Natural history

The traditional British hedge is fast vanishing

Five years ago, a documentary about the Duchy of Cornwall featured the then Prince of Wales in tweeds and jaunty red gauntlets laying a hawthorn hedge. It was a brilliant piece of PR. If Charles was a safe pair of hands with a hedge – something as quintessentially English as a hay meadow or a millpond – he was surely a safe pair of hands full stop. A cuckoo in one breeding season needs to eat about 22,500 hairy caterpillars Focusing on a hedge in south-west Wiltshire, Hedgelands combines history, celebration, lament and warning. Christopher Hart is a companionable writer, and makes a powerful case that, at a time of

The rat as hero

Behold rat. Behold the magnificent, clever creature as it runs from the bin you have just opened or disappears into the nearest bush. Behold rat as it is cut open or drugged or injected to improve your health in the name of science, as many millions of its peers have been. Behold rat – though you may find that tricky, because the old adage that you are never more than six feet away from a rat is comprehensively skewered in this wonderful, charming book. Wonderful? Charming? Rats? Yes. Even Joe Shute, a man scared of the creatures, bravely takes two four-inch baby rats into his house and slowly grows to

Would we welcome bears in Britain again?

In April this year, a jogger in the Italian Alps was mauled to death by a brown bear. This was reported as the first bear killing in Italy in modern times. But it probably won’t be the last. Bears have been reappearing in northern Italy as part of a rewilding project in the last two decades, returning to regions they had been driven from hundreds of years ago. More encounters between bears and humans are inevitable. The poor Sun and Moon bears are preyed on in Asia for their bile, valued in Chinese traditional medicine In Eight Bears, Gloria Dickie explores how we can coexist with the remaining bear species

The wonder of the marine world is in serious danger

Streamlined, musclebound, warm-blooded and with fins that retract into body slots like a switchblade so it can attain swimming speeds of more than 40 mph, the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna is a wonder of the marine world – the Clan Chief of the Scombridae, that can weigh up to 1,500 lb. It has long been prized by sport fishermen, from Charlie Chaplin to the dentist-turned-bestseller Zane Grey, and there is nothing tentative about a tunny strike. In 1927, after a four-hour battle with one eight-foot giant, Grey wrote: ‘If it were possible for a man to fall in love with a fish, that was what happened to me. I hung over

The amazing aerial acrobatics of swifts

It happens usually in the second week of May, between about the 8th and 12th (this year it was earlier, the 2nd): a distant sound, building as it approaches, and then the doppler dip as the first of the returning swifts screeches past the roof of our Cornish farmhouse. It’s the opening bracket of the summer months, one that closes with their departure just 12 weeks later. But it is a reminder, too, that while we might think of our house as home to two adult humans, two teenagers and a dog, it is also the habitat for several nesting swifts, swallows, house sparrows, pipistrelle bats, mice, occasional winter rodents

Why Ronald Blythe is so revered

Ronald Blythe, the celebrated author of Akenfield, is to turn 100 next month, and to mark his centenary a beguiling calendrical selection has been made of his ruminations for the Church Times, for which as a lay reader he penned a weekly ‘Word from Wormingford’. It is distilled from 25 years of musings that chase the months from first ghostly intimations of snow at New Year to the blaze of the fire at Wood Hall’s mid-winter supper, while outside ‘the trees crack and the moon is made of ice’. Coming full circle and anticipating the ever-repeating rhythms of the year, they glance between past and present, sacred and secular and

Fish that swim backwards – and other natural wonders

In the Zhuangzi, a collection of tales attributed to the eponymous 4th-century BC Chinese philosopher, a frog that lives in a well boasts about its comfortable way of life to a visiting sea turtle. When the turtle describes its own existence in the vast expanse of the ocean, however, the frog has no idea what to make of it. The story is, of course, a humorous parable about typical human limitations and the possibility of stepping beyond them. But it could serve almost as well as an introduction to Ed Yong’s new book, which confirms in rich detail what Zhuangzi intuited: the nature and range of different forms of animal

The catastrophe that allowed mammals to reign supreme

Humans are so comfortable with their self-declared dominance over the rest of life, appointing themselves titular head of an entire geological age in the ‘Anthropocene’, that we forget how we are party to a much wider evolutionary alliance: the mammals. Steve Brusatte announces that mammals reign supreme upon this planet. One thinks especially of their place as climax predators in almost all regions – the lions, tigers, wolves and bears for example – or the sheer weight of numbers of the megafauna in the African savanna, the herds of wildebeest, antelopes and zebras. Mammals are more widely spread over the planetary surface than all higher organisms, with the possible exception

Adapt or die: what the natural world can teach us about climate change

Climate change may be the central challenge of our century, but almost all attention has focused on its consequences for one organism: Homo sapiens. In an original, wide-ranging and carefully researched book, the American biologist Thor Hanson addresses its implications for the rest of life. Rather than overwhelming us with a sense of catastrophe, he adopts a balanced approach. He doesn’t baulk at pointing out that plants and animals are showing signs of stress — indeed one of his conclusions is that climate change isn’t imminent: the consequences are everywhere right now. But his book documents how many species, from butterflies to butterflyfish, are showing remarkable resilience. He reminds us

The march of the larch: the Treeline is now encroaching on the arctic tundra

Covering 20 per cent of the Earth’s surface, the boreal forest is the largest living system, or ‘biome’, on land. It contains one third of all the planet’s trees and encircles much of the northern hemisphere in a halo of green. The northernmost extent of this forest, called the treeline, marks the point beyond which it is too cold for trees to grow. This is perhaps not where you’d expect to find Ben Rawlence, an author and journalist whose previous books have focused on humanitarian crises in Africa. But, as he explains in The Treeline, things are changing alarmingly fast in this biome: ‘The trees are on the move. They

Birds have helped mankind throughout history — but we have repaid them cruelly

Unusually for a book about nature, the species in question, in this lucid story of the relationship between birds and humans, is ours. Why catch six million ibises, attractive water birds with curved beaks, plunge them into vats of liquid resin, wrap them in bandages and bury them in vast cemeteries in Middle Egypt in 650 BC? When There Were Birds explains that these ibises were offerings to Thoth, god of knowledge and wisdom. Throughout this story, faith, cash and custom drive humans to behave in astonishing ways towards birds. From the early 15th century we were moving canaries to the Swiss Alps and southern Germany, where breeders might raise

The slippery stuff of slime: should we loathe it so much?

As humans, we are supposed to have an aversion to slime. It should repel us. Objects and organisms that might be harmful trigger feelings of disgust which keep us away. And, according to the biologist Susanne Wedlich, the common denominator of ‘wide-ranging microbial threats, covering sickness, sex, death and putrefaction’ is their sliminess. It is easy to test this theory. Google ‘slime moulds’ and note your first response. They are gross. But these organisms are worth sticking with. Japanese researchers once conducted an experiment using a slime mould and a map of the country. They put the mould on top of Tokyo and dropped food on to the city’s surrounding

Beavers, not concrete barriers, can save Britain from floods

As the start date of COP26 draws closer, and just when we are assailed by daily proof of climate chaos, it is easy to think that this is the only threat to the global environment. It is not. Systemic biological loss assails the world and, while it is closely related to the issues of climate, it is a standalone matter with many separate antecedents. The English in particular should know all about it. On what is called the Biological Intactness Index we are judged to be the seventh most degraded national environment on Earth. Species loss here originates from many causes, but primarily from 80 years of intensive agriculture. This

Try forest bathing – by day and night – to ward off depression

Ever since a consensus emerged that trees and, by extension, their ecosystems, were both vastly interesting and badly threatened, great tottering logpiles of books about woods or individual tree species have seen the light of day. Of these books, one of the most influential has been The Hidden Life of Trees (2018), written by Peter Wohlleben, who for many years has looked after a forest in the Eifel mountains in Germany. I read that book with interest, and needed no persuading that woodland trees form, in effect, a community, both as a result of the scents they give off and the interactions between their roots underground. And the book contained

Why do anglers get so hooked?

The other day a friend asked me what a lascar was. Fair enough: it’s not a word you come across in everyday conversation. Perhaps he’d been reading Spike Milligan, where I last met it. A similar question struck me about the ‘unreasonable virtue’ which the American writer Mark Kurlansky sees in fly fishing. I have fished all my life and am no more or less virtuous that the next man. I searched for the answer in this book but failed to find it. It is hard to understand why it was published. True, British writing about fly fishing has become a lackadaisical, threadbare thing. Monthly magazines are full of accounts

A hymn to the hummingbird — one of the most astonishing organisms on Earth

Along with coral reefs and their fish, tropical butterflies and birds of paradise, hummingbirds must be among the most beautiful organisms on Earth. Yet for anyone who has never seen one in the flesh, it is difficult to convey the psychological effects of a first encounter. For beauty is only half the hummingbird story. Their impact is doubled somehow by the minuscule size of the creatures. How could anything so small, you wonder, embody so much life force? Even in ordinary flight the wings beat at 80 times a second, and in certain display modes this can rise to 200. The old name — ‘humbird’ — better expresses the electric

Born to be wild: the plight of salmon worldwide

In the Pacific Northwest, Native Americans paint images of salmon on to stones. They say that if you rub those stones you will acquire the fish’s two great qualities: determination and energy. Not so long ago these communities’ diets consisted of more than 80 per cent salmon, and they believed it to be a wondrous thing that the migratory fish returned on the same week every year. They also believed they ‘owed the salmon respect and gratitude’ — and if they failed in this they might stop coming back. In the 19th and 20th centuries their fears were realised. But it wasn’t Native Americans who were disrespectful to the once

Why fungi might solve the world’s problems

The biologist Merlin Sheldrake is an intriguing character. In a video promoting the publication of his book Entangled Life, which explores the mysterious world of fungi, he cooks and eats mushrooms that have sprouted from the pages of a copy of the book. In another video, the double bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado ‘duets’ with a recording made by Michael Prime of that fungus eating the book. Readers of Robert Macfarlane’s Underland will recognise Sheldrake from his appearance in that book, where he serves as Macfarlane’s guide to the hidden world of fungi as the two hike around Epping Forest. Sheldrake doesn’t just bring his scientific knowledge to this encounter, but also

Eager for beavers: the case for their reintroduction

Conservationists are frequently criticised for focusing on glamorous species at the expense of others equally important but unluckily uglier — pandas rather than pangolins, birds rather than bats, and monkeys rather than mole-rats. Europe’s frankly lumpy largest rodent, the European beaver, Castor fiber, is therefore fortunate to have found an ardent advocate in Derek Gow. Beavers have always attracted attention, generally of the wrong kind. Not only do they have lustrous pelts, and flesh edible even in times of fasting (because conveniently classified as ‘fish’) but castoreum, exuded from sacs near their anal glands, which they use to scent mark territory, was thought to have medico-mystical properties. Medieval apiarists believed

The world’s largest, rarest owl is used for target practice in Siberia

The montane forests of far-eastern Russia have given rise to one of the finest nature books of recent years, The Great Soul of Siberia. In it the Korean cameraman Sooyong Park describes his quest to document the life of the region’s Amur tigers, evoking both his totem beast and its remarkable landscape in loving detail. Jonathan Slaght is an American author, cut from the same cloth in terms of the sheer grit required to cope with the sub-zero temperatures and gloomy, snow-entombed winter woods of Siberia. Nearly 20 years ago he embarked on a similarly arduous mission, not to study the world’s biggest cat, but its largest owl, a ten-pound