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Beavers, not concrete barriers, can save Britain from floods

9 October 2021

9:00 AM

9 October 2021

9:00 AM

Abundance: Nature in Recovery Karen Lloyd

Bloomsbury, pp.288, 16.99

Nests Susan Ogilvy

Particular Books, pp.128, 20

As the start date of COP26 draws closer, and just when we are assailed by daily proof of climate chaos, it is easy to think that this is the only threat to the global environment. It is not. Systemic biological loss assails the world and, while it is closely related to the issues of climate, it is a standalone matter with many separate antecedents.

The English in particular should know all about it. On what is called the Biological Intactness Index we are judged to be the seventh most degraded national environment on Earth. Species loss here originates from many causes, but primarily from 80 years of intensive agriculture.

This is the main theme of Karen Lloyd’s Abundance, but it is also about how we can reverse these losses. It is noteworthy for its impressive lyricism, the experimental nature of its format and for the philosophical richness and variety of its content. But it is chiefly memorable for its upbeat, optimistic spirit.

Lloyd is determined to find good news where darkness often prevails — hence her subtitle ‘Nature in Recovery’. She has thus embarked on a journey through Britain and across parts of Europe to find places where humans and natural abundance are still in equilibrium. They include the Carpathian forests of Romania where lynxes, bears and wolves have free rein as apex predators. She also crosses the Extremaduran plains of southern Spain to see the thousands of breeding vultures and visiting cranes that feed winter long on acorns beneath the wood pastures.

Her accounts of these areas are full of exuberant delight. Yet you might easily conclude that in some of them abundance is merely a matter of luck: Spain, with its million spare hectares of vulture-rich woodland, happens to have more space than England. Lloyd is therefore equally interested in regions and communities that have worked hard for this state.

One such case is Hungary, where saker falcons and imperial eagles have been brought back by an innovative recovery programme. Both were in severe decline as a result of persecution, but somehow Hungarian environmentalists have built a coalition, funded in part by the EU Life Programme, that includes the government, court staff, judges, hunters, the police force, vets and thousands of volunteers. Together they have made their country a beacon of hope, not just for two of the most glamorous raptors in Europe but for the ecosystem that underpins them.

One senses that as she describes such successes, Lloyd has a weather eye on Britain, where very different conditions often prevail. She may be upbeat but she is also angry, especially at the closed mindset in her home county Cumbria. The Lake District National Park Authority, rather than letting nature have its head, seems anxious to preserve a deeply impoverished echo of Wordsworth’s cultural landscape — a place of barren hillsides over-grazed by too many sheep. Even more vitriol is aimed at the Environment Agency, whose only answer to the horrendous floods visited by Storm Desmond in 2015 is ever higher and more expensive concrete barriers.

This diverse book emphasises that nature left to its own devices can solve our problems for us. Lloyd is especially keen on the return of beavers to her home area. These creatures emerge as the ultimate architects of natural abundance by slowing water flows, deepening fish-spawning grounds, creating meanders and all the other nuanced habitats that flow in their broad-tailed wake. Let loose this one keystone species, Lloyd proposes, and we unlock many of our wider problems.

If Abundance is a broad brush examination of how we can value and restore nature, Susan Ogilvy’s Nests is a personal statement about the importance of birds in our own backyards. Ogilvy is a botanical illustrator, but she was side tracked by chance encounters into recording the jewel-like artistry at work in the breeding structures of garden birds.

Her book sets out to capture these qualities in more than 50 forensically detailed plates. Here are swallow nests that are like ceramic bowls, assembled beakful by beakful out of soft mud. Here, too, is the ultimate avian artefact in the British hedgerow: the intricate pouch that is stitched together by long-tailed tits, using as many as 4,000 flakes of lichen and 1,500 individual feathers. The birds give it strength and flexibility by binding the whole with lengths of sticky spider’s silk. Ogilvy’s delightful paintings form a kind of field guide to avian architectural skill and are a celebration of the inadvertent aesthetics at play in nests.

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