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Stephen Moss Recommends His Top 5 Nature Books for Winter

Posted on 5th December 2019 by Mark Skinner

Author of bestselling seasonal biographies The Robin and The Wren, lifelong naturalist Stephen Moss has turned his attention to one of our best-loved carols - and discovered a hidden message – in his latest book The Twelve Birds of Christmas. Here he chooses five books to read on a winter’s evening, in front of a roaring log fire!

Nightingales in November by Mike Dilger

Where do Nightingales go in the winter? TV presenter and lifelong naturalist Mike Dilger traces the annual lifecycles of some of our best-known and best-loved birds: from the Bewick’s Swan, which migrates here from Siberia every autumn, through resident species such as the Tawny Owl and Robin, to global migrants including the Swallow, Cuckoo and the eponymous Nightingale of the book’s title. Along the way, he provides detailed accounts of their behaviour, and also reveals the mysteries of what they are doing at the times of year when they are away from our shores. Fascinating and thought-provoking.

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An almanac of the monthly activities of a dozen British birds, Nightingales in November is an invaluable guide for both amateur twitchers and seasoned ornithologists. Boasting a wealth of fascinating facts and unexpected information, Dilger’s book is an eye-opening tour of the avian year.
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The Dun Cow Rib by John Lister-Kaye

The memoir of one of Britain’s most important conservationists: the man who founded the legendary Aigas Field Centre, near Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, and whose previous books include the evocative Nature’s Child and Gods of the Morning. Born into comfort and privilege, things began to turn difficult for the young John when his mother became chronically ill. This, however, meant that he was often left to his own devices, with the freedom to explore and discover the natural world rarely allowed to children today. A funny, surprising and often deeply moving book, guaranteed to entertain you on long winter nights.

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There are few nature writers as revered as John Lister-Kaye and his evocative and lyrical memoir is suffused with the richly descriptive prose and lyrical observation that one would expect from the veteran conservationist. Detailing both the triumph and tragedy that have accompanied his varied life and career, The Dun Cow Rib is a master-class in eloquent autobiography.
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Wilding by Isabella Tree

The life-affirming story of how the author, along with her husband Charlie Burrell, transformed their intensive farm in Sussex from a wildlife-depleted zone into a natural paradise, complete with nightingales, turtle doves and purple emperor butterflies. They did so not by complex management techniques, but using minimal intervention, letting nature find its own balance. This is not just an uplifting story, but also a manifesto on how we could bring back lost and declining species into our wider countryside, which should be compulsory reading for every landowner, conservationist and politician. Wonderful!

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When Tree and her husband gave their clay farmland back to nature it kickstarted an experiment in ecological innovation and a personal journey into the realities of farming in the 21st century, and Wilding soars with passion, enthusiasm and an undying faith in the virtues of conservation.
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The Country of Larks: A Chiltern Journey by Gail Simmons

The first book by my colleague at Bath Spa University’s MA in Travel and Nature Writing, The Country of Larks retraces a journey on foot, through the Chiltern Hills, made by the young Robert Louis Stevenson almost 150 years ago. Along the way, she reminisces about her childhood home, and the nature of place and belonging. But there’s a twist in the tale: that by retracing the route taken by Stevenson, she soon realises that it follows almost exactly the same path as the proposed HS2 railway. This means that the landscape and its wildlife may soon be destroyed forever. A lyrical account of a walk through space and time, which may end up as an elegy to this unique and threatened landscape. 

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Both an atmospheric journey into the past and an ominous foretaste of the future, The Country of Larks finds Simmons retracing the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson as he walked from Buckinghamshire to Hertfordshire in 1874. Whilst she celebrates the nature and wildlife along the route, there is also the grim realisation that this scenic beauty is under imminent threat from the construction of H
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The Butterfly Isles by Patrick Barkham

Winter is also a time to remember the summer gone by recalling those long, hot sunny days when insects were buzzing and fluttering all around us. It’s also an opportunity to look ahead to the coming spring, with all the delights that will bring in the natural world. What better way to do so than in the company of Guardian journalist Patrick Barkham, whose first book took him on a year-long quest to try to see all Britain’s native butterflies? Along the way he visited many of our loveliest places and encountered some great British eccentrics. Did he see all 59 species of butterfly? You’ll have to read to the very end to find out!

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Written with a delicious lightness of touch and joie de vivre, The Butterfly Isles recounts Barkham’s gleefully idiosyncratic quest to track down all fifty-nine species of butterfly in the United Kingdom. A winningly witty travelogue peopled by marvellous eccentrics and stunning scenery, this truly is a modern classic of nature writing.
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