Author interview with Arnold Cooke: Tadpole Hunter

In Tadpole Hunter, author and conservationist Arnold Cooke provides us with a personal and unique insight into the history of amphibian conservation and monitoring within Britain. As well as telling the story of amphibian natural history since the 1960s, it also provides a very human perspective on how we got to where we are today and how our knowledge of amphibian populations and dynamics has progressed over the second half of the 20th century. Packed with wonderful photographs along with charts and tables representing monitoring data, this accessible book will appeal to anyone interested in amphibians and the history of conservation in Britain.

Arnold Cooke was a researcher and advisor for the the Nature Conservancy and Natural Conservation Council for 30 years. Since leaving English Nature in the late 1990s he has continued to pursue his interests in amphibians, birds and deer and has published widely on subjects as diverse as the status of Britain’s amphibians and reptiles, pollutants in birds and the environmental impacts of introduced species of deer. His previous book, Muntjac and Water Deer, was published in 2019.

In this Q&A we chat with Arnold about his work with amphibians in the UK, the changes he has seen during his years working in conservation, and his hopes for the future of amphibian populations.

Although working with amphibians and their conservation has been a key part of your career, you have also dedicated a lot of your free time to recording and monitoring them and adding to the general body of knowledge regarding their populations. What is it about amphibians that you find so fascinating?

Amphibians have always appealed to me particularly because they can be relatively easy to catch – at least for vertebrates. However, they could be quite scarce where I grew up, and as a boy I was more interested in birds, flowers and invertebrates. When, in 1968, I joined the Nature Conservancy team studying the impacts of pesticides on wildlife, there were indications that frogs had declined, possibly because of pesticide use. An attraction of such a project was that there were significant gaps in knowledge about the natural history of frogs and other amphibians. This meant I had a fairly blank canvas at the beginning and I needed to undertake basic studies to try to understand what made frog populations tick, as well as doing pesticide studies. Later, I joined the Nature Conservancy Council, and became involved with conserving amphibian species nationally. By then I had started studying amphibians in a personal capacity, and was able to adapt or start local projects to inform issues of national interest, such as developing monitoring methods and investigating population stability and responses to impacts of various kinds. As information from these studies became available, it could be fed back into the system to conserve amphibians – and so helped me do my job more effectively. Once started, I became increasingly hooked and often found it difficult to stop the various strands of work.

You mention how, early in your career, you were faced with the challenge of discovering how populations of amphibians had changed in the distant and recent past and that, given the lack of empirical field data, sending questionnaires to suitable candidates was the best way to gather information about this. Do you think that conservation initiatives for amphibians are still limited by accurate population/distribution data?

When I started to work on the common frog more than 50 years ago, there was no hard information on how the national population had changed, but several well-informed individuals considered that declines had occurred. I felt I needed to be sure that there was a problem before doing too much work on pesticides and should find out whether, where and when decreases might have occurred. I targeted those people in the British Isles who had observed frogs (and common toads) in their local ponds and this resulted in information from several hundred sites. To increase cover I asked biology teachers in schools about changes in their local populations. The consensus was that there had been widespread decreases for both species during the 1950s and 1960s. This technique had obvious flaws, but its overall conclusion seems broadly accepted. However, it is wise to acknowledge the drawbacks of the method and not to place too much credence on the resulting information, especially on reasons that might be offered for change. Where ponds were destroyed (or created) in an area, then there are tangible reasons for change. However, this is often not true for suggested contributions such as from collection, road mortality or, indeed, pesticides. Because of the population dynamics of amphibians, substantial changes occur naturally and loss of some individuals does not necessarily translate into population decline.

During later decades of the twentieth century, several similar studies were undertaken, but since the turn of the century an attempt has been made to set up a statistically sound monitoring system for the widespread amphibians and reptiles. Unfortunately, number of sites covered initially was insufficient to provide a completely satisfactory basis for the scheme to go forward in that form. Consequently some modifications and compromises were needed, and a new approach has now started. Progress is being made employing novel field, laboratory and computer methods. And I am hopeful that herpetologists can continue to tap into citizen science projects on other animal groups, particularly birds, where huge numbers of competent individuals might be organised to gather additional data on amphibians.

I should also say that knowledge of the much rarer natterjack toad is exceptionally good. All known colonies are recorded regularly, and some have been monitored continuously for 50 years. This has allowed fine tuning of conservation action at specific sites and more broadly. And the very rare pool frog receives constant attention at its introduction sites.

As someone that worked at the forefront of conservation for many decades and has seen a huge number of changes, both in the natural world and in the human organisations and councils that are charged with protecting them, are you broadly hopeful for the future of British wildlife?

Thank you for the compliment, but I’m not sure how long I’ve spent at the ‘forefront of conservation’ – especially during the last 25 years when I’ve deliberately busied and buried myself in the detail of my own interests. Throughout my life, I’ve worked as a specialist in a range of disparate areas, rather than as a rounded generalist, so I’ve tended to focus on specific issues within the broad spectrum of wildlife conservation.

It’s true, however, that I’ve seen huge changes over the last 55 years. Some changes are of great concern – no one 50 years ago saw global warming coming. I remember there was talk about 40 years ago of the possibility of another ice age being just round the corner. The changes in biodiversity over that time have of course mainly been losses. On the other hand, there have been other types of change providing hope that British wildlife does have a reasonable future. I am thinking, for instance, of the numbers of professional people and volunteers now involved in conservation, the knowledge that has accrued, the conservation methods that have been shown to work and the legislation that has been passed. I’m aware that successive governments haven’t necessarily dealt kindly with environmental issues (or conservationists), but many peoples’ attitudes have changed markedly and younger generations are especially concerned about the environment. Just as conservationists in the past achieved more than might be expected because of their dedication, so should conservationists of the future – and there will be many more of them.

The wildlife communities and their distribution will, though, probably look very different in the future. I have lived for 55 years on the edge of the Cambridgeshire Fens. That area doesn’t sound very promising for wildlife, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover in 1968 that there were several nature reserves within easy reach including three important National Nature Reserves. However, I soon realised that reserves were like currants in a cake, there being very little of interest between them. When my wife and I drove to Norfolk to visit three other NNRs, we only managed to find one of them, despite knowing their grid references – and we had to negotiate a barbed wire fence to get into that. A permit was required for access in those days. The situation is of course very different now: visitors are generally welcomed. And reserves are increasingly being connected up, as is occurring in my area with two of the NNRs. I don’t doubt that much of our biodiversity will in future be experienced inside landscape-sized areas. I just hope it works. I regret that kids today don’t have the freedom that I had to explore and find things out for myself. Presumably, however, accessibility of knowledge will continue to increase. No need for children to learn and remember much, just use the phone app. Not wishing to be too cynical, surely enough youngsters will be captivated to become the dedicated conservationists of the future?

As regards amphibians, I believe we have more or less stopped the declines of the twentieth century and recoveries have started for some species. The future is uncertain but there are reasons to be hopeful.

Your working life has been incredibly fascinating and varied. Are there any parts of it that you remember with particular fondness or that stand out in your memory?

I’ve been very lucky with what I’ve been allowed or managed to do during my working life of more than 60 years – that’s using the word ‘working’ very loosely. I still have a reasonably good grasp of what I did and when I did it because I’ve usually written up (but not necessarily published) my observations and thoughts in some form or other. When I’ve been able to study wildlife, there has been very little that I haven’t enjoyed. There have been stand-out moments such as: in 1962 when I found my observations demonstrated that birds in suburbia were more approachable than those in the countryside; in 1982 when I watched breeding newts by torchlight for the first time; and in 1994 when I realised I could put out tempting vegetation for muntjac in a wood and find it had been consumed by the following morning. Each of these moments led to the development of field monitoring techniques.

Then there have also been periods that have been memorable for different reasons. The five years 1968-1973 with the old Nature Conservancy at Monks Wood were marked by an extraordinary level of interest in our work shown by the public, politicians and even royalty. In contrast, the last couple of decades have been spent quietly at home pottering around doing as much fieldwork as possible and sorting out what results meant. My qualifications are in chemistry and biochemistry and, had things turned out differently, I might have been more of a lab worker. But working outside has always been my preference. When working for English Nature in the 1990s, we were required to fill in risk assessment forms when away from the office, including when working outside normal office hours. Some years, I filled in nearly 200 such forms, revealing how much fieldwork I did as well as providing an illustration of why I was glad to leave behind modern management methods in the late 1990s.

What would be the main message you would give to the conservationists and ecologists that are following in your footsteps?

Because of my rather blinkered working experience during the current century, I think the most appropriate message is simply to say, ‘good luck and thank you’. Everyone needs some luck in order to have a satisfying career and I genuinely appreciate what present and future generations are doing and will continue to do to help understand and conserve wildlife.

Finally, what is occupying your time at the moment? Do you have plans for further books?

My main task this year has probably been seeing Tadpole Hunter to fruition, so it’s good to have it published at last. I’d wanted to review some of the topics in the book for many years, but they’ve only appeared in book form because of the Covid pandemic. My wife and I needed to shield during the lockdowns, so I started to review a couple of subject areas in March 2020. Later that summer, I realised that I had the basis for a book, so roughed it out and continued writing. I don’t intend writing another book, in part because of the time commitment. While writing Tadpole Hunter, I published several items on deer and have vague plans for other articles once the dust has settled from the book.

I have occasionally tinkered with bird behaviour in a very simple way and may revisit data collected in the 1980s. Earlier this year, I was surprised and very pleased to be invited to contribute my historic data to a global database of avian ‘flight initiation distances’, which precipitated a dive into material I hadn’t looked at for many years. Another line I might pursue concerns citizen science. I’ve participated in a number of such projects over the years, recording birds in particular, but also mammals and trees. At the moment, I’m interested in what an individual participant could get out of it? If repeated annually, it can provide useful monitoring information on species at your location. In some instances, I have carried on recording for long after the citizen science project finished.

Although I’m now doing very little fieldwork, I still have ideas to explore, but I’m sure there won’t be another book unless……….

Tadpole Hunter: A Personal History of Amphibian Conservation and Research was published by Pelagic Publishing in August 2023 and is available from

Author interview with Tim Blackburn: The Jewel Box

Interwoven throughout with tales of his experiences moth trapping on his London rooftop and in the Devon countryside, The Jewel Box by Tim Blackburn introduces us to a range of ecological theories and explains some of the where, why and hows that anyone curious about the natural world might tend to ponder upon. Beautifully and engagingly written, it manages to be both an ode to both the moths themselves and the activity of moth trapping, as well as a wider ranging exploration of the relationships between humans, other species and habitats.

Professor Tim Blackburn is a scientist with thirty years of experience studying questions about the distribution, abundance and diversity of species in ecological assemblages. He is currently a Professor of Invasion Biology at University College London, where his work focuses on alien species. Before that, he was the Director of the Institute of Zoology, the research arm of the Zoological Society of London.

In this Q&A we chatted with Tim about The Jewel Box as well as about moths in the UK, the things we still have to learn about them, and the species that he’s hoping to see in the flesh.

What struck me most about your book was how you manage to write about complex ecological theories in a very accessible way, while at the same time conveying your very personal admiration and fascination for these insects. What was it that convinced you that this book in particular needed writing?

For a few years now I’d wanted to write a book that presented the natural world in the way that ecological scientists tend to think about it. There is a lot of very fine writing about nature, but most of it is more natural history than science, or is very much focused on a specific organism or location. While The Jewel Box does use moths to illuminate and illustrate the rules that we (ecological scientists) think underpin how nature works, it is very much about those rules, rather than the moths themselves. I’m very happy to hear that you thought I explained the science in an accessible way – that was my fundamental goal.

Within the UK, we have a rich history of recording and studying moths. Where do you think are the big gaps currently in the research? Are there things about moths that we still know little about?

There are still lots of gaps in our knowledge of UK moths – hardly surprising given that we have 2,500 or so species here. For some, we still don’t know their natural food plant. For others, we don’t know if they still exist here. In this latter regard, it seems incredible to me that we are still arguing about the scale of insect declines in the UK, and what the causes of those declines are. We think moth numbers have probably dropped by 30% since 1970, but that information is only available for the commoner species of larger moths, and may be biased in various ways. While we have a rich history of moth recording, and some good data for moth population changes, we could really do with more.

Why do you think it can be so addictive to observe, identify and list the species that we find, whether it’s birds, plants or moths?

I don’t know! For me, it’s pretty much a hard-wired instinct. My mother says I was pointing at birds before I could talk. I’ve been a birder all my life. More generally, there is something deeply satisfying about observing and identifying species – a series of puzzles to work out. Yet unlike most puzzles, the solution is not a product of the human mind, but something more profound. It’s the start of an exploration into understanding millions of years of evolution and ecology. I love a cryptic crossword, but identifying moths gives me so much more joy.

As someone who was trapping before, during and after the Covid restrictions, did you observe any significant differences in the numbers or species of moths that were attracted to your trap during the periods of lockdown?

I wouldn’t say I noticed obvious differences due to lockdowns, although the first lockdown period itself was a very productive one for my moth trap. That was because I was in the Devon countryside when lockdown happened, rather than my upstairs London flat. The countryside is so much better for moths (numbers of species and individuals) than the city, and that spring was notably warm and sunny, which the moths loved. The 2020 lockdown was my most intensive period of trapping to date.

We are generally well informed about planting wildflowers for pollinators such as bees and butterflies and providing food for our garden birds. But what can we do to encourage moths?

The same really! Butterflies are just showy, diurnal moths. Moths are as good pollinators as bees, and like flowers and pollen just as much. So anything you do for the butterflies and bees will likely help the moths too. You just won’t see the impact as obviously, because most of the moths are using your garden while you’re sleeping.

Are there any species that you’ve yet to trap but are on your mothing ‘bucket list’ so to speak?

In The Jewel Box, I spoke about dreaming of catching a Death’s-head Hawk-moth, one of the largest and most iconic British moth species. Last October, I opened my moth trap on Blakeney Point in Norfolk to see that that dream had come true. It’s a moment that will stay with me forever. Now, Oleander Hawk-moth– the species that inspired the book’s cover – would be the dream, albeit even less likely than catching the Death’s-head.

Finally, what’s in store for you next? Do you have plans for further books?

I’m mulling on the next book, but still enjoying all that’s new and interesting in my life as a result of publishing The Jewel Box. But watch this space…

The Jewel Box by Tim Blackburn was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in June 2023 and is available from

Author interview with C. Philip Wheater and Helen Read: Animals Under Logs and Stones

Logs, stones and the like provide an interesting interface between the damp depths of the soil and the drier open ground surface, offering refuges for a fascinating array of animals. The communities of organisms that live beneath them are little noticed and even less studied, yet the potential for ecological work here is great. Animals Under Logs and Stones is number 22 in the popular Naturalists’ Handbook series and is a greatly expanded and updated version of the first edition which was published 27 years ago. It provides comprehensive information about these unique habitats and includes a range of easy-to-use and illustrated identification keys to help both amateur and experienced naturalists identify their findings.

Philip Wheater is Professor Emeritus of the School of Science and the Environment, at Manchester Metropolitan University. His interests include ecology and management of human-influenced environments, especially urban systems; invertebrate conservation and management; access to, provision and assessment of environmental education; environmental monitoring, especially fieldwork and the use of statistics.

Helen Read is a Conservation Officer for the City of London Corporation based at Burnham Beeches, a post held for over 30 years. She has written numerous books and papers on a variety of subjects, the majority being on the management of veteran trees and topics relating to invertebrates. She has also been an active committee member in various invertebrate societies.

With the upcoming publication of Animals Under Logs and Stones, we were fortunate to chat with Philip and Helen about the book and about the importance of these unique habitats in supporting a range of invertebrates and larger animals through various stages of their life histories.

The first edition of Animals Under Logs and Stones was published 27 years ago. What inspired you to write the second edition, and what do you think are the key things that have changed during this time in terms of our knowledge and research techniques?

There have been many changes in taxonomy over the last few decades, not least because of major advances due to the use of molecular techniques more recently. Also, more information is now available on the distribution of many species that are found under logs and stones. Because of increased interest in many of the groups found under logs and stones, it is now possible to expand the range of the book from the original 17 identification keys to 25 in the new edition. With modern publishing techniques we are now able to include many photographs to illustrate both the species and habitats covered by the book.

What benefits do the cryptozoan communities living under logs and stones bestow on their surrounding ecosystems?

Soil and leaf litter dwelling communities are important in decomposition, nutrient cycling, and soil formation and maintenance. In addition to logs and stones being microhabitats where some species live, others that can be found in soil and leaf litter use them as refuges. And it is possible to find many of these animals more easily than it would be by searching within the soil and leaf litter layers.

As children we’re fascinated by turning over rocks and seeing what’s underneath. Then, for the most part, we grow up and become increasingly distracted by other pursuits. Why do you think it is important that we value these often-overlooked microhabitats and ensure that they are explored and studied.

Even though many of the animals found under logs and stones are rather small and may not be quite as showy as butterflies or dragonflies, they are fascinating in their own right. Many of these animals may be found at times of the year when other invertebrates (especially flying insects) are not present. They are also not restricted to special sites; a wide range of species can be found in anyone’s back garden and observed without the need for specialist equipment. In addition, their ecology and life histories are generally less well known to the general public and can be very interesting to study.

In our modern world where there is often the pressure to make everything social media-worthy and aesthetically pleasing, it is easy to become obsessed with tidiness, both in our gardens and in other wild spaces. How important do you think it is that management strategies recognise the benefits of dead wood and stones which might otherwise be seen as unnecessary debris?

Leaving logs and stones in situ is increasingly acknowledged as being important to provide a wider range of refuges for animals. These days this is even the case in quite formal parks and gardens. There is a wider understanding of the reasons for more natural approaches to the management for wildlife. Similar initiatives such as No Mow May are spreading the concept of naturalistic management to a wider audience. Environmental interpretation and education will be key to continuing to spread this message.

As with all the fantastic Naturalists’ Handbooks you provide lots of information on designing and undertaking research projects as well as analysing and presenting the final data. For any enthusiastic naturalists who are not currently in education or working in a research environment, is it still of benefit for them to record their findings? And how could their records add to the general body of knowledge about these animals and habitats?

All well thought out studies can provide useful and interesting information, especially where there is little current knowledge about particular species and their natural history. Anyone can contribute records through apps such as iRecord and iNaturalist. Even information about relatively common species can be useful in looking at changes in distribution due to environmental change such as climate change. Those with a particular interest in a specific group of species can find like-minded people who organise field days, collate information and publish (often on-line) records and ecological information. Often species recording schemes or wildlife trusts are a good place to start. Our book lists many places where people can get more information about such groups.

Finally, what’s next for both of you? Any more books in the pipeline?

We are currently working together again on a book, to be published by Pelagic, on the ecology and management of Burnham Beeches which is a National Nature Reserve and a Special Area of Conservation in South Bucks. This will cover the range of plants and animals found at this important nature reserve, together with background on the history and management of an area that was set up as one of the first “green lungs” of London to provide a public open space. Helen is also finishing an update to the Synopsis of the British Fauna on millipedes for the Linnean Society with her colleague, Paul Lee.

Animals Under Logs and Stones by C. Philip Wheater, Helen J. Read and Charlotte E. Wheater is published by Pelagic Publishing in July 2023 and is available from

Author interview with Jennifer Ackerman: What an Owl Knows

In What an Owl Knows, Jennifer Ackerman provides us with a magical and captivating glimpse into the lives of owls. Covering all aspects of their biology, ecology and evolution, the book takes us on a wonderful journey into their lives and those of the people who study them. Through her prose, facts and stories, we discover just why it is that these birds have been enthralling humans for so long, and why they are so intricately interwoven into our culture, art and language.

Jennifer Ackerman is an award-winning writer who wrote for National Geographic for seven years and has written extensively for many publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Scientific American and Smithsonian Magazine. She is well known for her ornithology books including The Bird Way and The Genius of Birds, both of which celebrate the brilliance of birds through the light of new and continuing research into their biology, ecology, behaviour and cognition.

We were thrilled to chat with Jennifer about her most recent book, What An Owl Knows, as well as about owls’ reputation for wisdom, the incredible research that is shedding more light on their lives, and the mysteries that still remain.

Your most recent books, The Bird Way, The Genius of Birds and, to some extent, Birds by the Shore, have all focused on various aspects of bird behaviour and cognition. What inspired you to focus on owls for What An Owl Knows?

I wanted to focus in on a family or group of birds and take a deep dive into their biology and behaviour. I love birds, all birds. But owls? They’re unique in the bird world, night hunters with eerily quiet flight and extraordinary senses. When I started to think about writing a book about owls, they made my head sizzle with questions. What makes an owl an owl? How did owls get to be the way they are, so different from other birds? Why are they active at night? They have a reputation for wisdom, but are they in fact smart? I wanted to explore these questions and find out: What do we really know about owls? Quite a lot, it turns out. We’ve been studying them for a long time. But only lately have there been the advances necessary to solve some of the mysteries that have been around for centuries. Which made it a very good time to write this book.

Everywhere we look in the world, owls are intrinsically tied up in human art, culture and language. What do you think it is about them that captivates us so much?

It’s true, humans have been obsessed with owls for tens of thousands of years. Among the oldest examples of cave art ever discovered is an etching of an owl in Chauvet Cave in France 36,000 years ago. Now, all over the world, owls appear in stories and as symbols, sometimes of wisdom, beneficence and good fortune, and sometimes as emblems of evil and omens of death. I think it’s a combination of things that makes these birds so powerful. We see ourselves in them, with their round heads and big forward-facing eyes. Some species are cute, baby-like. But they’re also so different from us, creatures of the night, fierce in their hunting, so mysterious and uncanny. It’s this whole package of cute and brutal, familiar and strange, that makes these birds so exciting and sometimes, so troubling.

You mention near the beginning of the book that research into owls has, until relatively recently, been fairly sparse. What research techniques or tools do you think have allowed more progress to be made in recent years?

We have new “eyes” in the field—infrared cameras to see what’s going on with owls at night, radio tagging to track their movements and drones to explore remote owl habitats and peep into nests. New advances in satellite telemetry are illuminating the movements of owls over short and long distances. Remote acoustic monitoring—placing tiny audio recorders over large landscapes to listen in on owls—has helped us understand their populations and offered a window into their social lives. Nest cams have revolutionized the study of how owls raise their young, offering a 24-7 intimate look at interactions that would otherwise be impossible to observe. This technology is advancing new discoveries and also confirming observations by banders and other researchers who have been working in the field for decades.

Owls have long been associated with wisdom, although more recently, scientific studies have taught us that they aren’t as intelligent as previously imagined, especially in comparison to other birds such as corvids or parrots. Do you think this is accurate or simply a reflection of our tendency to view intelligence from a human perspective?

The science of understanding the minds of other animals is still in its infancy, and we still tend to view intelligence through our own lens. But there’s a growing awareness that there are different kinds of intelligence, different ways of knowing in the animal world that are hard to conceive of and hard to measure. On the question of owl intelligence, the science has been swinging back and forth. It’s true that owls may not be smart in the same ways that parrots and corvids are smart (and in the same ways we are smart). But they do have large brains for their body size, just as these other bird families do—and also, perhaps, ways of knowing that go beyond ours. People who train raptors used to consider owls not as bright as other birds, especially other raptors. But now that they’re beginning to understand the subtleties and complexity of owl behaviour and knowledge, they’re changing their tune. In their stories and in my conversations with other owl experts, I found plenty of good examples of intriguingly clever behaviour among owls.

What an Owl Knows delves deep into the science of owls and covers their adaptations, communication, courtship and breeding, as well as the lives of the people studying them. Following the incredible amount of research that you undertook, are there any questions or mysteries about owls that remain unanswered for you?

So many mysteries remain. We still have a lot to learn about basic things, like how many owls are out there and the details of how they’re moving around from season to season. Questions about their communication and their inner lives still abound. When one owl hoots or squawks or chitters at another, what is it really saying? How much information is packed into an owl’s vocalizations that we might be missing? When an owl is on a night hunt, what does it actually see and hear? And what is really going on in an owl’s mind?

What was the most fascinating thing you learned while researching this book?

I have to pick just one? Ok. I loved learning that burrowing owls—comical little owls that nest in the burrows of other animals like prairie dogs, woodchucks and armadillos—adorn the outside of their burrows with all sorts of weird and wonderful “treasures”: cornstalks and corncobs, bits of wood, bones, moss, swatches of fabric, bison dung, coyote scat, even pieces of concrete. Why? Why in the world would they expend energy on this sort of apparently frivolous decorating?

Finally, are you able to tell us what you are working on next?

I do have another book in the works, but I’m going to be owly about that and keep it a secret…

What an Owl Knows by Jennifer Ackerman is published by Oneworld Publications in July 2023 and is available from

Author interview with Isabella Tree: The Book of Wilding

In the hotly anticipated The Book of Wilding, Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell share some of the many lessons they have learned from their pioneering rewilding project at the Knepp Estate in Sussex. Explaining in detail why rewilding is important and how we can all play a part, this inspiring book is packed with practical solutions for rewilding on a range of scales, from farms and estates to allotments and gardens.


Charlie and Isabella. Image by Anthony Cullen.


In our recent conversation with Isabella, she talks about some of the things she has learned through her years managing Knepp alongside husband and co-author Charlie Burrell. We also discuss ways of coping with eco-anxiety and how we can all make a difference to the future of the planet, even if we aren’t large landowners or farmers.

The story of Knepp Estate and its transformation from a struggling farm to a prosperous and famous rewilding project is incredibly inspiring. Looking back over your journey and knowing all the things that you know now, what would you say to the younger you who was just beginning on this path?

I would tell her that this is going to be the most exciting adventure of her life and rewards will come in spades. And not to worry about the occasional Exocet missile from disgruntled neighbours or a Twitter storm. The results will speak for themselves. It may feel like you’re swimming against the current, but soon the tide will turn. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people out there in the UK who will soon be inspired to make the leap into rewilding too.

In relation to the first question, with the benefit of hindsight, are there things that you would have done differently, or were the challenges and potential mistakes a necessary part of the process?

The wonderful thing about rewilding is that there isn’t a detailed management plan, no specific goals or targets. Initially, you may need to put in some drivers (such as free-roaming grazing animals and restoring dynamic natural water systems) to kick-start natural processes again – especially if your land, like ours, has been ploughed and soaked in chemicals for decades. But then you’re stepping back and letting nature take over. That’s a huge relief in terms of lifting the burden of responsibility from your shoulders. Nature itself takes over the driving seat. So, in a way, there are no mistakes. It’s all about nature revealing itself, evolving in the way it wants to, anew. Often these outcomes are completely unpredictable.

The only management we do at Knepp is controlling the number of animals – neither too few, or too many – so their influence maximises the potential for diversity and abundance of life. And that is simply by observation. So, if we go too far in one direction, we simply – at some point – change the strategy. But we try never to respond with knee-jerk reactions. It’s a totally new way of thinking, very liberating.

The Book of Wilding, while being a hugely practical guide to rewilding on all scales, is also a beacon of hope. In an age when eco-anxiety can lead even the most optimistic and determined of us to feel despondent, do you feel broadly hopeful that humans can do the necessary work to restore balance to our planet?

Yes, we absolutely can. If we work together, and realise our potential to bring about huge, transformative change. But you’re right to identify how the enormity of the environmental crisis we’re facing can make most of us feel despondent and impotent. The only cure for eco-anxiety, that I’ve been able to find, is to actually do something positive oneself. Even if it’s just establishing a window box and filling it with plants for pollinating insects – that small gesture can be hugely galvanising. It is part of a much bigger picture, contributing to restoring the web of nature – our life-support system – across the planet. Seeing butterflies and bees and night-flying moths arriving, on flowers that you’ve planted yourself, is balm for the soul. It gives you the kind of encouragement that allows you to lift your head above the parapet and think ‘what else can I do?’

The case you make for rewilding, both through the book and your decades of work at Knepp, are extremely compelling. What do you think are the main barriers to a more widespread adoption of this approach? Do you think that cultural and traditional values are more of an issue than the practical concerns of funding and knowledge transfer/availability?

Yes, in a way, I do. We’re seeing new streams of funding for rewilding and nature restoration all the time. Governments are at last making the move to pay for ecosystem services – improvements to the land that bring benefits to the public like clean water, clean air, soil restoration, healthy food, carbon storage, and flood protection, as well as wild spaces for human health and wellbeing. And the private sector (businesses concerned about their image, and now legally required to account for their carbon footprint and environmental impact) is beginning to make colossal investments in nature restoration – this is likely to be the most positive influence of all. So, the financial incentives are happening. But a major drag on action is down to public perception, and aesthetics.

We’ve grown up to believe the countryside should look a certain way, that rivers should be canalised, hedges clipped within an inch of their life, gardens should be tidy, lawns manicured. Insects are pests. Barren, overgrazed hillsides are natural. Apex predators are dangerous. Often, the biggest obstacle of all is changing our own mindset, questioning received wisdom, really asking ourselves ‘can I consider this landscape to be beautiful if I know it’s not functioning, if it’s actually harmful to wildlife and to ourselves?’ Ultimately, it’s about letting go of cultural values we may have accepted unquestioningly, understanding what makes an ecosystem function, to stop being a control-freak, allow ourselves to get messy, to let go – to rewild ourselves.

Do you think that there are some misconceptions as to what constitutes rewilding? Particularly on a smaller scale where a more hands-on approach might be required to mimic the natural processes of herbivores, for instance – to the untrained eye this might seem more like conventional conservation management than rewilding.

Yes, indeed, small-scale rewilding (where there isn’t the space to use free-roaming animals, and there may not be dynamic natural water systems) has a lot in common with conventional conservation, and often the managers of ancient woodland or nature reserves may not be aware that they’re also acting like rewilders, being proxies, themselves, and mimicking the disturbance of wild herbivores – by doing things such as coppicing and pollarding, or putting woody debris blockages into rivers and streams (like a beaver) to create different flows and depths of water.

Where I think the rewilding approach brings something different, and more dynamic, is in varying the timing of interventions – so you might randomise when you cut a wildflower meadow, for example, and the intensity of cutting, so as to mimic the different factors that might affect herbivore grazing pressure in the wild. This will favour different suites of plants, maximising plant and insect diversity. Or try the passive-active-passive approach – doing nothing for a while, then going in with interventions, then leaving the area alone again for maybe several years. Basically, mixing it up, rather than applying steady, even, predictable management. Get rid of the level playing field!

I liked that you included a chapter on rewilding gardens, as this feels like an achievable project that any open-minded gardener could attempt. If done well, rewilding a small garden will have obvious benefits for the local plants and animals but, if done collectively, do you think it can also have a wider impact?

That’s one of the big themes of rewilding – connectivity. A friend of mine has created wonderful habitat in his back garden for insects, frogs, toads and grass snakes. But he’s also persuaded his neighbours to either replace their fences with hedges (great for nesting birds, especially if using thorny species such as blackthorn and hawthorn) or cut holes in the fence for hedgehogs. They’ve discussed the different habitats they can collectively provide for nature. One garden has a beetle bank and a pile of dead wood for stag beetles, another has a pond; some mow their lawns monthly, others only at the end of the summer; some have put up window boxes or planted ivy to climb their walls; others leave a pile of leaves or nettles and brambles in a discreet corner. Between them, they’ve created a whole string of different habitats that are connected, so they’ve become a wildlife corridor that also provides for species that have different demands at different stages in their life cycle. The next step is to connect with a nearby park by persuading the council to manage the roadside verges like wildflower meadows, and by planting an avenue of trees in the street. Their gardens already back onto a railway embankment, so ultimately they could be instrumental in creating a flow of life between open countryside and inner city.

Finally – what steps would you recommend to the ‘average’ citizen who isn’t a large landowner or farmer and wants to go beyond simply rewilding their own small garden?

There are lots of groups and NGOs working for nature restoration in imaginative and exciting ways and many of them welcome volunteers, such as the Vincent Wildlife Trust which focuses on recovery programmes for bats and mustelids. Citizen Zoo is a community-focused rewilding organisation involved in reintroduction programmes such as water voles, beavers and large marsh grasshoppers. Derek Gow Consultancy runs courses on practical rewilding in Devon ( as do we, at Knepp in West Sussex ( Caring for God’s Acre is a conservation charity which advises on restoring nature in graveyards and cemeteries. Become a member of your local Wildlife Trust (London has one, too). You could petition your local council to stop mowing verges, leave thorny scrub in unmanaged areas, rewild urban parks, plant more street trees and encourage green walls and roofs. And, perhaps most important of all, campaign to make your village, town or city pesticide-free.

The Book of Wilding by Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell is published by Bloomsbury. Hardback RRP £35.00.

Author Interview with Gabriel Hemery: The Forest Guide Scotland

The Forest Guide Scotland is an invaluable guide to 365 of Scotland’s most beautiful, historic and nature-filled woodlands. Ranging from tiny urban copses to sprawling forests, each site is listed by name and location and includes detailed access information and a description of its main features. An essential guide for anyone living in or visiting Scotland, the book is illustrated throughout with the author’s stunning photographs which document the huge variety of plants and animals that can be found within Scotland’s forests.

Gabriel Hemery is an author, photographer and biologist whose life’s passion is the study of trees, forests and silviculture practices. He is the author of several books including two novels, two short story collections and a poetry anthology. His first non-fiction book, The New Silva, was inspired by horticulturist and diarist John Evelyn’s Sylva, which was published in 1664 and provided readers with the first comprehensive study of British trees.

His latest book, The Forest Guide Scotland, is the first of a three part series focusing on the beauty, purpose, history, wildlife and ownership of some of the most extraordinary woodland sites in Britain.

It is clear you have an incredible passion for trees, woods and forests, and they have been the focus of much of your life’s work. Your latest book, The Forest Guide Scotland, is very much aimed at getting the public out into the forests of Scotland. What made you want to write this book in particular?

I’ve wanted to write a guide to the forests of Britain for some time. At a basic level, I felt this would work well alongside my previous work The New Sylva which concentrated more on how to care for trees and forests than their character and location. More deeply, I am concerned by the increasing disconnection between modern society and the natural world. Only through seeing and experiencing, can we hope to inspire understanding and ultimately caring. As a proud forester, I was also keen on dispelling some of the myths about modern forest management, which plays so many crucial roles today in promoting wildlife, improving landscapes, cleaning our air and protecting us from floods, and of course producing timber to replace manmade materials which are harming our environment.

Scotland is a wonderfully diverse place with a beautiful language and cultural history. As someone who embodies the role of artist as well as scientist, did you enjoy the process of finding out about the history, names and traditions of each location throughout your research for this book?

I have loved the landscape and culture of Scotland ever since I first visited as a young boy (when I was so disappointed not to spot an osprey). Researching and conducting fieldwork for this guidebook in so many incredible locations across the country was simply a huge privilege. I learnt a lot about the Gaelic language and the names of trees and landscape features, which I began to recognise as I studied maps. I can’t say my pronunciation of some of them improved however, but everyone I met was very understanding!

Scotland differs from both England and Wales in that it offers its public the ‘right to roam’. Do you feel that restrictions on roaming affect how people perceive and appreciate the wild spaces within their country?

Definitely. Most people probably fear that they may not be allowed to roam in forests, or are unclear of the difference between a public right of way and other forms of access. This undoubtedly means that some people may be put off from exploring woods or forests on their doorstep, let alone when travelling to areas they know less well. While they explore a forest, they may also be nervous that they may be doing something wrong, which will certainly affect their enjoyment.

Writing the guide for Scotland was certainly relatively easy when it came to describing access to forests, while of course explaining responsible behaviour, for example how to avoid disturbing wildlife, being safe during the hunting season, or being a responsible dog owner. In the next guides, which will cover Wales and England, I have a much more difficult task. Many potentially interesting sites are simply beyond reach to the public unless there is a public right of way (e.g. a footpath) or it is part of the public forest estate.

Climate change is a huge issue for every habitat and ecosystem on the planet. What do you think are the main challenges that Scotland’s forests are likely to face in the coming decades? And how well equipped are we to cope with or mitigate these?

Thanks for raising this topic which is personally very important to me, and of course to life on Earth. As a scientist, I have conducted international research on the topic of trees and climate change, and currently I chair a partnership of 16 organisations which seeks to address the urgency of adapting our forests to a changing climate.

Across Britain, our climate will change dramatically, generally becoming wetter and milder in winter, and drier and hotter in summer. Naturally, trees species and associated wildlife will want to migrate northwards to stay within their ideal conditions. Not only does human land use make this very difficult (e.g. competition with agriculture and urban areas) for many species of mammals and plants, but the rate of change is too fast for trees. Trees are individually immobile but do ‘move’ between generations by producing seeds which are dispersed a short distance by wind and other means. If you consider that most trees don’t produce seeds until they are several decades old, it can take a century or more for a tree to move even one kilometre., This is far too slow to keep pace with our changing climate. Scientists believe that our climate zones are moving at up to 5km every year.

There is also a more immediate concern for our trees with increasing threats from pests and diseases. Climate change is making conditions more favourable for many new and invasive bugs and pathogens which affect our trees.

It’s not all doom and gloom. A warming climate will help some trees become more effective at reproducing, provide more suitable conditions for some species which have struggled in the past, and even improve timber yields.

Do you have a favourite forest or woodland from those featured in this book? Or do any stand out particularly in your memory?

Having to choose a favourite forest site from 365 is no easy task! I have so many wonderful memories from my fieldwork for the guidebook. If I were to pick any, I suppose they reflect my own interests in nature and my love of remote places. The Caledonian pinewoods at Glen Quoich near Inverey were stunning and it was encouraging to see so much natural tree regeneration thanks to the effective control of red deer. I was humbled by the passion and dedication of the many community woodland groups across Scotland.

Visiting Berriedale Wood on Orkney was an unforgettable experience, where the trees literally cling to life above the dramatic sea cliffs. I would also have to give a special mention to Inchie Wood near the Port of Mentieth where I had some of the best viewing experiences of my life watching ospreys hunting and nesting.

In 2009 you founded the Sylva Foundation charity, which aims to promote the good stewardship of woodlands through training, knowledge transfer and advocacy. Can you tell us a little bit more about the charity and the work it does?

Sylva Foundation is a charity active across Britain, supporting landowners in managing woods and forests to the best of their ability. We have developed innovative software called myForest which helps them map their woodlands, and complete plans and inventories. Some exciting developments are in the making which will enable landowners to collaborate with scientists to help study environmental change in the woods and forests under their care. Our headquarters is in Oxfordshire where we have a Wood Centre dedicated to supporting people who work in wood to establish thriving businesses. We also run a Wood School helping train a future generation of skilled craftspeople. Readers can find out more at

Finally, as an already well-published author I presume you might have plans for further books? Are there any projects that you are able to tell us about that you’re looking forward to at the moment?

The Forest Guide Scotland is the first of a tryptic, so I am working currently on the guide for Wales (to be published in 2024/5) while the England guide is due out the year after that (all titles with Bloomsbury Wildlife). I am always on the lookout for forest sites to include, and I even have a book patron scheme, so I am keen to hear from potential supporters. Readers can find out more at:

I am also working on a new book titled The Tree Almanac 2024: A Seasonal Guide to the Woodland World which will be published by Robinson Books this November.

The Forest Guide Scotland was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in April 2023 and is available from

International Day of Forests 2023

21st March marks the 12th annual International Day of Forests. On this day, the UN encourages countries around the world to celebrate and raise awareness of the importance of forests, through events, activities and campaigns large and small.

The theme of this year’s International Day of Forests is ‘Forests and Health‘. This topic aims to bring attention to the myriad of ways in which forests are linked with human health – through provision of foods and medicines, by improving our physical and mental health, and by helping to keep global warming in check.

Key messages of International Day of Forests 2023

Forests are a vital source of food and nutrition
Nearly one billion people globally depend on harvesting wild food such as herbs, fruits, nuts, meat and insects for nutritious diets. In some remote tropical areas, the consumption of wild meat is estimated to cover between 60 – 80 percent of daily protein needs.

Forests are natural pharmacies
Around 50 000 plant species – many of which grow in forests – have medicinal value. Local communities use forest-derived medicines for a wide array of ailments and many common pharmaceutical medicines are derived from forest plants, including cancer-treating drugs from the Madagascar periwinkle and malaria medication quinine from cinchona trees.

Healthy forests protect us from diseases
Forests have traditionally served as a natural barrier to disease transmission between animals and humans, but as deforestation continues, the risk of diseases spilling over from animals to people is rising. More than 30 percent of new diseases reported since 1960 are attributed to land-use change, including deforestation.

Forests boost our mental and physical health
Spending time in forests increases positive emotions and decreases stress, blood pressure, depression, fatigue, anxiety and tension. Trees in cities also absorb pollutant gases from traffic and industry and filter fine particulates such as dust, dirt and smoke, which help shield urban populations from respiratory diseases.

Forests play a central role in combating the biggest health threat facing humanity: climate change
Healthy forests help keep global warming in check: forests contain 662 billion tonnes of carbon, which is more than half the global carbon stock in soils and vegetation. Forests and trees also help buffer exposure to heat and extreme weather events caused by climate change, which pose a major global health challenge. For example, trees properly placed around buildings cool the air and can cut air conditioning needs by up to 30 percent, also saving energy.

Forests are under threat and need our help
Ten million hectares – roughly the equivalent of 14 million football pitches – of forest were lost per year to deforestation between 2015 and 2020. Forest insects damage around 35 million hectares of forest annually. Fire affected approximately 98 million hectares of forest globally in 2015. Through forest-friendly policies and increased investment in forests and trees we can protect our planet and our health.

How to get involved

• Organise or join an existing event to celebrate and promote the role of forests in maintaining human health. Great ideas include forest walks, tree planting gatherings, forest-related art exhibitions and public talks or debates.

• Let the UN know about what you’ve been up to by emailing If you send them your photos, they can also add them to this year’s gallery.

• Download the logo, banner or poster and share these to help get the word out about the 2023 International Day of Forests.

• Share your experiences on social media using the hashtag #IntlForestDay

Associated UN publications

Forests for human health and well-being: Strengthening the forest-health-nutrition nexus

This publication examines the many linkages of forests and human health and offers recommendations for creating an enabling environment in which people can benefit from them. Designed for practitioners and policy-makers in a range of fields.


Further reading on forests

Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest

No one has done more to transform our understanding of trees than the world-renowned scientist Suzanne Simard. Now she shares the secrets of a lifetime spent uncovering startling truths about trees: their cooperation, healing capacity, memory, wisdom and sentience.


The World Atlas of Trees and Forests

The earth’s forests are havens of nature supporting a diversity of life. Shaped by climate and geography, these vast and dynamic wooded spaces offer unique ecosystems that shelter interdependent webs of organisms. This book offers a beautiful introduction to what forests are.


Ancient Woods, Trees & Forests: Ecology, History and Management

From ancient times until today, trees and woods have inspired artists, writers and scientists. This inspiring book helps us to understand the web of connections relating to ancient trees and woodlands, and to offer techniques to ensure effective conservation and sustainability of this precious resource.


A Forest Journey: The Role of Trees in the Fate of Civilization

Now in its third edition, this classic book provides comprehensive coverage of the major role forests have played in human life – told with grace, fluency, imagination, and humour. It has been named one of Harvard’s “One Hundred Great Books”.

Author Interview with Peter Holden and Geoffrey Abbott: RSPB Handbook of Garden Wildlife

Now in its third edition, the RSPB Handbook of Garden Wildlife is a comprehensive and inspiring guide to making the most of your garden for wildlife. Full of practical tips, the book provides information on what plants to grow and how to structure your outside space to make it as attractive as possible for garden species, including mammals, birds, insects, invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians. A DIY chapter includes lots of projects such as nest box building and making your own pond.

There is also a comprehensive species account section which includes information and colour photographs of almost 400 garden species, helping you to take stock of the wildlife that is present in your garden, and to monitor how this changes over time. The third edition of the RSPB Handbook of Garden Wildlife also features new material on climate change, recycling and encouraging wild spaces in gardens.

Peter Holden

Peter Holden is the author of the bestselling RSPB Handbook of British Birds. He held senior positions at the RSPB for over 30 years and is the author of several books. Geoffrey Abbott formerly worked for the RSPB and now lectures part-time for the Field Studies Council. He is responsible for the book’s plants and insects sections.

Geoffrey Abbott

In this Q&A we chatted with Peter and Geoffrey about the book, about the importance and benefits of keeping our gardens ‘wild’ and their recommendations for small but impactful changes we can make in our outdoor spaces.


Now in its third edition, it has been 14 years since the first Handbook of Garden Wildlife was published. Do you think there have been significant changes in terms of types/styles of gardens and the wildlife they support during this time?

Geoffrey: there is now even more pressure on natural habitats and wildlife, and a continuing decline in many species such as bees, Starling and House Sparrow. This means that gardens are of even more value for conservation. At the same time there are more new houses, with smaller, or no gardens, and a continuing trend (as David Lindo so graphically points out in his foreword) to cover gardens with concrete or paving. There are also changes in our gardens due to the arrival of new species, some perhaps due to climate change. We have included some of the species (like Ivy Bee and Tree Bumblebee) that you are most likely to see in your garden.

Peter: Gardens will also be affected by changes in climate, especially if we have drier summers so we have introduced a new chapter on dry gardens.

In the book, you recommend keeping a log of the wildlife observed in a garden over the year. Do you think that this has become something of a lost art – taking the time and having the patience to observe the same bit of land over time and enjoying the process of noting the changes?

Peter: Yes, I see fewer people using a notebook and pencil when out birding and they don’t seem to be recording on mobiles either, even though there are excellent Apps like the BTO’s Birdnet. It should be easier than ever to keep notes at home using electronic spreadsheets and diaries. With programmes such as iRecord you can input photos and sightings and have the satisfaction of knowing these records are added to local and national databases – helping to build up a picture of changing wildlife populations.

In the introduction, you mention how important our gardens became to us during the Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. Improving them for the local wildlife has obvious benefits for conservation, but do you think there are also benefits from making these changes for ourselves and for our children?

Peter: There is more and more evidence showing environmental benefits on wellbeing and general health. There are also the additional benefits of exercise that comes from gardening and opportunities for relaxation. However, best of all, I see gardens being the ideal place for small children to start to learn about nature. It might be watching an ant’s trail, planting wildflowers, feeding the birds or helping to prepare a small pond, making pitfall traps for bugs or doing the Big Garden Birdwatch. And it’s not just parents – grandparents are often the ideal teachers for the next generation – with more time to share their own knowledge and experience.

In the section of your book on wilding, you describe the ideal garden as ‘organised chaos’. Do you think that the current trend for neatness and tidiness in a garden can be problematic in terms of attracting wildlife?

Geoffrey: Absolutely. Just one example is clearing all the dead heads from the borders which removes important food sources in the form of seeds, for birds and small mammals. Hollow dead stalks are also important sites for many hibernating insects. Tidying beds of leaf litter removes a whole community of invertebrates, and important feeding sites for thrushes, Blackbirds and Robins. Colonies of House Sparrows love scruffy corners and dense shrubs, while a pile of prunings and dead leaves can even provide a hibernation site for hedgehogs and a home for beetles and other invertebrates. Converting part of the garden to concrete or paving, or even replacing a lawn with Astroturf for easier management, will make whole areas sterile of wildlife.

One part of the book that I found particularly useful was the section on seasonal management, which also includes a handy monthly guide to the wildlife you might see and the tasks that need to be undertaken. How much would you say that maintaining a garden for wildlife differs from more ‘conventional’ gardening techniques?

Peter: That is an interesting question as there is not really a right or wrong way of doing things. It’s really about empathy – understanding your garden environment and gradually moving it from a homocentric place to one where wildlife is the focus. Every action will have nature in mind, while still keeping the garden as our own special place – it’s a delicate balance…and its fun…and over time our knowledge will grow as well.

For any readers with an average sized urban or suburban garden who wants a quick and affordable change that they can make, what would you recommend as something impactful but achievable that they could begin with?

We are both agreed that by far the best single improvement is to create a pond.

Geoffrey: This will greatly encourage garden wildlife by providing a source of water (for animals such as bees, birds and hedgehogs), mud for nesting birds, and a variety of extra insects as food. The pond will also add a whole new community of creatures, many of which leave the water at the adult stage. You may encourage frogs, toads or newts, as well as insects such as dragonflies and damselflies. These can give a whole new dimension to the summer garden.

Peter: A pond need not be large or complicated to make. A simple moulded plastic or flexible liner will suffice. It needs to be deep enough not to dry out but have some shelving edges to allow birds or hedgehogs to drink. However, avoid introducing fish – they are incompatible with most other wildlife in a garden pond.

Finally, what are you working on now? Do you have plans for further books?

Geoffrey: I will be writing wildlife notes for local magazines.

Peter: I will continue to work on updates for future editions of this Handbook and also for the RSPB Handbook of British Birds. I will continue with lectures for RSPB local members’ groups and hope to meet some of you there!

RSPB Handbook of Garden Garden Wildlife by Peter Holden and Geoffrey Abbott was published in February 2023. It is published by Bloomsbury Publishing and available from


Author Interview with George Peterken: Trees and Woodlands

Written by one of the UK’s most highly regarded forest ecologists, Trees and Woodlands weaves together personal stories and scientific research in a thorough exploration of our woodlands, their ecology and how we as humans have interacted with them over the course of history. The 12th installment in the popular British Wildlife Collection, Trees and Woodlands will appeal to anyone who is fascinated by the stories told by our native woodlands and who is invested in their future.

George Peterken worked with the Nature Conservancy to start the ancient woodland inventory and later worked as nature conservation adviser at the Forestry Commission. His research interests, which have centred on nature conservation, natural woodland and long-term and large-scale aspects of woodland ecology, benefited from a Bullard Fellowship at Harvard University. He is the author of a large number of books on both woodlands and meadows and was awarded an OBE for services to forestry in 1994.

In this Q&A we chatted with George about the book, about his life and career as a woodland ecologist and about his hopes for the future of woodlands in the UK.

Firstly, can you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you get into working with and researching woodlands?

All my childhood holidays were visits to my Mother’s family on the edge of the New Forest and the woods at Ruislip and the Chilterns were my targets as a teenage cyclist, but woods became fully imprinted with 6th form natural history camps at Beaulieu Road in the New Forest, led by my charismatic teacher, Barry Goater. I gained an entry to woodlands research when Palmer Newbould at University College, London, accepted me as a PhD student to study New Forest woodlands on a Nature Conservancy grant. Then I had the luck to be offered my ideal job as a woodland ecologist at the Nature Conservancy’s Monks Wood Experimental Station. This was a madly exciting and committed place to work where, as you will see from the book’s dedication, we thrived on the freedom we were allowed. Thereafter it was necessary to ride out the constant reorganisations thrust upon us by our paymasters, the Government.

Trees & Woodlands is a wonderfully wide-ranging book. I particularly enjoyed the frequent stories and anecdotes from your own life and career, as well as the well-researched snippets of history, culture and language. Does the human-landscape interaction interest you?

Certainly. Its much more entertaining to explain what I find in a wood in terms of human actions and unforeseen consequences than in terms of soils, climate or some other natural factor. It was Colin Tubbs who taught me this when I was a research student and he was the Nature Conservancy’s warden-naturalist for the New Forest. We would notice some feature of the vegetation distribution or woodland structure and find, more often than not, that we could understand it best as, say, an abandoned extension of agriculture or an unexpected consequence of an Act of Parliament regarding deer. Then at Monks Wood, I found that Max Hooper and John Sheail in particular were just as keen as myself to study ecology in a county record office as we were in the fields and woods. Then, of course, we all came across Oliver Rackham who had seized on the same links between history and habitats. He more than anyone has demonstrated that it’s the human element that generates most interest in the natural world. This interest also had direct benefits for my main work in woodland nature conservation: it was much easier to negotiate management that benefited nature with a woodland owner who had a keen interest in the history of his/her wood.

Your book in large part looks at the interaction between humans and woodlands over the course of history, both ancient and recent, and you state that we would have to go a long way back in time to find a woodland which was not modified by the presence of man. Where in the UK would you say is closest to a ‘natural’ or ‘unmodified’ woodland, ie one that has been affected the least by humans?

This is the subject of one of the chapters. Spending my career working with semi-natural woodlands, I spent a lot of time wondering what natural woodland looked like, then, as you can read in my contribution to Arboreal (Little Toller, 2016), came to the conclusion that natural woodland takes many different forms, but that no woodland existing since the last Ice Age could be entirely unaffected by people. We can witness approximations by allowing an ancient, semi-natural woodland to grow without direct management intervention – which is what we have studied at Lady Park Wood – or by ‘shutting the field gate’ and watching what happens as shrubs and trees invade. Whether the results look like pre-Neolithic woodland, which harboured large herbivores, is a subject that has animated woodland ecologists in recent years: some would say that the New Forest is natural in that sense, even though it has been used and managed for centuries. ‘Natural woodland’ to the general public means ‘woodland of native trees not obviously managed’ and I think ecologists should get close to that.

Extreme weather events such as storms and flooding are likely to occur at an increased frequency due to the effects of climate change. Coupled with the anthropogenic impacts of deforestation, land use change and overgrazing, this might seem to paint a dim picture for the woodlands of the future. Moving forwards, what do you think are going to be the main challenges in the UK when it comes to preserving and improving our native woodlands?

The immediate threats come from novel diseases and pests, uncontrolled deer populations and our limited ability to sustain low intensity management, which leads to neglected woods becoming less stable and losing some elements of their biodiversity. Pervasive eutrophication via rain seems to reinforce the biodiversity losses from unmanaged woods.

Deforestation is not really a problem here; storms would have less impact if woods were managed and thus stand ages were younger; trees and woods are part of the solution to flooding; and the main immediate danger from climate change may be a form of self-fulfilling prophesy when, say, beech stands are felled and replaced by introduced species that we think will better withstand future climates. Ancient woods seem reasonably well protected by public opinion, the Woodland Trust and official organisations, but we could easily drop our guard if we again believe – as we did around 1970 – that all these new woodlands will form an adequate replacement.

In terms of woodland management and the policies which govern this, what changes would you like to see in the UK over the coming years?

I’m now way out of the loop of forestry politics, but I can answer in more general terms. Throughout my career foresters have been itching to bring the now neglected former coppices back into management. Most of these are ancient woods and therefore important for nature conservation, so I took the view through the 1970s that they should be left alone, or coppiced, since their likely fate under forest management would have been planted conifers. But from 1982, when what became the Broadleaves Policy was under discussion, I advocated management based on site-native tree species, and I have not changed since. We must find or generate markets for native tree timber and wood, like Coed Cymru did and does, that would benefit wildlife and give more people a stake in the future of ancient woodlands. I like the idea of more community involvement, but in practice this usually comes down to one or two individuals. I am all in favour of leaving a representative selection of woods to grow naturally – limited intervention, or none – partly because they will act as a constant reminder of the benefits of management.

Since you began working in and researching woodlands, have there been any major technological advances that have had a signification impact on the type and quality of research that you do?

Linking my name with technological advances will elicit hollow laughter in some quarters. For years, my fieldwork has involved pencil, paper, girthing tape and metal plot markers. I have tried GPS to mark plots, but in the woods I’ve studied the errors are too large to find small plots. I do use a spreadsheet to analyse the records, though. My research started when statistical analyses were undertaken long-hand on an electric machine that whirred and juddered for ever while it did long divisions, so the arrival of computers, the internet and digital cameras is obviously the key technical advance. This has enabled astonishingly intricate analyses of huge volumes of fieldwork data, but it has also led to papers in, say, the Journal of Ecology becoming unreadable. The need now is to present and explain research results and their implications to as wide an audience as one can summon in a form that can be appreciated by a general readership. Technical advances are important and often amazing, though nothing like as important as developing the skills to write clear, accurate, non-technical, substantial and readable text. I like to think that British Wildlife magazine and the derivative Collection of books have shown the way.

Finally, what’s next for you? Do you have plans for further books?

I’m reaching the age when plans are futile, but I still like to have an on-going project. On books, I am helping Stefan Buczacki write about Churchyard Natural History. One of the most rewarding of recent projects was my collaboration with a group of professional artists, The Arborealists, in Lady Park Wood (Art meets Ecology, Sansom, 2020) and we have plans for a sequel in Staverton Park, a Suffolk wood-pasture I knew well in the late 1960s. For several years I gave up woodlands and took a close interest in meadows, which led to an earlier book in the British Wildlife Collection and gave me an enthusiasm for wood-meadows, so I’m doing what I can from a distance to help the Woodmeadow Trust.

Trees and Woodlands by George Peterken was published in February 2023. It is published by Bloomsbury Publishing and available from


Author Interview with Mark Carwardine: RSPB How to Photograph Garden Birds

RSPB How to Photograph Garden Birds is an inspirational and practical guide to photographing birds in your own garden. Packed full of tips and tricks, the book covers equipment, composition, light and weather, as well as providing guidance on feeding birds to make your garden as attractive as possible to feathered visitors.

The second half of the book contains a range of different projects, each with details on the equipment required and the techniques you will need to use to obtain the desired shot. From using reflecting pools and catching birds in flight, there is plenty here to help you hone your skills and start capturing professional quality images.

Mark Carwardine is a zoologist and an award-winning writer, a TV and radio presenter and a bestselling author of more than 50 books. Well known for his skills as a wildlife photographer, he was selected as one of ‘The World’s 40 Most Influential Nature Photographers’ in the US’s Outdoor Photography magazine and is currently presenting and producing the BBC Wildlife Photography Masterclass on YouTube. He also runs wildlife photography holidays and workshops worldwide.

In this Q&A, we chatted with Mark about the book, about his life and journey as a photographer, and discuss some tips on making photography affordable.

You have been described as one of ‘The World’s 40 Most Influential Nature Photographers’, have chaired the judging panel of the prestigious Wildlife Competition of the Year for seven years, and are presenter and producer of the BBC’s Wildlife Photography Masterclass. With all this experience, variety and skill under your belt, what made you turn your attention to garden birds as the subject of your latest book?

It was a lockdown thing. I’ve been feeding birds in the garden for as long as I can remember (as we should all be doing – there is a lot of evidence that feeding garden birds year-round really does give them a better chance of survival). I loved watching them, and they gave me an inordinate amount of pleasure, but it was only during lockdown that I really started to photograph them. And then I got completely hooked. Garden birds make fantastic photographic subjects. Many of them are strikingly beautiful; they are readily accessible (you can even capture frame-filling images from your kitchen window); they tend to be tamer and more relaxed around people than most ‘wild’ birds out in the countryside; and they are impressively adaptable (you can move the feeders around, change the perches or add a new prop and they will often return within a few minutes). The other great advantage, of course, is there is no need for flights or hotel rooms: you barely have to leave the house.

Image by Mark Carwardine

What came first to you as a youngster, a love of nature or a love of photography? Or did they develop simultaneously?

Definitely a love of nature. I’ve been obsessed with wildlife since before I could walk and talk. The photography came in my teens. My father was a keen photographer and taught me how to print black-and-white prints in his darkroom in the loft etc, so he was the initial inspiration. I still remember saving for my first ‘proper’ camera in my mid-teens – it took me two years, working every Saturday and all school holidays in a camera shop. I’ve been very lucky to be able to make photography a big part of my work – to illustrate books, articles and lectures etc.

You mention in the book that you started out by shooting film. Do you prefer the flexibility of digital photography or are there things you miss about using older techniques and equipment?

I don’t miss anything about shooting film at all! How anyone managed to take great wildlife pictures with a 36-exposure roll of 25 or 64 ASA film – let alone with a separate light meter and a manual-focus lens – I will never know. I’m very grateful to have learnt photography using film, because you had to understand how everything worked and you had to work slowly and carefully, but my photography has certainly improved since the advent of digital. In fact, I was Chairing the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition during the transition from film to digital and watched the standard of wildlife photography grow exponentially.

Image by Mark Carwardine

I imagine a large part of being a good photographer is slowing down and really paying attention, not only to your chosen subject, but to the surroundings, weather, light and other variables. As someone who is evidently extremely productive and busy in your professional life, do you find this aspect of photography enjoyable? Or is it a necessary chore?

It’s the only time I slow down! The funny thing is that I am naturally impatient – I can’t bear wasting time. I hate sitting in traffic, waiting for a late train, being trapped in a meeting that is dragging on unnecessarily. But I can happily sit quietly for hours – no, days – waiting for an animal to appear or do something interesting. That’s a pleasure and in no way a chore. I can sit perfectly still in a hide, without moving, let alone talking, with no problem at all. Every sense is alert, your mind clears and, of course, there is always something to look at. The other thing I love is the sense of anticipation. You could wait all day and nothing happens; or, without warning, you could be surprised by one of your best wildlife sightings ever. And, of course, you do need to be patient in wildlife photography, waiting for the best light, the best pose, or whatever.

Do you think that art and photography have an important role to play in inspiring people to value or get involved with wildlife and the natural world?

I have mixed feelings about this. I do think photography can play a critically important role in inspiring people and promotion conservation. The old adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is often true – meaning that complex ideas can be conveyed in a single image. There are many examples of one picture spurring a massive campaign and, ultimately, inspiring significant change. On the wall behind me in my office is a signed photograph by Commander Frank Borman, taken during Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon. It’s called ‘Earthrise’ and shows our tiny blue planet hanging in space, as viewed across the surface of the moon. It’s credited with kick-starting the environmental movement in the late 1960s. There are some inspiring examples in nature photography, too. Ansel Adams famously used his photographs to help create Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. And look at the work of the International League of Conservation Photographers. But I have mixed feelings because many photographers these days claim to be ‘helping conservation’ simply by taking pictures of wildlife and wild places. It doesn’t work like that – you have to do something as well.

Image by Mark Carwardine

In the current financial climate, the cost of equipment might put many people off taking up photography as a hobby. I liked that you covered the use of smartphones in your book, as this is something that almost everybody has access to. What would be your top recommendation for an inexpensive accessory that could be used with a Smartphone for photographing garden birds?

Yes, it’s true. Some of the best long lenses these days cost as much as a small family car! There’s a whole chapter in the book about photographing garden birds with a smartphone. One of the challenges with smartphone photography is shooting frame-filling pictures – getting close enough to your subjects. I’d recommend buying a really inexpensive little gadget called a shutter release, or shutter remote. This communicates with your phone via Bluetooth. Once you’ve paired it, you simply tap the button on the remote to take a picture. Then all you do is place the phone near your carefully positioned photographic perch – or wherever you think the birds might land. Sit in the kitchen with a coffee or a beer, using binoculars to see the back of the phone clearly enough to judge when a bird comes into view, and fire away to your heart’s content. It works amazingly well.

What’s in store for you next? Do you have plans for further books?

Actually, I’m working on another photographic book. For the past 30 years, I’ve spent a month or two most winters in Baja California, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, running whale watching tours, doing research and filming. It’s arguably the best place in the world for whale watching. So I am compiling a book of my favourite photographs from those 30 years, called ‘Baja California: Realm of the Great Whales’. I just have a few hundred thousand more images to go through, and I’ll be ready to make the final selection!

RSPB How to Photograph Garden Birds by Mark Carwardine was published in January 2023. It is published by Bloomsbury Publishing and available from