Book Review: ‘Wild Kingdom’ by Stephen Moss

Few nature writers today offer a writing style that is quite as approachable as Stephen Moss. His writing lifts you into his direct experience and thought space in a manner that avoids preaching and pretentious language, often a danger in this area, instead offering storytelling that is accessible, humorous and a joy to read.

Wild Kingdom (London, 2016), published by Square Peg, is an optimistic, yet realistic, story of wildlife in Britain, its changing state and its delicate nature. It is also as much about the people who are saving wildlife as wildlife itself. The book encourages a shift away from the more conventional nature writing evident in the majority of Stephen’s other (many) works. I read Wild Kingdom cover to cover just after finishing This Birding Life, a compilation of his ‘Birdwatch’ column in The Guardian, in which he immerses you in his passion for and knowledge of birds. Reading other works by an author in a linear fashion can, I think, enhance the reading experience. It brings reader and writer closer together, deepening the connection.

This particular book is as much a story of conservation success as a gentle reminder that there is still much work to be done. The stories of great white egrets, otters, cranes and even beavers are relayed in a glorious narrative of optimism. However, Moss doesn’t shy away from his concerns, and he remains fearful for the future of many species, including capercaillie, corncockles and turtle doves, among many others in parts of the country. In one particularly poignant part of the book he describes a journey through the Fens, stepping out of his car to hear silence; a complete lack of birdsong in a place that was at one time one of Britain’s wildlife heartlands; a great wetland that, in some areas, is thankfully being restored.

As somebody with a particular interest in conservation on farmland his chapter, ‘Down on the Farm: Farmland and Grassland’ was particularly poignant. As Stephen acknowledges in the chapter, farmland covers more than twice our other habitats combined (this includes arable land and the uplands), and so it would be irresponsible and nonsensical to ignore these places when thinking about conservation. He outlines some conservation success stories near the end of the chapter, including a visit to Vine House Farm, which now grow bird seed and shapes its entire business model around conservation and wildlife. However, there is also a concerned tone to the chapter. For example, he notes that:

‘‘In many parts of Britain, the corn bunting’s song is now but a distant memory: nine out of ten corn buntings have vanished since 1970, and their breeding range has contracted by more than half during the same period.’’

He also reminds us that the declines in population abundance appear to be accelerating still when it comes to iconic farmland birds such as skylark, tree sparrow, yellow wagtail and grey partridge.

The book is a wonderful amalgamation of personal experience, historical context and is based on an immense knowledge of natural history. I particularly enjoyed his account of trekking to Cairn Gorm during which he came across a pair of ptarmigan.

‘’Out of a corner of my eye, I see a small, sleek shape streaking across the valley below me. The ptarmigan see it too, and cower momentarily, their plumage blending perfectly in with the heather and moss amongst which they are hiding. For them it is a false alarm, but for me an exciting moment: a merlin, Britain’s smallest bird of prey.’’

I have been fortunate to visit Stephen at his Somerset home and I cannot praise him enough for his drive to spearhead the cause of conservation and for helping younger people wanting to do their bit, and gain a foothold in the world of natural history. There seems little difference between speaking to him face to face and reading his ‘narrator voice’ within his books. His honesty is palpable and above all the sheer joy he experiences as a naturalist is enough to make anybody want to pick up a pair of binoculars.

Population will inevitably increase over the coming decades and there will be increasing pressure to build on the green belt, as well as on brown field sites that have been ‘reclaimed’ by the wild. Wild Kingdom reminds us of the glorious treasures we have already, and that we threaten them by our current activities. Once these places are gone, they will be gone forever. We would do well to remember this.

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