I often feel slightly sorry for the British nature writer. It’s not an attractive emotion — it sounds patronising — but reading David Cobham’s Bowland Beth: The Story of an English Hen Harrier I felt it again strongly. Your nature writer now has a hungry market, keen and generous publishers and a shelf in the bookshop. But anyone younger than my parents — unless they are very fortunate — has seen only a fraction of the natural richness our islands once held. And despite the sales and acclaim and translation rights, none of them — of us — has even pushed the boundaries laid down by our predecessors in the last century, when British nature really was something to write home about. Think of ‘BB’ (Denys Watkins-Pitchford), Gerald Summers, T.H. White and Henry Williamson; and, later, Ian Niall (John Kincaid McNeillie) and J.A. Baker.
Yes, we now have Mark Cocker and Jim Perrin, and Helen Macdonald had a huge success with H is For Hawk (riding on T.H. White’s wings). But there has been no game-changing, law-altering masterpiece such as Tarka the Otter, and nothing as transporting or luminous as BB’s Wild Lone: The Story of a Pytchley Fox — a blend of fact and fiction which gets the reader as near as dammit to actually being a fox. Charles Foster’s marvellous Being a Beast was a striking effort, but he wrote as an outsider journeying into nature. BB, McNeillie and Summers wrote from the heart of it.
Bowland Beth takes Tarka the Otter as its model. Cobham wishes to see a revolution in moorland management and a change in the law in order better to protect hen harriers — beautiful and captivating predators which unfortunately for them eat grouse chicks.