Category Archives: Conservation

Flowers ..of Amazonia by Prance

Flowers, Fruits and Fables of Amazonia, published by Redfern Natural History Productions ( in 2023, by Ghilliean T. Prance. 298pp. ISBN 978-1-908787-46-0.

Biodiversity runs riot in this book, which is full of the some of the most colourful plants in the world, those from Amazonia, written by one who has been their most, Sir Ghillean Prance, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew (1988-1999) and has mounted 39 expeditions to all the wet and dry, lowland and highland habitats there, and bringing back 350 new species of plant for science.

It may be a colourful book but there is a sombre message, for the book is dedicated to the President of Brazil and to Ministers Marina Silva and Sonia Guajajara ‘in the hope that they can halt the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and use it sustainably.’

As befits a Director of Kew the book is laid out in a strictly classificatory manner, pteridophytes, gymnosperms, monocots and dicots which is very useful if your thought processes are botanically inclined.   Grasses, which include bamboos, are described even though they have limited colourful appeal, they are big colonisers of the backwaters of Amazonia – many a time our way has been blocked by wild rices which we have had to powerboat–over. On terra firma ones way is often thwarted by stands of dense bamboo.  Where plants have been taxonomically split with new up to date DNA evidence these are explained in good order.

So this is a very colourful book because of the chosen subjects, and we must remember that the colours have evolved because of the pollinators, the insects, other invertebrates, birds and bats. All of these are mentioned in the text, some of them seen doing their bit for pollination, squeezing and nudging blossoms to get their reciprocal rewards. The colourful flowers would not be so diverse if it was not without this co-evolution with insects.  We see the change in floral colours after pollination.

This intimate evolution of plant morphology has not been missed by those who puzzle over the Doctrine of Signatures, particular the Clitonia genus, and Prance recalls the squeamishness of the early taxonomists as to how to describe these female features in a flower. If that was not enough, in Europe the look-alike Fallopian tubes of Aristolochia clematitis are also fair and square examples of the doctrine, mirrored also by other much larger tube-like Aristolochia species in Amazonia.

Prof Prances’ firm favourite in the forest is the native Brazil-nut family (Lecythidaceae) – his group – on which he has researched much with his late colleague Dr Scott Mori (d. 2020) fellow researcher at NY Botanic Garden – there are 340 species in the family. The family includes the Cannon-ball tree and the Brazil nut tree. Both are large unforgettable distinguished trees in the rainforest – just visit the Rio Botanic Garden to see many tree treats described in this book.  Prance describes the Brazil nut tree as the ‘most beautiful tree of the Amazonian forest’; the tree was named after a most beautiful young woman of the Tefé Indians called Caboré, who was mysteriously lost in the forest and came back as a valuable forest tree that brought livelihood and food for the community.

There are many other fables described in this book, true to the books’ title, and they are highlighted in pale green throughout to distinguish it from the main text. The rainforest is actually an unforgiving environment for man, and many of the fables relate to death of revered ones; a long story of  Naia who drowned when trying to kiss her lover (the moon) and came back as a giant Victoria water lily (three species, with the largest undivided leaves in the world at 2m diameter); the white-skinned Tupi girl called Mani who became ill and came back as a root of cassava or manihot, the word coming from a combination of two Tupi words Mani and oca; a long story of the Bacaba palm sprouting at the top of a hill from one lost in battle.

There are a lot of red flowers and fruits illustrated in the book, but then these are multi-purpose colours for advertisement pollinators, signals to fruit eaters for dispersal purposes, and warning colours. The asymmetrical red, black ad white seeds of the guaraná plant arose from the buried eyes of a boy killed by a snake.

In this book we therefore get an insight into the peoples of the forest, the Yanomami preparing the hallucinogenic snuff from the Virola tree, Bixa body paint, the Jarawara snorting tobacco, the weaving of baskets, utensils, woodworking skills for canoes and houses, extracting curare as an arrow poison, and making chewing gum from latex (really puts Prance off it for life).  There are medicinal uses, including covering sick babies with Genipapo paint.

The book would appeal to all naturalists and students of tropical ecology, and those who have never visited a tropical forest. It would also appeal to all those who have visited tropical botanic gardens around the world, since there are some familiar examples that are neotropical or pantropical as described in the book. Others who would benefit from this book would include those who have been on any Latin American tropical field trip. There is an index, scientific and common names indexes and a list of papers from which evidence has been drawn, including just a few of the author’s 590 scientific papers. A fine read and colourful window into the leafy heart of Amazonia.

Summer Nat Hist Books

Summer reading

The long hot summer provided time to catch-up on a pile of old favourites and new publications. Amongst the older ones were the Hon Miriam Rothschild’s ‘Butterfly Cooing Like A Dove’ (1991, Doubleday) which is a prolifically-illustrated exploration of the role and symbolism of butterflies in art; major works shown in full colour and black and white. Only Miriam could have done this extraordinary book with 30 chapters on such examinations on the soul, the spirit, the psyche, dreams and disasters, whilst quoting Nabokov, Prost, Jung and Picasso amongst many others.

As a fan of RLS I re-read Kidnapped – the cover reminding me that Stevenson is today the 25th most translated writer in the world. It is always enjoyable to read RLS’s glorious descriptions of people and places in Scotland in the 18th century. It is a pity that he was taken by TB at the age of 44. What other works did he have in prep.?

Botanical researcher, Richard Mabey’s ‘The Cabaret of Plants, Botany and the Imagination’ (Profile Books, 2016) is another firm favourite to dip into during the summer for his depth of knowledge of the English flora and its introduced species. His ‘Weeds’ (Profile, 2010) is an alternative good read.

Of newer titles, Guy Shrubsole’s ‘The Lost Rainforests of Britain’ (William Collins, 2022) – a Sunday Times Bestseller – follows on from his revelatory ‘Who Owns England’ (William Collins, 2018) gives us an insight into the temperate rainforests that we have in the West Country, west Wales and west of North England and west Scotland; these precious woodlands that need to be conserved. The amazing Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor, dripping with lichens is for ever etched in one’s memory following a visit, but there are many more to explore and conserve.  One hopes they must all be like that!

One of the more recent New Naturalist’s titles is ‘Solitary Bees’ (William Collins, 2023, No. 146 ) by Ted Benton and Nick Owens who know a thing or two about bees. Benton has already produced two other volumes in the NN series, Bumblebees (2006) and Grasshoppers and Crickets (2012).  Owens has published books on bumblebees, bees and wasps. Together they have brought together a lot of theory and science behind the diversity of solitary bees which has not been previously set out.   The large book (598pp) is lavishly illustrated throughout to show particular morphological features, nest construction and habitats.  Solitary bees are not an easy group for any naturalist or general entomologist to get their head around the diversity and variation but this book presents all that is known of the group and will be a key work.  Overall a good bunch of books perused over summer.


Prance’s Amazon Book 2022

Ghillean T. Prance, 2022. The Amazon Forest and Its People in Black and White. Published by ‘Butterflies and Amazonia’. ISBN: 978-1-7398856-2-5. £20.  Marketed by Redfern Natural History Productions Limited, at


Before Prof. Prance became Director of The Royal Botanic Garden, Kew (1988-1999) he spent years in the Amazonian Basin tirelessly cataloguing the botany and describing new species to science, but that was when he was working for the New York Botanic Garden (1964-1988) and nipped off to the rainforest on 39 expeditions as one does. Few have ever had the extensive tropical field work that Prance has had, resulting in the discovery of 350 new species of plants especially with his exploration of the Serra Aracá plateau.

This book is all about then, but is a salutary lesson about now.  In this book you feel the warmth of the Amazonian people living sustainably off this watery world, whilst we in the West look in wonder and try to interpret how their way of life revolves around their natural habitats, flora and fauna.  In my experience the further you get away from civilisation the nicer and more helpful people are. This is reflected in the pages.

So this book looks at the nature of the living world that shapes the way of life of the Amazonian people, from their buildings made of wood and palm leaves, their ceramic clay pans, calabash cups, their baskets, red dye plants, natural fruits of the forest, ‘water vines’, plants to stun fish and plants used as contraceptives. No wonder the intrepid botanist Prance edited the more recent Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs (2018) – this is just one of the 29 books that he has written; Sir Ghillean’s knowledge is wide and wise and he has a genus Pranceacanthus named after him.  

Prance has trekked and waded through the Amazon rainforests where only a few famous people before him have ventured, including President Roosevelt and his son, as well as Victorian naturalists Henry Bates, Richard Spruce and Alfred Russel Wallace – probably more time in the forest than the Victorians.   Prance confirms to me that he has certainly spent more time in the Amazon rainforest than Wallace and Bates, and at least the same time as Spruce. The longest continuous period he was there was two and a half years in 1973-1976. 

Prof. Prance experienced the Amazonian rainforest as he says: ‘When I first went to the Amazon…..I saw many of the same things as the Victorian naturalists’. ‘There was comparatively little destruction of the forest’ then. The photographs in the book are backed up with quotations from many of these early explorers indicating how untroubled the habitats were from man.  Darwin had a short spell near Rio but never penetrated the Amazon.

Prance’s botanical skill and knowledge shines through with his descriptions of trees and vines and his identification of all the plants that the Amazonian people use for their life in the forest, and the ‘fruits of the forest’ that they depend on. This includes the ‘Siokoniamo’ fungus (Lentinus velutinus) which translates as the ‘hairy arse fungus’.

The chapter on the giant Victorian Water lily is delightful, as a species that can block a waterway with its magnificence (other lesser plants do too),  its structurally-sound leaves that man has copied in architecture,  and the way it captures beetles overnight for pollination purposes.  He introduces us to various Amazonian tribes, the Yanomami, Mayongong, Tikuna, Huitoro, the Jarawara, the Deni and the river people (the caboclo) who all visitors to the Amazon will meet.  This book records much of their social history with plants.

At school in England they never tell you that the water level of the Amazon rises and falls dramatically each year by several metres, which alters the nature of habitats; or that there are many of these caboclo people of African and European ancestry who live along these fertile waters who are not the tribes.  Of the native Indians there used to be over 2-6 million present (of over 350-400 tribes) before the Europeans arrived in the late 15th century, and, as the cataloguer Greta Thunberg says, 90% of the Indigenous people were either massacred or died of infectious diseases, or 10% of the world population (see previous review of Thunberg’s latest book).   This is their assimilation with the forest.

Although the botany of the Amazon has not changed since it was photographed in black and white in the 1970-80s, there has been much destruction. Prance’s photo of rubber balls waiting for trading is almost a thing of the past, and the rubber industry that he describes had such a traumatic effect on the people, at the hands of the rubber barons who created the incongruous Opera House in Manaus.

Throughout the book and alongside photographs there are paragraphs from the Victorian explorers Bates, Spruce, Wallace and others and it is very telling that the population of Manaus in 1850 was just 3000 people.  Now it is a major hub for exploration of the Amazon with a population of over two million people. The book has a botanical slant for obvious reasons, but animals photographed in black and white are included. Feathers and furs are still used for adornment. Sadly society still collects wildlife and this reviewer’s first encounter with a wild jaguar was in a cage display in a hotel’s foyer, not in its natural habitat. 

Of the way that things have moved on, I liked the understatement that oil palm ‘as much planted by locals and also as an industrial crop that is destroying some rainforest areas especially in Amazonian Peru and tropical Asia’. Too true. You can fly for an hour or so along the Pacific Central American rainforest and see plantations of oil seed palm to the horizon that has replaced rainforest and all its biodiversity.

I am very glad that Sir Ghillean Prance still refers to ‘rainforest’ (it is all in the name), as opposed to David Attenborough who refers to it as ‘jungle’ (dry, spiny tropical forest). All books on the Amazon are a lesson to us all. The tropical habitat continues to be systematically destroyed. Prance is ever hopeful for a suitable outcome, for he says ‘It is not too late to help’ and he calls on Davi Kopenawa  from the Yanomami tribe who asks whether the white people know that when they kill ‘the spirits of the big earthworms (who) own the forest earth’, that the soil will instantly become arid.   

Overall, this is beautiful book that demonstrates the way that indigenous people are at peace with their environment.  There is a glossary, index and further information on charities that readers can help with rainforest conservation, and a list of publications of the early explorers cited. 


Greta’s Climate Book, 2022

The Climate Book. 2022. Published by Allen Lane, and imprint of Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-242-54747-2; 9 780241547472 £25 pp 446.

Any gardener will know that Thunberg brings to mind a bright orange flower of a climbing plant with a dark centre called a Black-eyed Susan, so my impression of this book is already coloured by Greta’s book, which is mostly blue not green for an ecologist.  Television viewers will have been prepped by Attenborough in ‘The Blue Planet’ where his ecological outlook is also blue, not green. 

The cover is clever is as it shows the average temperature of the earth from 1634 to 2020 going from blue (cold) to red (warming). You can download your own country cover from

It is a heavyweight book, almost encyclopaedic, multi-authored and ‘created by’ Greta Thunberg. It is arranged in five sections: How the Climate Works, How our Planet is Changing, How it Affects us, What We’ve Done about it and What We Must Do Now.  Each section has an introductory section by Greta who sets the scene and crystallises the subject in her own inimical way, quite succinctly, stating the obvious cumulative facts (that people tend to gloss over) and in some cases, showing how ‘This is exactly how you create a catastrophe’ .

The publishers have gathered together about 90 scientists, professors, activists, students to write 500-1000 word pieces on familiar topics, and there are 13 topics on which Greta has had her introductory say.  These authors are all at universities, think tanks, action labs, climate labs, sustainability labs, carbon labs (sorry, being like Greta here, listing issues), all of whom are ‘on side’ with the travails of climate change. I don’t think their collective works will sort the world out, but their knowledge will help our understanding of what needs to be done. There is NOTHING by Attenborough, NOTHING by Lomberg to put statistics in perspective and NOTHING by Prince Charles as was.

As far as I can detect there are no articles in the book from any government agency around the world about how things are being sorted; none of the bodies that have been accused of ‘blah, blah, blah’ have had their say. So we know what is wrong, but we need another book on how to fix it.

Several of the authors are well known such a Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the ‘Sixth Extinction’, who writes a perfect resume of the effect of man on the environment through time. There are also vignettes of the parlous state of insects by Dave Goulson and Jason Hickell on his ‘Degrowth’ theory.

George Monbiot (who uniquely has a two slots in the book – seems Greta is a fan of Monbiot as she quotes him) has a chapter on the media as being the ‘most responsible for the destruction of life on earth’ (mindful that he writes for The Guardian!) rather than big industry. He also has a pop at BBC Channel 4 and Attenborough for not mentioning the fuel industry in his presenting of ‘The Truth about Climate Change’ programme. Monbiot’s other contribution (with Rebecca Wrigley) is on Rewilding, and he is on a popular (hopeful) winner when he says ‘We can replace our silent spring with a raucous summer’

Lord Stern (of The Stern Report (2006) has his precautionary, reserved  and caveated say by letting us know that ‘biodiversity loss, environmental degradation and climate change’ has been excluded from the economic considerations up until now. Thanks for telling us that, we kind of knew.  And that we are now on ’catch-up’ because ‘the economic analysis of climate change has failed on three levels’ first, not realising the true scale of the losses (hello – wildlife disappearing – the Anthopocene!!), second, not understanding the power of alternative energy, and third, ‘discriminating against future generations based on their date of birth’.  I think we all knew what he has to say.  

Such a collective book of words on the Climate Change has not been done before, and is probably all you need to know about the subject. To be sure it will be essential reading for all ecologists.  It can be dipped into to research a subject (but sometimes the 500 word résumés are too brief) and the book is let down by a poor index, that does not bring up major issues that are in the book (e.g. Acidification or Drax or Degrowth). It is better to pan through the contributors for interesting topics to investigate. Perhaps when the living world has collapsed it will be an excellent book explaining how it all went wrong.

JF’s Notes on Greta’s introductions to each subject

There is a recurring truth running through each section that Greta writes about, and that is about the Global North, where all the wealth is, and which prevails and seeks to direct the poorer Global South, she writes ‘the suffering of the many that have paid for the benefits of the few’.

Having read all the chapter sections written by Greta here is a rundown of her pronouncements- for, in her own words, everything is black and white. She is fond of compartmentalising and listing facts and figures, and I like that, so here goes. She is also well informed of her brief, and often quotes from book content.

  • The richest 1% of the world’s pop are responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the people who make up the poorest half of the humanity.
  • There are 7.9 billion of us on Earth and we are in a sustainability crisis. As she reminds us in Sweden (her home country) ‘koka soppa pa en spik’ meaning ‘we have to make do with what we have’.
  • On heat related deaths : 37% are caused by Climate Change, and roughly 10 million die from air pollution each year (Note to Greta’s Editor: this pops up at least twice).
  • On rising sea levels -‘the snowball is in motion’  Scary information: At last Ice Age the sea levels rose by 120m as a result of a 5°C warming. There is enough ice on earth to raise sea levels by 65m….that keeping to 1.5°C will still release one third of the ice mass. 
  • Every second an area the size of a football field of forest is cut down.
  • We use around 100 million barrels of oil every day
  • 8m tonnes of plastics are dumped in out oceans each year.
  • On renewables she is horrified that burning timber is regarded as (eco-friendly) ‘renewables’ which she says has been adopted by governments as a loophole which allows emission calculations to exclude CO2 from timber-burning factors.
  • On creative accounting: Drax Power station is the largest producer of CO2 in the UK, yet its burning of timber is not part of the emissions calculations. She visited Drax and was told that it receives four ship’s worth of pellet a week and seven trains a day of wood, not coal.
  • She highlights this blind spot on renewables in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, which is the loophole used by governments.
  • To exemplify her cause, she quotes the International Monetary Fund who says that governments subsidise the burning of coal, oil and fossil gas by the tune of $11m a minute.
  • She has the latest 2021 formula for creating a catastrophe: loss of Amazon rainforest + the CAP now out of reach of the Paris Agreement + the US auctioning off 90m acre area of the Gulf of Mexico for oil exploration + China opening more coal power stations, and + the EU not updating climate targets = a catastrophe.
  • After all of this she says ‘There is still time for us to avoid the worst outcomes.’

And her take on lifestyles:

  • Veganism is a privilege mainly available to the affluent of the Global North

 The book is printed on certified FSC paper as you might expect. There are a few colour DPS spreads, some of which have been shown on BBC television recently, bubbling methane in the sea, collapsing permafrost, large thunderstorms…flooding, deserts, industrialisation.  References are hived off somewhere else at At the end of the book there are comprehensive lists of What needs to be done and What society can do and What an Individual can do.  As you might imagine, plant trees (not plantations), rewild nature, restore nature, make ecocide a crime, write new laws, rethink transportation, invest in wind and solar, face the emergency, educate ourselves.

We have been told that the beginning of the climate change started in the Bronze Age when China started using coal, so we have come a long way in the worlds destruction in a very short time. Time will tell if climate change will slow or stop. The world according to Greta is that it will do neither. This is a great book, a last milestone on the way to destruction.  Every school should have a copy. 

ELF 30 yrs old – congrats 2022

Standing up for Nature – harnessing the power of local communities.

ELF (Environmental Law Foundation) is 30 years old, and on 1 November they had a celebratory evening with guest naturalist Chris Packham and renowned birder Mya-Rose Craig. The original founders, Martin Polden OBE and Diana Schumacher OBE were present plus about 80 guests. The charity ELF runs on a tiny budget but is supported by pro bono lawyers, barristers and ecologists (like myself) to fulfil its fight for environmental justice. It is unique in the UK since it is there for anyone in any community who is concerned by any potential environmental impact.

Chris Packham was here because he runs ‘Wild Justice’ who takes on legal challenges against the UK government, and they campaign for a better deal for wildlife. Mya-Rose Craig was here because she is the youngest person to receive an Hon Doctorate for her campaigning for equal rights, and for her ornithology; she is known as ‘Birdgirl’ and has now published her eponymous ‘Birdgirl’ (Kruger, 2022) recounting her journey: she has seen over half of the world’s bird species (5000 species).   Chris’s book ‘Fingers in the sparkle jar.. .’ was published in 2017.

The authors were asked about how they first got into nature. Packham explained that his earliest memories were when he was 4 ½ living in Southampton when he marvelled at the feathers of a dead starling – he has precise memory recall which he puts down to his  Asperger’s Syndrome which he feels gives him an advantage so that he talk to schools about it. A pet kestrel was also his source of inspiration. Mya-Rose’s inspiration came entirely from Gerald Durrell’s ‘My family and other animals’. As a 20 year old she says she belongs to the ‘Climate Change Generation’ who has known nothing different from activism.  Chris, at 61 says he has been a failure as all that he has striven to do to protect wildlife has been a failure as the Anthropocene is upon us: the graphs of declining species and habitats are falling rapidly. On that basis my own conservation work has been a failure, and so too Attenborough’s though he has brought the beauty of the natural world to our living rooms, perhaps for the last time.

Packham has a ‘fear’ for the future of the countryside. Both speakers advocate for ‘green spaces’ being precious for mental health, and Mya a British-Bangladeshi, is very much an ambassador for this when she is not supporting beavers in the West Country.  ‘Community based activism’ is the key to moving forward people’s concerns about environmental impact, and there is always value in ‘Citizen’s Science’. He sympathises with Extinction Rebellion and Stop Oil.  Both were not too impressed with the current government (last days of October one) and Chris said that ‘If Rishi does not go to COP we need to burn something down’. Within hours Rishi U-turned to go the next day (2nd Nov).

The future is definitely ‘empowerment’ of people. However, there is new bill presently in Parliament which means that peaceful protest will be criminalized.  Chris said the environmental issues should be apolitical.  Wide-ranging comments were discussed.

On farming he said that ‘farming will fail’ as ‘there are only 50 harvests left’ as farmers are pumping too many chemicals into the ground.  On the EU regulations he drew attention to Malta who legally snare and shoot thousands of birds because they have negotiated a derogation clause, whereas in Cyprus they act illegally killing migratory birds.  In the Amazon he said that people are being killed on a daily basis, and that eco wars will come.  To dispense some of this inner fear of what is happening around the world he has already designed a ‘Love and Rage’ T-shirt.

Trees by Thomas, 2022

Trees by Peter A. Thomas. No. 145 in the New Naturalists Series. Harper Collins. 2022. ISBN  978 0 00 830451-5   9 780008 304515 £65   502pp.

As NN books go, this is one of the thickest and heaviest  challenging various titles such as ‘Fungi’, ‘Bird Migration’ or ‘Woodlands’. At 502pp it is curiously thicker than Oliver Rackham’s ‘Woodlands’ at 609pp.

The author is now Emeritus Reader at Keele University (where he is curator of the National Collection of cherries) and an Associate of Harvard Forest at Harvard University, USA so he knows a thing or two about trees.

The book is a mine of factual information. One that stuck me was that ‘250 litres of petrol can be produced from one tonne of wood’ i.e. biodiesel, so why is not every country doing it?

There are 16 chapters from the ‘value of trees’ to the ‘future of our trees’ (UK and Ireland included). The subjects in the book are all arranged through the year from spring growth, ‘the annual bounty’ with seeds and fruits, ‘the Annual Show of Autumn Colours’ and how trees address cold winters and storm damage.  As my PhD was on carotenoids I would have a slightly different opinion on their role in autumn colour.  There is a chapter on pests and pathogens and the future of trees. All are a good read, to dip into or not; it is such a big book that forays can be had into all sorts of tree information, from the longevity of trees in Britain or in the world, to elm bark beetles, and the latest on ash dieback disease.

There is an excellent section on native and introduced species, with tables and explanations. With 32-35 native tree species in Britain, there are 220 of the commonest and obvious naturalised trees and shrubs in Britain, either neophytes (after AD 1500) like Horse Chestnut and Turkey Oak, and archaeophytes (introduced earlier) like Sweet Chestnut or Service trees.  There is also an interesting section on associates of trees, picking up from Richard Southward’s classic 1960s work.

The future of trees looks bleak, but Thomas is upbeat about the efforts of global REDD programme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation).  He launches straight into the angst of the Anthropocene and explains that the weight of things made by man now exceeds the collected weight of man on earth, and the effects on the environment (land and air) and the effect on trees  ’Over 15,500 (30%) of the world’s estimated 60,065 species of tree are now threatened with extinction, due to agriculture, livestock farming and forest degradation.’  With 142 species becoming extinct in the last five years up to 2021, the UK now has 15 endangered trees species that are ‘priority species’ which are included as Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) species.  The figures vary according to whether you include Sorbus, Salix and Juniperus as species or clones.  Thomas lists Ten golden rules for reforestation… mostly common sense for land owners, foresters and nature conservationists, such as ‘plant species to maximise biodiversity’ (No 6) with a little commercialism thrown in ‘make it pay’ (No 10).

One take-away fact is that Thomas says that ‘planting trees is not a silver bullet for solving climate change’ even though everyone except professionals seems to think that it solves everything and ticks the ‘net gain’ algorism.

The photographs are mostly those of the author augmented with others from around the world, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and North America. Typically for this series there are references and species and general indexes.

For tree enthusiasts this tome is a must. There is never too much information about trees, and it is not surprising that a lot of recent work, facts and figures mentioned in the book, have come from recent research studies. So it is very much up to date. The next tree book in the NN series might be on greening the planet post Anthropocene …. planting more trees.

Lomborg, False Alarm, 2021

Lomborg, Bjorn. 2021. False Alarm: How Climate Change panic costs us trillions, hurts the Poor, and fails to fix the planet. Basic Books, Hachette Book Group. Originally  published in July 2020, also as ebook, and as a First Trade Paperback Edition in October 2021. 321pp.  ISBN 978-1-5416-4747-3 & 9 781541 647473.  $22.99.

This later edition has a long epilogue which, within the year of publication had to bring it up to date with the fast moving events following COVID-19. Lomborg’s earlier, controversial book The Skeptical Environmentalist, Measuring the Real State of the World (CUP, 2001) went into ten reprints in one year.   Not that everyone likes to reminded of the facts and figures of climate change, but a different interpretation is always welcome. The stats speak for themselves but not everyone really puts them all together like Lomborg.  The author is not a climate change denier, far from it. He is a visiting Prof at Copenhagen Business School, a visiting fellow at Stanford and has been named as one of the 100 ‘Most Influential People of the World’. He knows his stuff and is authoritative with it because he is a statistician at heart; he was an Ass Prof of Statistics at The University of Aarhus in Denmark when he wrote the Skeptical Environmentalist. He deals in published data and incorporates the salient facts and conclusions into his work, so this book is full of supporting graphs and diagrams to illustrate his points – all of which are backed with references to published data.  You have to be committed to read all through his book as it is hugely scientific and not necessarily for the general public who would find it complicated.  The book was being finished off during the Covid epidemic but Lomborg quotes various papers that showed that the decline in the use of cars during lockdown did not have a significant effect on climate change. He states ‘Everything learned over the course of the COVID-19 epidemic has reconfirmed the basic message of this book. Just forcing us to do with less is not the solution, not in the rich world and certainly not for the world’s less well off.’, He is adamant that we need to solve five issues ‘to get our focus back’ which are i) increased carbon tax, ii) green innovation (the most important), iii) adaptation, iv) geoengineering, and v) prosperity.  He holds great store in President Biden’s promise of $75 billion a year for green R&D which could be ‘a real game changer.’  He analyses the truth about the EU’s stated bold commitment to reduce emissions by 55% (from 40%) in 2015. This shows he says ‘good intentions’ but the cost of $1.5-$5 trillion to achieve the actual tiny benefit of ‘postponing global warming by just two weeks’ by the end of the century shows it ‘is a blatantly bad idea.’ There are plenty of topics to investigate by delving into this book for instance on extreme weather events, where Lomborg compares the various extreme events in the US with the GDP, and finds that these events  are ‘causing less suffering in terms of deaths and in terms of GCP’.  With flooding and hurricane events Lomborg discusses the ‘Expanding Bull’s Eye Effect’ where, say an area’s housing expands by 58% over 20 years (actual example) a repeat of a similar flooding example will seem to be significantly greater, when the degree of flooding has perhaps stayed the same. The book is in five sections, The climate of fear, The truth about climate change, How not to fix climate change, How to fix climate change and Tackling Climate Change and All the World’s other challenges.  It is a good but necessarily scientific book with plenty of straight forward arguments informed by published data. Lomborg is a regular Tweeter so you can follow his day to day tweets on how he interprets the living world during the current energy crisis.  

Silent Earth by Goulson 2021


Silent Earth, Averting the Insect Apocalypse, by Dave Goulson, Published by Jonathan Cape, London in 2021. (imprint of Vintage which is part of Penguin Random House, London.) 328pp. Hardback £20. ISBN 978-1-787-33334-5  &  9 781787 333345  A review:

Hot on the heels of other books on the impending disaster to affect the wildlife world we live in, this is another that adds to the debate. It seems that lockdown has had a positive effect on the productivity of all authors. But this assessment of the decline of insects is from an academic for consumption by the general public. And he is good at it, converting scientific facts, arguments and counter-argument into some interesting discussion. The author is Prof.  Dave Goulson, lecturer at the University of Sussex, who, when he is not writing books, looks after freshers giving them a tour of the campus to assess their readiness to understand the living world, identifying the common birds and the bees (which they do very poorly). His lecturing circuit of about 40 lectures a year allow him to assess audiences, and he agrees that talking to primary school schoolchildren is more fulfilling as they pay attention and are enthralled, compared to secondary pupils. He sees a drift of grey hairs in some of the older audiences and they also are more keyed into what is happening. He says that about 90% of the population could not care less about the environment, and he is right, possibly higher. This is however a flaw in his halting the apocalypse. Will they all respond?

There are five sections of the book, Why Insects Matter, Insect Declines, Causes, Where are we headed? and What we can do? in all 21 chapters. Each chapter is quite short and succinct and reads without giving specific references (making the text a better read), but the references are at the back of the book under chapter headings if anyone wants to fact-check Goulson’s comments and threads.  The author draws on his own academic published work, and his travels around the world making observations.  Having just reviewed McGavin’s audio book on insects (All Creatures Small and Great), both authors have used the same published work, whether it is the German experience of declining insects or the Knepp experience of wilding, and drawing on the quoted works of Carson, EO Wilson, Fabre, Monbiot or Attenborough.  It is surprising how there is a relatively small body of work on declining species out there, that everyone quotes. The difference with this book and the others is that Goulson supports all his commentaries with graphs and scientific evidence – almost, but not quite, at the level of a textbook. Most pages are enlightening, and the book can be dipped into to get a different flavour. There are at least ten books I have around me here on the impending Armageddon and the story is the same, the relatively few references the same, Carson being the first key witness.

So where does Goulson really stand. He is an optimist. He says on the flyleaf ‘it is not too late for insect populations to recover’. Attenborough also says that on television. That does not fit comfortably with the 90% who do not care less. Even the sub-title is optimistic ‘averting the insect apocalypse’. Topically he has one chapter on life in the future after the apocalypse several decades on, and another chapter on how to get things right before the apocalypse, education, involvement at local level and getting involved in politics. Goulson also muses on Rumsfeld’s ‘knowns and unknowns’ and ‘unknown knowns’ in the biodiverse insect world. He also has a chapter on ‘Bauble Earth’ about light pollution and effects on wildlife, also very topical at the moment.

Goulson is a bee expert and he often refers to his other books (three out of five on bees and bumblebees) and one has the feeling that one should have read his The Garden Jungle before writing this review as he often refers to it.  His appraisal of the effects of neonics on bees is excellent. Curiously, various vignettes on the peculiarities of a handful of insects are placed at the end of the chapters, not related to the subject matter, but the tiniest peek into the world’s biodiversity that we might loose, such as the earwig with two penises if you have ever seen it in the first place.   With the insect world in Britain of 27K species these are not key to the message of the book, and therefore a distraction, perhaps an entrée into the bizarre world of biodiverse insects for a new book?

Insects by McGavin 2022

All Creatures Small and Great. How insects make the World.  An audiobook written and narrated by Dr George McGavin. MP3 (14 hours). Published by WFH Original (W.F. Howes), £16.99   ISBN: #9781004073344    Link on Audible:   A review:


For those who have not come across George McGavin on the radio or on the TV he is a passionate, if not unique spirit of ecology who now works in the media but was once a lecturer at Oxford. We learn a lot about the life of McGavin, an early interest in bugs in Edinburgh from the age of 12 through to his latest tribute to the parlous state of insects worldwide. In some ways I thought this was a promo for The Royal Entomological Society (RES) as it so insect-centric (which I applaud) and one of its nine guest contributors is the president of the RES, Prof. Helen Roy – a ladybird authority. But insects rule the world with their complete mastery of numbers and diversity and put other classes to shame in biodiversity. McGavin says confidently that they will be around on Earth well after our own demise. Therein is the issue that grips McGavin throughout this audiobook. The relentless decline in species, that McGavin reminds us several times that he has experienced in his lifetime. We all have.  You can feel that he feels wounded as an entomologist that his subjects are disappearing, even species that could be useful that will become extinct before they are discovered (a very familiar and true refrain) with steady on-going rainforest loss that no one seems to be able to stop. He does not refrain from speaking the truth, whether it is rainforest loss just to grow new crops (oil palms, soya), burning peat for shooting, cutting verges or ‘unnecessary street lights’.  One of his most animated interviews is with the inimitable fly-centric Dr Eric McAlister particularly on the fruit-fly – 60% of whose 15.000 decoded genes are found in humans (a common ancestry) which cause cancer, offering hope for remedies for various diseases. He calls the fruit-fly ‘arguably the most important insect in the world’ – vying with the house fly as the most dangerous.  Like many TV reporters he asks many questions such as why and how we got into this mess, where have all the insects gone, and so what if they go extinct? But he does give answers. He talks to Sir David Attenborough to see if he has any answers to which he is told that he receives 50-70 letters a day, mostly, now from concerned youngsters. Attenborough’s solution is to i) individually do not waste food, space, fuel, paper etc, ii) that those who have an elected voice should appreciate the international point of view of the worldwide dilemma and do something, and iii) that that there is a need to get politicians to set out remedial measures.  Maybe we have all got it wrong, McGavin invokes Genesis 9.7 ‘be fruitful and multiply’. Yes, says McGavin we have done that, and spoilt the world. We have become complacent and here McGavin says that we have all fallen into the ‘Shifting Benchmark Syndrome’ where the gradual decline of species (example Passenger Pigeon) is easily missed and extinction occurs. He laments his windscreens not being encrusted with a pâté of insects, something we have all noted, and now wonder where they all went.  40% of all insects are now threatened with extinction towards an Eco-Armageddon. There have been mass extinctions before, 250yrs ago at the end of the Permian ‘The Great Dying’ but that was because of acidification of the oceans and gross volcanic activity. Insects at that time did not become widely extinct. Now we are told we are ‘in the middle of a mass extinction event’ the Anthropocene, during this The Age of the Human.  With difficulty we must triage what to save, which insect species we need to save.  We are told by Prof. Philip Stevenson (Kew Gardens) that two out of five plants are now currently at risk of extinction. There is discussion on over-production of food, that an area the size of China produces food that is wasted each year, and that the energy and greenhouse gases to produce it could be saved.  There are moments in the audiobook that McGavin reverts to describing in detail the autecology of various species, such as the honeybee (excellent account), the cochineal beetle, the stag beetle, the galls of oak trees or the Colorado Beetle – all a background for a younger audience, and harking back to this lecturing days.  He gets very annoyed at the phrase Save the Planet when the planet is actually fine, it has looked after itself OK for the last 4.5 billion years and insects in general are always OK. As a good storyteller, McGavin tells us of his adventures mothing in Papua New Guinea where he is ‘ecstatic’ by the diversity of moths to his moth trap, or under the clear skies of Africa. McGavin gets us up to date with neonicinoids in the environment and their potential effects on honeybees. A lot of what he says is backed up with reference to recent research. He quotes E.O. Wilson (we all do) and John Muir; he talks about ‘bee vomit’ (honey) from honeybees and the ‘insect spittle’ (silk) from the silkmoth now extinct in the wild. These descriptions are very appealing to youngsters, and to this end the book is pitched for a very general audience from children right up to all adults interested in the natural environment and what is happening to it, even ecologists, entomologists and naturalists.  There is a very good section on ‘A Natural Pharmacy’ (the audiobook is full of named sections) where the plant world is shown to be a natural pharmacy of useful ‘secondary plant substances’ or scientifically as Prof Philip Stevenson says are ‘Secondary Metabolites’. This is an area much to my own interest especially with the suite of carotenoids and their overlooked importance in inverts and humans.  Much discussion is had on caffeine which in concentration is antagonistic or a deterrent to honeybees (for instance) but in dilution appears to be a stimulant to improve the bee’s carrying out its pollination duties.

There is measured frustration in McGavin’ s voice that the message of the insect decline is not being heard or heeded, as we have all been banging on about this for decades. There have been other voices before about the loss of habitat, such as Marion Shoard, Norman Moore, Graham Harvey, and more recently Elizabeth Kolbert on the 6th extinction and Dave Goulson (with his Silent Earth), but McGavin’s is more a more direct and approachable, well-rounded interpretation, as always backed up with scientific evidence, even though the truth is not heeded.  This topic needed to be aired as an audiotape (14 hours), even if it’s dark message that can be listened-to during a long car journey through a clean windscreen. It has great educational value and should be required ‘reading’ for all schools.


Dr John Feltwell (Naturalist Dr John Feltwell has visited New and Old World rainforests and has written over 40 books including his own on Rainforests, conservation, global warming etc).

Meadows by Peterken 2013

Meadows by George Peterken. No. 2 in The British Wildlife Collection. 2013. Bloomsbury Wildlife. 431pp  ISBN 978-1-4720-60344  &  9 781472 960344  RRP £35.00  A review:

There are now 11 volumes in Bloomsbury’s Wildlife Collection and a fine series it is. This is an early one written by an authority on woodlands and flowers. Peterken worked originally for the Nature Conservancy (NC), and then he was part of the Chief Scientist’s team at the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) that became English Nature (EN) and now Natural England (NE) – a fine pedigree to discuss the importance of meadows. This is a very pleasing and satisfactory book that is particularly comprehensive at well over 400 pages.  It feels like the author was given a free hand to include everything about meadows.  He starts out to define what exactly is a meadow and how other authors, including myself (Meadows, 1992) have included all possible interpretations of meadows.  Peterken states that meadows are technically ‘grasslands that are mown for hay, ‘which means they must be ‘shut-up’ in spring and allowed to grow without grazing until they are cut in summer’. Peterken tends to err on the importance of ‘grasslands’ in his interpretation of meadows, as this is where meadows tend to fall in the strict and official classification of British plant communities. However, there is no official classification directly for meadows per se.  The National Vegetation Classification (NVC) has acronyms for each type of grassland, and as Peterken says ‘the majority of meadows fall within MG5..’ but there is so much variation depending on the soil chemistry – limestone, clay etc.  Field botanists and ecologists will know what this means, and the names of the applicable wildflower species that designate each classification, but members of the general public will not. There is no glossary. There are over 50 references to NVC categories like MG5, but this reflects the serious side of grassland classification espoused by John Rodwell in his series of volumes, which Peterken follows. Meadows actually occur across several volumes as ‘meadows’ are actually only a description, or descriptive turn of phrase, about a collection of species describing one sort of habitat that we all subjectively like. Peterken could get bogged down in the minutiae of particular acronyms but he does not. There is however less room for the popular side of meadow creation in this book, which is now practiced widely privately and in public places. So, it was no surprise that the work of Dame Miriam Rothschild and her infectious enthusiasm and her influence on The Prince of Wales and his meadows is not mentioned.  Also the inspirational work of wildflower seed purveyor Donald MacIntyre and Emorsgate Seeds which has coloured many a motorway embankment and municipal parks across the country for all to see, for the last few decades is not mentioned.

 There are 15 chapters whose titles range from the meadow flora, classification, origins, making hay, diversity , ‘birds, bees, butterflies and other fauna’, ‘loss and survival’ and ‘looking forward.

The author comes out with the classic quote of 97% decline of meadows in England and Welsh lowlands up to the 1980s following the published work of Fuller in 1987. So this book celebrates meadows of which only 3% are left. He describes how they are so precious that many SSSIs have been created round them, and how increasing habitat destruction and  ‘improvement’ has led to their continued demise.  Thus, for the last few decades one has been dabbling in the conservation of just the 3% of remaining meadows and wondering how beautiful the countryside used to be. One also wonders if the 3% has been diminishing. No-one seems to be quantitatively charting any further demise. However Peterken does mention new agro-schemes for meadow enhancements across the countryside as well as many effective community initiatives, so all is not lost, and the quantum has remained the same, perhaps, or gone up? Re-wilding is mentioned around the scientific debate about what Neolithic meadows might have been like and the theories of Frans Vera (2000), but there is otherwise no mention of the present enthusiasm of re-wilding / wilding, and the often-mentioned Knepp Estate (West Sussex), where meadows are always part of any ecological or enhancement mosaic. 

The book is not entirely UK-centric, for the chapter on European meadows brings in discussion of meadows from Estonia, the species-rich alpine rich meadows of Ecrins National Park in France,  Switzerland, Moldovia, and Transylvania in Romania. We learn more about colourful wood-meadows, wet-meadows and litter-meadows, the variety of hay ricks, hay cocks and different ways of scything. Continental meadows are often extremely rich, arresting and beyond anything seen in Britain, but Peterken is sceptical….’that, contrary to the myth, not all Continental meadows are wonderfully floriferous.’ … ‘many are generally only grass-rich, with limited colour’. Some may disagree.

 One of the chapters in the book is about ‘Translocating meadows to the colonies’ and here Peterken describes the familiarity of visiting New Zealand with the British introduced grasses, wildflowers and bumblebees, or the progress of early settlers in east and west North America with their meadow endeavours. He deals with butterflies in meadows well, where he charts each species according to the various classification of meadow types. I am sure the butterflies appreciate being put into tidy boxes, but at the same time it does reflect their very important and pernickety food preferences reflecting their essential ecology.   Nearly all the well-known named meadows are mentioned, such as Cricklade, Lugg and Oxford meadows, and the range of colourful wildflower meadow plants that we all love and associate with meadows are in the book, even Lady’s Slipper orchid that few see in Britain. The book has a wealth of fine photographs of meadows and details of certain species of botanical associations. I like the old black and white photos of male-dominated hay-making teams, and the mixed teams, and of course pictures of haystacks always remind us that 97% of meadows are now gone. There are References and indexes to wildflower species and subjects – overall a fine treatise and unlikely to be surpassed.

 John Feltwell