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









British Moths by Lowen

British Moths, A Gateway Guide, a field guide to the common moths of Britain and Ireland.  2021. Bloomsbury Wildlife. 224pp. £15.29 on-line.   Ring-bound and e-edition available. ISBN 978-1-4729-8738-9    9 781472 987389   A review

My review copy arrived just after the Saharan dust arrived on 16 March 2022 and I had installed the moth trap to see which North African moths had hitched a ride to the UK.  So I got out this book and tested the identification. The book is arranged seasonally, that is to say if you are starting to trap moths in 2022 then it begins helpfully with ‘Spring Moths’ – and yes a lot of the moths were present and easy to identify.  The author has illustrated pages such as ‘chestnut-brown noctuids’ and ‘beige and reddish-brown noctuids’ and ‘spring-like quakers’. The noctuids are a big and diverse group and there are many overlapping and confusing features thrown in with individual variation, so many of the similar-looking species are a nightmare for moth newcomers. The ring-bound nature of the book is good for use in the field when opening a moth trap and examining species in the presence of fascinated ‘mothers’.  Although the UK list of moths is about 2,500 species, this book includes 350 species of the most common and eye-catching species. Some of the common micros are also included. The standard of the close-up photographs is good and the identification features are shown in the photos with precise annotations. James Lowen is already a Bloomsbury Wildlife author who also written ‘Much Ado About Mothing’ (also in 2021). Lowen comes out with some intriguing categories for the ever-confusing noctuids through the seasons, where he calls them ‘Little Brown Jobs’ – referring to the ornithological parlance for difficult avifauna. In comparison, birds are easy to identify, moths are so much more difficult and more appropriate for the epithet.  Moths have taken diversity to a completely different level. The whole range of common moths are included from hawk-moths, emeralds, waves, pugs, footmen, tigers, sallows and underwings. At the beginning of the book there is a section on the joy of moths, how to see moths, and how to identify moths. There is a subject index, but no glossary or further information. There are other moth identification books that go into much greater detail, but this is a neat, useful and trap-side identification book in full colour, which is fits nicely into a jacket pocket, and is recommended for all beginners and amateurs who venture into the great world of moths.  No, no Saharan moths graced my trap, but many local common moths were present and the book was found to be useful.   John Feltwell.