Sunday book review – Britain’s Habitats by Lake et al.

k10340Everybody loves a habitat don’t they?  Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.

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).



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25 Replies to “Sunday book review – Britain’s Habitats by Lake et al.”

  1. Great review, Mark. Did the title strike you as a bit odd? "Britain's habitats" apparently includes the "habitats of Britain and Ireland". I thought those imperialist days had gone!

  2. I have to say Mark that I came to the opposite view! I'm finding this book a great read, full of fascinating detail and great photographs. I'd strongly recommend folks have a look - even grumpy species-centric folks like Mark and I!

  3. Not just you Mark, I got this book as a Christmas present, and was rather disappointed.

  4. Habitats, in the sense this book describes, are no more an artificial human categorisation than species are Mark.

    Our view of the natural world has changed over the many many millennia we have been thinking about it, and that view will continue to change.

    We categorise nature into species or habitats or ecosystems or biodiversity or ecosystem services or whatever, in order to try and make sense of its variety and complexity; and how and why we value it.

    All approaches are of necessity approximate, limited and erronous. Each new discovery means we have to rethink the way we look at and understand nature.

    I don't really see it as either species or habitats; and anything which helps us appreciate how species interact and the way this interaction creates guilds or communities or whatever you want to call them, is useful. I would put this book into the useful category.

    I have an overdue review of my own to write - thanks for the reminder!

    1. Miles - you'd find it very difficult to stand up the comment that species are as artificial a human categorisation as habitats.

      1. Species are Nature's Way of providing taxonomists with a self-extending meal-ticket

  5. I think your review is unfair Mark. I found the book good background reading and learnt a great deal from my various brief forays into it.

    We can't all have the benefit of your extensive knowledge!

    1. Ed - to be fair, I don't think that makes it unfair. But I don't want to be unfair.

      1. Mark - I think you're review is unfair despite your knowledge.

        1. Ed - I think you probably mean that you don't agree with it. Obviously, It's all my fault.

  6. That's a fair point Miles. I've known birders who 'don't do' certain habitats such as woodland or mountains as others ' don't do' gulls - or linnets. We all have preferences whether we admit it or not

  7. I think I am as likely to enthuse about a habitat as about a species. A meadow, for example, may have no individual species that is especially rare or extraordinary, but the profusion of flowers and insects taken together can be wonderful. The same can be true for a woodland or other habitats. More often, I suppose, it is a combination of the individual species encountered and the 'whole' into which they slot that arouses wonder and admiration.
    Looked at from another point of view a rare species I'd never seen before that turned up in a car park would probably captivate me less than a common one in a rich natural environment.

    I have not yet read this book and have now seen one very positive review and one not very positive review (plus a mixture of votes either way in the comments here). As it is a little shy of thirty pounds I guess that means that this is maybe one to borrow first rather than buying it outright!

  8. I've not seen this book, but maybe those that have seen it could explain to me what a "wildlife habitat" is? There is wildlife everywhere. Whether it is a human gut, a roadside verge, the pages of a book or brick wall, a whole set of organisms will be living there! Are there habitats that are not "wildlife" habitats?

    1. There is (was?) a chain of trendy furniture stores called 'habitat' - maybe they are an example of a habitat that is not a wildlife habitat?! 😉 (Though I daresay that looked at closely enough even they would be found to support some wildlife in the form ofr dust mites and the like).

      Groan inducing jokes aside, you make a fair point, though.

  9. Struck by the thought that habitats are fractal I googled and found "Fractal measures of habitat structure: maximum densities of juvenile cod occur at intermediate eelgrass complexity". I'm glad I cleared that up

  10. Totally agree with your review of the book Mark especially re. the photos and the fact that it falls absolutely between two stools. However I disagree about habitats. Just back from a few days in N. Norfolk I took great delight in looking across the heath at Roydon Common NWT nature reserve with its absence of any housing, telegraph wires or sight/sound of traffic. The presence of a Great Grey Shrike was an undoubted bonus but just being in such a quality habitat when so much of Norfolk away from the coast is intensive arable farmland gave me a warm glow inside especially as it is a site I've known for 40 years and seems to be getting both bigger and better under NWT's care.

  11. I'll qualify my remarks very clearly by saying I haven't seen the book !

    A couple of things; yes, our habitats are man made, but when the story of the human/wildlife interaction is brought to life by someone like the great (and very sadly, recently late) Oliver Rackham for me they take on a real and exciting character. Linked to that (both Oliver's and George Peterken's ancient woods are in a state of constant flux that traditional naturalists seem to often have difficulty coping with), I've tended to find conventional 'habitat' reading far more static than the environment I'm experiencing.

    The other: species can validate habitat, or not as the case may be - it always alarms me when people stick with their conception of a habitat even when it isn't supporting what they claim to be its key species. Overgrown heathland and unmanaged woodland nature reserves are my personal bugbears - Nightjars and Woodlarks simply won't thrive in 18 inch high, solid heather, nor will Nightingales (or even bluebells) live in 30 year old stood over coppice, and the widely held belief that its safe to do nothing because, obviously, you aren't doing any harm is rubbish.

  12. Let me add to this. No such thing as heathland. Heather is a pioneer plant. It can not grow from seed under itself. Instead it allows other plants to germinate under it creating a new beginning often scrub then woodland. Man [and now women] have to manage the land to stop this happening. Amazing how nature always wants to change things. Never standing still!


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