This book is subtitled ‘A Guide to the Wildlife Habitats of Britain and Ireland‘ and that’s very much what it is. There is a lot of good stuff in here but somehow it’s not a book that I can imagine being on anyone’s list of ‘most-loved’.
The authors write with authority about ten groupings of habitats: woodland, scrub, heathland, grassland, mountain, rocky, wetlands, freshwater, coastal and other. And, for example, the subdivisions of woodland are; lowland mixed oak and ash, lowland dry oak and birch, beech, yew, wet woodland, wood pasture, Atlantic oak wood, upland mixed ash, Caledonian forest, Atlantic hazel, upland birch and coniferous plantation. I will probably use this book a lot as a reference, but every time I pick it up I put it down quite quickly.
This book, according to the blurb on the rear cover, is lavishly illustrated and has evocative colour photographs. Some of these work very well but the problem with 680 photographs in a 276-page book is that, by necessity, the images tend to be quite small. Lavish they really aren’t. Too many of them are rather small, and too many of them are of a cute bird or mammal that is the interesting species found in the habitat. The views of landscapes are too small on the page to make me go ‘Wow!’ which is a shame. The maps are often too small to be much use too.
There isn’t always that much really useful information here either. Read the sections on upland dry heath and wet heath and I don’t think you will find them packed with information of which you were unaware.
Maybe it’s just me! I’m more a species person that a habitat person – and that could be so variously misinterpreted that I had better explain it. I’m not saying that species are more important than habitats, I’m not saying that species conservation is more important than habitat conservation, I’m really not saying either of those things. But, tricky though they can be to identify, when I come home from holiday or a walk I never enthuse about habitats, I often enthuse about species I have seen. It strikes me that habitats are so artificial a human categorisation that they verge on the ‘vaguely useful’ and often cross the line into the ‘not that useful at all’. Let’s be honest, habitats are the way that botanists try to make us all feel that they are ‘in charge’!
Habitats seem to me to be a bit like colours. If someone tells me they saw a white and gold dress (or maybe blue and black?) then that gives me a pretty useful idea of what they’ve seen but it’s just a useful starting point. Being told that you’ve been walking in a northern hay meadow does tell me something useful – it tells me that I want to know what plants, insects and birds you saw in it.
You will, I suspect, by now have decided that I’m just a bit grumpy about habitats, and you may well be right, but, and you have to trust me on this, I was hoping to find a way out of my grumpiness in this book. There were some occasional highlights of facts, or images, but on the whole I remained wedded to my grumpiness. Obviously it’s all my fault.
It looks to me as though the authors have done a good job in marshalling the information for this book. but it also seems to me that it’s quite a tricky task. And the book falls somewhat between two stools – a useful reference book and an attractive read. You should have a look at it and it may tickle your fancy much more than it tickled mine. As I say, it’s probably my fault not theirs.
A Guide to the Wildlife Habitats of Britain and Ireland by Sophie Lake, Durwyn Liley, Robert Still and Andy Swash is published by Wildguides/Princeton University Press.
Mark Avery’s Fighting For Birds is published by Pelagic (as will be Behind the Binoculars (with Keith Betton) in June) and A Message from Martha is published by Bloomsbury (as will be Inglorious in July).