Covering topics such as food foraging, rewilding, dry-stone walling, honey bees and bike rides along winding country lanes, our top 10 selection of nature books, reviewed by experts, is the perfect companion for the autumn months.
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.
Reviewer: Carys Matthews, BBC Countryfile Magazine digital editor
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.
Reviewer: Ben Hoare, BBC Wildlife
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.
Reviewer: Philippa Cox, cyclist and writer
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.
Reviewer: Julie Brominicks, outdoors 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…
Reviewer: Adele Nozedar, author and forager
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?
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.
Ben Hoare, BBC Wildlife
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.
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.
Ben Hoare, BBC Wildlife
Earth to Earth: A Natural History of Churchyards
Stefan Buczacki (Unicorn, £15, 158pp hardback)
This lovely little book is lavishly illustrated with photographs, drawings and brief quotations from classic poems, while nonetheless driven by wide-ranging knowledge and engagement. Buczacki explains the details of the churchyard environment with clarity and a joyful combination of science, history and conservation practice.
There are well over 13,000 graveyards in England – and, as Buczacki argues persuasively, because of their enclosure they have in many cases preserved local habitats lost to more recent building or agricultural changes in the land around them. This preservation effect is so marked that a handful of churchyards have been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).
Main image: ©Getty