Guest blog – Nature Books 2018 by Stephen Moss

Stephen Moss is one of Britain’s leading nature writers, broadcasters and wildlife television producers. He was the founding producer of Springwatch, and has written a stream of wildlife books (eg see   Tweet of the Day (with Brett Westwood), Natural Histories (also with Brett Westwood), and Wild Kingdom). A lifelong naturalist, he is passionate about communicating the wonders of the natural world to the widest possible audience.  

Stephen has written a piece on nature books of the year for The Guardian for many years, but this year they took this task in-house without telling him – so here is what would have appeared in the Guardian!  In Stephen’s piece below, those books that have been reviewed on this site have links to those reviews.

Tomorrow, I will tell you which are my top-4 nature books of the year (three of them appear below) and which one of them is my book of the year for 2018.

We, and the rest of the natural world, live in uncertain and challenging times. The concept of the ‘Anthropocene’ – a new Age in which humanity directs the future of life on Earth – has finally taken root in our consciousness.

 Yet looking at this year’s crop of books on nature and the environment, you might be forgiven for assuming we are simply carrying on as usual. That’s not to say that there aren’t excellent offerings; simply that few writers are engaging in the urgent issues which face us, and could end up destroying our planet.

Delving into the past can, however, provide a useful perspective on the way we view the natural world, andthis year, ornithological heavy weights rub shoulders with newcomers. In the establishment corner, The Wonderful Mr Willughby, by Tim Birkhead (Bloomsbury, £21) and Birds of the Ancient World, by Jeremy Mynott (OUP, £30). Both are master storytellers, whose immense learning and expertise is worn lightly, creating books that inform as well as entertain.

Newcomer Tessa Boase more than holds her own with Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather, (Aurum, £20), which intertwines the fascinating stories of the women who campaigned for universal suffrage, and those who founded the RSPB. An original approach comes from Paul Thomas, with his graphic book A Tabloid History of Birdwatching, (Paul Thomas, £12.99). 

The quest narrative is always popular with readers. Orchid Summer, by Jon Dunn (Bloomsbury, £15.99), and Chasing the Ghost, by Peter Marren (Square Peg, £16.99), both involve the authors searching for Britain’s wild flowers. Larger plants feature in Around the World in 80 Trees, by Jonathan Drori (Laurence King, £17.99), full of quirky details. Laurence Rose pursued spring through Europe in The Long Spring (Bloomsbury £16.99), an elegiac account of the progress of the season. And Birding Without Borders, by Noah Stryker (Souvenir Press, £18), is an entertaining account of a year chasing the world record for seeing the most species of birds.

Practical advice comes from the ever-reliable David Lindo, in How to be an Urban Birder (Princeton, £14.99), while Birdwatching London, by David Darrell-Lambert (Safe Haven, £12.99) provides a really useful guide to the capital’s top birding sites – and for me, as a Londoner, a trip down memory lane.

Some authoritative series maintain their usual high standards. The eighth volume of Handbook of the Mammals of the World (Lynx Edicions, €160) comprehensively covers insectivores and sloths, while three Collins New Naturalist titles (all £50) include such diverse subjects as Beetles (Richard Jones), Hedgehog (Pat Morris) and The Burren (David Cabot and RogerGoodwillie); all written by experts in their field.

Classic nature writing is provided by Miriam Darlington’s Owl Sense (Guardian Faber, £15.99), Mary Colwell’s Curlew Moon (Harper Collins, £15.99) and Tim Dee’s Landfill (LittleToller, £16) – don’t be put off by the title, as this is a delightful paean of praise to those often hated yet charismatic birds, gulls. Seabirds also feature in Far From Land, by Michael Brooke (Princeton, £24.95), the fruit of a long lifetime’s study of these mysterious birds.

The popular ‘nature memoir’ genreis represented by The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn (Michael Joseph, £14.99) a harrowing yet uplifting story of crisis and redemption. Donald Murray also touches on childhood – growing up on the island of Lewis – in The Dark Stuff, (Bloomsbury, £14.99), a compelling mixture of social history and personal testimony, written with a poet’s eye for detail. And Pressing On – A Decade of Linocuts, (Mascot Media, £25) is a feastof wondrous images from the doyen of bird and wildlife art, Robert Gillmor. Simply beautiful.

But my unofficial ‘nature book of the year’ award is shared by two books that bravely address the issues we face, square on. Our Place (Jonathan Cape, £16.99), by one of our best-known nature writers, Mark Cocker, is a thoughtful and disturbing analysis of the plight of our wildlife. Subtitled ‘Can We Save British Nature Before it is Too Late?’, it lays out just where we have gone wrong in our management of the countryside over the past few decades. It should be compulsory reading for whoever is temporarily occupying the post of Environment Secretary.

Wilding, by Isabella Tree (Picador,£20), focuses less on problems and more on solutions. It tells the uplifting story of the Knepp Estate in Sussex, where Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell have conducted a brave and successful experiment by turning a once wildlife-free farm into a paradise for nature – while still making a profit and providing food.

Neither of these books is without its flaws: Cocker can be rather doom-laden and pessimistic, while Wilding is perhaps rather too hopeful and optimistic. Yet together, they explain the issues we face and provide some of the solutions, at a time when humanity – and the rest of nature – need all the help we can get.

Stephen Moss’s latest book, The Wren: A Biography, is published by Square Peg (£12.99)

Remarkable Birds by Mark Avery is published by Thames and Hudson – for reviews see here.

Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.

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8 Comments

  1. Jonathan Wallace says:

    I fully agree with the choice of Our Place as the book of the year. Beautifully written and making its case powerfully. Maybe it is doom-laden but it is hard to be optimistic in the face of what has happened and is continuing to happen to our wildlife. It is important that people should know just how ravaged the countryside has become.

    Knepp is a great project which shows that the ravages are not irreversible but unfortunately Wilding is not a great book. Nevertheless, well worth reading for the account of how the project came about and developed.

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  2. Roderick Leslie says:

    Great choice, Stephen. Our Place is a great book and Wilding is certainly my book of the year. On top of the Knepp story itself, reactions to it I think tell a lot about the problems afflicting the conservation movement at the moment. There seems to be a way things are done, dating back to the successes of the 1990s, and Knepp apparently offends against them. That we can take even this tiny area out of farming has even been questioned by quite a few commentators. There seems to be little comprehension of scale - big by lowland nature reserve standards, but miniscule in terms of the farmed countryside, and also a perception that doing something different challenges other ways of doing things - especially the adjustment of current agricultural practise to leave room for wildlife. The agriculture imposed presumption that conservation is something you do on the margins - the uplands, the coast - and certainly not on the 'productive' lowlands has also reared its head.

    For me, what has happened at Knepp has some huge messages - we most definitely can restore our biodiversity and there is a wide spectrum of approaches to land use, if only we can break free of the rigid perceptions that seem to be dominating nature conservation. That we can combine wildlife rich management with other crucial priorities like flood management also comes through strongly - though the story of the digger driver and the refusal to contemplate river restoration either side of Knepp itself tells a frightening story of how slowly our institutions are reacting to the future.

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  3. John Miles says:

    Is there any point having the likes/dislikes? Poor bloke said what he thought and got shot down! I interviewed Mark for the Birdwatching magazine by actually working with him in his lovely piece of fen. He is what he says even though he only comes from Derbyshire. Must have a blood line in Yorkshire somewhere!!

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  4. Chris Green says:

    Agreed, both Cocker's and Wilding's books are excellent, the best I have read this year.

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  5. Nick Bee says:

    Some important books listed there - but no nature books for children anywhere among them?
    Maybe we need a separate piece written about this important but apparently neglected category?

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    • John Miles says:

      I applied for a talk at the book festival at the Grant Arms Hotel for 2019 where I have lectured for the last few years on different subjects as well as leading a tour there for 'Nature Scotland' my son's business and of course I was going to talk about my latest children's books but was turned down due to a lady speaking there in 2018 not drawing a 'bigger enough' audience on her chidren's book!!

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  6. Mr J Cantelo says:

    Mark Cocker's 'Our Place' is a superb and much needed book which fully deserves (and more) all the praise it has been given. I'd also highlight Jon Dunn's "Orchid Summer" a beautifully written and enviously good debut. I confess that it was a book I almost certainly wouldn't have bought were it not for the fact that I knew Jon when he lived in Kent decades ago. Even then I might not have done so had he not been sitting next to Stephen Moss (more of whom anon) signing his book at the Bird Fair. Tim Birkhead's "The Wonderful Mr Willughby" also quickly got me hooked. Modestly omitted from the list is Stephen Moss's own "Mrs Moreau's Warbler" which takes a topic that I'd have thought had been 'done to death' and manages to give it a fresh, entertaining and interesting 'spin'. I recommend all four very highly.

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  7. John Miles says:

    I followed up Mrs Moreau due to the fact that Steven said she was married in Cumberland. Amazing as it might seem she actually lived in Castle Carrock only a short distance from my house and was married in the local church before heading to Africa. So Castle Carrock can claim one of the few women that had a bird named after her in the WORLD.

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