Review: Wild Places UK – The UK’s Top 40 Nature Sites is a boon companion

Background picture: Gwent Wildlife Trust’s Magor Marsh reserve. Picture by Richard Bakere.

Jon Gower

Having already picked his favourite places in Wales for a previous book the indefatigable and supremely knowledgeable TV naturalist now takes us further afield, visiting remote islands and urban sanctuaries, mountain glens and abundant estuaries.

This is not a handbook to these places and you might not even take it with you on a visit.  Rather, it’s a lush volume for the armchair wildlife enthusiast, a source book for future travels, showing us what’s out there and how rich and varied it all is.

Throughout Williams’ depth of knowledge is on display, even if he’s turned down the dials on the passion and enthusiasm that so animate his broadcasting in both Welsh and English to favour crisp and clear accounts of what’s to be found and when, how to get to a location and if there are any good cake shops in the vicinity.

The text is complemented by a superb array of photographs with wide sweeps of landscape such as the limestone pavements of the Yorkshire Dales, along with close-ups of the plants that grow in abundance in the clints and grikes, or slabs and crevices of their gnarly geology.

 

Edgelands

Choosing forty faves is no mean feat and the choice is, of course, debatable but when it comes to Wales Iolo confidently plumps for just a half a dozen sites, and who’s to question perhaps the finest field naturalist of his generation?

Perhaps the least well known of these is Coed-y-Bwl in the Vale of Glamorgan, with its springtime swathes of wild daffodils.  Another of the choices might well have been made in part for political reasons as Iolo’s concern for the protection of the Gwent Levels is well known and he’s loudly railed against the plans to run the M4 across them.

In this book, he concentrates on the nature reserve created in part as mitigation for the loss of mudflats when the Cardiff Bay barrage was created.  Here the smallest flowering plant in the world, the rootless duckweed has, well, taken root in a place which now has nesting avocets and bearded tits and a wide array of scarce invertebrates.

No-one would question the inclusion of Skomer and Skokholm, the Pembrokeshire islands alive with seabirds and short-eared owls, places Williams must have visited so often that he has a loyalty card. As he rightfully claims ‘Skomer National Nature Reserve is the wildlife jewel in the Welsh crown’ and he presents us with some of the colours embedded in that crown – the array of bluebells and carpets of red campion, the heather purple and the yellow of gorse which here flowers even in winter.

Then there is the Dee, with its industrialised edgelands and internationally important assemblages of wildfowl and waders; the dramatic sweeps of uplands in the Elan Valley strongholds, if weakened strongholds for nesting golden plover and dunlin.

Finally, he selects Cwm Idwal, Wales’ first National Nature Reserve, declared as such back in 1954, with its dramatic sweeps of scenery and scarce plants such as the delicate and ineffably beautiful Snowdon lily. As the author puts it, “For geologists and glaciologists wishing to separate their terminal moraines from their roches moutonnées, this is the place to be, but there is plenty to get the naturalist’s heart beating too’ including ‘the mountain crags with roseroot, globeflower, lady’s mantle and the unique Snowdonia hawkweed.”

Fake news

There’s plenty of stuff to get the naturalist’s heart beating in ‘Wild Places UK’ from the 60 strong gatherings of roosting hen harriers at the Isle of Man’s Ballaugh Curragh wetlands through the juniper woods of Upper Teesdale, to the 150,000 gannets that nest on the Bass Rock in Scotland’s Firth of Forth.

There are, of course, unexpected species to encounter, such as reindeer and wallabies and places to dependably see rare ones, such as the eagles – both golden and white-tailed – that patrol the skies over the Isle of Mull on enormous wings.  Some rarities are harder to spot, such as the single, yes single specimen of lady’s slipper orchid that grows in the Pennines. But Iolo has been there, seen it, stopped for cake on the way back home.

Iolo Williams has been fortunate enough to visit some of the most inaccessible places and in this book, the one that is really out there, in many senses, is St. Kilda, the remote island located 64 kilometres northwest of North Uist, itself a pretty isolated isle.  Deserted by a permanent population back in the 1930s – when the St Kilda house mouse ran out of houses to inhabit – the island, with the tallest seacliffs in Britain –  is now home to huge numbers of puffins and to Leach’s storm petrel, a small bird about the size of a sparrow that usually lives far out at sea.  St Kilda was the place where the last great auk in Britain was killed in 1840, not long before the last breeding pair in Iceland met a similar fate – sad news indeed.

The book also ponders ‘fake news’ such as the origins of the local name for eider duck on the Farne islands, being ‘St Cuddy’s duck’ after a saint called Cuthbert who lived there during the 7th century when he introduced laws for their protection.  Not so, it seems. The genesis of the name, it transpires is that it was dreamt up “by a monk some 600 years after Cuthbert’s death to drum up support for the legend of Cuthbert after his burial in Durham.”

Colourful

From the wild vastnesses of Scotland’s Flow Country to the bird-filled expanses of The Wash in eastern England Iolo Williams acts as the most informative guide.  This book is a guide, yes, but also very much a personal selection and on top of that a sort of treasure map, taking us via words and images to an array of very special places, from the shingle banks of Dungeness to one of Iolo’s favourites among favourites, being the bittern-haunted reedbeds of Leighton Moss in Lancashire which he first visited back in 1974.

Here he tells us about the barn owls that hunt over the rough pastures as light fades and the colourful fungi such as scarlet elf cup and candle snuff.  In this book then, as always, he proves to be a boon companion.

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Superb.