Author interview with Ben Jacob: Orchid Outlaw

The Orchid Outlaw tells the tale of author Ben Jacob’s mission to save some of the UK’s rarest, native orchids. With many facing extinction due to land use change and the climate crisis, while also not being protected by environmental and planning laws, Ben took it upon himself to rescue these threatened plants and grow them in his own kitchen and garden, rather than losing the plants all together. In doing so, he placed himself on the wrong side of the law. This part memoir, part natural history piece shows us how we can all save the world one plant at a time.

Ben Jacob wearing a brown jacket stood by a bank with some orchids growing out of it.Ben works as a University lecturer by day, and as a clandestine ecologist, conservationist and Orchid-saviour by night. It is always a pleasure to meet the authors behind our books, particularly those who are adopting their own approach to nature restoration and conservation, and we were delighted to have the opportunity to talk to Ben in person about The Orchid Outlaw and have him sign our books. We discussed how he first became interested in Botany, his thoughts on the Right to Roam movement, what he hopes the reader can learn from his book and more. Read the full author interview on the Conservation Hub.


Firstly, can you tell us about yourself and how you first became interested in both Botany and orchids?

By day I’m a mild-mannered lecturer (in a subject which has very little to do with science or botany); by night I am a guerrilla conservationist with a focus on rescuing, conserving, and bringing back to the land, our native orchids. The Orchid Outlaw explains the journey I took from a chance encounter with a tropical orchid in a garden centre as a child, which led me, when I was older, to trekking through jungles to look for tropical species, then, and older still, via a mugging, an enforced return to England and a broken back, to encounter Britain’s – and Europe’s native orchids. As I learned more about these species, I realised that my preconceptions about our native orchids and the state of our natural environment were wrong. I became aware of the significant recent decline in orchid populations… and began my unorthodox means of saving them. I tell this story alongside (hopefully) entertaining diversions through history, medicine, man’s changing relationship with nature, Charles Darwin’s discovery of evolution, and a critical exploration of the laws which exist to protect wildlife in this country but which are so full of huge holes that battalions of construction vehicles can rumble straight through, crushing all life before them. Which they do. Daily. Without any legal consequences.  

In contrast, a well-intentioned conservationist (like me) rescuing wild flora or fauna from private land which is about to be turned into a housing estate, without first going through the hurdles required to gain permission from the landowner, risks fines of £5,000 per plant or six months in prison. Do these laws make sense? No. Are they helping sustain a healthy and diverse population of native species? No. So, like any laws which don’t work, someone should stand up to them and do what needs to be done. 

Bee Orchid in some grass.
Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) by Oli Haines.

In the past week, the European Council has formally adopted the Nature Restoration law. Do you think this law could have any influence on conservation policy here in Britain, and to what extent do you think it will change people’s attitudes towards our responsibility to protect the natural environment?

In Britain (as elsewhere) 2024 is a national election year so any impact on British political attitudes of a European law will depend to an extent on which party wins. Unfortunately, none of our main political parties have a good track record when it comes to protecting our natural heritage for us and future generations we have seen a rapid decline in numbers across all species and native habitats over many decades presided over by both main parties and a coalition. Of course, for the sake of everyone’s future, I’d like to think this European Council law marks a shift in geo-political will which will pull all national policies into its orbit (fingers-crossed)… but the realist in me suggests that unless meaningful, accountable, well-policed penalties accompany laws, those laws tend to make little concrete difference (consider for example international laws around freedom of expression, asylum, and war crimes, which are broken all around the world every day). 

The Orchid Outlaw highlighted how pre-industry anthropogenic land use is intertwined with orchid distribution, particularly in the UK. How do you think rewilding (which is currently a very hot topic) can be implemented in a way that supports these species that may have benefitted from traditional land management rather than being left to nature? 

The Orchid Outlaw looks a little bit at how native orchids thrived in the habitat niches created on a large scale by man, including hay meadows, and how centuries of people-managed woodland (the clearing of underwood and occasional felling) provided conditions which helped many native orchid species to thrive. Of course, these habitats had existed long before people (meadows had been formed, for example, by large, now extinct cattle, naturally falling trees, and wildfires) so, in many ways, mankind took on the role of these natural forces for his own benefit and, in the process, allowed many other species not only orchids to benefit too. In this sense, ‘rewilding’ is not simply a case of letting an area go wild without any human intervention ironically this kind of habitat is completely ‘un-wild’ unless it is stocked with the right range of creatures which are going to complete the tapestry of life (and death) needed to reach a healthy, natural, sustainable equilibrium. 

Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza) by Jo Graeser.
Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza) by Jo Graeser.

How can we mitigate orchid loss in a practical conservation framework when vital species-specific symbiotic relationships with fungi are not considered, so these species may not be protected under current schemes?

There are all kinds of gaping holes in our awareness of the world and what really goes on in the soil, which sustains everything, is one of them. Because of this particular hole, soil health has fallen through the gaps of wildlife conservation laws, even though soil, like the sea, is a vast, living, environment containing more life than we can see and it is an environment upon which the world depends. Orchids in particular have a very complex, as yet only partially understood, crucial relationship with certain soil fungi (mycorrhizae). This is because orchid seed germinates unlike that of any other plant. It creates a symbiotic relationship with a specific mycorrhiza in order to then form a kind of hairy blob (a ‘protocorm’) which, eventually, sometimes after many years living underground sustained only by fungus, becomes a flowering plant. This makes orchids important indicators of soil health, because it seems that the mycorrhizae they need are adversely affected by artificial fertilisers and herbicides. In a way then, our orchids have taught me that any conservation framework has to start from the ground literally, the dirt up, because that is the secret to success. If the earth and the microbes in it are right for the plants there and, of course, plants are crucial to any rewilding project then insects, birds, mammals will come and the tapestry of life which orchids introduced to me will weave itself. 

The right to roam movement is growing, especially close to home here in Devon. What are your thoughts on trespassing for the purpose of immersing and enjoying nature that is legally out of reach for the majority of citizens? Following this, if the laws were to change do you think it would affect attitudes towards nature with more people having the chance to be exposed to nature?

Let’s be honest, this is ‘our’ land. Our ancestors built it, fought for it, died for it, are buried in it; it is deplorable that we do not have the right to roam considerately and with respect upon our land. The right to roam exists in Scotland without any major detriment to anybody and the fact that it does not exist in England and Wales says a great deal about the sway the old class system still holds here after all, 0.06% of the population owns half of rural England and Wales and much of this land distribution extends back to the days of feudal lords. For centuries, no one has done much to change this status quo.  

Obviously, allowing people the chance to experience nature is a great way of changing attitudes to it… but a lot of the land we can roam in Devon is still unavailable to those in inner city areas, so a shift in awareness towards our natural world our natural heritage, formed over thousands of years and which we should be proud to pass on to our children – is not solely about opening up rural land. The recent pandemic made many people far more aware of how important being outside in nature is to our wellbeing whether in a park or allotment or an uncut verge with a bench to sit on and wild flowers buzzing with insects and flickering with butterflies. So, while the right to roam is important, I think wider appreciation of the real value of nature will be helped by allowing nature to be more present everywhere in everyone’s life from green roofs, wild parks and county farms, to unmown verges and tree-lined streets smothered in bird boxes… 

Miltary Orchid on the right hand side of the photo in a field of grass.
Military Orchid by Charlie Jackson, via flickr.

What do you hope the reader can learn from The Orchid Outlaw? 

On the one hand, I like to think that The Orchid Outlaw takes a reader on the same journey of discovery I went on, with orchids as my guide, opening my eyes to so much I hadn’t known. One of the biggest wake-up calls orchids gave me was the inadequacy of our wildlife laws and the massive, underreported decline of some our native flora. Orchids also taught me about the important microfauna all around us, the complex nature of soil, the history of botany and herbalism, and of course the fascinating world of native orchids themselves the magical co-evolution that has occurred between orchids and their pollinators, the fact that some species never need sunlight, that others grow a metre tall and smell of decay, and some can live to be over a hundred years old… and a great deal more.   

On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, I’d like to think that what I do, as unorthodox as it is, shows that you don’t have to be a scientist, researcher, or working for an official institution to make a positive impact for the other living organisms on our planet.

Can you tell us what’s occupying your time at the moment? Do you have any other books in progress that we can hear about?  

Aside from the usual rescuing and reintroducing native orchids, at the end of The Orchid Outlaw I talk about moving to the countryside to an old house which needed and continues to need a lot of attention. So, the garden (which was essentially a forest of nettles) and the lab I started building at the bottom of the garden to propagate orchids (so I no longer need to turn the kitchen into my lab) is largely what occupies my spare time. In any spare moments I am working on a couple of book proposals, both of which relate to elements of The Orchid Outlaw, but, for now, they’re closely guarded secrets! 


Orchid Outlaw book cover showing the title written in yellow, on top of an image of a blue and green orchid on a black background with heras fencing over the top.

The Orchid Outlaw has been published by John Murray and is available from our online bookstore.

Author interview with Christopher Hart – Hedgelands

Hedgelands book cover showing an artistic drawing of green hedge leaves on a dark green background, with leaves woven over the white text in capital letters saying 'Hedgelands.'Hedges and hedgerows have long been an integral part of the British landscape and are now considered the greatest edge habitat on earth. Hedgelands shines a spotlight on the hawthorn and hazel of ancient hedges, thorny scrub and the creatures that call this habitat their home, telling you everything you could ever want to know about this wild, diverse and incredibly rich habitat – it may even change your perspective of the humble British hedgerow for good.

Portrait of author Christopher Hart wearing a checked shirt, gillet and flat cap with a large hedge behind him.

Christopher Hart has authored ten literary and historical books that have been praised by both The Times Library Supplement and Sunday Sport. He’s written numerous short stories, essays and reviews on a range of subjects, and has worked as a freelance journalist since the 1990s. Hart now lives on a seven-acre plot in Wiltshire which he is in the process of rewilding.

We recently had the opportunity to chat with Christopher about what inspired him to write a book about hedges, how he thinks we can change peoples perceptions of the humble hedgerow and more.


As a writer of primarily historical fiction, what inspired you to write a book celebrating British hedges?

Well, I’ve had quite a chequered career: as well as the historical fiction thing, I’ve been a Mr Whippy Ice Cream Van Driver, Theatre Critic of the Sunday Times, and Agony Uncle for Time Out magazine. None of which qualify me to write about hedges! But really the English countryside is a lifelong passion, and working on our own patch of seven acres, with intermittent grazing, plus trying to encourage maximum wildlife, has taught me directly how vital hedges and thickets are to the entire system. Then my friend Jonathan did this survey on one of his own restored and re-laid hedges, found vivid evidence of the huge benefits to invertebrates, and said to me, Why don’t you write a book? So that’s how it started.

Jonathan stood in front of his re laid hedge.
Jonathan stood in front of his re-laid hedge, by Christopher Hart.

Hedgerows have demonstrable benefits to the environment, yet are often overlooked and under-appreciated by many. How can we change public perception of and attitudes towards the humble hedgerow?

I think real-life examples always work better than statistics. And maybe demonstrating to people directly how many birds, butterflies etc. flourish in our hedgerows could have a great effect, as could enlarging and protecting hedgerows on amenity land, where people actually go regularly, rather than farmland: allotments, for instance, churchyards, and even school grounds.

How does the historical, manual management of hedgerows compare to the mechanical methods used in some agricultural practices today? And how can we encourage a change to more conservation-centred management in these spaces? 

Like every other farm job, the old manual method of hedge-laying with an axe and billhook is a great art and beautiful to watch – but also very slow and expensive! Unless it could be done by teams of roving volunteers, which is a promising idea. But even flailing can be made instantly more eco-friendly by simply doing it every two years instead of one. That could really help, and as I think Jake Fiennes suggests, would actually save the average farmer around £2,500 a year on diesel alone.

A generous field margin on a productive arable farm showing a wide, long grass border against a flourishing hedge.

Can you share some examples of individuals, organisations or locations that are paving the way for best-practice hedgerow management?

I think all the big conservation charities, like the RSPB, are very aware of hedgerows’ importance now, but there are also some admirable specialists like Hedgelink. And the Devon Hedge Group are terrific, doing direct, hands-on work there. If you want to see a truly spectacular hedge though, don’t miss the massive bristling rampart of the ‘Nightingale Hedge’ at Knepp. It’s magnificent! 

How can we get involved in bringing hedgerows to our local communities, and how may we incorporate a hedge into areas with limited space?

One reader of my book has already contacted me for advice on how the hedges in his daughter’s school grounds could be made more nature friendly, perhaps by re-laying or just allowing to thicken up that’s a great example of what we can do quite independently of farmlands. Another suggestion I have is to ‘rewild’ a typical, slightly overmanaged garden hedge, that might be just mono-cultural beech or holly, and let climbers and creepers into it as well: relax about a bit of ivy, or even bramble, let a few nettles grow, or as we have done, allow some self-sown honeysuckle to trail over your privet hedge. Then go out on a warm summer evening and admire the moths that turn up. If the sight of an Elephant Hawk moth doesn’t convert you, I don’t know what will! 

Man-made thicket full of blackthorn in a field.

What’s next for you? Do you have plans for more nature writing?

I most certainly do. The only difficulty is choosing which one to pursue. In the last year I did some experimental ‘re-bogging’ of a small riverside field that was just too waterlogged to offer good grazing, or any other kind of useful food production. It took me all of half an hour with a spade, diverting a field-side drainage ditch. The result has been a quite spectacular explosion of dragonflies and snipe in the winter. I’d love to write something about that. ‘Re-bogging Britain, or ‘The Joy of Re-bogging. What do you think? 


Hedgelands book cover showing an artistic drawing of green hedge leaves on a dark green background, with leaves woven over the white text in capital letters saying 'Hedgelands.'

Hedgelands is published by Chelsea Green and is available from our online bookstore.

No Mow May 2024: An Update

Each year, Plantlife launch their national campaign of #NoMowMay. This initiative encourages people across the UK to allow their garden lawns to grow wild in the spring, providing vital habitats for many species. Here at NHBS, this is our fourth year taking part – each year in awe of the diversity of species in our lawn. Find our previous No Mow May blog posts on our conservation hub. Here, we give an update on the species we saw throughout last month.  


The wilder lawns that develop during No Mow May provide a haven for invertebrate species in our gardens. At NHBS, we saw a whole host of insects in and around our lawn last month, from wasps to weevils and Green-veined White butterflies. Other highlights have included:  

A Small Yellow Underwing (Panemeria tenebrata) – a diurnal moth species frequenting meadows and grassland.  

 

Mayfly (Ephemera vulgata) – found near rivers and areas of freshwater between May and August.  

 

Volucella bombylans – a bumblebee-mimicking hoverfly common throughout the UK.  

 

Beautiful Demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo) – a damselfly with a striking blue, metallic body found near rivers and streams. 

 

And some beautiful wildflowers, including Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) and Perforate St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum). Here are some of our favourites: 

The Southern Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza praetermissa) – the most common and widespread of marsh orchids, features spectacular purple petals. 

 

Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) – named for its mimicry, the Bee Orchid self-pollinates due to a lack of appropriate pollinators in the UK. The specimen on our lawn has yet to bloom (left), but we have a striking image from last year showcasing the mimicry of this species (right).  

 

Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis) – also known as ‘Lady’s-smock’, this flower is one of the first signs of spring, often found near riverbanks, wet meadows and grassland. 

 

Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys) considered a ‘good luck charm’ for travellers, this plant has a beautiful blue flower and is found in meadows, woods and hedgerows across the UK. 

 

Our Product and Purchasing Manager, Mark, has documented the progress of his local park during No Mow May. Towards the end of the month, the green expanse had varying lengths of grass and plenty of wildflowers, encouraging pollinating species – a great example of how local councils can boost biodiversity in public spaces.  

 

And our Sales and Marketing Manager, Adam, has grown his lawn throughout May creating a corridor for local wildlife brimming with wild buttercups, dandelions and many other self-seeded plants.


No Mow May is a fantastic initiative to engage with, attracting homeowners, businesses and local councils with its wealth of benefits. If you have enjoyed taking part, then Let it Bloom June could be a great opportunity to continue supporting your garden wildlife. This scheme simply involves continuing the No Mow May philosophy throughout the summer with less garden maintenance. You may choose to allow your entire garden to grow wild or leave some areas untouched for wildlife.  

Have you taken part in No Mow May? Share your pictures with us via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  

Author interview with Richard Mabey: The Accidental Garden

The Accidental Garden cover showing a blackbird stood on some grass.In The Accidental Garden, author Richard Mabey takes the reader on a journey through his own garden in Norfolk and explores the possibility of nature becoming humankind’s equal partner. He watches as his ‘accidental’ garden becomes its own director and reorganises itself in its own way, with ants sowing cowslips in their own patterns, roses serendipitously sprouting amid gravel, moorhens nesting in trees and other fascinating interactions.

Portrait of Richard Mabey stood in front of some trees.

Richard Mabey has authored 30 books since becoming a full-time writer in 1974, a number of which have won awards, including the East Anglia Book Award, National Book Award and Whitbread Biography Award. He sat on the UK’s Nature Conservancy Council in the 1980s, has been awarded two Leverhulme Fellowships and three honorary doctorates, and became a Fellow in the Royal Society of Literature in 2011.

We recently had the opportunity to talk to Richard about his most recent book, where we discussed his approach to garden ‘by’ wildlife and the challenges he faced, the extent to which nature can thrive itself when human involvement is minimised, projects that are currently occupying his time and more.


Can you tell us what inspired you to write The Accidental Garden

I’ve been meditating on many of the book’s themes for a long while – the paradox of our seeming new respect for nature co-existing with an obstinate reluctance to relinquish control; our obsession with tree-planting, as if trees have lost the ability to reproduce themselves; the lust for tidiness over vitality. What sparked the book – and set it in the theatre of our own garden – was a Dark Bush-cricket singing at midnight from the hollyhocks on that hottest-ever day in July 2022. It sounded like an anthem of hope.  

Dark Bush Cricket sat on a leaf poised to jump.
Dark Bush Cricket (Pholidoptera griseoaptera) by Dean Morely, via flickr.

You mentioned in the first chapter that you try to garden ‘by’ wildlife as much as for it. Have you faced any challenges while using this approach, and what tips would you give to someone who wants to try and garden by the wildlife and biodiversity found in their own patch? 

The Accidental Garden isn’t an advice manual. It’s a hesitant, personal account of what happened when we opened the gate to what I call ’parallel development’ in our space. We do what humans do in gardens, and allow other organisms to do what they want. Allow them to become subjects rather than objects, and effectively become fellow gardeners. So I left the bramble patch be, instead of digging it up to plant some runtish nursery-forced oakling. Result: Field Maple and Hazel saplings growing through its protective thorniness. I kick bare patches in the grass and see what self-seeds. Broomrapes, Heartsease and Bee Orchids have been among the surprise settlers. If you’re prepared to junk judgemental labels like weeds and pests there are very few challenges from this approach. 

22:50 by Marie-Lou Wechsler, via flickr.
22:50 by Marie-Lou Wechsler, via flickr.

There seems to be evidence that, if left to fend for itself, nature can thrive and colonise without human involvement, as seen along the Dorset coast in the 1800s. What do you think humankind can learn from this going forward? 

I’m continually amazed that we find nature’s ability to thrive and adapt surprising. How else could the planet have supported an abundance of life for billions of years before humans arrived on the scene? The natural world has never lost that enterprise and agility. Our reluctance to take advantage of this, to capitalise on adaptive solutions to environmental change, is a typically arrogant stance by our species, still stuck in its ‘dominion over’ mode, and our loss, as well as the natural world’s.   

As you mentioned in one of your chapters, many people relish how non-native plant species can transport you to other places, while they also play a key role in garden biodiversity and over time can become at home in the UK, as seen with Snowdrops and Horse Chestnut. How do you think we can nurture the inevitable introduction of new species without this disadvantaging native plants?  

The only visiting species we have any trouble with is Ground Elder, and otherwise our patch is developing into a resilient fusion garden. Native plants and animals form new communities with benign settlers. I’m writing this in May just feet from a large and dazzling patch of self-sown flowers that have established themselves in the gravel round the house, including Red Campion, Green Alkanet, Lamb’s Lettuce, Red Valerian, Hedgerow Cranesbill, Ox-eye Daisies. My interest is in the vitality and autonomy of this community (and its insect life – Hummingbird Hawk-moths are the stars!).  But in terms of pure visual attractiveness it would match any herbaceous border. I’m also pleased by the way Turkey Oaks are regenerating in and beyond our patch of treeland, growing alongside the Wild Cherries and Ashes, and proving more resistant to deer browsing than English Oaks. Of course, many newcomers cause trouble away from their home ground. But in an environment that is being damaged so much by climate change, we need new species to keep a biologically rich tapestry of life here, in case our traditional species have trouble coping. ‘Nativeness’ has always had strict time limits, at both ends.  

Horse Chestnut seeds on a tree.
Horse Chestnut – Aesculus hippocastanum by Judy Gallagher, via flickr.

What was the most interesting finding that you came across while undertaking this journey with your own garden?  

I think learning about eliasomes, the little parcels of fat on the ends of many seeds that are ants’ rewards for acting as beasts of burden. (They ferry the seeds to their hills and feed the fat globules to their grubs.) Our red ants’ hills are now like living standing stones and I like to think they are responsible for Cowslips now carpeting most of our grassland.  

What do you hope the reader can learn from The Accidental Garden?  

I’ve been astonished by the inventiveness of our fellow beings when allowed a little leeway to do their own thing. When we drop our paternalistic attitude, our belief that we know best what should live where. Gardens are often compared to theatres, with the gardener as writer, director, set designer rolled into one. Can’t they also be open stages where uninvited, unsupervised species and ancient processes of colonisation and decay can improvise their own landscapes? In the 20 years we’ve been here one half of our plot has transformed itself into a kind of common, with patches of treeland and open grass, and a total of over 150 wild plant species arrived largely of their own accord. A garden is only in the smallest sense a microcosm and metaphor for the planet. But in it it’s possible to glimpse larger lessons about neighbourliness and cooperation, and the fact that the natural world is not intrinsically a victim, in need of constant intensive care.  

What are you occupying your time with at the moment? Do you have any other books in progress that we can hear about? 

At my age I should be put out to grass. But I can’t stop thinking and scribbling. I’ve just finished an expanded new edition of my 1993 book on the cultural history of Nightingales, Whistling in the Dark, out next year. And I’m dogged by a fancy of tracing the wild thread in the art of nature (always my second subject) from the cave paintings in Derbyshire to Andy Goldsworthy’s spring-flower-enclosing snowballs. But maybe I should just be content to use my walking stick (my Instrument of Minimum Intervention) to scratch more patches in the grass. 


The Accidental Garden book cover.

The Accidental Garden is available to pre-order from our bookstore.

Author Q&A with Kat Hill: Bothy

Bothy book cover showing a colourful artistic impressionist painting of a small bothy between mountains.Join author Kat Hill on a journey across England, Scotland and Wales to explore 15 remote bothies, and uncover the beauty, history and stories of these wild shelters. In this stirring book of adventure, peace, wilderness and refuge, she intertwines her own story of heartbreak and new purpose, while taking into consideration the environment, what we owe to it, and why we all crave escapes into the remote.

Portrait photograph of Kat Hill wearing a grey woollen jumper, stood in front of a Scottish bothy with mountains, lakes and trees in the background.
Kat Hill by Nicholas J. R

Kat Hill is a Senior Lecturer in History at Birkbeck College, London, and her current research project is focusing on questions of landscape, people, and heritage in the bothies of the Scottish Highlands, as well as non-conformist religious communities in Europe, America and the Global South. She holds a PhD from the University of Oxford in 2011, where she also received a British Academy Postdoctoral Award, and she authored the prize-winning book, Baptism, Brotherhood, and Belief: Anabaptism and Lutheranism, 1525-1585. 

We recently chatted with Kat about what inspired her to write this book, how technology is changing the bothying experience, what she thinks the future holds for bothies and more. 


Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to write a book about bothies?  

I’m a writer and researcher living on the northern tip of the Isle of Skye. If I am not reading or thinking up project ideas, I am either out in the hills or beavering away at my other role, working with local communities for Highlands Rewilding. In my past life I was an academic historian (as well as an international Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitor), but last year I took voluntary redundancy from academia to pursue my writing and creative practice more fully, as well as aiming to do something good for the world in an age of climate crisis and environmental breakdown. That need, to work on something to do with the living world, was part of the inspiration for writing Bothy. I’d grown weary of academic life, and London in particular, my personal life was a mess, and I felt disconnected and unsettled. And then I got invited to a bothy, Cadderlie to be precise, on the edge of Loch Etive.  

When I first went to Cadderlie, I never intended to write a book about bothies. But I loved the whole experience, and the more I found out about them, the more drawn I was to these shelters. They embodied so many things I was interested in – landscape, our connection to place, environmental histories, material histories of people and the living world, and just generally being active and outside. Finally, the plans I had for quite some time to change direction and escape the life I was living came to fruition. Especially with that weird caesura that Covid provided, I had space to make notes and think, and in that time, I found the ability to write in a way I had not thought possible. I did an MA in Environmental Humanities alongside my job, kept chipping away at the work and was lucky enough to find an amazing agent. This book is not a memoir per se, though there’s quite a bit of my life in it, but I would say it’s a personal response both to the challenges of my own life and to the crises we see around us.  

A bothy nestled under some large evergreen trees on the side of a stony track going towards the Scottish mountains in the background.
Posh Bothy by Andrew, via flickr.

Were there any authors or books in particular that inspired you when you set out to write Bothy?  

There’s a real mix of things that shaped my writing, as I am sure is the case for any writer, but one of the things I most enjoyed in the process was taking inspiration from an eclectic mix of authors and books. Too many to name, but I’ll give a flavour. Nature and travel writing has always felt like such an obvious go to. I remember my mum introducing me to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts when I was younger and his combination of learned observation and vivid writing about the world captivated me. Other travel writing like Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley always spoke to me. As for more recent nature/travel writers, I love Cal Flyn’s work, Rebecca Solnit, Judith Schalansky’s books, and Nick Hayes’ Trespass, and I have immersed myself in environmental writing from so many people. To name a few – Robin Wall Kimmerer, Anna Tsing, Kathleen Jamie, Robert Macfarlane, and Andri Snær Magnason.  

But there were also personal elements to the book, and so when I was thinking how you deftly discuss your life and its meaning, it was to writers such as Deborah Levy, Amy Liptrot and Helen Macdonald that I turned. Fiction and literature shaped the work, too, novels like The Overstorey or Ursula Le Guin’s novels, short stories and essays. And I’ve always loved poetry, though I am not sure I am bold enough to write it for others – although, who knows? – and countless collections sit on my shelf, from Edna St. Vincent Millay to Alice Oswald, Rainer Maria Rilke to Liz Berry.  

At the heart, too, I have always drawn inspiration from my academic background and academic writers, mainly historians and archaeologists, for example Natalie Zemon Davis, Tim Ingold and Jane Bennett, but also philosophers. If you don’t know Timothy Morton’s book Dark Ecology, then I highly recommend it. I also always looked to those whose work is accessible beyond the world of scholarly writing. I was given a great lesson in that by my academic mentor Lyndal Roper, a historian of sixteenth-century Germany, and at the back of my mind was always the sensitive, layered, textured approach she had to writing about past lives. 

People find solace and healing in all sorts of activities and all manner of things. Why do you think bothies were the thing that helped you at a time when you needed it?  

It was a particular mix of things that made bothies so meaningful for me. I’d not been to Scotland much before Cadderlie, so part of it was being able to spend time outdoors and simply be active in beautiful landscapes. I grew up in Shropshire, so especially when I went to the Welsh bothies it felt like I was rekindling a connection to the younger version of myself. But they also stirred the historian’s interest in me because in the bothies there are visitor books which are left for anyone to sign, and these are a startling, intriguing record of ordinary lives. Given the chance to write a poem, draw a doodle or write out a life history, most people do. I’ve worked so often with archival documents that give hints of past lives and material histories of human stories that these felt like such a rich source.  

I felt an immediate connection to the people on these pages. And I loved that, because bothies arrived in my life at a turning point, when I needed that connection. It was a funny, difficult time personally for me when I found bothies. I was struggling with what direction to take, and I am not going to lie, the previous decade had been dark, difficult, and filled with depression and anxiety. On the outside everything looked great. I was doing really well in my academic career, I was living in London in Hammersmith, I was competing in, and winning, BJJ tournaments all over the world. But underneath was a bone-deep exhaustion. The long aftermath of a divorce and then the trauma of a difficult, fractious, toxic relationship had taken its toll. I found bothies as I came out of that. I entered a new relationship and prised myself away from the life that was making me unhappy, I loved some of the anonymity yet intimacy that bothies gave – you never know who’s going to be there which produces a strange kind of bond with fellow travellers- and the respite they provided from normal rhythms of life was welcome. You have to lead a pretty simple life with only camping gear and what you carry with you, even if that retreat into plain living is a manufactured choice. 

This process for me wasn’t sudden and revelatory. One thing I talk about in the book is that you don’t just go out into nature and find a cure. But there’s little doubt that the company of the living world (and finding time for connection, consideration, and above all perhaps, play) is soothing and healing. Everyone’s bothy experience will be different but for me, in these places, I was able to reshape myself after a difficult decade as someone who was once again creative, outdoorsy, adventurous, a nature lover, kind to others- someone who was happy.  

An old bothy on a hill in a grassy field with heather and gorse bushes in the foreground, and sloping hills in the background.
Aberfeldy But’n Ben by Ronnie Fleming LRPS, via flickr.

Do you think that technology and social media have changed the bothying experience? 

For example, now you can discover the details and locations of individual bothies online and then use a GPS to find your way there with ease. I never knew bothies before they were on Google maps, blogs and Instagram, so that’s always been my experience of the bothy world. But it’s certainly easier to find them now than it was in the 1970s or 1980s. It’s a different world, but I guess the key question for lots of bothy users is whether that alters or fundamentally destroys the bothy experience. Some would say yes, and I understand the frustration. Influencer posts about the same tourist spots in the world are wearying. And there is a very important debate to be had about responsible access to landscapes and environments, or the damage we can do as tourists. Working as I do in the rewilding sphere part of the time, I am often at the sharp end of these conversations about the tensions between human and non-human interests in a place, local and non-local needs. 

However, I also don’t think that all of the online stuff is bad in the bothy world. To survive, they need to be used and a new generation is part of that. Bothies are rooted in the desire for access to the countryside and in the working class ‘revolution’ for leisure and recreation in the hills that followed World War One. Expensive hotels and fancy tours were out of reach for working young men and women who suddenly had a bit more time for leisure, but bothies were free. So I find the private club notion of bothies, of pulling up the ladder after you, more than a little problematic as it seems to go against the idea of access and the right to roam.  

Some bothies have shut due to claims of overcrowding and parties – though I have never really seen raucous behaviour myself – but it’s all too easy to blame people without a voice as the culprits. Without labelling all landowners as evil either, this is really a debate about rights to the outdoors, access and how we develop responsible, caring relationships to landscapes. I think bothies can be part of that.  

Some bothies remain secret and I, for one, am not going to plaster them over the internet. But I have seen so many young people with a copy of Geoff Allan’s Bothy Bible in hand, loving the outdoors, and that makes me happy. I am sure information sharing has changed the experience of bothying but nothing is ever static in the world. Indeed, perhaps it’s a particularly human thing to be nostalgic for the moment just past, to get misty eyed about days gone by, rather than live in the present moment and to enjoy that for what it is. It makes me think of a line from an Office US episode from Andy Bernard: ‘I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.’  

White washed, stone bothy near a river or lake one some land covered in brown grass and gorse, with Scottish mountains in the far distance.
Maol-bhuidhe bothy by Dmitry Djouce, via flickr.

How important do you think isolation is to the spirit and experience of the bothy? 

 There’s a really touching story, I talk about in the book which comes from a bothy visitor book entry. A man has returned to a bothy which he used to come to with his wife, their last trip of such a kind before she died of cancer. For him, as for so many others, the bothy may be relatively remote and cut off from some of the comforts of modern life but it’s not isolation per se that makes it special. It’s fellowship, companionship, love. Of course, there is a kind of isolation. But isolation from what is the key, as it’s not from people and places in a secluded wilderness, often quite the opposite as you will normally meet a new acquaintance. Some people do love being in a bothy alone and I have had delightful, quiet evenings by myself or with just a friend, but also plenty of entertaining nights with strangers. 

But even when you are alone, you aren’t really isolated because you are connected to the place around you, from the bothy mouse to the howling wind, to bellowing stags to querulous birds. Besides, bothies only exist because these were, and are, lived, worked landscapes. To imagine you are in an isolated wilderness is to do them a disservice. 

What do you think the future holds for bothies? Will they forever be old stone buildings, or will they evolve to include less traditional and/or newly built structures?  

I’d say bothies already are evolving in new ways and there are some new MBA bothies opening up, more cottages reclaimed and restored. I’d like to think there will always be stone bothies withy smoky walls and wooden floors because they have given me so much. But the bothy idea has been taken in many different directions: such as artistic residencies run by Bothy Project, or the wonderful Taigh Whin bothy and house run by partners Sarah MacLaren and Sophie Howarth, which offers low-cost holiday accommodation for people working for the common good – carers, community workers, teachers. This place (the house of gorse, it means) is a beautiful reimagining of the idea of shelter and connection in a bothy.  

And then there’s the luxury tourism bothy which is pretty far away from a traditional bothy, but I guess in some ways draws on the ideas of simplicity and shelter. The idea of a hut, a shelter, a shieling is malleable and changing but also speaks to a basic need for refuge or rest. So, the idea continues to have power, increasingly so perhaps in a fractured and complex world. And there’s a future to the bothy there, not just a past. The delicate balance of past and present is at the heart of bothy life, the retreat from modernity whilst knowing that this retreat is in some way dependent on the contrast the simple life provides with the contemporary. If there was no city or phone signal to escape from then I think bothies would be a whole different prospect.  

That’s why I think there’s a future for humble bothies of the stone wall variety, alongside the fancier versions, as they have lessons to give us about what matters. They ask us to question what we need, what makes us happy, and what we can do without.  

 

Finally, what is occupying your time at the moment (professionally and/or personally)? And can we expect more books from you in the future?  

Life has been really busy, professionally and personally. I’ve just moved to Skye so I am enjoying settling into the new house: filling up bird feeders, painting walls and walking to the beach. In between writing and reading, I have a part time role as a community engagement co-ordinator for Highlands Rewilding so I have been learning more and more about the practical implications of changing land use, climate change and the delicate balance between people and places.  

I don’t think I can ever imagine not writing though, so there’s plenty of scribbling too, some articles and grant pitches but also new book ideas. There will definitely be another book! Having moved about 15 times in ten years, it’s wonderful to have a home again and that’s starting to shape my writing too. When I was working in academia, I did a tonne of research on Amish and Mennonite migrations, so maybe there will be something about home and finding our place in this world.  

I am also embarking on a multiyear interdisciplinary project with photographer Nicholas J R White on places of shelter and refuge across the world, places where people stay for a short while. We’ve just got back from the Shiant Isles in the Minch, a beautiful place. Soft in summer, I imagine, but we were there at the time of the season’s changing when there’s still harshness in the air, winds cold, seas wild and sun shining. It’s already provided lots of food for thought. I am also out in the US later this year for a fellowship at the IAS at Princeton, so I might find my way up to some fire lookouts à la Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac.  

So, lots to keep me busy. Life is starting to settle again. I am in a happy place, surrounded by loving people. And I might even start some BJJ classes again. 


Bothy is published by William Collins and is available to pre-order from our bookstore.

Author Q&A with Simon Barnes: How to be a Bad Botanist

 

Author Simon Barnes gazing out over a river.

An exploration of botany for beginners, How to be a Bad Botanist is a must-read that opens our eyes to the world around us. Through this charming and inspiring work, Barnes takes us on a fascinating journey on the complex nature of plants, and enthrals us with tales to help us appreciate the diversity and wonder of the natural world. 

Simon is an author and journalist who has worked on a number of nature volumes, including the bestselling Bad Birdwatcher trilogy and Rewild Yourself. He is a council member of the World Land Trust, a patron of Save the Rhino and honorary vice-president of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.   

We recently had the opportunity to talk with Simon about how plants caught his attention, the importance of botany and how we can all learn to be Bad Botanists. 


How to be a Bad Birdwatcher, published in 2004, rapidly became a birdwatching classic and this year was republished as a 20th anniversary edition. What prompted you to turn your attention to plants for your latest book? 

It all began with a damascene experience on Orford Ness. This is a place where military and natural history collide. On the same visit I was able to see a Great White Egret and the casing for an atom bomb. It was, I read, about the same size as the one they dropped on Hiroshima.  

My brain was somewhat scrambled by this. After a while I sat on the beach, my mind full of life and death and memories of a visit to Hiroshima, pretending that I was having a bit of a sea watch. It was then that I noticed a colony of plants. Growing in the shingle. Which is impossible. But there they were. Growing. Living. And the extraordinary way that life seeks to live, even in the most difficult circumstances, really rather got to me. These strange plants seemed to make sense of this strange, awful and wonderful place.  

I worked out that the plants in question were Sea Pea, Sea Kale and Yellow Horned Poppy: and my own life was better for doing so. Soon, I would be looking at old plants with new eyes. 

 

How to Be a Bad Botanist is a fantastic exploration into the world of plants and botany itself. Where is a good place to start for aspiring botanists?  

What’s required is a subtle but drastic mental shift. After my Orford Ness moment, it was clear that plants were now something to do with me. Something personal. I was doing what I wanted aspiring birders to do when I wrote How to be a Bad Birdwatcher. Only with plants. 

And the first thing I wanted to do was to be introduced. To know the name. Always the first step towards greater intimacy. So, when I saw a tree, I found myself asking, what sort of tree? I made the delightful discovery that I knew more than I thought – oak, conker, holly. It wasn’t the hardest thing in the world to learn a few more – and all at once the adventure was gathering pace.  

An illustrated yellow horned poppy growing in shingle.
Yellow Horned Poppy by Cindy Lee Wright.

 

One of the first things that struck me about the book was how funny it is (I particularly enjoyed “my sitting was devoid of porpoise” when lamenting the lack of marine mammals spotted during a period observing the sea). Do you think humour and levity are important in providing a gateway into a topic that might originally seem highly specialist?  

I’m glad you liked the porpoise joke. It’s one of those lines you know you really ought to cut, but haven’t the heart. 

And yes, humour is essential. It’s essential to almost everything. Humour doesn’t compromise seriousness. Humours enriches life. There is humour in the greatest art – Ulysses, A la recherche du tempts perdu, Hamlet, The Waste Land, Metamorphoses. Humour humanises, bringing meaning and proportion to all we do. At a funeral, what touches us most deeply are funny stories from the life of a person we have lost. 

Humour doesn’t make things trivial. When appropriate, humour makes things profound… in a funny sort of way. 

 

Why do you think that botany is important and what can it bring to our lives?

Everything starts with plants. Plants are the only things that can eat the sun: the power of the sun allows them to make their own food, and that feeds everything else that lives (unless you live in a hydrothermal vent at the bottom of the sea, of course). Lions couldn’t live without plants: they just eat them at one remove.  

Those of us who like nature tend to have areas of specialisation, and that’s only natural. But nature itself isn’t about separation: it’s about the way everything fits in together. You can’t really get a handle on your own specialist subject, no matter what it is, without understanding the way it’s driven by plants. 

An illustrated Oak tree
An illustrated Oak tree from How to be a Bad Botanist. Illustrated by Cindy Lee Wright.

 

The final chapter relates to a decline of the natural world – what more could we do to support our native wildflower populations in the UK?  

The first thing to do is to look after any piece of land you have control over and make it richer and wilder. Sometimes neglect – what conservationists call “minimum intervention” – is the best policy, and it’s assiduously practiced at our place in the Broads.  

The second is to support good organisations: your local county wildlife trust (and yes, there’s one for London) and the excellent Plantlife.  

And after that, just show people wonderful stuff: here come the waterlilies, this pretty stuff on the riverbank is Purple Loosestrife and Hemp Agrimony, and round the next bend there’s an Aldercarr with nesting herons. By doing so, you enrich people’s lives as well as your own.  

 

Other than buying your book, can you tell us one tip that you give to an aspiring ‘bad’ botanist? 

Just look. Look, and seek a name. These days you can use phone apps like Pl@ntNet which will have a decent shot at identifying plants from flowers, leaves, even bark. But mostly it’s about that mental shift: making it personal. Last year it was a nice little yellow flower, this year it’s the first Lesser Celandine of spring and your heart can rejoice. 

 

How to be a Bad Botanist is available to order from our online bookstore.

No Mow May: A Celebration of Wildflower Power

This spring, traditional British lawns are out. Throughout the month of May, Plantlife urges us to let our gardens be wild with #NoMowMay. This exciting initiative encourages us to embrace a wild lawn this spring, providing plants, invertebrates and other wildlife the opportunity to make our gardens a home. No Mow May could transform your green spaces into a colourful kaleidoscope of flowers you never knew were there. From buttercups to bee orchids, here at NHBS we have had an astonishing array of wildflowers in previous years, and we are hoping that this year will be the same!

Knowing when, and how, to mow your lawn to encourage wildflower growth and minimise grass domination can be confusing, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to supporting native wildlife. In anticipation of May, we outline the important things to consider when maintaining your lawn over the coming seasons.


Tightly manicured garden lawns are unable to host the diverse communities associated with a natural space. The artificially constructed environment, with uniform grass length and limited species, prevents our native wildflowers from blooming and our vital insects from settling. Lawn feeds and fertilisers often used to maintain our lawns can result in unnaturally high levels of soil fertility. Such levels can unintentionally diminish the diversity of flora within our gardens, since native wildflowers are adapted to low-nutrient conditions. Associated with higher carbon emissions, time consumption and overall cost, many are steering clear of a high maintenance lawn this spring. 

A spring-flowering lawn provides a whole host of benefits for the wildlife within our gardens. Opting for a wild, native lawn provides essential breeding habitats, food sources and physical protection for a number of species. These spaces give wildflowers a chance to bloom and set seed, benefitting both insects, and the predators who rely on them.  

 

A bee orchid in the centre, in front of a wild lawn
Our Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) from #NoMowMay 2022. Image by Oli Haines.

So, how and when should we mow?   

Less is more! Switching up your mowing routine, or refraining from a mow in some areas, is a great way to maximise diversity in your garden. After a short time, your outdoor spaces can flourish into a haven for wildlife. From voles to vetches, and even British reptiles, watch your garden transform from monoculture to a wild refuge.  

Varied grass length, wild edges, or longer patches of lawn are great for attracting local wildlife to your garden. You may find orchids, ox-eye daisy and knapweed in these longer areas, which also provide cover for small mammals that may be wandering through, and shorter areas can boost pollen availability from low-lying flowers, like buttercups and clover. Plantlife advocates for a varied mowing approach with longer patches throughout the garden, alongside shorter areas (aiming to mimic grazing pressures of different herbivorous species in the wild). For instance, you might decide to maintain shorter pathways and areas around patios, but allow other areas of your green spaces to grow freely.  

It is important to remove cuttings after lawn maintenance to prevent excess nitrogen in the soil, thus reducing nitrophilic plants (species with a preference for nitrate rich habitat, typically from fertilisers and the decomposition of organic material) in your garden. ‘Cut and rot’ management can be counterproductive when cultivating wildflowers, as low levels of soil nutrition are preferred by many and will harbour the most diversity. In fact, frequent fertilisation and additional nutrition can result in an overall decline of wildflowers, leading to a dominance of nitrophilic plant species.   

A garden during No Mow May with varied grass length, wildlife corridors and vegetable patches.
A garden with varied grass length during No Mow May. Image by Allan Harris via Flickr.

Knowing when, and how, to mow during the year is key to maximise flowering of wildflower species, while simultaneously preventing grass domination: to do this, it is generally recommended to mow three times a year; early spring, late summer and in autumn.  

A 3-inch, early spring mow is beneficial to kickstart the season, promoting early growth and blooming.  An early mow can also help to tackle nitrophiles, like nettles and cow parsley. This can help to prevent competition, allowing wildflowers to grow undisturbed. However, be wary of mowing too early, as this can prevent wildflower seeding and will impact your gardens growth next year.  

A summer mow in late July, or August, removes the previous growth, encouraging the bloom of wildflowers later in the season. As far as insects are concerned, the later the mow, the better. Insect species tend to hatch in the warmer parts of spring and summer, so a mow in late August will prevent harm to hatching individuals. 

Around late November, an autumn mow can help to promote reseeding and encourages germination in the following spring. Allow the wildflowers in your lawn to finish flowering and let them go to seed, a mow after this allows the seedheads to disperse seeds into your lawn. An autumn cut can also keep grass growth under control, further encouraging germination.  

There are also certain considerations to be wary of when forming wild areas in your garden. These habitats will attract a great number of species, who may make your lawn a home. Best practice involves leaving an area of your lawn untouched to house these species, but if you are looking to tidy up your garden after No Mow May, wildlife must be considered. Wildlife in our lawns can be harmed in the process of tidying up our outside spaces. It is recommended to disturb, or walk through patches to be maintained to shoo species from the area. On the first mow, start with a higher cut to give smaller animals a chance to escape. When mowing the lawn, start with garden paths and areas of high footfall, working toward the edges of the garden. This, again, provides wildlife with an escape route through the boundaries of your garden. If your garden has fences or hedgerows, a wildlife corridor along your borders is another way to support visiting animals. Untouched, or lightly managed, strips along these areas can provide a safe space for travel around the garden, providing cover and protection from predators.  

hedgehog looking out from a bush
Hedgehog by Kalle Gustafsson via Flickr.

How can we prepare for No Mow May?  

If you currently use fertilisers, lawn feed, moss killers or pesticides, abandoning the use of these additives in your garden will allow the soil to recover from these harmful chemicals. This can provide microscopic and invertebrate soil communities a chance to recover, improving the overall health of your soil.  

For some of us, early bloomers may already be present in our gardens. Cowslip, violets and primroses may be popping up on our lawns, showcasing the first few flowers of the season. You may consider allowing these to go undisturbed, giving them a head start for spring. Having said that, the best way to prepare for No Mow May is a 3-inch April cut to encourage a strong period of spring growth.  

Whether or not you decide to mow the lawn this spring, consider leaving an area of your garden wild. Whether this be a natural lawn or rough borders, we hope you feel inspired to take part in this year’s #NoMowMay! 

 

Author Q&A with Dominic Couzens and Gail Ashton: An Identification Guide to Trees of Britain and North-West Europe

An Identification Guide to Trees of Britain and North-West Europe is a fantastic new guide to 89 of the most commonly found and easily recognised trees in the region. Suitable for everyone, from the complete novice to the experienced naturalist, the book contains lively and interesting text from Dominic Couzens, complemented by Gail Ashton’s photographs. These show details of each species throughout the seasons as well as features that are useful for identification.

Dominic Couzens is a bird expert, nature writer and the author of over 40 books. He is also a regular print columnist and writes for Bird Watching Magazine, Nature’s Home (RSPB) and Water Life (WWT). He is passionate about communicating about the natural world  and has a particular passion for writing about current threats to the planet and how they can be best addressed.

Gail Ashton is a photographer and writer with a passion for wildlife and invertebrates in particular. Well known for an incredible project where she undertook to photograph 500 UK invertebrates over the course of a year, she is passionate about encouraging everyone, young or old, to observe and appreciate the natural world.

We recently got to the chance to ask Dominic and Gail some questions about the book; about the process of compiling such a guide, the most fascinating things they learned in the process and their concerns for the future of trees in Britain and further afield.


Firstly, can you tell us a little bit about yourselves and how you came to be working together in writing this book?

DC: I am an experienced writer of natural history books and I’ve written a number of field guides, both to birds and mammals. However, in 2021 I came across Gail’s remarkable project to photograph 500 species of invertebrates in a single year. Her fabulous library was the perfect material for an insect guide, so we published An Identification Guide to Garden Insects in 2022. The project was a great success so here we are.

GA: I have always loved nature and one of my favourite ways to be outdoors is in woodland and forest. Studying insects brought me a new layer of fascination for trees as I found out just how many other organisms they support, and just how complex they are. Trees came on the back of the very-well received ‘Garden Insects’, and follows the same, beautiful format and layout.

There are numerous books available on tree identification. What do you think sets your book apart from other ID guides of its kind?

GA: Yes, there are a good number of outstanding tree guides out there – some of which I use myself. But they can be quite expansive and overwhelming, especially for those of us just starting our tree identification journey. This book is a perfect entry-level guide which introduces you to the different ways in which you can look at trees in order to recognise key features.

DC: It’s very different. For a start, while most tree guides even just to Britain have 300 or more species, we have cut this down to about 90. So it’s simplified and entry-level, including all the common wild species and some introduced ones – those that people might see. It is very far from technical and we have tried to make every species interesting and fun in its own right. We have included some really great facts about many of the trees.

I’m always fascinated by the process behind the compilation of such a comprehensive ID guide. What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

DC: Trees are complicated, with all the different parts from leaves to bark. As the writer of most of the text, even though I had a decent grasp of many British trees, it was always a challenge not to forget all the details. The other very difficult task was in selecting the species. We wanted to include all the species people will notice, including such non-natives as Magnolias and Eucalyptus, while including the bona fide wild trees. But we couldn’t find room for all the tricky willows, and in the end we just hope our choice chimes with people.

GA: Believe it or not, the biggest challenge for me was actually finding the trees. It sounds mad, because trees are everywhere, right? But finding that perfect tree to photograph took a lot of research, walking and finding, and then the light had to be right, so I would revisit trees multiple times. Some of the trees were quite difficult to find, such as the Wild Service and Mulberry, so a lot of detective work was required to pinpoint them. I also had to make repeat visits to capture them in all their seasonal phases. There are trees from all over Europe in this book -thousands of miles and hundreds of hours! But those are the lengths I’ll go to get a great photo.

I particularly enjoyed the fascinating facts that you included for each species in the book. Did you learn anything new or particularly surprising about any of the tree species covered over the course of your research?

DC: I learnt an enormous amount. Did you know that each Holly leaf lives an average of seven years, for example? I also love the fact that Monkey Puzzles are essentially adapted to cope with browsing Sauropod dinosaurs.

GA: I became particularly fascinated with the Ginkgo – a unique throwback to the very beginnings of life on Earth; a tree which is neither conifer nor broadleaf, but somewhere in between.

A big part of conservation and land management is knowing what species are where and how many there are. How much do we currently know about the trees present in Britain and their population sizes?

GA: According to Forestry Research, only 13% of the United Kingdom is currently wooded. That’s such a small percentage compared to a few thousand years ago. Our ancient woodlands have all but disappeared, replaced by farmland, urban development and plantations. Veteran trees are our most important, as they support more communities and sequester more carbon than young trees. It’s essential that our remaining veteran trees and woodland fragments are fully protected to ensure the health of our future natural landscapes.

DC: The recent Atlas of British Flora means that we are well covered in these terms. For some of the rarer trees, such as Black Poplars, we know how many individuals there are of each sex.

Within this guide you include information on the months when leaves, flowers and buds might be seen for each species. Do you have any information or a feel for how rapidly climate change is impacting these features?

DC: Trees are a good early-warnings system, and you don’t need to write a book on trees to see that many are coming out earlier than they used to – hazel catkins in December, for example. However, it was very difficult to get any accurate figures for the book because it varies so much from year to year, and we were also covering Northern Europe as well as Britain. However, we certainly got a feel for the potential problems. Birch catkins are coming out earlier in response to warming, but might be approaching the earliest they can cope with physiologically. Oak budburst will affect both the caterpillars that feed on it and the Blue Tits that feed on the caterpillars. On a wider scale, temperature changes will affect the whole distribution of trees through the country, with northern species retreating. We could lose some specialists such as Dwarf Willow, and the climate will also become easier for introduced trees.

GA: I think that trees are more difficult to use as indicators than insects as trees have a much longer generational turnover, and they don’t move; however monitoring the emergence of blossom and leaves in spring and the falling of leaves in autumn is a great citizen science tool to establish changing trends.

Are there any trees in the UK for which the future seems particularly bleak?

DC: There are well known problems for ash trees and to a lesser extent oaks, and we simply don’t know how far their respective diseases will go. But as a warning, remember that the Field Elm, in its various forms, used to be lowland England’s most abundant tree. Paintings by our forebears of the countryside were often dominated by elms – now they are a shadow of their former selves. And as mentioned above, the warming climate will impact upon our more northerly species.

GA: Ash dieback is currently decimating younger adult trees, though there is a glimmer of hope in that veteran ash are currently immune to the fungus. Juniper is in massive decline across the UK due to loss of suitable habitat.

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

DC: We have co-written two books on insects recently: A Year of Garden Bees and Bugs and An Insect a Day, both of which are published by BT Batsford and are narrative-style books.

GA: I am currently working on upcoming books about invertebrates. I have an exhibition of my photos planned, as well as workshops, talks and podcasts.


An Identification Guide to Trees of Britain and North-West Europe was published by John Beaufoy Publishing in April 2024 and is available from nhbs.com.

Author Q&A with Jeremy Biggs & Penny Williams: Ponds, Pools and Puddles

Ponds, pools and puddles are a common sight in our landscape and play a very important part in sustaining wildlife. In Volume 148 of the New Naturalist Series, the authors provide a comprehensive survey of the variety of plants and animal life for which they are a habitat, and discusses the way in which they are used, their importance, and compares their major variations in life cycles. Ponds, Pools and Puddles makes an invaluable contribution to raising awareness of these popular, yet frequently underrated freshwater habitats and gives them the attention they rightly deserve.

Jeremy Biggs and Penny Williams work for Freshwater Habitats Trust, a wildlife conservation charity focused on reversing the decline in freshwater biodiversity. They have been involved in numerous research projects, publications and conferences on the ecology and management of ponds and other freshwater habitats.

We recently had the opportunity to talk to Jeremy and Penny about how they became interested in ponds, whether they think technological advances will play an important role in future pond research and more.


Jeremy Biggs wearing wellies on the side of a large pond looking at something he has caught in a net on a sunny day with clear, blue skies.
Jeremy Biggs

Can you tell us how you both became interested in ponds and pond life?

P: I had a wonderful early experience at primary school: we had a trip to a local pond in Southborough, Kent and caught a Three-spined Stickleback. The teacher brought a couple back to a classroom tank and I watched in amazement as the beautiful azure blue and orange male made a nest and fanned the eggs with his tail.

J: I was interested in wildlife from my teens, particularly birds, but it was at university (Royal Holloway, University of London) that my interest in freshwater was awakened. Crucial for me was an inspirational teacher – the late Dr Nan Duncan – who ran one of the best courses there was on freshwater biology.

I found your definition of a pond interesting as there appears to be so many ways of deciding what constitutes a pond. Can you talk us through the process that you went through to decide on the parameters for your definition?

P: After working on ponds for a couple of years it became clear that we needed an easy-to-use definition, particularly to deal with the inevitable question: is it a pond or a lake? It also had to include temporary ponds, which were hardly recognised in the UK at the time. So, at Freshwater Habitats Trust we went for an area-based definition because that’s easy to measure. We set 2 ha as the pond/lake cut off, as this seemed to best capture the difference between the two. The ‘wet for at least four months of the year’ is included as this is roughly the time needed for ponds to develop a wetland plant community. That means that you should be able go to a basin that’s wet or dry at any time of year and tell if it is a pond. In practice, the lower limit is a little flexible: we use 1m² to include tiny pools and garden ponds, but for practical reasons use 25m² for national counts of ponds where it’s impractical to count every little countryside puddle.

Penny Williams carrying an inflatable kayak by a pond on a sunny day with blue skies.
Penny Williams

It’s clear that the first national pond survey paved the way for gaining a more in-depth understanding of pond classifications, species, ecological preferences and more. What do you think the next step is in gaining an even greater understanding of ponds, and do you think modern, technological research methods will play a big part in this?

P: Current policy, legislation and general awareness of the importance of ponds now lags way behind our knowledge of pond ecology – so although there is still an enormous amount more to find out about pond biology, I think the greatest need is for knowledge that shows the importance and value of ponds for protecting freshwater biodiversity. For example, we need evidence about how high-quality pond creation and restoration can be used, at a landscape scale, to maintain healthy freshwater metapopulations, prevent extinctions and enable the spread of species that may be increasingly isolated by pollution and climate change. This is a real focus for Freshwater Habitats Trust, where we’ve been championing the importance of small waterbodies – and ponds in particular – for more than three decades.

Modern technology will undoubtedly play a part in this: DNA, and eDNA in particular, may be a game changer, although we are some way off from using it for the purpose that I would love: routine monitoring of all waterbodies (rather than just rivers) to get a real understanding of what is happening to freshwater biodiversity in our landscapes and how we can best address that.

New technologies are always exciting but, to be honest, I think the main thing we need at the moment is publicity, publicity, publicity. Widespread knowledge and appreciation at all levels of how wonderful these little waterbodies are.

J: More than a particular technological solution, what we really need is funding for ‘National Pond Survey 2’, led from a conservation perspective and, as we’ve been doing for the last 30 years, generating and testing the ideas that Ponds, Pools and Puddles summarises. There’s so much to learn here: are ponds still declining in quality? What’s the effect of pond management? How do ponds, lakes, streams, wetlands and rivers interact? What about the microbiota which we know next to nothing about (that is something eDNA will help with)? How is climate change affecting ponds?

It was fascinating to learn that there is a much greater variety of species found in ponds in comparison to river communities. How important do you think ponds are in the recovery of nationally scarce or Red Data Book species?

J: The very wide variety of nationally scarce and Red Data Book species found in ponds means that ponds are absolutely vital for the recovery of these species. The special virtue of ponds is that, with their small catchment, we can still find large numbers of very high-quality ponds in the landscape, or create new, near pristine, clean water ponds in areas protected from pollution. This is all much more difficult for streams, rivers and many lakes with their much bigger catchments. There’s no doubt that creating and restoring networks of clean water ponds could put many of our Red Listed freshwater species on an upward trajectory. Indeed, this is one of the aims of Freshwater Habitats Trust’s vision to build the Freshwater Network: to reverse the decline in freshwater biodiversity. This will see us creating a network of wilder, wetter, cleaner, more connected freshwater habitats, and ponds play a big part in this concept.

Delta Pond in Eugene, Oregon surrounded by trees, plants and flowers on the shoreline.
Delta Pond in Eugene, Oregon by Rick Obst, via flickr.

To what extent do you expect climate change to affect the ecological formation and chemical makeup of natural ponds in the future?

P: The effects of climate change on ponds are undoubtedly going to be complex, varied, unexpected and unpredictable. For example, in the Water Friendly Farming project, where we’ve been monitoring the same ponds for over a decade, a clear (but not predicted) result is that shallow ponds are being rapidly encroached by marginal wetland vegetation in dry years, and this vegetation persists so that open water is being lost. However, the effect differs: where ponds are grazed this has been beneficial, sometimes enabling uncommon plants like Orange Foxtail (Alopecurus aequalis) to spread to lovely new poached drawdown zones. In other cases, it has been sad to see little ponds with water buttercups be replaced by just wetland grasses like Sweet-grasses (Glyceria spp) and Creeping Bent (Agrostis stolonifera).

J: Climate change is going to have a big impact, but the effects are going to very difficult to predict. Ponds are so varied, it’s inevitable that their responses will be too. It’s possible to make sweeping generalisations (pollution impacts get worse, many temporary ponds disappear) but there’s a good chance these will wrong. It’ll be crucial to have a good set of observations of what is actually happening to ponds. In the meantime, the priority should be to use ponds to put as much clean water as we can back into the landscape.

What is the most interesting finding that you have come across while researching ponds, pools and puddles?

P: For me it’s undoubtedly been the opportunity to riff on my geological background and delve into the ancient natural processes that shaped ponds in the past – and which still has so much to teach us about ponds (and other freshwaters) today. For example, I love the fact that almost all of today’s wetland plants evolved in landscapes that had already been shaped by grazing and poaching processes for over 200 million years – no wonder many wetland plants benefit from grazing and the presence of muddy ground! And, at a time when many people (including scientists and policymakers) still undervalue ponds as man-made artificial features, some of world’s best-preserved evidence of early life in terrestrial landscapes (the Devonian Rhynie cherts in Scotland which are c400 my) reveal an environment that is full of ponds with the fairy shrimps and tadpole shrimps swimming amongst stoneworts.

J: For me, it’s been the chance to bring together so much information that we simply haven’t had a chance to publish anywhere else. With the amount of time it takes to publish research, we are extremely selective about what we write up in papers. Only the most important results ever make it into print. It’s also allowed us to look at groups we don’t work on so much ourselves (such as the microalgae) and see how these reinforce many of the ideas about ponds from the more obvious bigger plants and animals. It’s also nice to get into the book the truth that many of our biggest and most famous wetlands, like the Coto Donana in Spain, are actually massive pond complexes comprised of over 3,000 temporary ponds!

Pennington Flash Pond through the Trees.
Pennington Flash Pond through the Trees by Ronald Saunders, via flickr.

Are either of you working on any other projects that we can hear about?

J: Freshwater Habitats Trust is really busy at the moment! Amongst other things we are:

– Launching the Freshwater Network: this is our plan to restore freshwater biodiversity taking account of freshwaters, including the critically important small (standing and flowing) that make up most of the water environment but have been largely overlooked for 100 years.

– Developing the network in key regions to protect and restore freshwater biodiversity in some of our most important freshwater landscapes like the New Forest, The Brecks, in the catchment of the R. Thames and in the Yorkshire Lowlands.

– Working with colleagues in Europe and South America looking at pond biodiversity, ecosystem services and climate change as part of the EU Horizon 2020 PONDERFUL project.

– Beginning research on the value of pond buffer zones in a project for Natural England and assessing the role that eDNA can play.

– Creating thousands of new ponds with Amphibian and Reptile Conservation as part of the Newt Conservation Partnership – created for Great Crested Newts but with much wider benefits for wildlife and, critically, monitoring the effects so we can tell whether it’s really making a difference.

– Continuing catchment research which looks at all of the water environment. Fortunately more and more people are realising that in every landscape, small waters are a lifeblood.

– and so many others….


 

Ponds, Pools and Puddles is available to order from our online bookstore here.

Author Q&A with Robert Wolton: Hedges

Hedges book cover showing a drawing of hedge and farmers fields.In Hedges, Robert Wolton brings together decades of research and personal experiences from his farm in Devon to explore the ecology, biology, nature conservation and wider environmental values of the hedges in the British Isles. Containing over 300 photographs and figures, this latest addition to the British Wildlife Collection offers a detailed commentary on hedges and their importance in our landscape.

Robert Wolton portrait, showing him from the chest upwards, stood wearing a brown hat, coat and bag with an old tree in the background.Robert is an ecological consultant and writer specialising in the management of farmland and associated habitats for wildlife. He is a former hedgerow specialist for Natural England, the founder, chair, editor and lead author of the Devon Hedge Group, has been involved in Hedgelink since it began, and has written a number of reports and articles specialising in hedges.


Firstly, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be contributing to the British Wildlife Collection with a book on hedges? 

I’ve had a life-long interest in natural history, even as  a schoolboy I was a very keen birdwatcher. Later, at university, I trained as a zoologist with a strong interest in mammals, although subsequently I have been more involved with insects, especially moths and flies. It was perhaps inevitable that I should pursue a career in nature conservation. My passion for hedges was awakened when we bought a small farm in the heart of Devon, my wife, Paula, looking after the cattle and sheep while I went to the office. Initially it was the flower-filled meadows that drew me to the land, but I soon realised that the many thick hedges, full of different trees and shrubs, were glorious and just as special, particularly when I discovered that those small spherical nests I kept finding were made by Hazel Dormice. At that time, 30 years ago, hedges were very under-appreciated in the nature conservation world – there was a gap waiting to be filled and I was able to persuade my bosses in English Nature to allow me to become a part-time national hedge specialist, a role I continued to fill after the organisation morphed into Natural England. Partial retirement gave me the opportunity to write a book on my beloved hedges. I’d always dreamt of having a volume in the British Wildlife Collection, much admiring the series, so when Bloomsbury offered me the chance I jumped at it. 

Robert Wolton, author of Hedges, photographed stood by a large pile of thin trees being used to construct a man-made hedge.
Robert Wolton making a hedge.

I tend to think of hedges as being man-made. But is there such a thing as a natural hedge? And if so, how do these come about? 

Most hedges in Britain and Ireland are indeed man-made. Some, though, have grown up naturally along fence lines and ditches – these are termed spontaneous hedges and I think they are becoming more frequent, especially along the sides of roads and railway lines. Trees and shrubs, their seeds carried by wind, birds and mammals, can colonise strips of rough grassland remarkably quickly, often protected to begin with by brambles. It does not take many years before there’s at least a proto-hedge present, and after a decade or two it may be difficult to tell it was not planted. Another way hedges have come into being is through strips of woodland being left when land is cleared for agriculture. These are called ghost hedges. Their origin is often given away by the presence of unexpectedly high numbers of trees and herbs characteristic of ancient woodland because they have poor dispersal abilities.  

I particularly enjoyed the chapter in your book on the origins and history of hedges. Do you think that the study of hedges can give us an insight into the natural and social history of our country? 

Without a doubt. Throughout our countryside, away from the open moors and fens, the pattern of fields, as defined by hedges and sometimes drystone walls, allows the history of the landscape to be read, often going back centuries, even sometimes millennia. We are so fortunate in these islands still to have this landscape continuity – it has been lost over much of continental Europe. In places like Dartmoor, which I can see from our farm, layer upon layer of history can be unpicked through studying the networks of field boundaries, most of which are banked hedges. Some can be traced back to the Bronze Age, 3,500 years ago. This may be exceptional, but even so, most of the hedges in Britain, and many in Ireland, probably date back to Medieval times. They are a hugely important part of our cultural heritage. We love our hedges. This is evident not just in the countryside, but across our villages, towns and cities, in our gardens and parks. Hedge topiary is, after all, a national pastime! 

Farmland hedge leading towards a forest at the end of a farm track along the right-hand side of a field.
Hedge, by Damien Walmsley via Flickr.

As you describe early on in the book, there are many different types of hedge, from those that consist of just a single species to very diverse multi-species ones, even ones that have been allowed to mature into lines of trees. Is there a type of hedge that is best for the surrounding wildlife and environment and that we should be trying to replicate or maintain as much as possible?  

If you put me on the spot, I’ll answer this question by saying that thick, dense, bushy hedges are the best for wildlife, preferably with margins full of tussocky grasses and wildflowers. But really we should be thinking about what networks of hedges look like, because there’s no such thing as a perfect hedge. Different birds, mammals and insects like different conditions, and in any case you can’t keep a hedge in the same state for ever, however carefully you manage it. Basically, the trees and shrubs are always trying to reach maturity, and as they do so gaps develops beneath their canopies and between them. That’s when laying or coppicing are needed, to rejuvenate the hedge and make it more dense and bushy. A lot more research needs to be done on this, but probably, from a wildlife point of view, at least half of all the hedges in a network, say that covering a decent-sized farm, should be in this condition. On the other hand, from a climate perspective, where we need to capture as much carbon as quickly as possible, tall hedges with many mature trees are best. You can see there are tensions here, all part of the challenge of managing hedges well. Who said it was easy?   

A dusty track running in a straight line with hedges on both sides and tall, narrow, straight trees behind the left hand hedge.
Into the Distance, by Dave S via Flickr.

As both a farmer and an ecologist, I’m sure you are more attuned than many to the conflicting needs of making a living from the land and managing hedges for the benefit of wildlife and conservation. Do you think financial incentives are the only way to encourage landowners and farmers to both plant more and maintain existing hedges? 

Financial incentives like government grants will always be important to landowners and farmers because good hedges benefit society at large just as much as those who own and manage them. Things like plentiful wildlife, carbon capture, reduced risk of homes flooding and beautiful landscapes rarely bring in any income to offset costs, let alone profit – it is right that they are supported from the public purse.  

Still, hedges can be of direct financial value to farmers through serving as living fences, preventing the loss of soil or providing logs and wood chips for heating. They can also increase crop yields through boosting numbers of pollinators and the predators of pests. To some extent, these direct benefits to farm businesses have been forgotten in recent decades in the drive for increased food production regardless of environmental cost, but they are now being appreciated much more as new ways of working the land, such as regenerative farming, catch on.  

And we should not overlook the fact that more and more landowners and farmers are prepared to bear at least some of the costs of good hedge management simply because they gain huge satisfaction from healthy hedges and all the wildlife they contain. The pleasure of seeing a covey of Partridges or a charm of Goldfinches, or hearing the purring song of the Turtle Dove, cannot be priced. 

A narrow, windy track going through a high sided hedge into the distance in a circle.
by Oli Haines.

Finally, how did you find the experience of writing this book, and will there be other publications from you on the horizon? 

This is my first ‘big’ book, and I was apprehensive to say the least when I started writing it, in 2022. But with a lot of encouragement from my wife and friends I soon got into the swing of things. Challenging for sure but personally most rewarding – exploring new facets, checking information and trying to find the best way to pass on my enthusiasm for the subject. Above all, it felt good to share knowledge collected over many years. Bloomsbury’s support was invaluable, there’s no way I could have self-published. As to whether there are more books in me, I’m not sure. Perhaps one on hedges in gardens? There again, I have a passion for wet woodland, another habitat that’s been much neglected. It’s all too soon to say. 


Hedges book cover showing a drawing of hedge and farmers fields.Hedges is available to order from our bookstore.