The Well read Naturalist – My top 5 Wildlife books for Christmas

After beasts in all their glorious forms, books follow a close second in things I tend to get passionate about. Throw the two together and I start to quiver with excitement – I can’t help myself! It doesn’t matter how much I try and be professional and grown up about things, on my occasional visits to NHBS HQ here in Devon (incidentally, it’s not a shop so don’t just rock up; it’s not as glamorous as you might think and they have just taken over another large natural history/science supplier and the place is full of people tripping over boxes – it’s like a natural history answer to an Argos warehouse) I always end up speaking gibberish, getting distracted and finding several dozen books that I simply must own (not to mention a bird box or bat detector I didn’t know existed)

Personally I blame the manager Nigel and Katherine in marketing – they are simply too nice and polite, they seem to humour me and they allow me my overtly enthusiastic ramblings and digressions.

Now it seems they have their revenge…they’ve asked me to summarise their entire natural history book catalogue, and come up with 5 that I recommend putting on a naturalists Christmas list.

This, as you might imagine is an impossible task, given the variety of life and its infinite and intricate forms, and the countless humans who have been inspired, fascinated or driven enough to study it and put pen to paper and fingers to key pads.

Superimposed on this is you, the customer, the reader, the enlightened naturalists and enthusiasts of the world, it’s impossible for me to know what pushes your boats out or makes your toes curl!

However, below you will find my almost pointless attempts to achieve this impossible exercise.

I’m sorry if I digress in my task and you may find, if you tot up all the books mentioned, that I’ve gone over the prescribed number of 5! For that I can only apologise although I have always said to myself (moments before going broke) you can always justify a book, they are the only things that represent true value for money in this ‘rip off’ world.

Now I’ve left out very specialized books such as The Freshwater Algae of The British Isles even though I’ve been assured it’s very popular by those at NHBS and although a very much ‘birdy’ loved one would no doubt got apoplectic at receiving all 16 glorious volumes of The Handbook to the Birds of the World – it is beyond most people budget (an Aston Martin might be cheaper?). Instead I’m looking for either essential one off excellent books that you cannot be without on your shelf, including those that will change your life or simply make a nice read and help see you through the winter and get you a little closer to next year’s field season.

1. The only thing that beats seeing butterflies is reading about them. During the summer months let’s face it, those with a butterfly bug will spend most of it chasing them around the hedges, lanes and waysides. While at night, much of that bed-time reading window will be eaten into chasing, trapping and luring their nocturnal brethren.

So, for me, as long ago as I can remember (since learning to read I guess) those long winter nights are best spent reminiscing about the summer seasons gone and anticipating the one that lies ahead. This is the time for the armchair Aurelian.

The book of the year for me is definitely The Butterfly Isles by Patrick Barkham.

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I was given my copy by a Butterfly enthusiast who has rapidly become a good friend of mine, Dr Dan Danahar. He sent me a copy as a thank you for taking part in what became a butterfly race around Brighton (25 species in a day) Several of the Characters that took part in this wonderful inspiring day full of Chalkhill Blues and White-letter Hairstreaks are in the book, many of the others; the Martin Warrens’, Mathew Oates’ and Jeremy Thomas’ of the world are all portrayed as passionately and as accurately as the insects that drive their lives (I speak with a little authority on this matter as I know most of them as over the years they’ve been my mentors, bosses and friends in the Butterfly chasing/saving business!)

The books premise is a simple sort of early mid-life crisis as the Author seeks to see all 58 Species of British breeding butterfly in a single year and at the same time re-kindle a father son bond over the butterflies they desired. The outcome is a very well written romp, true to the traditional eccentricities that is almost compulsory to those in the pursuit of these winged things. It’s a book about people as much as it is about the insects, it’s about conservation but not too heavy and all in all it tackles our deep seated relationship with nature and the British countryside and leaves you feeling at the end of it all proud to be living on this collection of islands we call home.

It’s the perfect gift, I should know I received it as such and if I wasn’t so selfish and want to keep it on my shelf I would pass it on to another (which is in away what I’m trying to do with this review!)

As an accompaniment to any Aurelian’s library is another book, The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland by Jeremy Thomas and Richard Lewington – It’s never going to be and was never intended to be a field guide; it’ll never fit in a pocket or indeed even the glove compartment of the car. This is however a perfect butterfly nuts reference book. It oozes quality rare in any book nowadays; it is the quintessential book for anybody interested in these winged wonders. Way back in 1991 the Author; butterfly Ecologist and thoroughly energetic champion of these insects, Jeremy Thomas teamed with the talented paintbrush pushing skills of Richard Lewington and together they created a special thing. The first edition of The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland (it sold out rather quickly and suddenly, leaving some of us (including the authors) with just one well thumbed and battered copy).

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This second version is totally up to date with the current status changes and of course in the last 20 years much has been revealed of the intricate details, subtleties and ecological relationships of our 72 British species. Even if you have the first edition this is still worth getting (in fact I bought 2 this time, one for best and another for grubby working naturalists fingers – I know, don’t go there, I’ve already had it from my wife).

The winter is a great time to slip between its pages the first thing that strikes you is the illustrations, which like the first edition of this book are stunning and it makes it an immediately likeable book (who doesn’t like a book with nice pictures?).

With eyes rolling over the sumptuous pictures of every species and its life-cycle stages, you fall immediately; seduced and in love with the book and the butterflies and caterpillars on its pages. Then allow yourself to dip into the text and everything springs to life; Jeremy Thomas has a way of writing about his life’s charges with the sort of passion a child may have for the fairground but at the same time is threaded throughout with scientific knowledge, gravitas and the experience of someone who has dedicated his life to understanding the world according to these charismatic insects.

2. Guide to Garden Wildlife – This little beauty is a book that has been out a while and for some reason it has been largely overlooked. It may be that it comes from the stable of ‘British Wildlife Publishing’. This publisher, if you don’t know it, has produced a range of extremely high quality field guides; which have almost single handedly been responsible for causing the surge in interest in various taxonomic groups of insects such as moths and dragonflies. It seems that creating such specialist targeted, industry standards means they sell and self promote and with a long shelf life the word spreads among the demographic.

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The down side of this ‘old fashioned’ way of publishing (not churned out quickly for max profit and short shelf life) is you will be hard pushed to find them on the shelves in Borders, Waterstones or garden centres which is where I believe this book should be!

It is both penned and illustrated by Richard Lewington (while he leaves the birds to his equally skilled brother Ian). This book does exactly what it says on the cover and is a truly excellent guide to many of the most commonly encountered garden species; from bees, birds, voles and moles and many others from the screamingly obvious to the more specialised such as harvestmen, thrips, and solitary bees and wasps, as well as slugs and snails!

The wonderful detailed text and observations within are in many cases clearly born from the actual experiences of the author and glow nearly as beautifully as Richards, now almost legendary illustrations. Scattered throughout are sections that may inspire you to create an even better wildlife garden with advice on creating ponds, building and positioning nest boxes and bird feeders.

I cannot recommend this book enough – if you have a garden and are interested in wildlife then you must have this on your shelf, and if you know of someone who has a garden make sure they’ve got this on their shelf and even if they are not interested in wildlife at any great level, (and find me a gardener that is not) this book may swing them, encourage them to know more about their garden inhabitants, even if it is being a more informed  gardener and being able to identify the enemy; and pinning down exactly who it is who has been nibbling their nasturtiums or picking over the pansies.

3. Mushrooms by John Wright

This isn’t a new book by any means; I’ve had my copy for several years now. I’m not even massively into fungi. I have a general interest and engage in a little bit of hedgerow foraging from time to time, so why did I fork out the £14.99 for this book?

Well the above reasons may account for this under normal circumstances but having said that I already have pretty much every other guide to identifying, eating and cooking British Fungi.

What made me buy this book was that it is not only well informed but it made me laugh! Yep, this is undoubtedly the funniest field guide I’ve ever read, it is so refreshing to find yourself with tears streaming down your face while, trying to concentrate on the finer points of separating..a Yellow Stainer from a Field Mushroom or indeed knowing that it is illegal to pick magic mushrooms, but not if you can’t identify them!

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This book is rare; being informative, excellently written with personal passion and is both entertaining and peppered with all manner of identification tips and recipes for when you are 100% happy with your identification skills.

This is No.1 in a series of River Cottage Handbooks and if you are into foraging and enjoying the ultimate connection with nature and the environment they have also published also by John Right a guide to Hedgerows (No.7) and Edible Seashore (No.5) – both presented in his original and inimitable style.

4. Survivors by Richard Fortey. A while ago I had the pleasure of bumping into Richard Fortey while filming the Horseshoe crab episode of ‘Weird Creatures’. These bizarre arthropods are one of nature’s enduring design classics and watching them emerging from the ocean at dusk clunking, grinding to spawn on the beaches of Delaware bay in the United States is one of the most spectacular things any naturalist can witness.

There is also no better place to bump into a palaeontologist who’s life’s work, at the Natural History Museum in London, was in studying the superficially similar and distantly related Trilobites. It was after much discussion and sharing of thoughts and observations on the spectacle unfolding by our feet that Richard mentioned he was researching a new book. Having been a fan of two of his other books (Trilobite and Dry Store Room No.1) I’ve been awaiting with great anticipation for this his latest book to be published.

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I can tell you it was well worth the wait, the writing style is in the same ball park of other great science popularists  of today (well written, not dumbed down and immensely readable) and the subject matter is those animals we often hear referred to as ‘living fossils’. Richard uses them as biological muses; looking into their lives for clues as to how the story of life on earth unfolded – the analogy of using these animals as ‘telescopes’ to somehow compress time and see back into the past is a good ‘un and one used within the pages.

Now I must confess I’ve just got my copy and so I haven’t completely absorbed it from cover to cover yet but the Horseshoe crab chapter didn’t disappoint (particularly satisfying for me was a subtle reference to a small film crew on the first page!). I’ve always like evolutionary stories, hence my love of natures oddities and it was this fact that put me on the trail of the Horseshoe crab in the first place and here we have a book full of beguiling beasts with some of the best back stories ever in the history of life on earth (some of which I’ve told televisually) with Tarsiers, Hellbenders, Velvet worms, lungfish and lampreys all covered within its pages.

5. Mammals of the British Isles Volume 4.

This is another big book, complying with the trend in producing high quality, comprehensive and scientifically up-to-date information in a sumptuous and seductive format. This publication by The Mammal Society is very much in line with the standard set by Lynx publications (Handbook to the Birds of the World, Handbook to the Mammals of the world and Threatened Amphibians of the world) it has even gone as far as calling it a handbook (which is incidentally the only grumble I have with it – its a phrase I hate, as unless you’ve got very big hands is totally inaccurate and misleading, bringing to mind the idea that you might have it to hand, where as nothing but an oversized shelf will do).

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On publication it has immediately become a standard reference in its field.  It is definitely time to invest in heavy duty fixings and new robust shelves (now there are some ideas for stocking fillers!).

This is not a reading book exactly but it is one hell of an achievement! Even if it is how to turn our relatively paltry mammal fauna (thanks to the last ice age of course) into a huge book of some 799 pages. Expertly done it includes marine mammals and naturalised species which bolster the numbers considerably

A stunning book for those into fluffies in a big way! It is unashamedly a text book but it covers every mammal species found in, on and around the British Isles (including a few that only have a historic presence on our islands) in great detail. For anyone that has an interest whether professional or amateur in our mammal fauna then this the essential book. It is a large tome which despite the ambitious intent is easy to navigate with loads of glossy photographs and easy summery charts that help to ease your way through its neatly fairly formatted pages.