Reflections - What Wildlife Needs and How To Provide It by Mark Avery

MORE than two centuries after his death, it is good to note that the spirit of pioneering parson-naturalist Gilbert White lives on.

In his new book, Reflections, former RSPB executive Mark Avery does (in miniature) for his hometown of Raunds in Northamptonshire what White did for Selborne in Hampshire.

He explores with appreciative eyes and ears the range of wildlife both in his garden and his neighbourhood, chronicling it with a touching affection. He even has a line about the silverfish and spiders sometimes to be seen scuttling about in his bathroom.

The author is almost childlike in his protective tenderness towards a particular plant, Herb-Robert, which grows from a crack between his garden wall and the pavement and which he sees almost as an endemic specific to his own patch.

"There really are no other Herb-Roberts along the other frontages," he writes. "Mine is the only Herb-Robert house in the street - a fact about which I am ridiculously pleased."

But as the book progress, the idyll of innocent delight and enchantment  gives way to a kind of exasperation and controlled anger at how lowly wildlife rates in the national consciousness.

First target of his scorn is the Royal Horticultural Society whose website he berates for its readiness to 'denigrate' many native plants as 'weeds' and for its advice, invariably hostile , on how they should be 'treated'.

Continues Avery: "We have here a real dichotomy in how we view wildlife - some regard it as a boon, others as a bane.

"Some look to wildlife as a wonder, others as a nuisance."

There is nothing particularly original about much of his subsequent commentary - we all know about the problems and pressures that emerge, for instance, from marine and river pollution, agrochemicals, fossil fuels.

But there is no harm in the re-stating, and, by Dr Avery, the issues are presented at pace and with a fresh touch, peppered with flashes of his characteristic, slightly disarming wit which his readers, depending on their temperament, will find either amusing or irritating.

One thing for sure is that his colloquial style makes a refreshing change from the 'scientists-talking-to-other-scientists' approach which casts a flannel of sterility  over so much contemporary writing about Nature and wildlife.

Very much to his credit, Dr Avery even shuns the term  'biodiversity' (notwithstanding that it is much used by luminaries such as Sir David Attenborough). "It a ghastly word," he insists.

Unfortunately, he then lets the side down by using another word - 'societal' - which is probably even worse.

Later in the book, controversially, he is critical of the leadership at Britain's foremost conservation groups which he variously describes as "feeble" and "timid".

Some readers will probably nod their head in sad agreement at his observation that, while these organisations "tell us that wildlife is in crisis, they are not themselves in crisis mode - they are in comfortable mode".

His tone turns almost bitter as he writes: "Thank you for your money, there's a wildlife crisis, would you like to buy some bird food?

"Those are the messages that come through my magazines, newsletters and emails.

"Why aren't the supporters of wildlife being mobilised to lobby governments for more action? "

On a more upbeat note, the author suggests that there are 'hopeful signs' that, at least in the short term, things are 'starting to get better', though not all of his recommendation (especially those requiring bucketloads of money) are realistic.

This is a genuinely stimulating  book which might have been enhanced by a more dynamic title and a smattering of line drawing to break up the text.

Dr Avery also needs to consider refreshing his portrait photograph which is over-used and out-of-date. Time moves on.

A word, finally, for the enchanting cover illustration by Rachel Hudson. Ten out of ten!

Reflections is published in paperback (£20) on July 4 by Pelagic Publishing.

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  • Thanks very much for the review.

    If I may add, for this audience, that Reflections is generously endorsed by Beccy Speight (RSPB Chief Exec), Baron Randall (RSPB trustee), Chris Packham (RSPB Vice President) and Prof Ian Newton FRS (former RSPB Chair of Council) see https://pelagicpublishing.com/products/reflections

  • Worthy individuals all.

    But does Reflections benefit from validations by these grandees, past and present, of the RSPB Establishment?

    Or do their ‘generous’ endorsements risk compromising the objectivity and impartiality (spiced with a dash of invective) which are surely core strengths of Mark Avery’s lively commentary?

    Wouldn’t it have been healthier if they had provided some genuine analysis, preferably some of it critical.

    After all, it’s not much of a debate if everyone agrees with each other. It’s just old-pals-act groupthink.

    Conservation organisations such as the RSPB are variously described by the author as having been ‘stale’, ‘timid’, ‘weak’ and ‘supine’.

    As far as I know, he has not backtracked?

    Are his accusations fair and accurate? If so,wherein lies the complacency? And, how, if at all, does the leadership of these organisations intend to address it?