Review by Peter Reason, 5 March 2020
When I was a small boy, back in the 1950s, I remember going on Sunday School trips to the seaside. Once we were out of London, I would be fascinated by the great flocks of Lapwing, Peewits as we knew them, I would see from the coach window feeding in the fields. I recall watching them, rising together, their black and white wings making vivid patterns as they tumbled through their air. You can’t see that anymore, certainly not in the Home Counties; even on the northern moors you won’t see such great numbers. I used to hear cuckoos from my bedroom, calling from Wandsworth Common, and later where live now in Bath. But again, no more.
This is a beautiful book about the terrible truth: sixty seven birds native to the British Isles are more vulnerable than ever before. The book features a personal story of each of these sixty seven from a diverse collection of writers, each illustrated by a different artist. A book to browse through with a mixture of awe and distress. A book to leave casually around the house to stimulate conversation with your visitors about conservation, extinction how we collectively make life hard for other creatures; a book to give as a gift that carries an important message.
Start at the beginning with White-fronted goose. Each summer she hatches a brood in Greenland in the arctic tundra, discarding old flight feathers and growing new ones. With the first snow flurries she sets off southward, stopping to rest and refuel in Iceland before arriving at her ancestral Scottish home of Islay. But the fabric of her landscape is rapidly unravelling: two million years of evolution are being undone. So writes Gill Lewis in the first entry, with artwork by Szabolcs Kókay showing the goose standing alert in the tundra.
The book continues with stories and artwork of the sixty seven birds. Pochard, Common Scoter, Velvet Scoter, Slavonia Grebe—birds maybe less well known to a general public. But also Shag, Hen Harrier, Corncrake, Lapwing, Song Thrush, Nightingale, that many know and love. Even House Sparrow, Herring Gull, and Starling, for goodness sake! And so on.
Some of the writers’ names are well known—Chris Packham is the most obvious name check, writing and also painting the Long-tailed Duck. Others—Patrick Barkham, Mark Cocker, Mary Colwell, Miriam Darlington, Melissa Harrison, Adam Nicolson, to pick out a few, are celebrated for their contributions to wildlife literature. They all write engaging, personal stories of their encounters. I confess not to recognise many of the artists’ names, but the quality of their work stands out on page after page—water colours, pastels, pen and ink, some realist, some stylised. Much of the attraction of the book lies in the diversity of written stories and artistic portrayal of this huge variety of birds, all unique expressions of our living world.
I turn to the last entry, Corn Bunting, words by Derek Niemann—how the bird’s three-second burst of sound catches his attention, a sound maybe like breaking glass; art by Nick Derry—a watercolour (I think!) of the bird, beak wide open in song, perched above farmland. But I am wrong, this is not the last entry, Corn Bunting is followed by the final pages In memoriam for Temmick’s Stint, Wryneck, Serin, all lost since the last Red List review in 2009.
The poet Gerald Manley Hopkins asked, What would the world be, once bereft/Of wet and wildness…? And we must all ask the same of these birds and reply, with Hopkins, Let them be left. But more than just left, let them be actively protected. An added attraction of buying this book is that all proceeds go to Red-listed species conservation projects. You can buy the book, and the artworks, direct from the British Ornithological Trust, which I imagine directs more of the proceeds to the projects.
Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. His most recent publication is On Presence: Essays | Drawings, with artist Sarah Gillespie http://peterreason.eu/OnPresence.html. His writing includes In Search of Grace: An Ecological Pilgrimage (Earth Books, 2017) and Spindrift: A Wilderness Pilgrimage at Sea (Vala Publications and Jessica Kingsley, 2014). Find Peter at www.peterreason.eu and on Twitter @peterreason.
Curated by Kit Jewitt, Red Sixty Seven (British Ornithological Trust, 2020). 978-1912642137, 160pp., hardback (illus).BUY direct from the BOT