enormous gilded pages and accurate yet fantastical artwork of Britain’s wild plants and creatures, 2017’s The Lost Words had something of a medieval bestiary about it. The enchanting mash-up of poetry and awe at the natural world was a book to pore over, read aloud and treasure.
Three years later, artist Jackie Morris and nature-writer-academic-campaigner Robert Macfarlane are back. The Lost Spells shares all its forerunner’s winning qualities, except size: this book is dinky by comparison, and considerably longer. (Perhaps bookshops, libraries and schools had quietly suggested a smaller volume might be more manageable for shelves and little hands, and easier to reissue as a paperback?)
There are swifts and silver birch, barn owls (pictured) and seals, oaks and thrift and mountain hares. Each poem casts
its spell over up to eight linked spreads. Morris’ glorious paintings often scamper, splash and soar across a full double page, and Macfarlane again delights in irresistible wordplay. A great spotted woodpecker and badger engage in tit-for-tat banter, while swifts shred the sky in hooligan gangs: “those handbrake-turners, those wheelie-pullers, those firers-up of the afterburners…”
In places, The Lost Spells is explicit about threats to the natural world, and here too is ‘Heartwood’, Macfarlane’s protest poem against the pointless felling of street trees. As the prologue says: “Loss is the tune of our age, hard to miss and hard to bear.”
Reviewed by Ben Hoare, author and naturalist
The Wild Silence
Raynor Winn, Penguin Books, £14.99 (HB)
How could there be a follow-up? The Salt Path, published in 2018, was the radiant, soaring, heartstring- tugging story of what Winn and her husband Moth, who has an incurable illness, had been told would be their final journey together – an arduous trek along the South West Coast Path when they had nothing more to lose. Sometimes life has other ideas. The Wild Silence sees the couple ensconced in a Cornish village. Moth is still unwell but determinedly studying for a degree, while Winn, feeling lost, trusting no one and plagued with self-doubt, finally discovers her gift as a writer. Then an amazing new opportunity comes their way.
Moving back and forth in time, Winn reveals the unexpected way her smash- hit debut came to be published, while revisiting her nature-filled childhood in a tenanted estate cottage on a farm. She recalls how she met and married her college sweetheart, and takes us on their many carefree wild-camping adventures around Britain. Winn’s soul-baring honesty and beautifully remembered, touching conversations will take your breath away.
Ultimately, this gorgeous book is about love – for a person (“my wild unity”) and for the land (“the deep humming background to my very being”) – and hope. Faced with Moth slipping away “like the sea mist in the heat of the sun”, Winn refuses to give up on him.
Reviewed by Ben Hoare, author and naturalist
The Unremembered Places: Exploring Scotland’s Wild Histories
Patrick Baker, Birlinn, £14.99 (HB)
There is a common lament that the countryside is being concreted over, with all sense of wildness lost. But it is not true for much of Britain, and it is especially not true of Scotland. Patrick Baker’s series of grippingly told walks and canoe voyages to lonely and unvisited islands, glens, moors and caves reveals lost industries, empty settlements and human retreat.
He finds silence – or nature’s return – in places that once thronged with drovers, miners or crofters, and tells poignant tales of long-lost lives. A navvies’ graveyard near the remote dam they built; illegal stills hidden in the wilds; abandoned mines on the Slate Isles; caves that hid Jacobin fugitives, now known only through rumour. Though Baker weaves the known history around his present adventures, each of his journeys fills with atmosphere and emotion.
“I had come to think that wild histories seemed somehow indefinably linked with the spirit of a place,” he says. And it is only by seeking and experiencing these places first-hand can we “interpret the complex interactions of past lives within a certain space”. It’s thoughts like these that can turn any walk into a more memorable, meaningful adventure.
Reviewed by Fergus Collins, BBC Countryfile Magazine editor
In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration
Shane O’ Mara, Bodley Head, £8.99 (PB)
This illuminating book proves a worthy addition to a crowded genre as it focuses on the science behind what enables us to walk and why walking is, in turn, good for us. In the introduction, Shane O’Mara outlines the intriguing and novel concept that, along with language and using tools, our ability to ambulate is one of the key things that sets humans apart from other animals.
Initially, the book looks to our collective history as a species and to our individual past as children to explore how we evolved the skills to walk and in turn to navigate. A more extensive perspective takes shape as it investigates differing reasons for walking, such as to aid thought and to protest. It also examines how certain environments impact upon the brain and wellbeing, including a fascinating chapter on walking in the city, of which city planners may wish to take note.
O’Mara is a professor of brain research, so it comes as little surprise that the main focus is on the role the brain has to play when it comes to walking. What does come as a surprise is how clear and understandable the theory is, even for a layperson. This is in no small part due to O’Mara’s confident and deft handling of his topic.
Sections on the sociological aspects of walking as well as entertaining anecdotes peppered throughout the more theory-rich chapters also provide interest for those readers with a less scientific mind.
Spirit of Place: Artists, Writers and the British Landscape
By Susan Owens, Thames and Hudson, £25 (HB)
“A medieval landscape without a human figure is a rare thing indeed,” writes Susan Owens, who deftly charts the progression of the British landscape from background to centre stage. Her journey weaves in the work of early monks such as Bede, familiar protagonists including Constable, and contemporaries such as Bettina Furnée – artists and writers whose landscapes have inspired devotion, fear, nostalgia, solace, contemplation, learning and enchantment. The result is this gorgeously illustrated scholarly tome that can be enjoyed and referred to again and again.
That Owens has done so with such erudite alacrity reveals her skill as art historian and curator. “Come with me,” she suggests, “imagine”. Her warm witty prose brings poems, paintings and their creators to life. Familiar works such as Coleridge’s The Lime Tree Bower My Prison take on new significance when you discover that his incarceration was caused by an accident with scalding milk. Richard Long’s Line Made By Walking has more context when you learn it was made between hitchhikes.
My one tiny quibble as a self- confessed environmentalist is that though manipulation of the landscape through Enclosure Acts and industrialisation is well referenced, climate change pops up rather vaguely, as if unforeseen. Perhaps mention of early deforestation of the heath and rounded hills, whose presence is so palpable throughout, might have lent the concluding remarks more meaning, and been more in keeping with the spiralling narrative. Then again, this is a book about how landscape is interpreted not shaped, and in that it is second to none.
Imperial Mud: the Fight for the Fens
by James Boyce, Icon Books, £12.99 (HB)
Don’t be put off by the somewhat uninspiring title, for this is a real page-turner. An award-winning Australian historian, James Boyce tells the little-known story of the almost-continual guerrilla warfare fought by the Fennish (his own neologism for the Fens’ inhabitants) against those who would destroy them and their home territory. The list of adversaries is daunting: Romans, Saxons, Tudors, Cromwell’s Commonwealth and pretty much every parliament thereafter.
Several chapters are devoted to a surprisingly gripping account of the ‘enclosure’ of the Fens over the centuries, when vast areas of common land in the east of England were taken by force from those who lived on it, leaving huge numbers homeless, destitute or both and wiping out a very distinct culture and way of life.
This is also the tale of a slow-motion ecological disaster. The draining of the Fens to make them ‘more productive’ transformed a peat-rich landscape that had been teeming in flora and fauna into a vast sinking desert of ever-depleting farmland.
Despite all this, Boyce refuses to be defeatist. He praises conservation and restoration initiatives, and stresses the value of fighting against oppression, even if it succeeds only as a delaying tactic. His account of the gradual obliteration of the Fens and the Fennish also stands as a warning about what happens when the rich and powerful dress up their avarice as ‘progress’ – a lesson we could do with learning today.
Red Sixty Seven
British Trust for Ornithology, £19.99 (HB)
A striking red cover with a ring ouzel (“the thinking person’s blackbird”) in the corner hints at the contents of this well-presented book. An eclectic mix of 67 writers and an equal number of artists offer personal insight – via poetry and polemics – coupled with interpretive artwork, on 67 ‘red-listed’ birds of conservation concern. These range from white-fronted geese to corn buntings, ducks, raptors and warblers, with content featuring a heady mix of data, art and anecdote in a book curated by Kit Jewitt – a “birder and part-time conservationist”.
Published by the science-informed British Trust for Ornithology, these “love letters to our most vulnerable species [of birds]”, with remarkable original artwork, are a creative way to fundraise and boost the profile of endangered wildlife.
There is plenty to stimulate the reader, though some of the writing comes across as ‘ad hoc’ and at times ill-informed (YouTube is one person’s experience of the bird). Some additional information could have better enlightened readers on the causes of each bird’s decline and where solutions might lie.
Was this a missed opportunity to hear from more conservation experts – such as farmers, wardens, foresters and land managers – who champion lapwing, grey partridge, skylark and black grouse among others?
In an age of eco-anxiety, the book is an original awareness-raising project, but it could have reached out to a wider ‘thinking’ audience by promoting more collaborative conservation work.
Reviewed by Rob Yorke, rural commentator
I Am an Island
By Tamsin Calidas, Transworld, £16.99 (HB)
This account of one woman’s journey from trauma to tranquillity on the unnamed Hebridean island to which she fled after an imperilled London existence is one heck of a ride. If escape-to-the-country books about scones and mischievous goats are your thing, then this is not for you. Amusing anecdotes and community spirit are noticeable in their absence (I wondered, for example, whether anyone had taught Calidas animal husbandry).
Instead, alcoholism, misogyny, racism, jealousy and ostracisation provide context to the author’s equally harrowing personal circumstances. There is graffiti. There are drunk neighbours almost crashing a tractor into the croft, broken wrists, suspicions regarding her ram’s death and the colleague who asks Tamsin if she wasn’t ashamed to be seen with her father “because he is a darkie”.
Brutality is gripping. Only when Calidas eventually finds peace in nature does the book lose its rhythm – though here, wildlife and landscape (the “gull-wracked rocks where the seals are slipping in and out of the deeper water”) are powerfully observed.
Spanning nearly two decades, this memoir is already recent history as the island cautiously admits incomers and ideas. Nevertheless, if you labour under a rosy illusion of rural idyll, then maybe read this after all. If recent months have taught us anything, it’s that both community spirit and pernicious prejudice can thrive in the city and countryside alike. Calidas shows us that to tackle this truth, you first need the courage to face it.
Reviewer, Julie Brominicks, nature writer
The England Coast Path
Stephen Neale, Bloomsbury, £18.99 (PB)
The passion Stephen Neale has for the English coast comes across loud and clear in this beautifully presented guidebook. The author worked with Natural England to assess the Essex section of the England Coast Path – what will be the longest managed and waymarked coastal path in the world once completed – but he clearly has an in-depth knowledge of the coast in its entirety. The book’s cover promises “1,000 mini adventures” and it’s safe to say it delivers.
The pages are packed with attractive photographs, while the easy-to-follow information – presented in a lively and engaging way – is well set out with colour-coded symbols indicating coast, woodland, wildlife, heritage, dark-sky sites, accommodation and food.
Part one tells the stories of the England Coast Path heroes – those who have worked tirelessly to realise what, at times, must have felt like an impossible ambition. He goes on to outline his ‘best of’ coastal experiences: everything from swimming, snorkelling, camping and canoeing to foraging and fossil hunting. Part two divides the coast into 23 sections, with enticing suggestions for exploration: hug an oak, follow fulmars on thermals, catch crabs, visit a stone circle or watch seals.
This is a guidebook you can dip in and out of while at home, but it will also be an indispensable guide for when we’re able to explore England’s wonderfully diverse coast again. What struck me is that no matter how well we think we know the English coast, there’s always so much more to discover.
Reviewed by Helen Moat, travel writer
Short Runs in Beautiful Places
Jen and Sim Benson, National Trust Books, £12.99 (PB)
If you’re new to running and keen to explore more beautiful places in the British countryside once restrictions are lifted, then this is the book for you. From the tip of Cornwall to the Scottish Highlands, this attractive guidebook by Jen and Sim Benson features 100 easy-to-follow off-road running routes on National Trust-managed bridleways and footpaths along the coast, through wooded valleys and beyond. The great appeal of this book is that it encourages you not just to run, but to enjoy a day out exploring somewhere new, which makes it ideal for families, because many of the paths can be run with a running buggy or with a young child accompanying on a bike. Each run can also be walked and they’re easily accessible by car or public transport.
If you fancy testing your fitness in a social capacity once group activities resume, the National Trust also works with Sport England to host a weekly 5k Parkrun at many of its sites. Parkrun is free to enter and many of the runs included in this book follow Parkrun routes, such as Killerton House parkland. parkrun.org.uk
Reviewed by Carys Matthews, editor of countryfile.com
Best nature books for plant lovers
Jo Woolf, National Trust Books, £12.99 (HB)
This is a book that delves into the facts, fiction, myths and folklore of trees, with stories that introduce us to the fascinating natural history of many species growing in the British landscape, not all native, but all with a tale to be told. The trees will be familiar to many, but the histories surrounding them may not.
I was intrigued by stories of our two native oaks, revered by the druids, their strong timber used in the construction of houses and ships. Oaks are home to more fauna than any other British tree – an estimated 500 species of invertebrates.
The author explains how certain species are used as foods and as remedies for a multitude of ailments, aches and pains. Festivals including ‘wassailing’, ‘maypole dancing’ and ‘beating of the bounds’ all involve our arboreal friends, too. As well as having links with mischievous fairies, some trees are associated with witches, and on occasion the trees themselves are used to protect our houses, livestock and crops from magic.
Tree-related superstitions, such as ‘touch wood’ are fascinating; many still utter these words when hoping for a good outcome. I enjoyed the stories of well-known individual trees, such as the Birnam Oak, and the woodland mentioned in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
This is a good book to read about a few trees at a time, as each species is featured in nice bite-size chunks. The author has done a great job of bringing their heritage (fact and fiction), into a book that will broaden our knowledge of the magnificent trees that surround us.
Reviewed by Tony Hall, arboretum manager at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Jon Dunn, Bloomsbury, £20
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.
Reviewed by Phil Gates, freelance writer
Chasing the Ghost: My Search for All the Wildflowers of Britain
Peter Marren, square peg, £20
Peter Marren is way ahead of most of us in the wildflower-spotting game, and here he sets out to find the 50 species that he hasn’t yet ticked off from his tattered copy of Rev W Keble Martin’s The Concise British Flora.
Counting down from number 50 (the Radnor lily), Marren takes us on a briskly sparkling journey throughout the length and breadth of Britain. The star of the show is the ghost orchid (Epigogium aphyllum, pictured above) famously elusive and a symbol of changing times and, possibly, values. Notoriously tricky, a will ‘o the wisp of a plant, on and off the ‘extinct’ status for the past few years. Does he find it? There’s only one way to find out…
Reviewed by Adele Nozedar, author and forager
Best wildlife books
The Secret Life of the Cairngorms
Andy Howard, Sandstone Press, £24.99 (HB)
Few parts of the country can lay claim to be bona fide wildernesses, but the Cairngorms are the real McCoy. This massive granite massif, with its hulking whaleback mountains, snowbound corries, ancient Caledonian pine forest and sparkling salmon rivers, is home to some of our most exciting wildlife, from pine martens to red deer and ospreys. A safari here is the closest Britain has to a wilderness. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, the area also supports a thriving ecosystem of professional wildlife photographers, including local lad Andy Howard. The Secret Life of the Cairngorms is Andy’s second book, following one on mountain hares (also stunning). That volume took seven years to complete. This is another triumph of spectacular images, mostly birds and mammals, taken in all weathers. You sense that Andy doesn’t do things by halves, lugging heavy camera gear up Munros and sleeping under the stars to watch the mountains and valleys reveal themselves at dawn.
Highlights include red squirrels in every season, hard-as-nails snow buntings sheltering at the summit of Ben Macdui, Scotland’s only free-ranging reindeer herd and all four British grouse – the heather- loving red, jousting black, colour-changing ptarmigan and turkey-like capercaillie. Andy writes well, so longer captions would have been welcome. I’d also have liked to see more of the smaller creatures. But this is a stunning celebration of a savage yet beautiful landscape.
A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings
Helen Jukes, Scribner, £14.99 hardback
With a house that is not yet a home and a new job full of stress, Helen acquires as a gift, a swarm of bees, and subsequently learns how to keep them. What she finds – about bees, hives, ecology and beekeeping – is clearly presented and, due to being integrated into her own life story, easily digested. This is classic modern nature-writing; a synthesis of scientific learning, observation and the author’s response.
Reviewed by Julie Brominicks, outdoors writer
The 12 Birds of Christmas
By Stephen Moss, Square Peg, £12.99
This avian interpretation of our best-known carol is an ideal stocking filler for the bird-lover. From the partridge to woodpeckers (the “12 drummers drumming”), naturalist Stephen Moss traces the fortunes of each British species, weaving in compelling folklore, history and bird behaviour.
Reviewed by Margaret Bartlett, production editor of BBC Countryfile Magazine
The Hedgehog Handbook
Sally Coulthard, Head of Zeus, £9.99
Shy and endearing, the hedgehog is one of our most-loved creatures. This book takes you through a year in a hedgehog’s life, its habits and biology, and includes month-by-month advice on how to help it thrive in your neighbourhood.
Reviewed by Margaret Bartlett
Stephen Rutt, Elliot & Thompson, £12.99
Following a move to Dumfries, birder Stephen Rutt begins a new chapter in his life and a new obsession: with geese. In this compelling book, he delves into the lives and habits of the UK’s most common goose species and looks at the place they hold in our history, culture, and even our festive feasts.
Reviewed Margaret Bartlett, production editor of BBC Countryfile Magazine
Walks in the Wild
Peter Wohlleben, Ebury, £14.99
The German forester and best-selling author of The Hidden Life of Trees turns his attention to the wider forest, and presents a handy instruction manual for appreciating and navigating woodlands around the world.
Reviewed by Maria Hodson, production editor of BBC Countryfile Magazine
Lara Maiklem, Bloomsbury Circus, £16.99
The story of London, told through the Thames’ tidal treasures. For nearly 20 years, author Lara Maiklem has scoured the shores of the capital’s river at low tide, discovering discarded bounty – from Roman hairpins to silver shillings – that evokes long-lost ways of life.
Reviewed by Maria Hodson
A Cloud a Day
Gavin Pretor-Pinney, Batsford, £20
The Cloud Appreciation Society shares its passion for the sky with 365 shots of the phenomenal, ever-changing canvas that shimmers above our heads. The attractive images are accompanied by thoughts, quotations and facts. Put down your phone and look up!
Reviewed by Maria Hodson
Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm
Isabella Tree, Picador, £20 hardback
Isabella Tree and her husband found that their Sussex farm kept losing money and what they did in response is an inspiring story that conservationists are calling a “new hope” for our countryside.
Isabella and Charlie decided their Knepp estate would be run with – not against – nature. They embarked on a ‘hands-off’ naturalistic grazing project, using free-roaming herds of animals. Fences were ripped up, drains removed and a river rewilded. The land was “released from its cycle of drudgery” and threatened species began flocking back.
Wilding thrillingly proves that “post-agricultural” land can turn a profit, thanks to income from organic meat, glamping and safaris, backed by enlightened subsidies.
Reviewed by Ben Hoare, author and journalist
Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late?
Mark Cocker, Jonathan Cape, £16.99
Mark Cocker outlines the birth of what he calls the “environment age” and the foundation of the three largest conservation NGOs: the National Trust, the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts. Despite a combined membership of millions for these and other conservation groups, our wildlife has declined remorselessly. He delivers some sledgehammer blows: 44 million birds were lost to our countryside, mainly between 1975 and 1987, while farmers and landowners received huge sums in agricultural subsidies from public taxes.
Our countryside, he argues, has been stripped of much of its wildlife and yet we still support systems that amplify the losses. If we British, with our history of campaigning for our landscape and wildlife, can’t stop the decline, then who can?
Reviewed by Brett Westwood, BBC naturalist
Swifts in a Tower
David Lack, Unicorn, £15 hardback
Much of what we know about swifts is thanks to ornithologist David Lack, whose book Swifts in a Tower became an instant classic when published in 1956. His riveting account, based on years of observation at an Oxford museum (the ‘tower’ of the title), was the first to reveal the amazing life story of these avian superstars – which feed, drink, mate and even sleep on the wing, flying hundreds of miles a day to avoid storms and find fair weather.
First editions are highly collectible, so this reissue is excellent value. It concludes with a new chapter by his son Andrew, updating the swift story with the latest information from high-tech gadgets such as GPS tags.
Reviewed by Ben Hoare, freelance writer
Between Stone and Sky: Memoirs of a Waller
Whitney Brown, Constable, £20 hardback
Whitney Brown draws us into her tale of becoming a dry-stone waller. Yes, dry-stone walling: not the most vividly obvious of subjects. But this wonderful book is about much more than that. Between Stone and Sky is a love story. Brown, an American, meets Welshman Jack at a folklore convention in Washington DC. Six months later she’s with him in mid-Wales, learning a new craft.
Brown’s writing about the Welsh countryside, and the Welsh people, is particularly colourful; she captures their earthy warmth brilliantly. The details about walling are also fascinating and empowering: as a woman working on the land. Brown gets to know herself, as she encourages us to find ourselves, in all weathers, in the open air.
Reviewed by Jude Rogers, journalist
All Among the Barley
Melissa Harrison, Bloomsbury, £16.99 hardback
All Among the Barley is a powerful evocation of a restless rural community at a crossroads, when reaping machines, tarmac roads, the wireless and other inventions were starting to challenge long-established ways of doing things. Change was often unwelcome: cheap imported wheat helped the urban poor but left struggling farmers on the breadline.
14-year-old Edie Mather, narrator of this moving story set in the fictional Suffolk village of Elmbourne in 1934, leaves us in no doubt that life on the land could be nasty, brutish and short. Yet there was a beauty too in the old ways, when kinship ties were strong and an agrarian existence still meant following natural rhythms dictated by the seasons.
Reviewed by Ben Hoare
The Old Man and the Sand Eel
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.
Reviewed by Kevin Parr, author
A Black Fox Running
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.
Reviewed by Ben Hoare
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.
Reviewed by Rosee Woodland
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.
Reviewed by Ben Hoare
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.
Reviewed by Lucy Scholes, writer
The Last Wilderness
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.
Reviewed by Fergus Collins, editor of BBC Countryfile Magazine
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.
Reviewed by Chris Gee, freelance writer
Lost Lanes West
Jack Thurston, Wild Things Publishing, £16.99 paperback
Lost Lanes West offers the slow cyclist 36 well-researched routes where time is forgotten and the beauty of the South West unfurls in all its glory. This lovely travelogue encompasses all the tips that the slow traveller needs to discover the traffic-free hidden gems that make cycling in today’s fast world such a joy. The premise of the book is not to clock up miles in super quick time, but to enjoy the wonders of the South West.
Reviewed by Philippa Cox, cyclist and writer
The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency
John Seymour, DK, £25
First written 40 years ago, this enormous, encyclopaedic tome is packed full of tips for those keen to embark on the good life of self-sufficiency. Complete with handy illustrations, this is the bible of off-grid life, from growing veg and raising livestock to making wine and powering your plot.
Reviewed by Maria Hodson
Best nature books for children
The Wonders of Nature
Ben Hoare, DK Children, £20
A charming jaunt through the remarkable species that inhabit our planet. Divided into four sections (rocks and minerals, microscopic life, plants and animals), the lively text and beautiful photographs and illustrations make this directory ideal for inquisitive young readers.
Reviewed by Maria Hodson
Best gardening books
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.
Reviewed by Lucy Bellamy, editor of Gardens Illustrated
30 Easy Ways to Join the Food Revolution
Ollie Hunter, Pavilion Books, £14.99 (HB)
After reaching the semi-finals of MasterChef and gaining accolades for his pub’s sustainable sourcing, chef Ollie Hunter’s contribution to the sustainable diet debate is full of promise.
He proposes 30 simple ways the average person can switch to a more environmentally friendly way of eating, with each principle accompanied by a basic background and a few tantalising recipes – from homemade Worcestershire sauce to beetroot-leaf dhal – that shows the concept in action.
While the book is based around breaking the rather complicated topic of sustainable eating into simple concepts, such as root-to-fruit eating and the hungry gap, this simplicity is ultimately where it misses the mark. It is, quite simply, a little light on information. While issues such as meat eating are well explored, rather significantly in a book about sustainable eating, there is no mention of the importance of environmentally friendly farming practices beyond the suggestion that organic food tastes better. With the best of intentions, Hunter suggests the use of substitute ingredients, such as dried broad beans or sunflower seeds, without addressing how to ensure these are UK-grown rather than imported.
For the newly curious, this is a useful, colourful and gentle introduction to some of the issues, accompanied by some unusual and tempting recipes that can slot easily into everyday cooking, while more knowledgeable readers will still find sustenance in preparing Hunter’s delicious dishes.
Reviewed by Steph Wetherell, food writer
Food You Can Forage
Tiffany francis (Bloomsbury Natural History, £16.99 paperback)
This pretty book is packed full of colourful photographs and illustrations to help the reader safely identify edible plants. Tiffany Francis offers a good introduction to the ancient art of foraging, with easy-to-follow advice on the edible plants you can find in the countryside. The book includes chapters on foraging in woodlands, the coast, heathland and meadows, along with details about the wildlife you might find there. The final chapter includes 20 traditional recipes.
This is an ideal book to dip in and out of, and compact enough to take on shorter nature rambles. Overall, a refreshing read and the writer’s passion for nature shines through.
Reviewed by Carys Matthews, digital editor countryfile.com