Book Reviews

from: Roger Manning, Past President, Berwickshire Naturalist Club

 

FIELD GUIDE : PLANTS

 

My early but very real interest in Natural History was certainly aided by the few books I then owned. The Field Guides with which we are now most familiar were then unknown. A handful of ‘Observer Guides’ were, at that time my pride and joy but although still on my shelves they have been greatly superseded. Nowadays we are spoilt for choice and it is quite a problem to choose between the main different publications.

 

When I was in my twenties I roamed the countryside with my rucksack laden with assorted field guides but nowadays I prefer to travel ‘light’. One of the difficulties I have experienced is that these books have grown and grown. What used to include the species of Britain often now have those of continental Europe and in some cases, North Africa inserted. Not only can this information add to the confusion of identification. The dimensions of the book and its increased weight also have to be considered. There are now some publications which would certainly not fit into any jacket pocket I posess! As with anyone else I can appreciate a good coffee-table tome but a Field Guide is of course intended for use in the field. We must also always remember the saying “take the book to the plant not the plant to the book”.

 

I’ve often been asked as to which book I would recommend for botanical identification. The choice of any Field Guide is a very personal thing but I have made most use of the Collins Pocket Guides : Wild Flowers. It is simply but effectively written and has 1450 superbly illustrated plates by the talented Botanical Artist Marjorie Blamey. Trees, Shrubs and Flowering Plants are comprehensively covered but if information on Club–mosses, Horsetails, Ferns, Rushes, Sedges and Grasses is required then its sister – guide should be consulted instead.

 

All the plants are illustrated in colour and grouped together in their families on the same (or subsequent) page(s). Identification – including a simple key – clearly detailed. The step-by-step keys provided in some publications might well frustrate all but the trained Botanists. This book helps to empasise the more obvious pointers of any species by showing the most critical features of identification in italics.

 

Collins Wild Flowers is compact and does fit into a jacket pocket. It is also concise, easy to follow and comes alive as you flick through the pages. I think that this is an ideal choice for a beginner or near-beginner. More lengthy and detailed reference books can join your collection at a later date. My copies have been much thumbed and really are true companions; I’m now onto the 5th edition. I do so hope that you will derive the same amount of stimulus and pleasure which I have experienced.

 

Collins Pocket Guide : Wild Flowers (of Britain and Northern Europe)

Authors: Richard Fritter/Alistair Fiter/Marjorie Blamey

Harper Collins Publishers ISBA 0-000-220062-7 RRP £14-99p.

 

FARMING AND BIRDS

 

The New Naturalist series first appeared in the 1940’s and their popularity has continued to this day with approximately 150 different volumes being released during that time. I am priviledged to have a third of the overall total with titles which range from ‘British Thrushes’ to ‘Hedgehogs’ and ‘Life in Lakes and Rivers’ to ‘Yorkshire Dales’. (Some editions – which I do not posess – are now extremely collectable and expensive)

 

‘Farming and Birds’ was first published in 2017 but I have already read my copy several times. One each occasion I have found more and more facts to ponder over and then, when I’m out tramping the countryside, I observe and mull the contents yet more. It would be tremendous to say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this book but to do so would be lying. The truth is I’ve found the accounts to be really alarming and deeply disturbing and yet I read on because it’s both most important and very interesting.

 

It is all too easy to be nostalgic and I’m as guilty as anyone of being in that camp but what seems like subtle changes have in fact caused enormous upheaval albeit drip by drip. Man has been altering the British countryside since prehistory but the differences to our surroundings have never been greater than the period since the end of WW2.

 

Britain’s Nature Reserves are very important refuges but collectively they only account for about 2% of the total land area. By contrast something like 70% of the British Isles is farmed and so these semi-natural habitats provide by far the most important refuge for our flora and fauna. It would be easy to embark on a ‘farmer bashing campaign’ but the problem is much more complex. Successive Governments have decided on policy and steered the way – often with conflicting purposes. Regardless of who is to blame the facts are stark and our wildlife has as a result, suffered most terribly.

 

Thousands of miles of hedgerows have been ripped out since 1945, they being the refuge, nesting site and source of food for so many species of birds. Meanwhile changes to mechanisation have resulted in the demise of corn-ricks and subsequent thrashing. Spilt grain – such an important part of the diet for many farmland birds – has become a thing of the past. There has also been a marked swing from Spring to Winter (Autumn sown) cereals so depriving birds of the huge acreages of stubble over which they once foraged. Silage production is now the norm on livestock farms but the reduction of hay meadows is not only a visual loss with all those missing wildflowers but also fails to allow many ground nesting birds to produce and rear young within such a short growing season.

 

The surge of usage with agrochemicals – incuding fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, molluscicides, pesticides, growth-regulators and artificial fertilisers have perhaps made more of a detrimental impact than anything. These products were largely unknown and little used until the 1950’s but nowadays some crops receive ten or more applications within a single season. Such practices are not restricted to farms with ‘sprays’ also widely used on horticultural units, forests, golf courses and roadside verges.

 

As the title suggest ‘Farming and Birds’ discusses the many Agricultural changes and their impact – good or bad – on our birdlife but also includes a great many references to plant life, invertebrates, mammals and more. Some species have greatly benefitted from the changes with marked increases known to have occurred with, for instance Woodpigeons, Stock Doves, Carion Crows, Magpies and Chaffinches. Sadly for each success story there are ever more tales of decline with Grey Partridge, Turtle Doves, Tree Sparrows and Corn Buntings all showing a population decline of more than 90% since the end of WW2. The sum total amounts to a loss of several million birds within our lifetime.

 

The ecology of our countryside is extremely complex with so many plants and animals being dependent upon each other. When one declines then a number of other unrelated species can quickly suffer. The list of challenges goes on and on but the author, Ian Newton (Applied Scientist and Ornithologist) clearly presents his case and backs it up with sound evidence. None of us can have failed to notice the huge changes to our environment and its wildlife but having studied this book we can now better understand why these have happened. My biggest concern is for the future – is it already too late????

 

‘Farming amd Birds : The New Naturalist Library

Author: Ian Newton OBEm FRS, FRSE.

Publisher: William Collins

ISBN 978-0-00-814789-1

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