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Finding the UK's favourite nature book

Date: 25/10/2017


Which nature book is a real favourite? Or maybe inspired a life-long love of wildlife?
The diversity and influence of nature writing has never been so great and Land Lines, a major new research project, is asking people across the UK to help find the nation’s favourite book that captures our special relationship with the natural world.

Stretching from Gilbert White’s seminal The Natural History of Selborne back in 1789 to Helen Macdonald’s soaring and award-winning H is for Hawk in 2014, this pioneering project will look at how nature writing in this country has changed over the last 200 years, and what it might say about the world today and our connection with nature. Land Lines is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and is being undertaken by the Universities of Leeds, St Andrews and Sussex over the next two years.

The Land Lines research team. From left to right: Will Abberley; Christina Alt; David Higgins; Graham Huggan and Pippa Marland.

Everyone can take part in the national survey by going to www.ahrc.ac.uk/favouritenaturebooks and nominating their favourite UK work on nature – along with up to 100 words about why they have chosen it. Entry is open from 25 October to 30 November, after which an expert panel will take these suggestions and compile a shortlist of 10 popular books. Then in January, an online vote will decide the nation’s favourite piece of nature writing.

Many people would say a particular book sparked a love of the natural world or indeed changed their life, including:

Chris Packham, The Peregrine Falcon by Derek Ratcliffe
“It begins ‘When, as a small boy, I first became interested in birds, my imagination was fired by the pictures of a fierce-looking and beautiful bird of prey which the books said was rare, nesting only on the most formidable cliffs, and surpassing all other birds in its powers of flight.’  Yes, yes, yes!

“I was half way through (the book) by the time the roast was served, and it was done before the Boxing Day bubble-and-squeak. I had been ‘doing’ textbooks since I was six or seven, they injected me with knowledge; I needed to know ‘The Peregrine Falcon’ and I couldn’t get to know it in suburban Southampton. Derek obliged, big time. The truth is beautiful: graphs, tables and maps are just as magical as poetry.”

Cerys Matthews, Wild Food by Roger Phillips
“We moved to Swansea when I was seven, to a house which edged onto a small copse full of rusting prams and damp mattresses. This book, my bible, turned it from a dump to a wonderland full of things to recognise, study, name, cherish and sometimes collect and eat – mushrooms, nettles, sorrel. Phillips is a generous writer, and in this case photographer too, opening the door to everyone (of all ages) to the wonders and adventures of the natural world. I’ve never tired of it.”

Fiona Reynolds, Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge – The Making of the English Landscape by W. G. Hoskins
"I first came across this book as a student and it has profoundly influenced my life and ideas ever since. Through it, I learned really to look at the countryside – to understand how it has evolved and changed, and to seek out traces of the past which have hung on in spite of massive changes in farming, land use and intensive development.

"It also taught me to be a conservationist – to protect what we love but also to accept that change happens. Our job, therefore, is to make sure that changes are good and beautiful, and not simply to obliterate the past."

Other suggested nominations have come from Gillian Burke, Julia Donaldson, Wainwright Prize winning John Lewis-Stempel, Miranda Krestinkoff, Virginia McKenna, Michael Morpurgo,  and Alan Titchmarsh.

What is so distinctive about nature writing, and what does it say about the changing face of the UK and our relationship with the natural world? And how does it address today’s pressing environmental challenges? The two-year literary and environmental history research project, Land Lines will get to grips with how nature writing engages with the modern world rather than taking an idealised view.

Professor Graham Huggan, Land Lines research lead at the University of Leeds said: “Nature writing is probably as popular now as it has ever been. This, the first major study of its kind, will explore how our attitudes to the natural world have changed over the years.

“We’ll also be investigating how people’s feelings about nature have been influenced by their reading, and this survey will kick start a national conversation about just that.”

This new and timely research project spans the ‘modern’ period from 1789 to 2014, and the authors to be studied are both well-known and less familiar. These are writers whose passion and love of nature have shaped our view of the world around us, including John Clare, Dorothy Wordsworth, J A Baker, Edward Thomas, Kenneth Graham, Sarah Perry, Flora Thompson, Richard Jefferies, Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald, among many others.

Mike Collins, Head of Communications at the Arts and Humanities Research Council who helped develop the idea, said: “In the last decade books about nature have flown off the shelves, and now have a prominent place in bookshops. It seems that nature writing is very much speaking to the time we live in, with the power of words helping us to rekindle a love of nature, and find comfort in a rapidly changing world.

“Curiosity-driven research such as the Land Lines project helps us to understand our place in the world. And writers play a key role in navigating us through the challenges of our age – with environmental change being one of the biggest.”

To mark the end of the project, an international conference on nature writing will be held in 2019. During the research there will also be public exhibitions and workshops across the country. These will stimulate conversations around what nature writing is, why people read it, how it might change the way they think about nature, and what its role might be in these ecologically troubled times.

Out of this work, the first definitive book on modern British nature writing will be published by Cambridge University Press. This will compare nature writing across different historical periods while assessing its changing character over time.

Ben Hoare, Features Editor of BBC Wildlife Magazine, said: "We are fortunate in Britain to have one of the world's oldest and richest traditions of writing about nature. And it goes from strength to strength - at the moment the country is experiencing a great creative flowering of new nature-writing, with exciting and original voices emerging all the time. At BBC Wildlife Magazine we can't wait to see which authors turn out to be the nation's favourites."

To find out more about the Land Lines project, visit www.landlinesproject.wordpress.com.  The Land Lines search for the UK's favourite nature book is in association with BBC Wildlife magazine.


For further press information, including images and other suggested nominations, please contact Mike Collins, Head of Communications, at the Arts and Humanities Research Council, on 01793 416083, 07590 463751, or M.Collins@ahrc.ac.uk

Notes for Editors

Land Lines – Modern British Nature Writing 1789-2014

Research organisations involved: University of Leeds School of English (Lead research organisation), University of Sussex and University of St Andrews.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Project partners include: Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, Brighton & Hove Council

www.landlinesproject.wordpress.com or email: LandLines@leeds.ac.uk

Twitter: @LandLinesNature or Facebook: www.facebook.com/LandLinesNature

The Arts and Humanities Research Council funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: history, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, languages, design, heritage, area studies, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98 million to fund research and postgraduate training, in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits and contributes to the economic success of the UK but also to the culture and welfare of societies around the globe. You can find out more information via www.ahrc.ac.uk or following us on Twitter at @ahrcpress, on Facebook at Arts and Humanities Research Council, or Instagram at @ahrcpress.

The University of Leeds is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK, with more than 33,000 students from more than 150 different countries, and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. We are a top 10 university for research and impact power in the UK, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, and in the top 100 for academic reputation in the QS World University Rankings 2018. Additionally, the University was awarded a Gold rating by the Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework in 2017, recognising its ‘consistently outstanding’ teaching and learning provision. Twenty-four of our academics have been awarded National Teaching Fellowships – more than any other institution in England, Northern Ireland and Wales – reflecting the excellence of our teaching.  www.leeds.ac.uk

The University of St Andrews was founded in the 15th century. St Andrews is Scotland’s first university and the third oldest in the English speaking world. Teaching began in the community of St Andrews on the east coast of Scotland in 1410 and the university was formally constituted by the issue of Papal Bull in 1413.

The university is now one of Europe’s most research-intensive seats of learning – over a quarter of its turnover comes from research grants and contracts. It is one of the top rated universities in Europe for research, teaching quality and student satisfaction and is consistently ranked among the UK’s top five in leading independent league tables produced by The Sunday Times and The Times, The Guardian and The Complete University Guide. www.st-andrews.ac.uk

The University of Sussex – Since its foundation in 1961, the University has valued – and encourages – a pioneering spirit. We’ve pushed for change and demanded more, creating a better future for individuals and communities all over the world. Our staff conduct original research to explore the great questions of our age. Their findings impact policy and practice for businesses, NGOs and governments, ensuring that Sussex students are also at the forefront of knowledge in their subject. Creative thinking, pedagogic diversity, intellectual challenge and interdisciplinarity have always been fundamental to a Sussex education. The University’s goal is to deliver teaching and learning programmes that are informed by current research, are attractive to students from all socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, and which deliver skills for life. www.sussex.ac.uk

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