Stephen Moss is a naturalist, author and course leader of the MA Travel & Nature Writing at Bath Spa University. His latest book, The Swallow: A Biography, is published by Square Peg (£12.99). Here is his annual round-up of books about wildlife, nature and the environment. @stephenmoss_tv
[Mark writes: where I have read and reviewed books mentioned by Stephen I have linked to my reviews].
As ever, books about the natural world come in all shapes and sizes, and cover an extraordinary range of subjects: from flies to ferns, orchards to uplands, and the heart of the countryside to our inner cities. Some focus on a single species, others on every single bird or mammal on the planet. But what they all have in common is that they have been written and illustrated by people with a genuine passion and knowledge, and a burning desire to improve our world.
In this age of ‘new nature writing’, reference books often get overlooked, but this year has produced a vintage crop. Princeton University Press and WildGuides continue to expand their superb range of photographic field guides with Britain’s Ferns by James Merryweather (£20), and Britain’s Orchids, by Sean Cole and Mike Waller, along with new editions of guides to Butterflies, Dragonflies and Birds – all essential for the field naturalist. Another must-have volume is The Atlas of the Mammals of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Mammal Society, £35), a well-researched and up-to-date snapshot of where mammals live in the UK, and how they are faring.
As well as two new volumes in the long-running ‘New Naturalist’ series, on Pembrokeshire by Jonathan Mullard, and Uplands and Birds, by Ian Newton (both £65 HB, £35 PPB), Collins have also produced The Collins Garden Birdwatcher’s Bible (£30). Oddly, along with the usual chapters on identifying and attracting garden birds, this includes a fascinating yet totally unrelated section on Birds in Art! Meanwhile, the eighth volume in the ‘British Wildlife Collection’, Woodland Flowers by Keith Kirby (Bloomsbury Wildlife, £35) keeps up the very high standard of this excellent series.
Having completed their second blockbuster multi-volume work, Handbook of The Mammals of the World, Lynx Edicions have produced three equally seminal works: the European Bird Atlas 2 (€90, but available at €70 until 30th November); the boxed, two-volume Illustrated Checklist of the Mammals of the World (€210/€180); and possibly my favourite book title of all time, All the Birds of the World (€85/€65)– a single volume which manages to illustrate and documents the status of every one of well over 10,000 currently recognised bird species.
If these seem a little daunting, you might just want to curl up with a good book that you can read from cover to cover. The Bird Way, by US popular science writer Jennifer Ackerman (Corsair, £14.99) is a wonderfully readable account of how birds’ brains work, written in a very engaging style. Likewise, An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth (Uniform Books, £12) is a brief, fresh and highly original account of the complex relationship between birds and human beings.
For dipping into – and learning a lot when you do – try A Bird a Day by Dominic Couzens (Batsford, £20) which, as the title suggests, chooses 366 different bird species from Acorn Woodpecker to Zebra Finch, and tells us brief but fascinating stories about each one.
As ever, there are some books that simply don’t fit into a neat category. Ceri Levy and Ralph Steadman have released a box-set of The Gonzovation Trilogy: Extinct Boids, Nextinction and Critical Critters (Bloomsbury, £75), which is entertaining, eccentric and also very topical. Leading entomologist Erica McAllister has produced The Inside Out of Flies (Natural History Museum, £14.99), which continues her crusade to make us understand how useful and amazing these oft-maligned creatures really are. Reaktion Books continue their excellent ‘Animal’ series with volumes on Mole, by Steve Gronert Ellerhof, and Jellyfish, by Peter Williams (both £12.95); Paul Wood guides us around the capital with London Tree Walks (Safe Haven, £14.99); while The Sound Approach team have created another beautifully presented volume, Morocco: Sharing the Birds (£54.95), which tells you more than you could ever imagine about the birds of the Maghreb region of North Africa.
But the bulk of this year’s crop are what we might loosely describe as ‘new nature writing’, the bestselling creative non-fiction genre which has so captured the public imagination in the past decade or so. Once again, this category is enormously varied in subject and approach. The Lost Spells, by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99), is a charming follow-up to their bestselling The Lost Words, and will appeal both to children and their parents. Children are also very much at the centre of Patrick Barkham’s latest book, Wild Child (Granta, £16.99), a mixture of hard-won personal experience and topical journalism, as he tries to discover why our nation’s children are not as closely connected with nature as they should be.
Other books seek to enable the reader to understand why the natural world is in such a mess. Rewilding: The Radical New Science of Ecological Recovery by Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe (Icon Books, £8.99), makes a compelling case for the need to re-evaluate how we treat the planet and its natural resources. Closer to home, The Book of Trespass, by Nick Hayes (Bloomsbury, £20) is a passionate, thoroughly researched and brilliantly written examination of how we have allowed so much of our land to be out-of-bounds to visitors – and what we can do to regain access.
Meanwhile, James Rebanks, whose 2015 memoir The Shepherd’s Life topped the bestseller lists, has produced a timely follow-up, English Pastoral (Allen Lane, £20). This traces this Cumbrian sheep-farmer’s journey towards a more sustainable way of managing his land; and just might mark the moment when the farming community, supermarkets and we consumers finally realised the terrible damage done to wildlife by the way our food is produced. The same message – of a damaging past but a hopeful future – is found in Orchard: A Year in England’s Eden, by Ben Macdonald and Nicholas Gates (William Collins, £20), a rich and textured account of a year in this neglected habitat. And Bringing Back the Beaver: the story of one man’s quest to rewild Britain’s waterways, by pioneering rewilder Derek Gow (Chelsea Green, £20) is written with passion, anger and a huge dose of commitment.
In contrast, urban life – and the trials and tribulations of a birding beginner, find an outlet in Into the Tangled Bank by musician and newbie birder Lev Parikian (Elliott and Thompson, £14.99) – a quirky and entertaining examination of how we engage with the natural world around us. Another relative newcomer to the joys of nature, Melissa Harrison, follows up her wonderful lockdown podcast The Stubborn Light of Things with a delightful diary with the same name (Faber, £14.99).
The borders between travel and nature writing are beginning to blur more than ever, which is no bad thing. Jini Reddy’s Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape (Bloomsbury, £16.99), is a thoughtful and engaging exploration of rural Britain from a refreshingly different perspective. Meanwhile Raynor Winn, whose The Salt Path was deservedly a huge bestseller, has produced The Wild Silence (Michael Joseph, £14.99) –a prequel and sequel to her previous story.
As ever, some old hands have produced fine and very enjoyable books, including those from two veteran naturalists based in Scotland, both published by Saraband. The Nature of Summer, by Jim Crumley (£12.99) and Cottongrass Summer, by Roy Dennis (£9.99) are packed with a wisdom that only comes from lifelong experience. The same can be said of His Imperial Majesty: A Natural History of the Purple Emperor, by Matthew Oates (Bloomsbury Wildlife, £20), which blends eccentricity and insight in equal measure; and Greenery: Journeys in Springtime, by the always excellent Tim Dee (Jonathan Cape, £18.99), which is both uplifting and very moving. And Helen Macdonald returns with Vesper Flights (Jonathan Cape, £16.99), a superb collection of essays on our complex relationship with the natural world.
Credit to three of our most distinguished nature writers, Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren, who despite being of roughly the same vintage as the Rolling Stones, have been quicker off the mark than anyone with The Consolation of Nature: Spring in the Time of Coronavirus (Hodder, £14.99). This is an entertaining and insightful diary of lockdown, which really manages to capture the essence of the unique spring of 2020. (Spoiler alert: they beat me to it – my own version, Skylarks with Rosie, doesn’t come out until next March!)
Younger writers also got a look-in, and managed to match their elders for passion and insight. Alice Vincent’s Rootbound: Rewilding a Life (Canongate, £14.99), describes what happens when her life goes temporarily wrong, but is brought back on track by her new-found passion for gardening and urban nature. Under the Stars: A Journey into Light, by Matt Gaw (Elliott and Thompson, £12.99) also provides a younger writer’s angle on a familiar subject – the nature of light and darkness. And the voice of youth – indeed, of being a teenager – comes from the Wainwright Prize-winning Diary of a Young Naturalist, by 16-year-old Dara McAnulty (Little Toller Books, £16). This proved that – with help from a sympathetic publisher – a unique voice, with a fascinating story to tell, will always win over readers.
Several of the aforementioned works would have been worthy winners of the book of the year. The one I have chosen, Red Sixty Seven (BTO, £19.99) tells the stories of the 67 species of British bird on the official Red List of vulnerable birds – hence the title. The accounts, written by a wide range of people from actor Samuel West and the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett to Chris Packham, Melissa Harrison and our own Mark Avery (and, I confess, myself), are complemented by superb works of art by, amongst others, Carry Akroyd, Darren Woodhead and Rachel C. Taylor. The overall effect is quite stunning. Well done to Kit Jewitt for the original idea, and for curating the book so brilliantly.
The message of this book is a crucial one, yet despite the precarious status of many of the birds included, it is uplifting and ultimately hopeful. Sometimes, collective effort is more important than individual genius, and that is why, with its 134 contributors, Red Sixty Seven is my 2020 wildlife, nature and the environment book of the year.