My favourite nature book
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!
From Dad (25/12/81) is the inscription on the maroon page, the £12.00 price has been crossed out and my father has written 30p. I was half way through 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 didn’t have time for prose, I needed to know The Peregrine Falcon and I couldn’t get to know it in suburban Southampton. Derek obliged – big time. And this monograph typifies, indeed defines, the great British scientific treatises. Donald Watson, Ian Newton, Leslie Brown – all in the same club, naturalists and scientists, birders par excellence, mentors and heroes. The truth is beautiful – graphs, tables and maps are just as magical as poetry.
Chris Packham is a naturalist, television presenter, writer, photographer, conservationist, campaigner and filmmaker.
Alan Titchmarsh – The Concise British Flora in Colour by Rev W Keble Martin
I think this is one of the most delightful publishing stories of the last century. For 60 years this clergyman, whose hobby was botany, set about painting British wild flowers to gather together in book form.
Published in 1965, the book contains 1,400 accurate paintings of British wild flowers, as well as many black and white illustrations – all of which seem to come to life on the page. Keble Martin was 88 at the time of publication and lived to the ripe old age of 92, so he could see what a runaway success his book became. I love it for its information, for the wonderful composition of the plates and for the fact that it celebrates the diversity of our islands’ glorious wild flower heritage.
Alan Titchmarsh is a gardener, television presenter and writer.
Cerys Matthews – Wild Food by Roger Phillips
We moved to Swansea when I was seven, to a house that 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 (and all ages) to the wonders and adventures of the natural world. I’ve never tired of it.
Cerys Matthews is a musician, writer, broadcaster and festival owner
Miranda Krestovnikoff – Hi is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
A classic of nature writing, and worthy winner of many prizes, this is a compelling read – gritty and graceful. Helen hits you hard at the beginning with the loss of her father. It’s raw and moving. The chasm left by this tragedy is filled by the childhood dream of keeping and training a goshawk.
Mabel is a challenge to tame, but through their journey together, in the wild English countryside, she helps the healing process and leads the author to an understanding of the ways of a wild hawk.
Miranda Krestinkoff is a naturalist, television presenter, diver and musician.
Fiona Reynolds – 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.
Fiona Reynolds is Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge University. She was previously Director General of the National Trust.
Julia Donaldson – The Wood for the Trees: The Long View of Nature from a Small Wood by Richard Fortey
A small piece of Chiltern woodland, that once formed part of an ancient manor, yields up its secrets to expert naturalist Richard Fortey. After a career spent studying trilobites at the Natural History Museum, he emerges into the open air and, with hand lens and notebook, studies the inhabitants of Grim’s Dyke Wood.
Elegant stands of beech with their springtime sea of bluebells are captivating, but a multitude of other plants, animals, insects, lichens, fungi and mosses interact among them as the seasons change. Richard Fortey weaves together human history, geology and woodland ecology in this remarkable portrait of a special landscape.
Julia Donaldson is a much-love children’s writer and performer, She wrote ‘The Gruffalo’ among many others, and has been the Children’s Laureate.
Michael Morpurgo – The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico
I grew up on the east coast of England, spent long days walking the sea wall near my home. It was on these long wanderings through marshes and fields that I first really began to notice the wildlife around me, the hares, the deer, the foxes, the curlews and herons; and when I reached the sea wall there was the great wide sea, and the gulls and cormorants, the oystercatchers flying over, crying to me.
Then one year I was given a copy of The Snow Goose, a little book with a blue cover, with drawings by Peter Scott. I felt immediately as I was reading it that this was my landscape, my little piece of England that I had imagined no one else knew as intimately as I did. Paul Gallico did. Peter Scott did. And clearly they loved it as much as I did too. I did not know then of the connection between the two men, how they knew one another, how the character of the recluse in the story, Rhayader, was very probably inspired by Peter Scott.
All I knew was that I had to read this short story over and over again, that threaded through the story were exquisitely simple drawings of landscape and birds that so enhanced the text and enriched the story that even now when I read or hear The Snow Goose it is always Peter Scott's drawings I see in my head. Never was there a more masterful, more harmonious fusion of story and illustration, both beguilingly simple, so beautifully imagined, so wonderfully observed.
Michael Morpurgo is an acclaimed writer and storyteller. He set up the charity Farms for City Children with his wife Clare.
Virginia McKenna – The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
To name my favourite book about nature is a daunting task – I have so many:
Heathcote Williams’ extraordinary writings – such as Sacred Elephant and Whale Nation.
Joy Adamson’s unique stories of individual wild animals she knew; many of the wonderful animal stories by Michael Morpurgo, and another special book from my childhood, Wild Animals I have Known by Ernest Thompson Seton. This last was a huge favourite of mine.
But finally I have chosen the book that I first thought of, and first read 80 years ago, The Wind in the Willows, first published in 1908. Some may find this a strange choice as the animals speak and wear clothes – they are anthropomorphised (something I am usually not in favour of!). But the skill of Kenneth Grahame is to set the story in the natural environment. Without realising it you learn about the nature and homes of rats, moles and badgers. As someone who wished we focused more on the earth’s smaller creatures, this is the perfect introduction to a young reader. And one thing I discovered, on re-reading it, was Grahame’s description of a caged bird. He made no comment, but his sadness and pity were evident.
I hope more children will want to follow Ratty, Mole and Toad on their adventures and feel the same delight as I do when I see them in real life.
Virginia McKenna is a wildlife campaigner, writer and actress.
Gillian Burke – Feral by George Monbiot
I don’t always have a book on the go. I’m very active and find it hard to settle down with a good book. But I am curious, so if I am going to read it tends to be non-fiction, and one book that got me reaching for the bookshelf was George Monbiot’s Feral.
It sets out to challenge what we think of as natural habitats and asks if the bucolic landscapes, that we are so fond of, really are rich and healthy ecosystems? The idea of ‘rewilding’, not just the land but our attitudes, is at the heart of this book. It’s not a cosy read but an important one for anyone who wants to take a deeper look at where the human and natural world collide.
Gillian Burke is a naturalist and television presenter.
John Lewis Stempel – The Wild Lone by ‘BB’ (1938)
When I was twelve I borrowed The Wild Lone by ‘BB’ from Hereford City Library. I returned the book, but it has never left me. ‘BB’ was the pseudonym of the writer and artist Denys Watkins-Pitchford – The Wild Lone is the story of Rufus, the Pytchley fox. The novel has all BB’s hallmarks – the unsurpassed eye for the detail of the English countryside year, the engulfing yet unsentimental narrative, and the haunting scraperboard illustrations. And something greater – insight into a wild animal’s mind. BB knew the truth –the animals are more like us than we suppose. Or, we are more like the beasts than we believe.
John Lewis-Stempel is a farmer. He won the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing in 2015 with ‘Meadowland’, and in 2017 with ‘Where Poppies Blow’.
You have until the 30 November to have your say in the search for the UK’s favourite nature book and you can share your choice on Twitter using the hashtag #favnaturebook