Wild reading - books for the autumn

As the days shorten and the temperatures drop, it's the ideal time to curl with a good book, whether in front of a fire or under a tree. Check out our guide to the latest wildlife books.

Wild reading - books for the autumn


Journeys to the other side of the world, by David Attenborough. Two Roads Books, £25

From 1954 to 1963, David Attenborough famously made several Zoo Quest series for the BBC, travelling to the tropics to collect animals for London Zoo and film indigenous peoples. After most of the expeditions he wrote books that, for this and many other young naturalists and budding writers, were hugely influential. The last three of the series – in which he visited New Guinea, Madagascar and Australia’s Northern Territory – are now collected, re-edited and repackaged with a selection of never-before-seen images. 

Sixty years ago, these places really did represent the ‘other side of the world’, and the ‘otherness’ of their wildlife and people entered our consciousness through moving pictures. But books have a far greater impact on the inner eye than film, and this one contains asides – such as the story about Tui Malilo, the ancient tortoise given to the Tongan royal family by Captain Cook and fed every day by a prisoner that Attenborough describes as a “large, amiable murderer” – that are pure gold.

Accounts from that era can make unsettling reading. However, this book has a more modern theme. It tells the story of a journey to discover the fugitive, mythical, ‘other’: Paradise. The notion that Paradise almost did exist, that we ruined it, and that we should do all we can to prevent further ecocide, confirms that Attenborough’s current environmental message echoes what he showed us 60 years ago. Describing the Aboriginal artists of Australia’s Arnhem Land, he observes how pictures can influence the course of nature. In his own way, that’s what he’s always done.

Reviewed by Paul Evans, broadcaster and author


Orca, by Jason M Colby. OUP, £20.

Drawing on a uniquely insightful range of sources, this book examines the nature of our relationship with killer whales and makes for compelling, if not always comfortable, reading. As a cultural and social history of our evolving relationship with these charismatic wild animals, Orca provides a fascinating account.

The hypothesis that cetaceans held in captivity helped to change our perception of them, and shaped our approach to cherishing their wild counterparts is a challenging one, but is presented here in a nuanced way. That this perception needed changing, let alone in this fashion, remains a damning indictment of human nature. 

Reviewed by Jon Dunn, naturalist and author


Around the World in 80 Trees, by Jonathan Drori. Laurence King, £17.99

Trees have provided us with shelter, food and medicine throughout our evolution, and have become embedded in our cultural history. In this handsomely produced volume, beautifully illustrated by Lucille Clerc, Jonathan Drori has selected 80 species from around the world, ranging from the familiar London plane to the Upas tree of Indonesia, that are particularly important to humanity and have fascinating stories to tell.

The breadth and depth of his knowledge and his engaging writing style make him an outstanding narrator and armchair travel companion. It’s a book you will want to dip into, then find very hard to put down.

Reviewed by Phil Gates, botanist


When the Last Lion Roars, by Sara Evans. Bloomsbury, £16.99

When a trophy-hunting dentist shot Cecil the lion on the edge of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park in 2015, people woke up to the plight of wild lions, who have suffered a 90 per cent population crash in just 30 years. Sara Evans charts this catastrophe in scholarly detail, following the eclipse of this grand species across its shrinking range. She delves back into prehistory to tease out the evolution of the man-lion relationship, then proceeds to an interesting overview of numerous conservation initiatives, many of them current and inspired by Cecil’s demise.

This is a book grounded more in the library than in the field. The biological mechanisms involved in the decline are hardly touched on, but the important role of complex human politics is delineated with admirable impartiality. The future she predicts for the lion is survival in the “captive wild” behind the sometimes invisible fences of national parks. Indeed, the wilderness lion is mostly gone already. 

Reviewed by Stephen Mills, author and naturalist


Exploring Britain's Hidden Worlds, by Keith Hiscock. Wild Nature Press, £25

Few know Britain’s seas better than Keith Hiscock, a scientist who’s spent much of the past 50 years diving and surveying the world beneath the waves. Combining his observations with hundreds of photographs, the result is this erudite and indispensable companion to our shores.

Britain’s waters are far more vibrant and diverse than most of us realise, filled with treasures such as hermit crabs covered in fuzzy ‘snail fur’ and scarlet file shells that build nests on the seabed. Hiscock explains why things are the way they are and urges us to protect this hidden habitat.

Reviewed by Helen Scales, marine biologist


Hidden Nature, by Isla Hodgson. White Owl, £16.99

My bookshelf is crammed to bursting with guides on how and where to find the best of Britain’s wildlife. Here, zoologist Isla Hodgson offers some seductive suggestions for the same – across a variety of habitats, including coasts, moorland and urban spaces – but through memoir rather than manual. 

Hodgson is well known for her popular blog Where The Wild Things Live, and this is written in a similarly engaging and companionable style. The descriptions of her encounters with our most elusive animals – from seldom-seen cetaceans and sea eagles to hen harriers and hares – are fun and delightful, if a tad Scotland-centric. 

Reviewed by Pete Dommett, nature writer


New Naturalist: Hedgehog, by Pat Morris. Collins, £35

The hallowed halls of the New Naturalist Library, inaugurated in 1945 with E B Ford’s Butterflies, have just welcomed edition number 137. Usually focusing on groups rather than particular species, this classic series has made an exception for Britain’s favourite mammal, bestowing upon it a tome all its own.

Pat Morris shares a lifetime of research in this authoritative, comprehensive account of all things hedgehog, from hibernation and behaviour to the role of citizen science in saving a species that we love but, sadly, now rarely see.

Reviewed by Sarah McPherson, section editor at BBC Wildlife Magazine


Field Guide to Pond and River Wildlife of Britain and Europe, by Jack Perks. New Holland, £14.99

There’s still time for a few final picnics and paddles before the summer holidays become obstructed by school-shoe shopping. Worth taking along is this handy new tome from freshwater photographer Jack Perks, who has compiled a roster of 200 common watery species (plus a dusting of rarities) to spot across a variety of groups.

It’s not a pocket guide and might feel a little weighty in your rucksack, but the large, clear photos should help with any brief sightings – particularly of common species such as dragons, damsels and freshwater fish. 

Reviewed by Sarah McPherson, section editor at BBC Wildlife Magazine


A Richness of Martens, by Polly Pullar. Birlinn, £12.99

The Ardnamurchan Peninsula on Scotland’s west coast is Tolkienesque in more than just name: it’s a land of rock and salt, wind and water, hill and burn. There are woods here, too, lush with rain; their trees, especially oaks, are low-laid wraiths, forced into ‘advanced yoga positions’ by the wind.

No surprise, then, that a childhood here left its mark on naturalist Polly Pullar. The mammal spirit of this place is the pine marten, a species whose history, like that of the Highlanders who lived here, is scarred by persecution, but whose present is a story of resilience and recovery.

This delightful memoir-cum-documentary records both with familiarity and humour, weaving the lives of individual martens with those of Les and Chris Humphreys, a couple whose lochside garden has become an extraordinary wildlife crossroads. The multi-generational mustelid saga that unfolds through their passion, patience and inventiveness, and Pullar’s expert and affectionate observation, is rich indeed.

Reviewed by Amy-Jane Beer, wildlife writer


Wilding, by Isabella Tree. Pan Macmillan, £16.99

At a time of huge environmental loss in Britain, this is a fierce beacon of optimism. Isabella Tree charts how she and her partner abandoned unprofitable dairy farming at Knepp – their 1,410ha Sussex estate (see p60) – and delegated management to nature. Going against conventional and local wisdom, they have allowed herbivores – short-horn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs and deer – to browse, rootle, graze and wallow freely.

In doing so, the animals have transformed the landscape, creating a mosaic of rich habitats, particularly scrub-like savannah, that you simply don’t see in the UK. Wildlife is thriving and money being made from safaris. Could this be a template for more of Britain’s wild spaces?

Reviewed by Fergus Collins, Editor of BBC Countryfile Magazine


These reviews originally appeared in BBC Wildlife Magazine. Take a look inside the current issue, and find out how to subscribe

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