Sunday book review – Ecology and Natural History by David Wilkinson

This is a very interesting read. It is an exploration and an explanation of ecological principles illustrated by UK natural history, much of it through strolls through particular parts of our farmland, forests and uplands. This approach works well, and it is a different type of New Naturalist from most recent additions to this venerable series.

Many of the places visited and discussed are vaguely familiar to me and so I could imagine myself in Winnats Pass in the Peak District and the next time I am there I may well visit the two sides of the gorge to see whether I can find more Cepaea nemoralis snails on one side than the other and spot the differences in vegetation. I’ve passed that way a few times and looked at the scenery but not much at the ecology, and we all do that a lot. This book might open our eyes to lots of interesting things.

It’s a weighty book – it looks like a New Naturalist but as I picked it up I thought ‘That’s heavy!’ and you do get a lot of words in these pages. And the text is very inviting and a very good example of clear explanation, and engaging explanation, of fairly complex issues. It is also notable that the text doesn’t spend too much time on birds and mammals, and gives more space than usual (deliberately) to lower organisms which, as we learn in the text, are often of higher ecological importance.

Places that get good coverage include Wytham Woods, Cadair Idris, Wicken Fen and Selborne and topics such as microclimate, competition, density dependence (and independence) and nutrient cycling are covered here.

I was a little disappointed, though I got over it because the book is so good, that predation isn’t given a more prominent position in these pages, if only because it must be the ecological process which is most talked about with the least level of ecological understanding of any. Indeed, some people rarely talk about anything else, and struggle to get any of it right. Predation may not be the most important and overriding influence on ecological communities (though it’s not trivial) but that is the point that needs to be more widely understood and I felt this author had the skills to do it. Of course, predation is mentioned, and there are good examples, but given its prominence in public discussions, and the grey cloudy nature of people’s understanding of it, it felt like an elephant standing outside the room, looking in.

I put this without hesitation in the shortlist of this blog’s books of the year. It is a fine book dealing well with complex subjects, without dumbing down, but leaving the reader better informed and better understanding the science, and therefore better understanding the world around them.

The New Naturalist series has, in my view (but I don’t read all of them) been resting on its laurels for a few years, which isn’t to say that there haven’t been lots of good books in the series lately but each new publication used to be an ‘event’. This book raises the bar again, and is an event. For those of us who have occasionally felt ‘Here comes another old New Naturalist’ this book definitely feels like a new New Naturalist.

And the cover by Robert Gillmor? Attractive and relevant but not the most striking perhaps; 7 out of 10? But I see from social media that Robert passed his 85th birthday last week in Norfolk and Norwich Hospital – as one of the most gifted and very nicest of our wildlife artists, with huge numbers of New Naturalist covers to his credit, I’m sure we all wish him the best.

Ecology and Natural History by David M. Wilkinson is published in the New Naturalist series by Harper Collins.

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3 Replies to “Sunday book review – Ecology and Natural History by David Wilkinson”

  1. I’ve just reviewed this for BB and agree with your take. Very readable, in fact the first NN I’ve read cover to cover for a while. I was rather alarmed by the new idea that competition between species may often be insignificant in explaining distribution and numbers. I wish he had said more about that.

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  2. Perhaps I should have heard of David M. Wilkinson but I missed your usual short biography of the author so looked him up. Impressive, Visiting Professor of Ecology at Lincoln University etc. with over 160 publications.
    I would never have attributed the cover to Robert Gillmor but it is good. One of my favourite wildlife painters, a much admired limited edition print of "Avocets arriving" was presented to us a while ago at a conference.

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