Woodland Wildlife: Managing Woodlands for Biodiversity

Steve and Tamara Davey

In 2018 , while still running a taxi business, an opportunity arose to purchase a few acres of local woodland on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon. Completed within a matter of weeks, Steve and Tamara Davey became proud custodians of their very own woodland!

When they discovered an impressive range of wildlife on their woodland site, they decided that the management of the area would be based on the continued provision of habitat for certain species, including seven recorded bat species, the visiting Nightjar and Woodcock. 

We caught up with Steve to ask him about how they are supporting nature through their project Woodland Wildlife

Can you tell me a little about your backgrounds.

Both Tamara and myself had childhood holidays in the Scottish Highlands as children, and there is no better place to develop an affinity with nature. It’s a place that holds a permanent residency within our hearts, those childhood memories imprinted on our futures. Mine were on the West Coast of Scotland opposite the Isle Of Skye. We used to stay in these old caravans that leaked and were powered by calor gas. The smell of the matches and gas appliances echoes those memories for me. The area was only a few miles up the coast from where Gavin Maxwell wrote his best-selling book Ring of Bright Water. As a family we spent a lot of time down at Sandaig ( in the book it was Camusfearna), Gavin’s books were really the only ones I read due to my interest in nature and love for Scotland. Above his hearth he had inscribed in Latin the words “non fatuum huc persecutus ignem” meaning, “it is no will o the wisp that I have followed here.” This phrase is very apt and resonates with our Woodland Wildlife project.

Aside from Scotland both Tamara’s and my childhoods involved getting out in nature with family walks, especially on Dartmoor. Also, similar to the book and film Kes, aged twelve I had a female kestrel to look after. My father converted the garden shed, and I remember rushing home from school every day. We looked after a tawny owl for a while too.  Myself and our son also volunteered at a local bird of prey centre – these memories, and the knowledge you gain from an early age all lie dormant until the right opportunity presents itself later in life.

 

 

 

 

What motivated you to embark on the Woodland Wildlife project?

From the Spring of 2018 we made regular trips to the woodland because we couldn’t keep away and used to come up with loads of excuses to the selling agent on why we were visiting so often. We completed the purchase at the end of the summer. During the first twelve months we were staggered by the volume and diversity of the wildlife within our little plot and it was this that spurred us into creating Woodland Wildlife.  I couldn’t believe that the domain woodlandwildlife.co.uk was available so I snapped it up. I then asked the web company that had recently rebuilt my taxi website to work on a website for Woodland Wildlife. They came up with the current logo which I really liked however the squirrel was grey and so I asked them to change it to red as that signified hope to me! At that point the future focus was more on the development of guided visits. In August last year we set up the Facebook page and that is seeing a steady increase of followers. We post on there most days and this time of year we may be posting up to eight times in one day, purely because of the observations – we are always finding new species to photograph. Through the winter months the posts are more project focused as that is the time of the year when most of the manual work is done.

Coppiced sweet chestnut protected from surrounding deer damage
Felled young sitka used as dead hedging around boundary line

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What has been the biggest challenge in returning the woodland back to nature?

The nature was already there, nothing has needed returning as far as we are aware. But with small sized plots sensitive management is vital, for instance; if you don’t manage that important grassy ride, over time succession will take hold and that habitat (in our case) would be overrun with bramble and bracken, therefore the grasses would die off and displacement of species will happen. Our grassy rides are alive with insect life and as far as we are concerned these areas are a priority within our plot. When you see how small an area our grassy rides are and you see how many species they are supporting such as: leaf hoppers, beetles, bees, hoverflies, moths, grasshoppers, crickets, butterflies you can then understand how vitally important these small areas are. I would say our biggest challenge is still ahead of us. In 2012 the main plot was clear felled and in 2013 the holding company planted over 2000 young sitka spruce trees. These are now over eight years old and growing rapidly in amongst the birch, sweet chestnut, beech and a few other species. Being on an easterly facing slope (after all it is Devon) we are giving careful consideration to future extraction of timber and to what extent the damage would be. We are mindful not to ruin everything that we have done over the years. so the plan will be (in conjunction with the Forestry Commission) to convert over to native woodland. We will still retain some sitka for the goldcrests and siskins, but these will be in the area towards the top of the plot, whereby future extraction damage will be minimal.

Sitka are awful trees to work on as they are very prickly to handle. Even though they are only young it’s incredibly hard work felling them and dragging them around to produce dead hedging. Our adjoining plot is a mature stand of Douglas fir of 3.5 acres and that has recently been thinned. The remaining stems will grow on for a further 5 to 10 years, with the extra light they will grow in girth and not height. We have tagged a random 30 stems and will monitor their growth rate annually. This is one commercial aspect to our project, we plan to nurture a healthy self seeded understory within this stand and re plant where necessary in the future when it’s felled.

Was there a particular plant or animal that you wished to see return to the woodland?

Yes, the nightjar, they are in the area this season which is great, last summer they were on our plot and we regularly saw two of them. Having your own woodland is one thing but having nightjar in your woodland is a priceless dream. We spent many summer evenings there watching them, calling them in with a recording of their call (yes that works). On a couple of occasions early in the nightjar season, June I think, they landed in front of us on a tubex shelter, attracted to anything white due to the males having white markings on their wing and tails. Our sleepy dogs got their attention and flew in to check us out. The video is on the website, it’s not brilliant as it was recorded on my phone, but a wonderful experience nonetheless. We observed them through to the end of July and on each occasion the sightings consisted of a brief checking us out and churring away like they do. A truly amazing bird that due to its nocturnal habits has not been an easy species to study. They like young plantations up to approximately ten years of age as after that the canopy has closed in. They also like birch and sweet chestnut, both of which we have in abundance. We are coppicing the sweet chestnut which will give a more diverse structure to the woodland and also has many benefits to other wildlife as well as giving longevity to the tree itself. The nightjars arrive in May and have normally disappeared by the end of August and sometimes into September. Once the young have fledged they will migrate. Our thinning works of the Douglas fir overran into May and we are certain that that level of disturbance  (the sound and vibration of over 200 mature fir being felled) made them look elsewhere for a suitable nest site for this season. High hopes for next year!

 

 

 

 

 

In what ways can you draw an income from the project and how do you ensure that those ways are sustainable?

Part of the plot is mature Douglas fir, so over the years there will be an income from the felling of those but there also comes obligation and costs to re-plant. This area is 3.5 acres and we are hoping that at least 20% of that area will self-seed and will therefore not need re-planting. After 14 years of running a taxi company we have decided to pass it on to someone else as we want to concentrate on our woodland which will also involve craft sales. We plan to sell at an occasional local market, selling wooden products such as pendants, necklaces, key rings, hand made cards, Christmas decorations and fairy houses. All of the wood used will be from the bi product of our habitat work and therefore very sustainable. We are not skilled wood turners, I would describe our woody crafts as rustic. We also hope to offer guided visits for small groups of people who either want to immerse themselves into an incredibly diverse 8 acre plot of woodland that doesn’t have any public access( that’s called forest bathing nowadays), or groups and individuals that would like to visit to look at our management practises, it could also be for specialist groups to study bats, birds, butterflies etc. Although the craft sales will be necessary we do hope that the tours can be a success too as we will have great pleasure in sharing this unique place in South Devon.

Woodland Wildlife crafts to be sold on-site or at craft markets
Sustainable felling and logging of Douglas fir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What would you say has been the project’s biggest success story so far?

This has to be the three small wildlife ponds created in the spring of last year. Our philosophy has always been that our work creates a biodiversity gain. The ponds are a totally new feature to the wood and therefore a totally new habitat with the nearest water course being in the bottom of the valley.
The ponds are host to pond skaters, diving beetles, water boatmen, frogs, toads and a few species of dragonfly. The mosquito larvae they produce is a food source for the seven recorded species of bats that we have there. The frogspawn and toadspawn this year was amazing. This is boosting the sites biodiversity and that feels great. The Devon Wildlife Trust’s, Batworks Grant,  helped with the costs of the ponds which was very welcome indeed, because so far we have funded all the costs ourselves. The top pond was also designed with a very shallow gradient at one end so that any feeding nightjar can swoop in and get a drink on the wing.

Creating the pond by removing old stumps from a previous timber crop.
The pond getting established early in 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other success is our plantings, since Nov 2018 we have planted over 400 additional trees, shrubs and hedging. From scots pine to broad leaved privet, all-in-all over 20 new species have been planted. The hedging area consists of field maple, hazel, dog rose, dog wood, crab apple, blackthorn and hawthorn, and is growing well, albeit slowly. Once mature this will provide an incredible food source and habitat for many species. We also sought advice from a consultant ecologist on behalf of Butterfly Conservation, they recommended planting broad leaved privet, wild privet and alder buckthorn all of which will provide a valuable food source for many species of butterflies, insects and moths. The alder buckthorn being the food plant for the brimstone butterfly caterpillar.

Young Juniper planted and meshed around to protect from rabbit and deer grazing
Coppiced Sweet Chestnut, stems cut on an angle to prevent water from rotting them

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can you offer any advice to anybody wanting to undertake a similar project?

There is a misconception that when you purchase some woodland in the UK that you are legally bound to manage your plot, but this is not the case. Currently you can do as much or as little as you want, there are legalities regarding volume of timber that you are allowed to cut down, and rightly so. Personally speaking I think there should be some sort of stewardship course involved with any woodland purchase, but generally speaking people who buy woodland do have the environments best interests at heart. Neither myself nor Tamara are formally qualified in land management or woodland management, but what we do have in bucket loads is the passion, and when it is your passion you absorb information like a sponge. If you are interested in purchasing some woodland please make sure you do a lot of reading up first, SWOG ( small woodland owners group) is a great resource. Think about things like how far are you willing to travel to get to your woodland, our journey takes 25 minutes but I know of some owners who live a couple of hours away and then that restricts those little journeys when you just want to go there for an hour or two. Think about public access and rights of way, access, species of trees on site, how neglected the woodland is because that may dictate how much physical work maybe required. I know owners that have a couple of acres of plantation and therefore their management work is negligible. Think about orientation, diversity and age of species and the potential value of the timber there. Getting a flat site is not easy and virtually impossible in Devon, some come with streams etc. You would need to appoint a solicitor as the conveyancing is similar to house buying but much more straight forward.

We would say to anyone interested in purchasing some woodland to definitely do it, it is an amazing thing to do, yes we can buy fancy cars and gadgets and go on expensive holidays but owning your own little piece of nature is a priceless thing to do. It’s more like guardianship than ownership, but you will have a lot of control over the future of that plot.
Love nature, it will never fail you.

 

 

 

 

Do you have any long-term plans for the future of Woodland Wildlife?

Well where do we start here? If money was no object we would like to deer fence large parts of our woodland to allow natural regeneration to occur unhindered. But money is an object so we will improvise and mitigate the grazing as much as possible. Luckily we are not overrun with roe deer but there are a few around. The damage they do to new growth is staggering.
Over time we would like to see part of our main plot restored back to its natural former state which was wooded heath. Around 1800 the wider woodland was mapped as a Down which would correspond with our small patches of heather and large amounts of gorse and bracken. Dry lowland heathland is a scarce habitat these days and we would like to re-nature that habitat along with keeping the coppiced sweet chestnut, birch and beech. The plan will be for the main plot to remain an open woodland with pockets of heath and grassy rides. We will keep some sitka on the higher parts of the plot.
This winter will involve widening the lower part of the North to South ride which is quite overgrown, creating a ride that will traverse the contours from the West to East ride. This will involve the felling of a lot more young sitka but it will kick start the project of connecting up some of our micro habitats. We are keen to provide a suitable site for the migrating nightjar and the wintering woodcock and this will involve a lot of physical work. Any major works such as this needs careful consideration for the future resilience of the woodland. All of our plantings have been carefully selected with the future in mind for example, the scots pine (although slow growing) is a fantastic tree that supports a large amount of wildlife plus once established will cope well with periods of dry weather. We have also planted some juniper and these trees will also cope admirably in dryer conditions and therefore the challenges of climate change. The naturalised species such as birch, beech, gorse, heather, bramble and bracken will naturally cope with dryer summers.

With regards to Woodland Wildlife as a business, we hope that the occasional small group or individual will continue to visit to experience this magnificent site. We aim to continue with the craft sales into the future. We aim to continue to document our species and our works. The emphasis will be on small groups as we are keen to prevent compaction of soils.

All photographs courtesy of Woodland Wildlife © Woodland Wildlife

Woodland Wildlife

To find out more about Steve and Tamara’s fascinating project you can follow them on facebook and visit their website

Further Reading on managing woodlands for wildlife and people.

Managing Your Woodland for Wildlife
By: David Blakesley, Peter Buckley and Tharada Blakesley
Paperback| May 2016| £12.99
From conserving deadwood to putting up bat boxes: this book will appeal to small woodland owners wishing to improve woodland for wildlife.

 

Woodland Creation for Wildlife and People in a Changing Climate: Principles and Practice
By: David Blakesley and Peter Buckley
Paperback | July 2010| £5.99 £24.95
This book presents a comprehensive and richly-illustrated guide to the principles and practice of woodland creation for wildlife and people.

 

A Journey in Landscape Restoration: Carrifran Wildwood and Beyond
Edited by: Philip Ashmole and Myrtle Ashmole
Paperback | June 2020| £16.99 £18.99
An inspirational account of the rewilding of Carrifran Wildwood, showing what can happen when locals take charge of landscape restoration.

 

The Wood: The Life and Times of Cockshutt Wood
By: John Lewis-Stempel
Paperback | March 2019| £9.99
A lyrical diary of four years spent managing three and half acres of mixed woodland in south west Herefordshire.

 

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

Woodland Flowers: an interview with Keith J Kirby

Woodland Flowers: Colourful Past, Uncertain Future is the eighth instalment of the popular British Wildlife Collection. In this insightful and original account, Keith Kirby explores the woodland plants of Britain living in the shade of their bigger relatives. They add so much to woodland’s biodiversity and beauty and tell us stories about the history of woodland, its past management, and how that has changed – not always for the better.

Keith Kirby signing Woodland Flowers

 

Author, Keith Kirby has taken the time to sign limited copies of Woodland Flower and has answered our questions about the book, and the flowers that enhance our woodlands.

 

Could you tell us a little about your background?

I grew up in a village in Essex and spent much of my childhood playing in the fields, along the riverbank and in small woods behind our house. I was interested in natural history but not really a serious naturalist. Sometime in my teens I decided I wanted to be a forester and ended up doing a degree in Agricultural and Forest Sciences in Oxford. That introduced me to ‘ecology’ and led to a doctoral study of the growth of brambles in Wytham Woods. From there I spent a couple of years doing woodland and general habitat surveys before getting a permanent post in 1979 with the Nature Conservancy Council as a woodland ecologist. I stayed in that post (NCC became English Nature, became Natural England) through to 2012, then retired back to Oxford and picked up my plant research interests in Wytham Woods again.

Where did the motivation for this book come from? Are woodland flowers a subject that you have been wanting to write about for some time?

Much of my work with NCC and its successor bodies involved considering the woodland ground flora: we used them as one indicator of the value of sites, as guides to what was changing in terms of woodland management and the woodland environment more generally; some species such as bramble and bracken could also be a problem when we were trying to get regeneration. There was not then the time to pull the different strands together, so when I was back in Oxford I thought I should give it a go.

Have you noticed any unusual changes within woodland flora this Spring following the lockdown? Has it helped or hindered?

I would not really expect to see a direct effect of lockdown on the plants: often their growth is determined by reserves laid down the previous year and a few months is not very long when you consider that many woodland plants – not just the trees – can live for several decades. There could be indirect effects, for example if less disturbance in woods means that deer produce more fawns, so more hungry mouths to nibble away at the flora in future.

Germander Speedwell, a species that spreads quite quickly into new hedges.

Although adaptable, woodlands are clearly not invincible. What do you think is the greatest threat to woodland ecosystems?

In the longer-term (25-50 yrs) climate change. The micro-climate at ground level in a wood has not changed as much as out in the open because of the sheltering effect of the tree layer, but it will do eventually and this will lead to a re-assortment of which species can thrive in different parts of the country.
In the medium term (10-25 years) I suspect that we are going to see more and more evidence of change from the build-up of nitrogen in forest soils from the emissions from cars, modern farming etc. I am picking up signs that this is happening in Wytham.
The immediate threat – and it affects our ability to deal with the medium and longer-term issues as well – comes from the impact of high numbers of deer in the countryside. They limit tree regeneration and make woodland management more difficult as well having direct effects on the ground flora species themselves. At Wytham we saw during the eighties and nineties a complete shift from a flora of herbs and bramble to grass-dominated cover. That is being reversed – we are fortunate in being able to manage the deer population there – but in many other woods deer numbers are too high. This means for example that it will be difficult to get the regeneration of species such as oak, beech or hazel that will be needed over the next few years to fill the gaps in the canopy left as Ash Dieback progresses.

What single policy change would you like to see to help counter this threat?

Through history trees and woods (and hence the woodland flora) have survived best where they are valued by society: so we need to encourage greater use of wood as a material in buildings, as fuel, as a feedstock for industry; as well as promoting woodland as places for recreation, to help with water management, for carbon sequestration, and as a source of inspiration.

The tricky question of ‘nativeness’ – Oxlip outcompeted by dense Pendulous Sedge patches.

As you note in the book, there’s currently a lot of interest in rewilding. What role do you think rewilding can play in the future of UK woodlands?

From the answer to the previous question it will be obvious that I want to see a lot of woods being managed to provide the materials that society needs; moreover many of our woodland plants can thrive under such conditions – if management is done carefully – as they have done for centuries. Rewilding though also has a great role to play in future conservation alongside actively managed woods (as long as we can get away from the endless debates about the meaning of the term itself). Rewilding leads to different types of woodland structures and composition, a different set of dynamics in the landscape, some of which may be analogous to what may have existed 6,000 years ago, but other combinations will be completely new. New mixtures of woodland plants (and animals) will come to be associated with rewilded treescapes that will also be a response to the changed environmental conditions. Exactly what will emerge unpredictable and there will be interesting challenges ahead for land managers, regulators and conservation advisers – we are not in the UK going to be able to be completely ‘hands-off’ even in the wildest of rewilding.
Rewilding is however one of the reasons why I am cautiously optimistic we can yet pass on a reasonable legacy of woodland flowers.

Now that the book is finished, and after a well-earned rest, are there any plans or works-in-progress that you can tell us about?

My first priority has been to try to catch up on writing-up the results from long-term studies of the flora in Wytham Woods and The Warburg Reserve near Henley. Also once the country has opened up a bit more after Covid-19 I plan to spend time to spend some more time with the wood beneath the trees; so I have been drawing up a list of woods across the country that I want to go and visit again.

Woodland Flowers, published by Bloomsbury is out now. We have a very limited amount of signed stock, available while stocks last.

Woodland Flowers: Colourful Past, Uncertain Future
By: Keith J Kirby
Hardback | August 2020| £29.99 £34.99

In this insightful and original account, Keith Kirby explores the woodland plants of Britain.

 

 

Woodland Flowers: Colourful Past, Uncertain Future is the eighth instalment of the popular British Wildlife Collection.

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

Palace of Palms: Tropical Dreams and the Making of Kew: an Interview With Kate Teltscher

Daringly innovative when it opened in 1848, the Palm House in Kew Gardens remains one of the most beautiful glass buildings in the world today

In Palace of Palms, Kate Teltscher tells the extraordinary story of its creation and of the Victorians’ obsession with the palms that filled it: a story of breathtaking ambition and scientific discovery and, crucially, of the remarkable men whose vision it was.

Cultural historian and author, Kate Teltscher kindly took some time  to answer our questions about her new book.

Can you tell us something about your background and what motivated you to write Palace of Palms?

I’ve visited Kew since my childhood and have always loved the Palm House.  It’s such a magnificent building, and just astounds you, the moment that you enter the Gardens.  It’s so sleek and elegant, and modern-looking.  As soon as you push open the door, the heat hits you, and you’re inside this tropical world.  The architecture and plants combine to form this astonishing spectacle. The whole Gardens are landscaped around the Palm House, and the three long vistas at the back mean that you’re always catching sight of the Palm House as you walk the grounds.  I wanted to find out why the Palm House was at the centre of Kew.  Why was it the first building to be commissioned when Kew became a public institution?  As a cultural historian, I was interested in the story that the Palm House could tell about Britain and botany, about palms and empire.  And then in the course of my research I became fascinated by the characters that I discovered: the ambitious first Director, the self-taught engineer, and the surly yet devoted Curator.

The historical period in your book has been described as ‘The Golden Age of Botany.’ Do you think this description is justified?

The period certainly saw the birth of modern botany and many plant collecting expeditions, but the idea of a ‘golden age’ seems outdated now. The phrase tends to obscure or gild botany’s connection with commerce and empire.  From its very foundation as a public garden, Kew had close links with colonial gardens across the empire. John Lindley, the botanist who wrote a government report on Kew, proposed that the colonies would offer up their natural resources to Britain to aid ‘the mother country in every thing that is useful in the vegetable kingdom’.  Kew was seen as the co-ordinating hub of a network of colonial gardens in India, Australia, the Indian Ocean and the West Indies, that would exchange information and plants across the globe.  Transplanting medicinal plants, economic and food crops across continents, Kew engineered environmental and social change worldwide.

Why were palms so important to the Victorians?

The Victorians inherited the great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus’ notion that palms were the ‘princes of the vegetable kingdom’.  They were regarded as the noblest of all plants, far surpassing all European vegetation. For the public educator, Charles Knight, they combined ‘the highest imaginable beauty with the utmost imaginable utility’. They provided every necessity of life: food, drink, oil, clothes, shelter, weapons, tools and books.  They were so bountiful that Linnaeus imagined that early humanity had subsisted entirely on palms. As Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal put it: the question is not ‘What do they afford us? But what is there that they do not?’

Your book is full of intrigue, exploration and innovation. During your research was there one fact or event that stood out as been particularly remarkable?

I was particularly struck by the change in status of palm oil between the 1840s and today. Industrial chemists had recently discovered the properties of palm oil that would, in our own time, make it one of the most ubiquitous of vegetable oils.  In the nineteenth century, palm oil was used as axle grease on the railways and, combined with coconut oil, as a constituent of soap and candles. The oil palm grew in the areas of West Africa previously dominated by the slave trade.  The trade in palm oil, it was argued, was the most effective means to combat human trafficking.  In contrast to current fears that palm oil production is a major cause of deforestation and involves child and forced labour, the Victorians viewed palm oil as an ethical product, with unlimited manufacturing possibilities.

How do you envisage the future of the Palm House, the finest surviving Victorian glass and iron building in the world?

I understand from Aimée Felton, the architect who compiled a report on the Palm House, that despite the constant humidity of the interior, the actual structure is in reasonably good shape. These days, I guess, the Palm House does not look so big. Some of the tallest palms can never reach maturity because the Palm House roof is not high enough; they have to be cut down so that they don’t break through the glass. Obviously modern plant houses, like the Eden Project biospheres or the Norman Foster-designed Great Glass House at the National Botanic Garden of Wales may be larger or wider.  But what I find interesting is that these plant houses, like the Palm House, are daring, experimental structures.  The Palm House really functioned as the model for glasshouses across the globe throughout the nineteenth century: in Copenhagen, Adelaide, Brussels, San Francisco, Vienna and New York.  From a contemporary point of view, the Palm House is often seen as a forerunner of twentieth-century modernism.  It offers a perfect union of form and function, with its clean lines and organic shape.  In recent years, the Palm House has provided the inspiration for one of London’s current icons: the London Eye.  I expect that it will go on inspiring architects and engineers for years to come!

Are you working on any new projects you can tell us about?

I’m hoping to work more with Kew, in particular a project to digitise an early record book that documents all the plants that were received and sent out from Kew at the end of the eighteenth century.  Since Kew was the first point of entry for many plants into Britain, and also sent plants to colonial botanic gardens all over the world, this record book is central to our understanding of the circulation of plant species, both nationally and globally. Kew really is a place of infinite riches, for the visitor and historian alike!

Palace of Palms: Tropical Dreams and the Making of Kew
By: Kate Teltscher
Hardback | July 2020| £19.99 £25.00

The extraordinary history of the magnificent Victorian Palace of Palms in the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew.

 

Further Reading

Discover more about natural history explorers and their discoveries in our selection of books.

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

Faber Independent Alliance: Publisher of the Month

Launched in 2006, The Independent Alliance  has been a vital platform for nature writing to flourish. Authors such as: Patrick Barkham, Stephen Moss, Richard Mabey and John Wright all feature in this rich and varied list.

We are delighted to announce Independent Alliance as our Publisher of the Month for July: a chance in these challenging times to immerse yourself in eloquent, knowledgeable and thought-provoking writing.

We have price-offers on our top fifty Independent Alliance titles and have showcased our top ten below:

A Natural History of the Hedgerow: and Ditches, Dykes and Dry Stone Walls
By: John Wright
Paperback| May 2017| £8.99 £11.99
Tells the story of hedgerows past and present, encompassing their long significance in the life of the countryside.

 

Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature
By: Patrick Barkham
Hardback | May 2020| £13.99 £16.99
Patrick Barkham  explores the relationship between children and nature.

Read our author interview here.

 

The Accidental Countryside: Hidden Havens for Britain’s Wildlife
By: Stephen Moss
Hardback | February 2020| £13.99 £16.99
Stephen Moss journeys the length and breadth of Britain to find the wildlife that is thriving amidst our urban landscape.  Read our author interview here.

 

The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the Imagination
By: Richard Mabey
Paperback | Oct 2016| £8.99 £10.99
Mabey puts plants centre stage, and reveals a true botanical cabaret: a world of tricksters, shape-shifters and inspired problem-solvers.

 

The Vital Question: Why is Life the Way it is?
By: Nick Lane
Paperback | April 2016| £8.99 £10.99
Why is life the way it is? If life evolved on other planets, would it be the same or completely different…

 

 

The Orchid Hunter: A Young Botanist’s Search for Happiness
By: Leif Bersweden
Paperback | April 2018| £6.99 £8.99
In the summer after leaving school, a young botanist sets out to fulfil a childhood dream – to find every species of orchid native to the British Isles.

 

Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back
By: Mark O’Connell
Hardback | April 2020 | £11.99 £14.99
Where environmentalists who fear the ravages of climate change and billionaire entrepreneurs dreaming of life on Mars find common ground…

 

Becoming Wild: How Animals Learn to be Animals
By: Carl Safina
Hardback | April 2020 | £14.99 £18.99
Safina demonstrates that the better we understand the animals with whom we share this planet, the less different from us they seem.

 

Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin’s Botany Today
By: Ken Thompson
Paperback | July 2019 | £6.99 £8.99
Ken Thompson establishes Darwin as a pioneering botanist, whose close observations of plants were crucial to his theories of evolution

 

Gods of the Morning: A Bird’s Eye View of a Highland Year
By: Sir John Lister-Kaye
Paperback | Oct 2019 | £8.99 £10.99
Sir John Lister-Kaye follows a year through the seasons at Aigas and the Highland animals, and in particular the birds – his ‘gods of the morning’ – for whom he has nourished a lifelong passion.

Browse all Independent Alliance books at NHBS

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

WILDGuides: Publisher of the Month

WILDGuides publish a wide array of practical, durable and authoritative natural history titles. Ranging from photographic field guides that cover the wildlife of Britain and Ireland, to visitor’s guides and reference works on wildlife regions around the world.

With a prodigious amount of new and forthcoming titles published this year and all at fantastic prices, now is a great opportunity to discover WILDGuides comprehensive and authoritative publications.

Bestsellers and new titles

Britain’s Ferns: A Field Guide to the Clubmosses, Quillworts, Horsetails and Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland
By: James Merryweather
Flexibound | Just Published! May 2020| £14.99 £19.99
A comprehensive, lavishly illustrated and user-friendly photographic field guide to all the pteridophytes of Britain.

Britain’s Birds: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Great Britain and Ireland
By: Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash, Hugh Harrop and David Tipling
Flexibound | Just Published! May 2020| £14.99 £19.99
Four years after the successful first edition, Britain’s Birds returns in a second edition.

 

Europe’s Dragonflies: A Field Guide to the Damselflies and Dragonflies
By: Dave Smallshire and Andy Swash
Flexibound | Just Published! May 2020| £19.99 £24.99
With over 1200 colour photos, Europe’s dragonfly fauna is given the WILDGuides treatment.

 

Britain’s Hoverflies: A Field Guide
By: Stuart Ball and Roger Morris
Flexbound | April 2015| £19.99 £24.99

A beautifully illustrated photographic field guide to the hoverflies of Britain

 

Britain’s Mammals: A Field Guide to the Mammals of Britain and Ireland
By: Dominic Couzens, Andy Swash, Robert Still and Jon Dunn
Flexibound | April 2017| £13.99 £17.99
A comprehensive field guide to all the mammals recorded in Britain and Ireland.

 

Britain’s Reptiles and Amphibians: A Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Great Britain, Ireland and the Channel Islands
By: Howard Inns
Flexibound | July 2009| £13.99 £17.99
A detailed guide to the reptiles and amphibians of Britain, Ireland and the Channel Island.

 

Britain’s Day-Flying Moths: A Field Guide to the Day-Flying Moths of Great Britain and Ireland
By: David E Newland, Robert Still and Andy Swash
Flexibound | July 2019| £13.99 £17.99
A photographic guide to the moths you are most likely to see during the day.

 

Britain’s Plant Galls: A Photographic Guide
By: Michael Chineryh
Flexibound | Sept 2011| £12.99 £16.99
Aims to help both beginners and experts alike to learn more about the galls and what causes them in the first place.

 

Forthcoming

Britain’s Orchids: A Field Guide to the Orchids of Great Britain and Ireland
By: Sean Cole and Michael Waller, Sarah Stribbling (illustrator)
Flexibound | Due August 2020| £15.99 £19.99
Combines nearly 100 illustrative plates with over 1000 colour photos

 

Britain’s Spiders: A Field Guide
By: Lawrence Bee, Geoff Oxford and Helen Smith
Flexibound | Due September 2020| £19.99 £24.99
This fantastic photographic guide is coming as a second edition, with nine more species and updated information

 

There are even more books from WILDGuides planned for later in 2020, such as: Britain’s Habitats and Britain’s Insects – you can browse the full selection of WILDGuide titles here.

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

 

Author Interview: Patrick Barkham, Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature

In this wonderful new book, Patrick Barkham draws on his own experience as a parent, a forest school volunteer and from his own childhood spent roaming outdoors to explore the positive effects rekindling children’s relationship with nature can have.

Patrick has kindly answered our questions about his new book and provided a limited number of signed bookplates, which will be included with this book on a first come first served basis.

1. What made you decide to write Wild Child

Having children is obviously a life-changing moment for every parent and I found myself suddenly fascinated by children and newly keen to write about them. I was aware of all the anxiety around children being on screens all the time but I hadn’t actually fully considered this historic moment in western child-rearing. We have become an indoor species in the blink of an eye, and I wanted to explore the implications of that, and how we as parents, grandparents, teachers and guardians might give children the gift of more time outdoors. I also wanted to celebrate “ordinary” neighbourhood nature of the kind we can all encounter.

2. What do you see as the main difference between your childhood and your children’s?

I grew up in the countryside in the 1980s and roamed freely with friends on quiet country lanes and the local common. When my twins became eight, it suddenly struck me that they had never been off on their own, in the countryside, without adults in view or close by. What’s more, almost no parent would regard this as strange. In fact, allowing eight-year-olds to roam without adult supervision would be seen as a dereliction of duty, according to the values of modern parenting.

My experience is pretty universal – studies confirm that children’s “home range” has shrank to their private space – their house and garden (if they have one). Childhood is now tightly regulated by adults. This has benefits – it’s never been safer for a child – but also grave drawbacks, including a loss of creativity and a loss of opportunities for children to form their own bonds with wild nature. Our lives are much poorer without intimate relationships with other species. We are also less likely to take action to tackle the biodiversity crisis if we have no direct experience of, and feeling for, other forms of life whether plant, animal or fungi!

3. What do you think children most gain from being close to nature?

Joy, excitement, fun, ceaseless stimulation, sensitivity, companionship, solace, comfort, peace – all the things we get from it too. There’s a huge body of scientific evidence now showing the mental and physical benefits of time in green spaces, and increasing evidence that the more “wild” or biodiverse those spaces, the better they are for us. We need nature, and of course as the dominant species on the planet we need to learn to appreciate, value and protect it.

4. Are you hopeful your children will be part of a new culture where nature is part of everyone’s life, not just seen as a town and country or even a ‘class’ divide?

We have to hope, but I’m also realistic. British society is becoming increasingly urbanised. Traffic – a major and rational obstacle to children playing freely outside – is still growing. Consumption shows little sign of slowing. And yet without any real government backing, there is a newly vibrant movement to add more nature to people’s lives – the rise of the forest school movement for instance. Wildlife charities are doing heroic education work too. But we still need massive, societal changes to reconfigure our species’ relationship with nature. We need a new kind of schooling, new (government) support for urban wild spaces, and far more wildlife-friendly planning rules for new housing.

Just on class – debates about children and nature are seen as a middle-class concern, and they tend to be because poorer families are too focused on putting food on the table. But we need to give all people better access to nature and wild spaces – this is a free source of good health (and occasionally even food) and it benefits poorer people more than the wealthy who can purchase wild experiences.

5. I was fascinated to read how resistance to pathogens can be enhanced by exposure to more biodiversity; can you precis that a little here?

We are only beginning to scientifically understand the influence of billions of micro-organisms, or microbiota on our lives. We have more bacteria in our guts than human cells in our bodies. Most are harmless, some are useful and a few may be dangerous pathogens. Our immune system is rather like a computer with hardware and software but no data. Early in life, it must rapidly collect data from diverse microbial sources, learning which are harmful and which are beneficial. If our body encounters a diverse range of different bacteria, particularly when young, we are more likely to recognise and respond to novel viruses.

This is not the popular but mistaken idea that we’ve become “too clean”. Hygiene is vital for good health. But, rather, urban living does not deliver us the diversity of microbes that we need. So we’re witnessing an explosion of allergies such as hay fever and illnesses related to failing immunity or inappropriate inflammatory responses such as Crohn’s disease.

Studies have shown that people living in “traditional” ways – in the countryside, more closely with animals ­– have fewer such illnesses. Microbiologists’ prescriptions for healthier children include a varied diet including a far wider range of vegetables but also more exposure to diverse green space. Scientists have proven the benefits of exposure to soil organisms in mice but this has yet to be fully explored for humans. It is a fair hypothesis, however, to expect that more biodiverse places contain a wider range of microbiota, and be better for us than manicured monocultures.

6. Although of little comfort to the thousands of people terribly affected by COVID – 19, do you think the forced change of pace and restrictions on movement has presented any opportunities for the appreciation of nature?

For those of us lucky enough to have gardens or easy access to green space, lockdown has been a wonderful moment to enjoy wildlife. Without traffic noise, the spring dawn chorus has been sensational! Lockdown has also revealed that poorer and ethnic minority communities have less access to green space. So this is an incredible moment of revelation and opportunity. Why can’t we have monthly Sundays when we all vow not to use our cars? Why can’t a new generation of urban parks and wild spaces be part of the post-coronavirus settlement, just as National Parks were introduced after the Second World War? We can now see, hear and taste a post-peak oil world, where we consume less, travel less, and live more. It could be so beautiful.

7. Do all your friends and colleagues share your enthusiasm for forest school?

No they don’t, and this is great because it means I have to win them over! Forest School is a concept imported from Denmark in the 1990s, we have a Forest Schools Association charity, and the idea is based around principles of child-led games and education in a woodland setting, with a camp fire. But there is also a growth in other forms of equally good outdoor learning.

All these different kinds of forest school are seen as playing in the woods – nice, but hardly essential to young people’s lives, or equipping them for the global race. It is up to people like me – and hopefully you – to show them some of the evidence that children are more creative, more resilient, with improved concentration and show better attainment in conventional schooling if they are given more free play outside, and in wild spaces.

8. Would you encourage people with the time to get involved with forest school, and if so, how would it benefit them?

I began volunteering at an outdoor nursery where my children went, and I was astounded by how well I felt after a day outdoors. It delivered the kind of sustained high you get after a day walking in the mountains or really hard gardening. Most of us office-workers aren’t familiar with outdoor labour!

I still volunteer most weeks at the forest school session run by my local state primary school (despite financial challenges, many state schools are now offering pupils some forest schooling). Children are the nicest workmates – they are so honest and enthusiastic, and they respond to the outside almost universally with something like unconfined joy.

In three years volunteering at forest schools I have honestly only twice encountered seriously unhappy children, and that’s usually because they aren’t wearing enough and are cold. I would urge anyone with time on their hands to give it a try – what’s more important than educating our children? And I think you will love it!

9. I like the ‘Things to Do with Children Outdoors’ appendix at the back of the book; was there one or two favourite pastimes that were the most accessible and rewarding that you could recommend?

I’d just like to declare a basic principle: children don’t need leading, or teaching – what they most require is for us adults to facilitate free play outdoors. They need to experience wildlife themselves, without too many rules, without too much moralising, without being told “don’t touch – it’s rare/delicate/about to become extinct”. Obviously a bit of guidance is good but let them choose their own adventure. And they will.

Apart from that, my children love different things. I enjoy going nest-hunting and butterfly-hunting with Esme, collecting shells and conkers with Milly and making dens with Ted. As we play outside, we keep an eye on what’s happening around us, and something exciting – the flash of a sparrowhawk, the scuttle of a rabbit – always unfolds.

10. Are you working on any new projects you can tell us about?

I am very excited to be writing the official biography of Roger Deakin, the nature writer and author of Waterlog and Wildwood. Most of us writers lead incredibly boring lives but Roger didn’t. I’m also researching a book for a TV series about wildlife and editing an anthology of British nature writing called The Wild Isles, which will be published next spring. It has been agonising having to choose between so many gorgeous and important pieces of writing!

Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature
Hardback,  May 2020,  £13.99 £16.99

Patrick Barkham draws on his own experience as a parent and a forest school volunteer to explore the relationship between children and nature.

 

Patrick Barkham was born in 1975 in Norfolk and educated at Cambridge University. His first book, The Butterfly Isles, was shortlisted for the 2011 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje prize. His next book Badgerlands, was hailed by Chris Packham as “a must read for all Britain’s naturalists” and was shortlisted for both the 2014 RSL Ondaatje Prize and the inaugural Wainwright Prize for Nature and Travel Writing.

Browse more writing from Patrick Barkham at NHBS

Vintage: Publisher of the Month

Launched in the United Kingdom in 1990, VINTAGE publishes work from some of the most eminent and prestigious naturalists today; providing a platform for authors such as: Peter Marren, Dave Goulson, Richard Mabey, Mark Cocker, Tim Dee and Helen Macdonald to name but a few.

We are delighted to announce VINTAGE as our Publisher of the Month for May: a chance in these challenging times to immerse yourself in eloquent, knowledgeable and thought-provoking writing.

We have price-offers on our top fifty VINTAGE titles and have showcased below our top ten across their range:

The Garden Jungle: Or Gardening to Save the Planet
By: Dave Goulson
Paperback| April 2020| £7.99 £9.99
Dave Goulson reveals how, with small changes, gardens could become wildlife havens.

Read our author interview here.

 

Birds Britannica
By: Mark Cocker & Richard Mabey
Hardback | April 2020| £39.99 £49.99
Fifteen years after the very successful first edition:  this second edition, pays homage to the strong bond the British have with birds.

 

Greenery: Journeys in Springtime
By: Tim Dee
Hardback | March 2020| £15.99 £18.99
Spring moves north at about walking pace. In his latest writing, author Tim Dee follows its moving front and tells of the animals and people he encounters on the way.  Read our author interview here.

 

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures
By: Merlin Sheldrake
Hardback | Due Sept 2020| £16.99 £19.99
An immersive trip into the largely unknown world of fungi, which we at NHBS are particularly excited to read.

 

Chasing the Ghost: My Search for All the Wild Flowers of Britain
By: Peter Marren
Paperback | March 2019| £7.99 £9.99
Join renowned naturalist Peter Marren on an exciting quest to find every species of wild plant native to Britain.

 

H is for Hawk
By: Helen Macdonald
Paperback | Feb 2015| £7.99 £9.99
An unflinchingly honest account of Macdonald’s struggle with grief expressed through the trials of training a goshawk.

 

Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late?
By: Mark Cocker
Paperback | April 2019 | £7.99 £9.99
Mark Cocker attempts to solve a puzzle: why do the British love their countryside, yet have reduced it to one of the most denatured landscapes on Earth.

 

The Wren: A Biography
By: Stephen Moss
Hardback | April 2019 | £9.99 £12.99
With beautiful illustrations throughout, this captivating year-in-the-life biography reveals the hidden secrets of this fascinating bird that lives right on our doorstep.

 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
By: Yuval Noah Harari
Paperback | Sept 2016 | £8.99 £10.99
Bold, wide-ranging and provocative, Sapiens challenges everything we thought we knew about being human: our thoughts, our actions, our power …and our future.

 

Turning the Boat for Home: A Life Writing about Nature
By: Richard Mabey
Hardback | Oct 2019 | £13.99 £18.99
Richard Mabey is often referred to as ‘the father of modern nature writing.’ We currently have a limited number of signed, first editions. Read our author interview

Browse all VINTAGE books at NHBS

All prices correct at the time of this article’s publication.

Author Interview: Matthew Oates, His Imperial Majesty: A Natural History of the Purple Emperor

Matthew Oates has spent fifty years trying to unravel the ‘Emperor’s’ secrets and with His Imperial Majesty: A Natural History of the Purple Emperor,  due to be published in June, he has written an accessible account of one of Britain’s most beloved butterflies; the majestic Purple Emperor.

 

Matthew Oates has taken time to answer our questions about his book and about the beautiful and elusive butterfly, that if lucky enough, we can glimpse through fissures in its tree top world

 

  1. You describe the Purple Emperor as the most ‘cherished prize’ among Victorian butterfly collectors, while you personally have chosen to devote much of your life to studying this species. What is it about this butterfly that makes it so alluring?

This butterfly is all about mystique. It exists within a different dimension to us, but one which we desire to experience and understand. It is a unique being, capable of doing anything – which means it is unpredictable and utterly captivating. Make no mistake, the Purple Emperor is addictive – but this is a positive addiction, which provides depth of experience tinged with great humour. No one forgets their first Purple Emperor, the experience leaves you wanting more.

2. How has our understanding of the Purple Emperor changed in the half century since your first encounter with ‘his imperial majesty’?

Much of our so-called knowledge was actually mythology and assumption. Oh, the power of assumption, even in ecology! So much of what was considered true, and real, has proven to be utterly wrong; not least because the Purple Emperor, and nature more generally, continually moves the goalposts. Nothing is ever static in nature, perhaps especially with insects.

3. You tell of some of the remarkable lengths that butterfly enthusiasts have gone to in pursuit of the Purple Emperor. What is the most unusual technique you have used when searching for this species?

There is a long history of extreme endeavour here. This is the one butterfly the Victorian collectors most assiduously sought, to form the centrepiece of their precious collections. The Purple Emperor has generated some of the most extreme eccentric behaviour in human history. Collectors used to obtain specimens of this canopy-dwelling butterfly by means of the ‘high net’, a butterfly net attached to a pole often ten metres long. There is a long history of baiting Purple Emperors too, exploiting the male’s attraction to festering messes – the juices of dung, offal, and worse. I helped develop the practice of baiting for Purple Emperors using (relatively inoffensive) shrimp paste, and also pioneered The Emperor’s Breakfast (as shown on TV, several times).

4. It is heartening to read of a species whose populations are on the increase. Can the story of the Purple Emperor offer any lessons for the conservation of other wildlife in Britain?

Yes, definitely! This is proving to be a highly mobile species with good powers of colonisation and, in consequence, recovery. It is becoming a suburban species, and is certainly not the ancient forest inhabitant we once thought it was. Above all, the Purple Emperor is a good news story, at a time of horrific loss and adverse change. It provides hope at a time when we need hope.

5. What do you plan next in your studies of the Purple Emperor? Are there mysteries that you are still hoping to solve?

The journey is by no means over. My book is merely the launching pad towards proper ecological understanding. I sincerely hope it generates the necessary detailed scientific research, and have suggested areas where that need to be conducted. I’ve merely done the spade work. My job now is to help landowners and others to give this magnificent butterfly the future it deserves.

His Imperial Majesty: A Natural History of the Purple Emperor
Hardback,  June 2020,  £13.99 £16.99

Matthew Oates has spent fifty years observing and researching this beautiful and elusive butterfly.

 

Browse all our books covering Butterflies & Moths (Lepidoptera)

John Beaufoy Publishing: Publisher of the Month

Established in 2008, John Beaufoy Publishing (JBP)  is a natural history publisher covering a range of subjects such as ornithology,insects & invertebrates, reptiles & amphibians, marine & freshwater biology, and conservation from all over the world, with a focus on South Asia, South-East Asia and tropical regions.

NHBS is pleased to announce John Beaufoy Publishing (JBP) as our Publisher of the Month for April. We have great offers on a selection of their new and bestselling books throughout the month; making this a perfect opportunity to celebrate the world’s fauna and flora by exploring their catalogue of books.

Books from JBP are written by leading experts in their fields, many notable, such as Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne and his books on Sri Lanka’s natural history and botany. Another JBP author Bikram Grewal, of The 100 Best Birdwatching Sites in India, is a trustee of the Wildlife Preservation Society of India (WPSI) and was awarded the Lifetime Award for spreading awareness about birds and conservation in India.

JBP has an exciting programme of new titles, together with revised and updated editions of some of their most successful books. We have selected ten titles to highlight, and you can browse their full range available at nhbs here

 

The 100 Best Bird Watching Sites in India
Paperback| February 2020| £16.99 £19.99
This fully illustrated guide describes the 100 best sites for viewing both common and rare species throughout the 26 states of the subcontinent, including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

 

Phillipps’ Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo: Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan
Paperback| February 2014| £19.99 £24.99
669 species superbly illustrated in 141 colour plates with more than 2,000 full colour bird images, including most of the sexual variants and immature forms of polymorphic species.

Wild Flowers of the Mediterranean
Paperback| August 2017| £13.99 £16.99
A user-friendly pocket nature guide to the plant world of the Mediterranean: a region is remarkable for its great diversity of species and forms.

 

 

A Field Guide to the Birds of Mongolia
Paperback| October 2019| £24.99 £29.99
Birdwatchers have long wanted a field guide to the birds of Mongolia. Featuring fantastic illustrations on 154 plates, this guide covers all 521 officially recorded species.

 

A Naturalist’s Guide to the Mammals of Australia
Paperback| November 2017| £11.99
This easy-to-use identification guide to the 300 mammal species most commonly seen in Australia is perfect for resident and visitor alike – part of JBP’s Naturalist’s Guides Series

 

The London Bird Atlas
Hardback| December 2017| £29.99 £39.99
Brings together the analyses of millions of bird records and research to tell you which birds are doing well, which ones have declined or held steady, and what the changes have been in relation to previous distribution surveys.

A Naturalist’s Guide to the Butterflies & Dragonflies of Sri Lanka
Paperback| October 2018| £9.99 £11.99
An excellent book for residents and visitors alike to learn about the commoner butterflies and dragonflies of Sri Lanka before progressing to more advanced technical books.

A Naturalist’s Guide to the Reptiles of India: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka
Paperback| December 2017| £9.99 £11.99
High-quality photographs from the region’s top nature photographers accompany this identification guide to the 239 reptile species most commonly seen in South Asia.

Wild Philippines: The Landscapes, Habitats and Wildlife of the Philippine Islands
Paperback| August 2019| £19.99 £24.99
More than just a ‘coffee table’ book; Wild Philippines provides an authoritative and entertaining study of the wide spectrum of wildlife on the land and in the seas of this diverse country.

A Field Guide to the Birds of Malaysia & Singapore
Paperback| Due August 2020| £19.99 £24.99
Due to be published in August 2020, this is a fully comprehensive field guide to the 815 bird species of Malaysia and Singapore

 

 

Browse all John Beaufoy Publishing at NHBS

The Accidental Countryside: interview with author Stephen Moss

Stephen Moss is a naturalist, broadcaster, television producer and author. He is the original producer of the BAFTA award-winning series Springwatch and has worked with David Attenborough, Chris Packham, Alan Titchmarsh, and other leading naturalists. Passionate about communicating the wonders of nature, he also lectures in Nature and Travel Writing at Bath Spa University. Originally from London, he lives with his family on the Somerset Levels and is President of the Somerset Wildlife Trust.

In The Accidental Countryside: Hidden Havens for Britain’s Wildlife, Stephen writes about the secret places, that are often overlooked when it comes to protecting habitats and wildlife. Stephen has given his time to sign copies and answer our questions about these vital habitats in our hidden corners. 

 

What inspired you to write about the ‘hidden havens’ for Britain’s Wildlife?

I’ve always been fascinated by these forgotten and secret places, that are often overlooked when it comes to protecting habitats and wildlife. As I say in the book, I first got my passion for the natural world by visiting the gravel pits near my suburban home; today I live near the Avalon Marshes in Somerset, another post-industrial habitat, created from disused peat diggings. During my career at the BBC Natural History Unit, I often filmed at these edgeland locations, as they harbour such a range of interesting wildlife, and are often more accessible to people than classic nature reserves in the countryside. 

Of all the places you visited, which habitat surprised you the most regarding its biodiversity?

That’s a tricky one, as I think they all surprised me in some way or another. The Avalon Marshes is probably the most packed with wildlife – three species of egrets, marsh harriers, bitterns and the famous starling murmurations on winter evenings – but I also loved the Montiaghs (in rural Northern Ireland, where peat was dug by hand), Parc Slip in South Wales (a former open-cast coal mine) and best of all, Canvey Wick in Essex, Britain’s first brownfield nature reserve, and a paradise for invertebrates including rare dragonflies and damselflies.

Avalon Marshes

Your book features exceptional and inspirational people that have found ways to make the most unlikely places wildlife friendly. Is it possible to highlight just one project that has succeeded against the odds?

Again, the Avalon Marshes stands out: once the peat had been removed, we were left with an ugly, scarred and wildlife-free landscape, which it was suggested could be used as a landfill site for Bristol’s domestic waste. Thanks to a local campaign, they were instead turned into nature reserves; thirty years later this is one of the best places for wildlife in the whole of the UK. Others include Canvey Wick, which again could have fallen to the developers; the roadside verges of Blandford Forum in Dorset, which are now awash with wildflowers and butterflies each summer; and the RSPB’s Window on Wildlife at Belfast Docks, home to breeding Arctic Terns.

A Murmuration of Starlings

Is there one habitat that you think hasn’t reached its wildlife friendly potential?

That’s easy! The rest of the ‘official’ countryside – the 70% of the UK that is used for farming. Of course we need to produce food, but not at the expense of wildlife, which is what is happening on the vast majority of farms at the moment. Some visionary farmers are working with conservationists to buck the trend – for instance, the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Project in Wiltshire – but most are simply fulfilling the consumer and supermarkets’ demands for cheap food, whatever the cost to the environment. 

You have been writing for many years and unfortunately, wildlife has suffered a substantial decline over the last few decades. Has your recent experience writing The Accidental Countryside left you more optimistic or more pessimistic regarding the future of wildlife in the UK?

I’d love to live in a country where the sites I feature in The Accidental Countryside are not important because the wider countryside has been transformed into a haven for wildlife. But I’m not holding my breath, despite the things we hear from the government. Now, more than ever, we need to understand that a healthy, wildlife-filled environment is not some ‘bolt-on extra’ to our lives, but essential – to the health and well-being of nature, of ourselves, and of course for the planet as a whole. So I have to be optimistic: there is no other choice!

Are there any books or projects that you are currently working on that you can tell us about?

Yes, I am just about to deliver the third in my series of ‘Bird Biographies’ for Square Peg (Part of Penguin Random House). Following bestselling books on the Robin and the Wren, I am now writing about that classic sign of spring and summer, the Swallow. I am a late convert to Swallows – only since I moved from London to rural Somerset in middle age have I grown to appreciate this classic bird of the British countryside. Writing this book, I have also grown to appreciate that the swallow is, as the writer Collingwood Ingram once noted, “beyond doubt the best known, and certainly the best loved, species in the world.”

 

The Accidental Countryside: Hidden Havens for Britain’s Wildlife                              Hardback,  published February 2020           £13.99 £16.99

 

 

Also by Stephen Moss: 

The Wren: A Biography                                                           Hardback,  published November 2018                                    £12.99 

 

Mrs Moreau’s Warbler                                                                                  Paperback,  published April 2019                                                  £7.99 £9.99

 

Wonderland: A Year of Britain’s Wildlife, Day by Day                    Paperback,  published April 2018                                                             £9.99 £12.99

 

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: The Natural History of an English Village                                                                                 Paperback,  published September 2012                                                   £7.50 £9.99