The best nature books to read this winter

Winter is the perfect time to curl up with a good book - our team of bookworms have reviewed the best nature books to read this Christmas 


The Nature of Winter


Jim Crumley (Saraband, £12.99)


In December 2016, Jim Crumley ventured into the Scottish highlands to explore the nature of winter and immediately found it to be elusive and endangered; “the Scottish wildcat of the seasons”. Climate change, of course, is the culprit, and is an ever-present thread in this tapestry of wildlife encounters, poetry and landscape history. It is granted the gravitas it demands, but the book, suffused in Crumley’s characteristic wit and wonder, is far from gloomy.

Crumley writes with conviction. Novice naturalists and nature-writers will find his insights into creatures – from beavers and dippers to narwhals and wolves – useful and fascinating. Culture-vultures will appreciate his homages to artists and writers. And seasoned connoisseurs of nature and good writing will be enthralled by his first-person wildlife encounters. His accounts of watching, waiting for and listening to ravens, golden eagles, red deer and snow buntings are written with dazzling clarity, lyrical lilt and a story-teller’s skill.

An authority on and advocate for Scottish wildlife, Crumley is as fearless in his flouting of bad land management and journalism as he is convincing in his appeal for the reintroduction of native species and the wilderness on which they depend. He is much quieter about climate change policy, perhaps because this is only the second book in a quartet of the seasons, and I look forward to this commentary evolving. But for now, his descriptions of climate change are as compelling as those of his animals, as he stakes it out, stalks it, watches, listens and waits. 

Reviewer: Julie Brominicks

The Inner Life of Animals


Peter Wohlleben (Bodley Head, £16.99)

There’s a school of thought that views attempts to compare animals and humans as sentimental and unscientific. Naturalist Peter Wohlleben begs to differ, and in his new book The Inner Life of Animals he presents a strong case that we are closer to our animal friends than previously thought. Using the latest research and his personal experience as a forester and animal lover, the author considers how other species see the world and asks if they can think, love, self-reflect or grieve. Along the way we are introduced to a range of zoological curiosities, including shame-filled horses, empathetic mice, lying roosters and grateful whales.

Wohlleben’s passion for nature shines through, even when examining lowly creatures such as slime molds and fruit flies, and he writes with an engaging style that combines analysis and anecdote. As well as discussing the science, he treats us to endearing passages about the personalities of his own animals, including Barry the cocker spaniel and Bridgi the horse.

The Inner Life of Animals is a fascinating read, if occasionally unsettling, as it asks us to question mankind’s special status in the natural world. By demonstrating the possibility that animals share many ‘human’ qualities – as well as some remarkable qualities of their own – we are urged to reconsider our treatment of them and the impact that practices such as factory farming and hunting have on their welfare. 

Reviewer: Sam Swannack

The Blackbird Diaries: A Year with Wildlife


Karen Lloyd (Saraband, £12.99)

Following on from her highly successful debut book (The Gathering Tide: A Journey Around the Edgelands of Morecambe Bay was the winner of a Lakeland Award in 2016), Karen Lloyd’s second book is sure to also delight readers and fans of British wildlife.

In The Blackbird Diaries: A Year with Wildlife, we are invited to the inspiring landscapes of South Lakeland. As can be guessed from the title, Lloyd focusses on the wildlife of her garden – specifically the charming blackbird pair that nests in the clematis growing over a wooden archway. There are attempts at befriending the birds, with tempting treats of seeds and dried fruit, but for the most part, Lloyd and her family are content to watch and observe the two adults, who are joined later in the year by young fledglings hopping around the garden. Other avian visitors to the garden include bouncing goldfinches, dazzling greenfinches and “tenacious, tiny siskins.”

The reader is also treated to landscapes beyond this enchanting garden, as we accompany Lloyd on country walks across the Cumbrian hills and further afield.  The writing is eloquent and enables the reader to conjure the scenes in their mind, whether it is spying a buzzard being chased by corvids, or the sudden burst of speed from a deer as it is startled across the fields.

Like all good nature writing books, Lloyd’s prose is to be savoured. Not raced through and devoured like the latest crime thriller, but to be absorbed, enjoyed and reflected upon.

Reviewer: Megan Shersby

The Hidden Ways


Alistair Moffat (Canongate, £20)

Ernest Hemingway once wrote in praise of the bike as a mode of transport. “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best,” he said. I would disagree. I know from long experience that it is only by walking on it that you can become truly intimate with the land. There is no finer way to hear its heartbeat, to appreciate its rhythms and to learn the small print of a land’s past. I suspect author Alistair Moffat would agree.

Scotland is criss-crossed by ancient byways, routes once trodden by saints, monks, soldiers, minstrels, caterans and drovers, and in more recent times by miners, hydro and forestry workers, crofters and farmers and the assorted hiking gangrels of today. These ancient ways form the very arteries that feed our thirst for knowledge of those who went before us.

In a series of ten expeditions, historian Alistair Moffat has brought to life some of Scotland’s forgotten roads and reminds us that even in those areas thought to be ‘wild land’, people have worked and toiled and fought. 

Following the ancient roads in the company of such a celebrated historian is a fascinating experience and the ‘small print’ I referred to earlier takes shape in the form of ancient dykes, fords, forts, souterrains and the remains of old buildings and dwelling places.

This fascinating and compelling narrative will leave you spellbound and in no time you’ll be looking for your hiking boots and waterproofs. The Hidden Ways is an absorbing and thought-provoking addition to the literature of Scotland’s byways.

Reviewer: Cameron MacNeish

The Orchid Hunter 


Leif Bersweden (Shortbooks, £12.99)

Britain’s native orchids are our most charismatic native flowering plants and Leif Bersweden fell under their spell at the age of seven, when he found his first bee orchid. Subtitled A Young Botanist’s Search for Happiness, his book describes the fulfilment of every orchid enthusiast’s dream – to find all 52 native species.

For some this might take a lifetime but the author had only a single season to achieve his goal, when an enforced gap year before going to university gave him a window of opportunity. Equipped with the optimism of youth and an unreliable car, he travelled the length and breadth of Britain to satisfy his ambition. Many orchid species are rare or are capricious bloomers so to find and photograph them all in one year, from the first early purple of spring to the last of the autumn lady’s tresses, is an exceptional feat of botanical skill and determination.

In this self-effacing, delightfully written book the author recounts his trials and tribulations, lyrically describes the habitats of his quarry, introduces the cast of characters he encountered along the way and provides fascinating insights into the idiosyncrasies of his quarry. Who knew that the man orchid has an aroma of frying onions, or that monkey orchid smells of cat pee, that lizard orchid reeks of billy goat or that pineapple juice triggers germination of lady’s slipper seeds? There is a word for an uncontrollable passion for orchids: orchidelerium.  Beware, if you read this book you may find yourself in their grip.

Reviewer: Phil Gates

A Yorkshire Vet: Through the Seasons 


Julian Norton (Michael O’Mara Press, £14.99)

Julian Norton’s love for his work shines through his latest book, a collection of stories about his adventures as a vet in rural Yorkshire.

Based in Thirsk, formerly home of James Herriot, Julian faces a range of challenges across the seasons, from the precarious rescue of an injured swan from a frozen lake in winter, to performing an emergency caesarian on a distressed alpaca in the summer. Between more dramatic moments we meet a host of amusing characters, including Archie the miniature donkey, and Dougie, an Amazonian parrot who speaks in a broad Yorkshire accent.

Norton writes with warmth and wit, finding the humour in each situation and conveying enthusiasm in even the most hair-raising scenarios – perhaps most notably when operating on a cow in the middle of an electrical storm. The book provides a glimpse of the myriad considerations a vet must make when deciding an animal’s treatment, and gives a real sense of veterinary practice being a detective process, as Julian often has to make a diagnosis with limited information (particularly as farmers on tight budgets often cannot justify paying for the diagnostic tests involved).

The Yorkshire Vet Through the Seasons makes for an insightful yet comforting read – as an animal lover it’s deeply reassuring to know that this kind of help is at hand. 

Reviewer: Sam Swannack

Beyond Spring


Matthew Oates (Fair Acre Press, £10.99)

Despite all the bad news about our natural world, naturalist Matthew Oates writes with welcome optimism, recalling a number of wildlife adventures and perfect days in the British countryside. Each one is revealing, uplifting and wise – “such days,” he says “do not merely linger on in our minds: they live on and actually develop within our souls, reaching a depth of meaning almost beyond comprehension”. Each story is accompanied by a stanza or two of verse from Edward Thomas and other fellow lovers of the wild. He particularly delights in Edward Thomas’s ‘South Country’ – the great sweep of chalklands from Dover to Dorset – and is distracted by both the grand wild spectacles and the mundane melodramas of deer flies. “There’s no excuse for being bitten by a …stupid, large and obvious… deer fly, other than outdoor fornication and the ensuing slumber”.

But nothing can compare to his rhapsodic pages devoted to the purple emperor butterfly. He recalls numerous encounters with these large, handsome but mercurial insects, giving them a power, character and curmudgeonliness that I never thought possible in such an ephemeral creature. Flimsy they are not. There is song and poetry in Oates’ sentences and an impish, fruity delight in nature’s riot. He is a Tom Bombadil for our times with this most valuable of advice: “Always keep a nature diary: it will be a comfort to you in time to come.”

Reviewer: Fergus Collins

The Scottish Wildcat


Christopher Clegg (Merlin Unwin, £20)

The book’s subtitle is ‘Britain’s most endangered mammal’. Arguably, our only native feline ties for this dubious honour with the black rat, but while the elimination of the latter seems to be acceptable, even desirable to many, the Scottish wildcat has become a wildlife celebrity, skulking, snarling and spitting its way, if not always into our affections (the last thing a wildcat wants is your love), then certainly into our high esteem and our collective conscience. Undeniably, the appalling predicament facing this unique carnivore is of our making. Until it received protection in 1988 it suffered centuries of systematic persecution – and the remaining population now faces the more insidious threat of being bred out of existence by ill-advised liaison with feral domestic cats.

There is as much history here as zoology, and it makes fascinating reading – Clegg documents not only the decline of a species, but also changing human attitudes to it, from totemic significance in Celtic and Scottish clan culture via vermin status to rehabilitation as an emblem of lost wilderness and subject of scientific interest and conservation concern. He documents the species’ ecology and surprising uses for dead wildcats beyond the insulating properties of their sumptuous pelt, including treatments for gout and haemorrhoids that bring to mind to the scourge of traditional Chinese medicine. 

This is a timely (if not overdue), readable and impressively thorough book, and ultimately a hopeful one. Things are bad for Scottish wildcats, but at least, as last, they have us on side.

Reviewer: Amy-Jane Beer

The Wild Dyer


Abigail Booth (Kyle Books, £16.99)

Plants and flowers have been used to colour fabric for millennia, and in her rather beautiful book, Abigail Booth explains how to carry on this traditional practice in a helpfully straightforward way.

When working with natural dyes it can be tricky to fine-tune the colours you are attempting to produce. Rather than fight this, Booth prefers to leave the results to play out, which makes the whole process seem far less daunting.

The Wild Dyer covers a lot of ground, from the preparation of the material to be dyed, to growing and foraging for dye plants, and even thrifty dyeing from kitchen waste. The accompanying simple textile projects are suitable for all but an absolute beginner – if you can sew a seam you will be able to make most of them easily.

Booth describes the different colours produced by natural materials in detail, paired with frequent admonishments not to take too much plant material from a single source, a pleasingly sustainable approach.

The description of how to grow dye plants from seed felt a little simplistic – not every young plant benefits from a rich growing medium. But trying to accurately fit how to grow multiple species into just a couple of pages is a tall order. The images in the book are stunning, but dropping just a couple would have provided the extra space I felt this section was lacking.

It’s a fairly minor niggle – if you’re interested in natural dyeing, you’ve probably got a gardening book or two already. Certainly, The Wild Dyer made me question my long-held assumptions about the difficulty of natural dyeing and I’m currently hoarding coffee grounds and avocado peel to have a go myself.

Reviewer: Rosee Woodland 

The Barefoot Navigator – Wayfinding with the Skills of the Ancients


Jack Lagan (Adlard Coles Nautical, £12.99)

The Polynesians are the most impressive seafarers the world has seen. Starting 4,000 years ago they populated the Pacific, sailing thousands of miles in canoes without a compass and sextant. How did they do it, and how did they pass on the knowledge without a written language? These are the questions Jack Lagan poses in his opening chapters.

Though Lagan takes a while to discount the ways they didn’t do it (scoffing at theories of chance or supernatural gods), what follows is an entertaining account of how entire families – with knowledge of prevailing winds, currents and the stars – could navigate for 20 days without a GPS tied to their outrigger.

But could we do it today? If cast adrift with no navigational equipment could we make landfall? Yes, says Lagan, in a roundabout fashion, and goes on to explain how. From quoting Shakespeare on Trade Winds to the shrewd observation that no yachtsman ever underestimates the height of a wave, his style is fun and conversational. Allow time for witty quips and detours, but be prepared for sudden bursts of physics or meteorology. Knowing that a balled fist gives an angle of 10 degrees, or that north-west is where Capella ducks below the horizon, is neuron-tingling stuff.

However, there’s also a time when no amount of rudimentary navigation is going to help: if you’re anywhere near the Poles during the winter, you might sensibly decide to stay in bed, notes Lagan dryly.

Few books claim to be 5,000 years in the making, and for some this will be 5,000 years in the reading, but it’s a fun journey nonetheless; one which every armchair mariner should take.

Reviewer: Ali Wood


Main image: Getty