All posts by John

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









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.

Screaming Sky by C. Foster

The Screaming Sky. By Charles Foster. 2022. A Little Toller Monograph. ISBN 978-1-908213-84-6  A review.


The author is an academic philosopher at the University of Oxford who has won all sorts of prizes for his other works. However, he admits this is not a scientific book at all and that he has written this book about swifts simply because he is obsessive about them. The book is entirely about swifts, Apus apus, and the author fits all his obsessive notes and observations into a dozen chapters in the year of the swift from January to December. I am not sure the author has enough to say in some months, as there is not always a lot of factual information to say, but he has his anecdotes in any way. The book reminds me of ‘A single Swallow’ by Horatio Clare (Vintage, 2010) both charting the movements of regular migrants, with lots of information gaps along the way. The book cover and the plates within are all by the finest swift illustrator Jonathan Pomroy whose annotated pencil sketches of the birds in flight, in the nest and in screaming parties are well presented and are a great addition; the drawings are so life-like and dynamic. There are so many unknowns about a migrants, and the author has travelled to Spain, South Africa and Asia to see what is going on, to puzzle over spring and autumn passages, often successfully. He obsesses over facts and figures, that the birds fly 6,000 miles each way twice a year to South Africa, and that they live up to 21 years, so that is about 770,910 miles in a lifetime which includes the general flying around that they do ordinarily. The newly-born nestling is 2.75g and it will increase its weight 24 times by its fourth week. It has to grow fast as in England the swifts start to return south in earnest. You would have to be lucky to see a movement of 46,000 swifts off Gibraltar Point in June. It is a short, popular book of 179 pages and it belongs to a series of similarly short texts with about 40 titles. There are references to books from which he has drawn information and a list of books and useful websites. A short index would have been useful to remind the reader of salient pieces, or a table of facts and figures would have been useful too. I would like to have seen a little bit more about the ecology (all about ‘flyburgers’ that adults bring back to the nest) but then the species spends most of its life in the rarified atmosphere at 3,000 to 6,000 feet and it still keeps its secrets.



Ants by Richard Jones 2022

Ants: the ultimate social insects. by Richard Jones  London, Bloomsbury Wildlife. No. 11 in the British Wildlife Collection. ISBN 9781472964861. Hardback £40.00  A review:

It is always good to see a new book on ants, and Richard Jones has done justice to these very successful animals. Jones is a highly respected professional entomologist with one of the keenest eyes for the mega-diversity of British invertebrates. He has written quite a number of natural history books including Beetles (No. 136 in the New Naturalist series, 2018), and Call of Nature (Pelagic, 2017), both also reviewed here,[1] both remarkable books.  A south London man, Jones was brought up with his father an ‘amateur but expert botanist and entomologist’ and spent much of his youth exploring in East Sussex.

As the book flyleaf says, this covers all ant species in the British Isles and those in nearby mainland Europe. This amounts to ‘about 50 species of ant that might be regarded as genuinely British or Irish’, and there are three other species from the Channel Islands.   Jones allows himself to get diverted into talking about non-British ants, as he says he makes ‘detours and diversions across the globe’ where there are about 12,500 ant species. Plenty to choose from. But I like the detours very much. It becomes a more rounded book, particularly as it speaks to my own ant encounters around the world.

In the book I am then face-to-face with bullet ants (great photo) which I have encountered frequently in the Amazon, and of the floating islands of ants going downstream during annual periods of high water in the River Negro – just do not let your canoe touch the floating island as the ants get on board within milliseconds and panic ensues in caiman-infested waters.  And in Sulawesi (Indonesia) there is also the risk of being killed by giant ant galls falling from the canopy. From tip-toeing over the lawns of South Carolina with fire ants, or crashing through South American rainforest with ants issuing from acacia galls at the slightest touch – these are all covered, some illustrated. These small animals come with a big punch – always punching above their weight.

The book has ten chapters starting with what is an ant, their evolution, interactions between ant species and interactions with human, how they fit in with the landscape, and how to study ants.. The chapter on the ants of Britain and Ireland is set out in sections, species by species in a systematic manner, giving latin names and english names where known.  The intimate association of ants with blue butterfly metamorphosis is covered. Jones is justly very resistent to using common names (and only with lower case names not to embolden them with importance), which is what every entomologist will tell you, and in most cases ants mostly only have latin names. You will have to read older texts to find out about horse ants, honey ants or pastural ants. There are photographs to some of the species (would have been nice to have many more), but this is not an identification book. It is just an absorbing book on ants.

Ants have always been interesting to naturalists, and it is not surprising that there have been a lot of books about them since the early 19th century. I am reminded of other ‘ant books’ such as Sir John Lubbock’s Ants, Bees, and Wasps. (1885 London, Kegan Paul, Trench) who, even then referenced over 50 books and memoires on ants – Sir John lived in Kent – and Maurice Maeterlinck’s ‘The Life of the Ant (1930 translated by Bernard Miall), as well as the more recent Brian’s Ants in the New Naturalist’s Library (1977, Collins). Not all of these are cited. Perhaps that is a good thing, as it brings a new and refreshing look at ants.

This is a lockdown book, written during 2020 and 2021, and is not the worst for it. Even the home-made ‘pancake ants’ have some tasty educational value. The illustrations throughout the book are good (they are for this series of books) and much use has been made of black and white plates from older texts.  If people are keen on identifying ants there is indeed a proper key at the end of the book.

The References are comprehensive, including 12 citations to Jones’s work. I was at Royal Holloway College when ant expert Dr John Pontin was a lecturer and Jones mentions his work throughout, and cites two references.  John unfortunately died in 2021; he wrote The Ants of Surrey (Surrey Wildlife, 2005) and fought to save the rarest of Britain’s ants, F. rufibarbis  – which is mentioned in the book as it was illustrated on a Royal Mail postage stamp.   Ants have come a long way; frankly stamping their mark on British society.  Jones has successfully promoted their importance in a very popular manner.

[1] Beetles:  Call of Nature:,

House Martin Love Story

Guests of Summer, A House Martin Love Story. By Theunis Piersma. Thetford, BTO Books. 115pp.

First published by Bornmeer as Sweltsjesbfan Gaast in 2004. Undated but published 1 March 2016 Foreword by Ian Newton. ISBN 978-90-858-157-0-9   9 789085 815709  A review:

 First published in Frisian, this book is an English translation of the second version in Dutch, but who would know. It reads incredibly well and there are no awkward phrases; great work by the translator.

The book is an entirely house martin-centric book, written by a house-martin-centric author who is also a professional birder, so other species are mentioned (rarely) only by way of comparisons or setting the scene for the demise of avifauna. The author lives in the wetland-rich area of the Frisian countryside of northern Netherlands and the book centres on life in the village of Gaast and the intimate goings-on of house martin behaviour in the parish. They do quite a lot of nest hopping, even rape, but then that is probably altruistically better for the species in terms of getting their genes abroad.   Going abroad is however the problem of where do the birds fly too exactly?

I love the chapter on orcas since the striking black and white colours of house martin remind the author of the colour scheme of orcas, quite so says I, and reminds me of my own book on ‘Black and White in Animals’ (2019) which incidentally figures a partial albino barn swallow whose genetic material has been possibly been interfered with by radiation from Chernobyl.  Piersma says that ‘house martins and orcas look alike’ that they ‘live in their own shadow’ because of their colour scheme, and that house martins take prey from below because of it.

But back to this love story.  The book is written as 29 vignettes, or chapters, of information, which tell a sequential story of the life of the house martin through the eyes of villagers, whose observations about the sounds, solicitations and facial peeps from the nest mean so much – as Piersma tries to interpret. The birds are clearly conscious of us, people, and react accordingly. Interpreting the facial expressions of their little faces in the nest does require a lot of field work sitting around in a chair!

I don’t think I have reviewed a book with such short chapters. This is completely different oeuvre where often a small but highly relevant piece of ecological information is played out in a short chapter. The way that it is written is incredibly enthralling. Ian Newton says in the Foreword that wherever you dip into the book  ‘there is interesting stuff’. I completely agree.  It is a complement that the author, a scientist has been able to write very clearly without being burdened with scientific jargon, and it is immensely readable.  I have now reviewed a few hundred books so I do find it very accessible and completely different to any other natural history books. It should be a requirement of all scientists to write a hugely interesting and popular account of their research subject without using complicated jargon, and in this case without Dr. Piersma referring to his 400 scientific publications.

For the British reader there much to enjoy. Piersma sets the scene whereby Friesland was connected to England via the ‘Mare Friscum’ as shown in his map for the period 600-800 AD.  He makes bird and human connections between East Anglia (the Sutton Hoo site) where there is Anglo-Saxon overlap in languages and DNA.  Swallows would have been in the buildings, but not particularly house martins, they were on cliffs. Gilbert White’s opinion on overwintering martins is discussed. In terms of answers we have not moved on a lot. We still do not know exactly where all the martins go for winter.

The book is mostly about house martins, but there is a lot about sand martin, barn swallows (the hirundines trio) and swifts too. Swifts are more related to humming-birds and owls, but the hirundines and the swift portion-out the air space, house martin trawls the air at 2km up – they have feathered legs possibly to insulate against the cold temperature, swifts tuck their legs away and fly much higher (radar tells us this): both sleep on the wing, and barn swallows are low-lying hedge-hoppers.

The decline of house martins is discussed in relation to changes in agriculture. Piersma shows that the decline in Britain has mostly occurred across the country from north-west to south-east which, he says is an ‘easy fit’ with agricultural intensification. In his own country the numbers of Barnacle geese has ‘strongly increased’ over 1970-90s whilst the numbers of house martins has ‘strongly decreased’ over the same time. He reflects how meadows have decreased by 95%, and how the flowers are no longer there for the birds to feed on the associated insects.  The decline is not through a lack of nest sites as one stone bridge near Oxford used to have 400-500 nests in the 1950s but none now: the bridge is still there (Clifton Hampton bridge) so here is a little 2022 project for Oxford members of the HMCUK&I to check out the Oxfords bridges!

As to where the birds go for winter a little bit more of the jigsaw is coming into place. Analysing the hydrogen isotopes in the feathers indicated that the Gaast house martins actually go to Africa, south of the Sahara and into the Congo, trawling the rainforest canopy possibly benefiting from flying termites.

We learn that returning house martins tend to go to old nests on northern aspects, that a single nest takes at least 1000 journeys to construct and that nesting building needs to be near muddy locations. Some martins are clay thieves and sometimes nick others pieces of nest. Piersma has never seen House Martin mate, they possibly do this in the nest. And maybe that they sleep communally in nests too. Eleven is the total recorded to exit one nest. There is still so much to find out, questions to be asked.

For my own interest in house martins, I always think the house martins that choose to breed around the Mediterranean have a better time that those who go to Scotland or even Iceland, since there are plenty of insects around the Camargue delta, and one could still fit in a third generation.  I am familiar with hundreds of house martins regularly falling out of the sky and landing on houses, even trees ahead of summers storms in the Cévennes mountains. Piersma says that they rest on trees sometimes, yet my observations are that this is a regular occurrence when all wires and houses are occupied by birds which are natural self-spacers.

As far as I know there are no comparable books on house martins. There are no photos in this book (it does not need them), but there is an exhaustive list of references.  All house-martin-centric persons should read this book, indeed all those who like the swifts and swallows and birds in general. It is hard to swallow that we tend to know a wee bit more about house-martins around the nest, but still very little about where they go abroad.  The mysteries continue.   John Feltwell

The book is available from BTO books

House martins resting on a Nettle tree, Celtis australis.  Cévennes


Social-distancing on wires and gripping masonry  Cévennes

Resting up after a storm   Cévennes  all photos (c) John Feltwell



Nat Hist of Butterflies 2021

Warren, M. 2021. Butterflies – Natural History. London, Bloomsbury. 385pp.  ISBN 978-1-4729-7525-6     9 781472 975256. No. 10 in The British Wildlife Collection. Review

If ever there was an appropriate person to write up this narrative on butterflies it is Dr Martin Warren, formerly Chief Executive of Butterfly Conservation. Originally he worked for The Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) – yes ages ago before it became English Nature and then Natural England – so he has experience that spans government bodies and NGOs and knows a thing or two about management for butterflies.

Warren’s doctorate was on the dainty Wood White butterfly and he has subsequently published on fritillaries (most of the 16 Warren references quoted are either on Wood Whites or fritillaries). He has also published key works on the Heath Fritillary and High Brown Fritillary and I am glad to say the book is not too fritillary-centric, or indeed Wood White-centric, although the book presents a good description of the Cryptic Wood White first observed in 2011 in the Burren, Eire. It is amongst five almost indistinguishable wood white species in Europe which fly together – with more DNA analysis to be carried out on UK specimens to determine their precise identification. Michael Warren is currently Head of Development with Butterfly Conservation Europe, so there is a little dash of continental influence in the text in particular on the effects of climate change and general distribution of populations which is not a bad thing as it informs the wider scene.

The way the book is written is a rolling narrative of butterflies in general, and in particular when necessary, and interspersed with personal observations in the wild. Latin names of plants and animals are banished to the back.  Typically of this book series the text is reminiscent of the Collins New Naturalist Library (NNL), where at the end of each chapter there is a ‘Concluding remarks’ section, which is always useful. NNL include Latin names in the text. Dame Miriam Rothschild gets a mention so too as well as the Chequered Skipper pub. The contributions of other important ‘lep’ authorities are discussed, Jeremy Thomas on the Large Blue and Matthew Oates on the Purple Emperor.

There are eighteen chapters none of which are on individual species, so if you want to know more about Swallowtails, Large blues or Small Tortoiseshells for instance, for which there is a good body of work, then it is a visit to the index to find where they appear, variously, in the text. Seven of the chapters are about the life and metamorphosis of butterflies amounting to about half the book. There are separate chapters on parasitoids, and ‘winners and losers’ and ‘Recording Butterflies’ an enthusiasm enjoyed by many; all very interesting and highlighting changes in butterfly numbers.

But what does Warren say about numbers and reasons of decline? Numbers: Yes, ‘several species have become extinct, and many have declined’….’around a quarter of species have expanded in recent decades due to our warming climate’, and ‘overall three-quarters of species have declined by one or other measure’ – all very confusing evidence over the last 200 years.  Essex Skipper, Brown Argus, Silver-spotted Skipper and Adonis Blue have spread considerably.

The reasons why butterflies are declining are a little more difficult to clarify. The ‘one or other measure’ are nitrogen deposition and pesticides, though Warren says the jury ‘may be out on whether neonicotinoid pesticides have impacted on butterfly populations. The biggest culprit for declines appears to be habitat loss and climate change, though Warren is not categorical on this  (whoever can be?) – ‘the evidence suggests’ British butterflies are being pulled in different directions, an environmental tug of war where ‘habitat loss and deterioration far outweighing any benefits from climate change. Warren cites his own work of 2001 to support this tug of war; it is a pity that others have not come down firmly on identifying the reasons for declines. There is so much evidential information on trends and declines, but not enough quantitative evidence on reasons. Warren is just the messenger.

In comparison with other books on butterflies, there has been nothing published recently; one has to go back to E. B. Ford’s ‘Butterflies’ in the NNL series (1945) which was more illustrated in colour and black and white, and certainly more scientific especially on evolution, theoretical genetics and races of butterflies, but equally a good read but on a different level. I have to blow my own trumpet with my ‘The Conservation of Butterflies in Britain’ (1995) which was not illustrated in colour but had some single species chapters.  So overall this new exciting book on butterflies is key to understanding a little more about the vagaries of butterfly populations in a warming world.

With the world changing due to the climate this is mirrored with changes in butterfly distribution. In Warren’s ‘long-distance travellers’ chapter we hear about the longest migrant insects in the world, the Monarch and the Painted Lady. With increase in climate change Red Admiral is now a resident when before it used to be an occasional migrant to these shores. The Monarch aggregations in Mexico are illustrated, though we in Britain are never overwhelmed by stray monarchs, Warren is hopeful that the Map butterfly may colonise this country, following in the footsteps of the Southern Small White and Geranium Bronze both of which have been successful colonisers. The relative dynamics of butterflies is well addressed in the book.

Recording butterflies is a very practical occupation for volunteers and there are chapters on ‘Recording butterflies’ and ‘Watching butterflies’ all of which will be enjoyed by readers. The photographs in the book are exemplary and some chosen for their detail; it is unusual to find such fine images in a natural history book.

The five appendices i) checklist of butterflies, ii) generations and food plants, iii) habitats and management requirements, iv) parasitoids (hymenopterans – nearly 60 species) and dipterans (18 spp) v) where to see butterflies in Britain and Ireland, are all very useful for keen butterfly-lovers  e.g. Knepp for Purple Emperors where else – but are they are expanding east?

The book is a useful and refreshing account of butterflies that will appeal to everyone; it is colourful and collectable – as a favourite natural history book to display on the table. Butterflies certainly do reflect the state of nature.