Blog Archives: Reviews

BOOK REVIEW Modern medicines from plants: Botanical histories of some of modern medicine’s most important drugs

BOOK REVIEW Modern medicines from plants: Botanical histories of some of modern medicine’s most important drugs Editor Henry Oakeley, Royal College of Physicians. CRC Press 2024. pp. 393

Since the dawn of history, and probably for much longer that, human beings have sought remedies for ailments and frailties of the body from the natural world. And much has been written over the millennia about the curative properties of plants, from ancient Greek and Roman times of Dioscorides and Pliny, through the English medieval herbalists such as Culpeper and Gerard, to Richard Mabey’s Plants with a Purpose in the 20th century and the magisterial two-volume Compendium of Symbolic and Ritual Plants in Europe, by de Cleene & Lejeune of Ghent University at the start of the 21st. And of course nowadays in the hedgewitchery corners of the internet and social media…

What is surprising is how many of these claimed uses of plants do in fact have some basis in real life, especially when the claims are based on physical appearance, the Doctrine of Signatures that held that God gave plants signs that would guide their use. Thus we had folk squatting over burning dried Lesser Celandine (‘Pilewort’) leaves just because the knobbly roots looked like haemorrhoids. In some respects, though it is not so surprising that some ‘folk cures’ work, firstly through the placebo effect, and secondly because if you ascribe sufficient medicinal properties to sufficient plants, at least some will hit the jackpot.

But now we have this book, covering some of the same ground but very different. Based on medical science and evidence, written by a team of respected physicians, Garden Fellows of the Royal College of Physicians no less, this takes a look at the botanical origins of, or inspirations for, some of our most important medicines, specifically prescription-only drugs.

Written by experts, this is not just for experts. Even I, a mere ecologist, a doctor of the philosophical kind rather than a real doctor, found it understandable and fascinating throughout, even remarkably shot through with flashes of dry humour! Each short chapter covers one plant, or small group of plants, some fifty in all, that have played a part in the development of modern medicine. Some are well-known (eg Yew and its anti-cancer agents) but many are much less so. There is information for each about its botanical features and natural distribution, garden history and requirements, and copious historical references to its uses (if any). Then details about the isolation and use of the drugs found in the plant, and as often as not the application of scientific ingenuity to ‘tame’ the drugs such that they are more likely to effect a sustainable treatment rather than a terminal ‘cure’.

The level of detail is impressive and evidently well-researched. Although I read it in linear fashion from cover to cover (yes, I was really that taken with it!), many may prefer to dip in and out of it. And taking it in small doses, like many of the best medicines, is certainly the best way to appreciate the depth of this work.

In every chapter I found untold delights. For example, Chapter 5, on the plants that provide caffeine (tea, coffee and chocolate) has, almost as an afterthought, fascinating details of the health benefits these drinks, unrelated to their caffeine content (well, described as ’potential’ health benefits, but they sound pretty convincing to me!). Then there is Chapter 23, about lidocaine (the dental anaesthetic) derived from just two, only distantly related, grasses, one of which is a chlorophyll-deficient mutant, the other having been discovered only because camels refused to eat it. And as a final example, Chapter 33 about the Calabar Bean with its seriously toxic seeds, from which comes a drug that can reverse the toxicity of atropine and the paralytic effects of curare. The historical section of this chapter details the use of the seeds, also called ‘ordeal beans’, as a test of witchcraft in Nigeria. The accused was forced to ingest the beans: if they vomited and survived, they were deemed innocent, but if they died, they were guilty. Quite a reversal from the English approach to witchfinding, where survivors of the ducking ‘ordeal’ were pronounced guilty and executed!

The physical feel of the book is of quality. At 393 pages and approximately B5 in size, it comes in at a substantial 920g, as a result of the weight of the paper. Illustrated throughout with photos and linocuts, it is attractive as well. If I have any criticism, it is that to me the typeface seems a little small or insubstantial and the space between the lines a touch too much for really comfortable reading. Given the level of detail, one much expect a few errors… but I noticed no typos, and only one tiny factual error, and a nitpicky one at that: Hordeum jubatum is described as a ‘hybrid grass’. It is not: it is a full species that is derived through chromosome doubling from a hybrid between two species, one now extinct.

One final remarkable thing about the book is the stories of useful pharmacologically active chemicals being found in plants where there are no prior indicators from the history of folk medicine. In an extinction crisis, one argument we use is the utilitarian mantra that any plant may have hitherto unrecognised qualities for human health. All too many commentators, especially those with an ideological or financial stake in not reining-in our destruction of the biosphere, argue that nobody is looking for those hidden nuggets. Well, this book shows they have been looking (with success), they are still looking, and that it would be folly to eradicate the wonders of evolution that future screening, or bio-prospecting, needs as its feedstock.

So, I recommend this book wholeheartedly to any botanist, gardener or indeed anyone with than interest in the plants around us. Talking of which, it also informed me of the existence of the Garden of Medicinal Plants at the Royal College of Physicians, in which many of the featured plants are grown. It is open to the public, free (see and I understand there are also guided walks around it once a month (booking required). Sounds fascinating, and we will certainly be visiting this coming summer. It should be interesting to compare and contrast with the Chelsea Physic Garden which represents the more herbalist angle of the magnificent diversity of plants.

Dr Chris Gibson, Wildlife Advocate, Beth Chatto Gardens


Available from the Royal College of Physicians, £22.49 at

BOOK REVIEW Local: a search for nearby nature and wildness by Alastair Humphreys

BOOK REVIEW Local: a search for nearby nature and wildness by Alastair Humphreys (2024) Eye Books. pp. 366, £12.99 paperback.

A confession. When I review a book, I don’t always read every word! I open it, feel it, look at the cover, read the intro and selected excerpts about things I am familiar with and things not so familiar, and make my assessment accordingly. Not so this time. I was immediately intrigued by the rationale behind it (finding joy and adventure on one’s metaphorical doorstep), and once I started reading I soon realised I was hooked.

Alastair Humphreys (again a confession, his name was previously unknown to me) has made a career of adventuring, but rather than raping the world in his quest for experiences, has focussed primarily on exploring on foot, cycle or boat, and then sharing his insights through writing, speaking and social media. For him it was a natural progression following the enforced restrictions of Covid19 and increasingly the screams of a beleaguered planet.

Each (short) chapter describes a day exploring a randomly selected 1km square from the OS map that encompasses his home. He doesn’t say where it is, although I have my own inklings, and anyway it doesn’t matter as similar things could be written about any map of the lowlands. The sense of place forms an evocative matrix for the book, underlain by the layers of history, from ancient tracks to 21st Century ‘Keep Out’ signs and fly-tipped detritus, but each square has its triggers for philosophical digressions into some of the huge issues of our time as well as points of overlooked interest that anyone can, and should, find around their daily lives. Sometimes these are gently woven in, like the thoughts on the true place of the oldest parts of many a natural landscape, the ancient Yews that adorn but pre-date a churchyard. Others are more strident and polemic, but fit precisely with my own world view, albeit offering me new perspectives and facts on the way.

Criticisms? Very few – and only issues of personal preference. I don’t get along with footnotes, of which in some parts of the book there are many. Yes, they are useful for detail, but I do find myself losing the narrative as my eyes scan for the asterisks. I prefer boxed text. And while the whole book is commendably low-footprint given its message, this doesn’t lend itself well to photographs: some of those included here are a bit of a black-and-white mush. It would be a shame if for some the message from the book was interpreted as ‘local every-day adventures are the sign of a spartan existence’.

While born of the Covid era, this is much more than one of those books of that new genre of pandemic publications (‘it was always in me, but only then did I have the time to write it’), although of course the break from ‘normality’ helped trigger the author’s behavioural change. I wholeheartedly recommend the book: it’s one I wish I had written myself. Anything that establishes the view that exploration is an attitude, not an activity, has to be a good thing. Regrettably, for all sorts of reasons – political, environmental, medical – the physical bounds of our children will be smaller than ours. It is up to us to show that by rewilding the mind and finding adventure in the commonplace, a life constrained by necessity is  still a life worth living.

BOOK REVIEW: The Biodiversity Gardener – Establishing a legacy for the natural world

BOOK REVIEW The Biodiversity Gardener: Establishing a legacy for the natural world by Paul Sterry (2023) Wild Nature Press & Princeton University Press.

First published in British Naturalist September 2023, 26-27.

Anyone who has one of Paul Sterry’s many other books will know to expect an array of excellent photos from all corners of the natural world. The remarkable thing though is that the majority in this book have been taken in his own Hampshire garden, in the habitats he has himself helped to create, whether by design or informed ‘neglect’ over the course of the last decade.

But this book also showcases the author’s powerful words, full of passion and polemic, albeit drifting into pessimism, sometimes laced with a gentle humour, about the state of nature around us and the perils we have inflicted upon it during our lifetimes. For someone like me who shares almost all his views on the ecological heresy of gaudy annual plantings masquerading as meadows, the glory of Ragwort, the blind (destructive) faith that ‘tree-planting is good’, the de-skilling of naturalists through reliance on dodgy apps etc, it helps validate my own world view.

What it is also is a manual for those who want to try and do this sort of wildlife gardening for themselves, and an inspiration as to what they could achieve. By ‘this sort’ I mean small-scale rewilding, or maybe ‘renaturing’: there is almost no mention of the value of (some) garden plants to our native wildlife.

So, I see this as an important book, one that anyone interested in their immediate surroundings ought to have. It should sit alongside the magisterial Wildlife of a Garden by Jenny Owen which covers similar ground (with more lists) but in the context of a more traditional suburban family garden, and the book that has probably not yet been written: the one that details, in the way these two books do, the wealth of actual creatures that have been encouraged by targeted ‘gardening with wildlife in mind’ using the multicultural array of garden plants we have available from around the world.

The book exudes quality, from its binding to the heavy, non-shiny paper and the colour reproduction, and lack of any obvious errors. The only criticism I could make (and this is maybe very personal) is that the body text looks rather archaic (the sans serif box text I find more appealing) while the juxtaposition of serif and sans serif fonts for headings and subheadings is visually jarring. But do not let that put you off buying it!

Dr Chris Gibson FBNA

BOOK REVIEW: West London Wildlife

BOOK REVIEW: West London Wildlife by Ian Alexander et al. (2022) Supernova Books/Aurora Metro. £19.99.

This slim volume of 136 pages with hard covers and numerous colour photos immediately exudes quality: it feels like a book we would want to read, especially as it covers a part of London, a place just an hour away for us by train that we try and visit regularly in search of its hidden gems, of wildlife as much as anything else.

It consists of a series of 14 essays covering different sites or areas of West London, written by ten different authors, interspersed with many colour photos (including double-page spreads). The diverse writing styles of the different authors add to the charm of the book, each seemingly representing an authentic voice of experience and expertise.

In addition, between each chapter, there is a full-page image opposite a short ‘inspirational quote’, generally well-chosen and apposite; while some may see these as ’padders’, we found them useful to give the book space to breathe, the rest of the pages being either full of words and photos, or completely given over to large images. To our mind, these large images are just too big on the page, though this is a purely personal preference. But worse still, for the double-page spreads, the images have sometimes been badly let down by the design, with the main focus of the photo deeply riven by the central gutter.

One thing we would have liked to have seen is an Introduction giving the rationale for the book, indeed for the whole series. This could also usefully have included a brief biography of the authors to establish their relationship with their location(s), whether professional or voluntary, although in some cases this can be gleaned from the text; and importantly for anyone not familiar with the metropolis, it should have a basic location map.

There are quite a number of typos, grammatical errors and missing words which should have been ironed out at the editorial stage, together with a worryingly inconsistent approach to some stylistic conventions. In particular, there is inconsistency between chapters (and even within chapters) over the use of initial capitals for species names. For what it is worth, we always prefer those names to have initial caps, but what is crucial for any professional publication is strict consistency. A number of more technical terms (eg ‘saproxylic’, ‘kick-sampling’) are used – for a lay audience, these should either be explained within the text or by means of a glossary. Page 2, the publication details, assertion of rights and photo acknowledgements in completely undifferentiated typescript is simply ugly and a very poor lead in to the rest of the book.

For a book with ‘wildlife’ in its title, factual accuracy is crucial. There are several errors of fact we noticed in the text, and also (unforgivably) several images are labelled wholly incorrectly (for example, a Common Darter is labelled ‘Brown Hawker’, and a Long-winged Conehead is masquerading as ‘Meadow Grasshopper’, an insect in a wholly different sub-order). Given that factual errors are likely to deter some naturalists, an informed technical edit should have sorted those issues out. And also with reference to the title, surely ’West London Wildlife & Wild Places’ would have been better given that the overriding theme of the book is its sense of place?

So who should have this book? Certainly anyone involved in any of the sites will want it on their shelves. Then there are those who might well be inspired to search out these areas, as indeed we have been, such that we have booked a couple of nights away by the Thames at Chiswick in order better to explore, although it is not something we would take with us as a guide-book – if nothing else, its format is too big for a pocket. And everyone with an interest in the natural world has their own pet places to wander and enjoy its benefits. All too often such places are suffering at the hands of Man, and so need the sorts of actions, understanding and care that are amply demonstrated here. Each individual story could provide such inspiration for somebody faced with similar challenges, wherever they are.

Review by Chris & Jude Gibson

#WildEssex Book Reviews 2022: Habitats of the World, Essex Rock & The Secret Life of an Arable Field

During 2022, we have been asked to review three books. Our reviews below show what a mixed bag reviewing can throw up, from incredibly positive to downright awful, should never have seen the light of day. Presented in order of best first, the first two have been published in the journals as detailed, but the third is published here for the first time.


Essex Rock: Geology beneath the landscape by Ian Mercer & Ros Mercer. Pelagic Publishing, 2022. £29.99 paperback.

In 2000, I was asked to review the first edition of this book, then authored by Gerald Lucy. My view of it was almost wholly favourable, and indeed it has become a frequent reference point for me over the ensuing two decades.

This new edition simply makes it more indispensable for someone like me without a formal geological background. The larger format and almost four times as many pages allow the ideas in the book the space to breath, and to be supported by a much richer wealth of photos and images. The authors have done a great service to the naturalist community in producing enjoyable, readable text without sacrificing erudition. The simple, clear design also helps, although to my eyes at least the font of the body text is ever so slightly too weak for comfort.

Essex is a ‘soft rock’ county, relatively young, lacking in relief and many of the dramatic landforms found elsewhere, and in which many of the geological sites remain largely, stubbornly sub-surface – in other words, it is an acquired taste. The breadth of coverage is breathtaking, from long before the times of our earliest surface rocks to a distant, conjectured future, all told as a coherent story through time.

The easy writing style also lends itself well to something one might not expect in a book like this: humour. Just go and buy it and read to the end of p374 to see for yourself! Even if you have the first edition, do get this – it has so much more to add, and of course the science has progressed over the 20 years. But don’t get rid of the old one. At only 259g as compared with 1180g, the first is a whole lot more portable, if you wish for example to take the gazetteer of important sites (found in both editions) around with you in the field.

Essential for anyone with an interest in Essex and soft-rock landscapes, this book is also for the person who just thinks they might be interested. After a few minutes you surely will be. I already know many of the key sites in it as I notified a good proportion of them as SSSIs but it has renewed my desire to get out and see them again with refreshed eyes.

Published in  Country-Side, 36 (1) Winter 2022, 32.


Habitats of the World: A Field Guide for Birders, Naturalists and Ecologists by Iain Cambell, Ken Behrens, Charley Hesse & Phil Chaon. Princeton University Press, ISBN: 9780691197562. September 2021. 568 pages. £28 flexibound.

Hugely ambitious in scope, this guide aims to cover and describe all the main broad habitats of the world, each of the six major zoogeographic zones being allocated some 80 pages. Such a compilation of information, mostly reflecting the experience of the authors, is a remarkable achievement.

However, it does not fulfil the promise of its subtitle. Although ‘field guide’ in format, it weighs nearly 1.3kg, not something one would be lugging to all corners of the world, where in each of which only a small subset of the pages will ever be relevant. Birders (and to some extent those interested in mammals and reptiles) are well catered for; botanists may well be disappointed as, while plants are mentioned, few have images; and entomologists will find nothing. So ‘naturalists and ecologists’ could well feel let down, with good reason.

Well laid-out, with a very readable typeface and flexi-bound, the book looks and feels worthwhile, and the habitat sketches commendably use a female icon for scale. Mapping could be clearer: complex coastlines like western Scotland appear shaded, and so apparently have part of the distribution of Garrigue, for example. And the use of black rather than greyed-out for extra-zonal parts of the maps is simply ugly. Other personal niggles include the punctuation in geographic descriptors (sc. for south-central); internal capitalization in compound names (e.g., Sand-Plover); the over-repetition of organisation names (eg Tropical Birding Tours) in photographic credits; and the subjective and excessively sporadic use of IS for Indicator Species.

Errors seem to be remarkably few but we did spot Viburnum opulus masquerading as ‘Cranberry’ in the plant list, and Northern Bald Ibis erroneously described as ‘extirpated’ in the Palearctic garrigue zone (it thankfully remains in Morocco).

Given the breadth of scope, necessarily and not unreasonably the ‘habitats’ are broadly defined, making it much less useful as a field guide than say WILDGuides’ Britain’s Habitats, but as an authoritative gateway guide to the world’s habitats, we know of nothing which comes anywhere near this volume. We will use it as a home reference if not a field guide.

Published  in British Naturalists Association News Bulletin Issue 11, February 2022 pp 15-16.


And so to the final book, one that should never have been printed in its present form. Let down by the lack of professional editing, appalling picture research and perhaps the knowledge of the author herself, it is a masterclass in how not to publish a wildlife book. Which is sad – the book has something important to say if one can get past the errors; we have of course offered to send a detailed list of corrections to the publishers if they wish to reprint, but we have not heard from them.

The Secret Life of an Arable Field – Plants, Animals and the Ecosystem by Sophie McCallum. WhiteOwl/Pen and Sword Books (2021). 250 pages, £25 hardback.

First feel of this book is of quality, case-bound with headband and an attractive dust-jacket: it is a book which will last. Sadly, to our eyes, the quality of the package is let down by the overly glossy paper, though we accept this is a personal preference.

The front flap of the dust-jacket lays out the rationale of the book, which is not reiterated elsewhere, rather oddly, as dust-jackets can and do get lost. The book is unpretentious in not having a lengthy introduction or foreword; in lieu of these the first text page covers some of the same ground as the jacket, five short factual paragraphs, each on an aspect related to current farming practice – for example subsidies, pesticide-usage and planning/development. All pertinent, but messages not repeated as often as perhaps they should be throughout the book. Of course, those seeking a ‘celebration’ of the biodiversity of arable life might welcome this; others may see it as a missed opportunity at a time when even highly productive arable land which feeds us is under threat like never before from house-building, developers being desperate to make their money before the stark demographic messages of the post-Brexit post-Covid era hit home.

The main pages highlight 120 species, or species groups, of plants, animals and fungi, listed alphabetically (by English name) for easy reference. There is no index, which might have been helpful to accommodate alternative names, for example ‘Blackthorn’ as well as ‘Sloe’. Each tries to be a mini-essay about the subject, telling some of the stories associated with these organisms, and explaining their interconnectivity and importance, and does indeed provide a lot of useful and interesting information – even the expert is likely to learn something. But there is a bit of a disconnect between successive paragraphs, and sometimes even between sentences within a paragraph, such that it reads a bit like bullet points, without the bullets…

Each subject is illustrated with a single photograph, we presume by the author, although we cannot find any reference to this. Some are excellent and evocative, while others are less successful, for example those of Corn Marigold, Ragwort and Primrose, where the visiting insects are sharp, but the flowers themselves are largely out of focus or poorly exposed. Unfortunately the varying length of the mini-essays with a single photo leaves a number of awkward blank half pages, which could perhaps have been filled with additional photos.

The choice of ‘species’ to include has taken an unfeasibly broad view of ‘arable’, of landscapes rather than strictly the habitat, thus permitting the inclusion of grassland species (eg Meadow Buttercup), woodland species (eg Sweet Chestnut) and heathland/upland (or garden) species (eg Juniper).

Typos and textual errors are almost absent (thankfully). There are however too many factual errors in the text. For example, Birch bark is said contain high concentrations of ‘botulin’, while it actually contains ‘betulin’, two very different chemicals with very different properties. The second introductory paragraph ends with a nonsensical sentence: in it ‘pests’ should read ‘predators’. And some of the photos do not actually show what they purport to: the ‘Goat Moth’ is actually an Early Grey moth; the ‘Small Emerald’ is a Large Emerald; the ‘Dog Rose’ is a semi-double garden Rose cultivar; the ‘(stinging) Nettle’ is a ‘White Dead-nettle’; the ‘Daisy’ is a mayweed; the ‘Cow Parsley’ is Hogweed, and there are several others. Such errors seriously let the rest of the book down: facts matter!

Setting aside the errors, who might this book appeal to? Certainly its geographic focus is primarily the UK, although anyone from here would be surprised (as Defra would be concerned) to find Colorado Beetle on our shores, and the butterfly above the ‘Daisies’ would raise eyebrows anywhere this side of the Atlantic and/or outside the sub-tropics. It is not a book for the expert, and the errors we have found suggest it could not be relied upon as a reference book. However it is undeniably attractive, and will help to raise awareness of the importance of the wildlife of farmed landscapes, especially perhaps to those faced with the impending loss of their own local valued patches. This is the case for the author: the fields she looks over while writing, watching the Red Kites, now have planning permission – to provide more homes for people but at the expense of homes for the creatures who have traditionally been there. Therapy for the author perhaps, and a rallying call for others we hope.

Notwithstanding its failings, the fundamental message of this book is very apt for our times – ‘our havens of nature are being destroyed’. Enjoy it while you can…





Book Review – Thirteen Paces by Four: Backyard Biophilia and the Emerging Earth Ethic

Thirteen Paces by Four: Backyard Biophilia and the Emerging Earth Ethic

by Joe Gray (Dixi Books 2021)     

Not being particular fans of ‘nature writing’ in general, we were slightly dubious about the prospect of reading this book.  However, neither of us need have worried!  From the outset we were both hooked. Joe’s profound knowledge and deep thinking is imparted in a readable and gently humorous style, whilst his clear affection, passion and concern for the natural world shine through.

In fact, ‘nature writing’ is probably a misnomer. All too often that falls into the trap of seeing nature just as a utilitarian resource for us, to use and abuse, care about or ignore, as we choose. Not so here: embraced in a philosophical package which doesn’t put humans at the centre, which asserts that its protection is of intrinsic value for its own sake, and which doesn’t shy away from humanocentric taboos, such as discussions of overpopulation, makes for us a refreshing change.

We found exploring aspects of ‘eco-psychology’ fascinating. ‘Eco-anxiety’ and ‘topoaversion’ are all states of mind we recognise (although Chris had them squeezed out of his consciousness by a lifetime in professional conservation, only to re-emerge during the liberation of retirement) but were previously  unaware had names; having these dark thoughts put into words was cathartic. This is not however a depressing read – in fact it is truly uplifting and makes we two glad that there are people like Joe on the planet. Certainly it makes us want to go further in changing our lifestyle to favour nature, but at the same time it doesn’t, as many authors seem intent on doing, engender feelings of guilt for the realisation that probably we will not do all that we could.

Born during the Covid pandemic, when we all have had to reflect on our physical and philosophical horizons, this book should be a mind-changer for many. And still in the grip of nature, we should use the time we now have to read it and think. By donating all royalties from this, Joe’s first book, to a worthy cause (the World Land Trust), you will not only be getting a jolly good read, but helping safeguard the planet. And it contains a very fitting tribute to Trevor James, friend and inspiration to many of us, who passed away recently: in fact, one can almost hear Trevor’s voice uttering one of the many apposite phrases in the book – ‘nothing makes my hackles rise quite like innocent, voiceless victims’. Nature needs those who wear their passion on their sleeves.

Chris & Jude Gibson

Thirteen Paces by Four: Backyard Biophilia and the Emerging Earth Ethic by Joe Gray (Dixi Books 2021)     ISBN-13: 978-1-913680-06-0

Publisher’s price £17.99. If you order from, you may get a better price, and your purchase will help towards supporting independent bookshops.

Review: Sustainable cotton clothing: Fraser Wear

Any one who knows me knows I care little about clothes, apart from their functionality. Do they keep me warm, or cool, or dry, as hoped? To my shame, until recently if I bought anything, I paid scant attention to its provenance, focussing on performance alone, and thus no doubt helped perpetrate immense environmental and workers’ abuses …

So when a message popped into my inbox from Fraser Wear, it was almost (as most contacts through my website are) summarily deleted. Something however made me investigate, and as I did, I wanted to delve further. Sustainability certainly seemed to be at the core, at all stages from cotton growing (organic), milling, fabrication. manufacture, printing (all powered by renewable energy sources), and distribution (plastic-free). Likewise, the website indicates that a fair deal for workers is an integral part of the process.

So far, so good. But how reliable are such claims? Certainly nothing on the website, or that of the supplier Teemill ( gave me reason to doubt the claims. And when I noticed that Fraser Wear is partnered with reputable conservation charities (Marine Conservation Society, Gwent Wildlife Trust and Wolf Watch UK), donating 5p in every £1 to those causes, any residual fears were allayed further.

So on the basis that the credentials are good, what about quality?

I was sent a t-shirt with the wolf design, and initial impressions were very favourable. The cotton felt good, the fabric appeared substantial and durable, and the design transfer seemed fast. And after a couple of washes, no sign of any of these positive impressions changing: Jude enquired about ironing, and it was suggested she shouldn’t iron straight onto the printed design, to avoid shrinkage, fading, cracking, flaking or peeling. Obviously time will tell, but there certainly have been no concerns as yet.

So would I choose to buy? In a word, yes. At around £20 for a t-shirt and £40 for a hoodie, they are certainly not the cheapest, but ‘the cheapest’ comes with a high environmental and social cost. For the high standards, and given the fact that I feel I shall have the garment for several years to come, the price is not unreasonable to my mind. Others’ impressions have been equally favourable – this is a chance to look good and feel good about it.

With the world in the grip of a pandemic, it may seem an odd time to be focussing so much on sustainability of clothing, but if not now, when? Care for the earth can, should and must be part of the new normal.

Review: Our new toy – a compact portable moth trap

Living in a top floor flat has many advantages – the light, the views, the health benefits of 53 stairs to climb – but it isn’t really compatible with regular moth-trapping. Lack of space means our large Robinson trap is now relegated to the loft space, emerging only on special occasions, and those are restricted to times when we have access to mains electricity or a generator.

A chance meeting in Cambridge Botanic Garden alerted us to new style, truly portable LED traps now available from our friends at Anglian Lepidopterist Supplies. Run off a rechargeable small battery pack, LEDs have been sourced which emit strongly in the UV light spectrum, the frequencies which many moths respond strongly to. This helped overcome our scepticism about LED traps, and we decided to invest.

The trap has now had four outings, so time for a review. Our expectations were managed at the outset with the suggestion it was likely to be most effective in very dark conditions, so we had no high hopes when we ran it in a friend’s urban garden with skyglow, only 10m away, but shaded from, his 125W MV trap light. It was good to see the light still on first thing – the battery had performed to expectations – but compared with the adjacent MV, fewer free-range moths outside the trap. However once inside, it was a very pleasant surprise to find a goodly proportion of the species from the big trap, including a Privet Hawk, three Elephant Hawks, Scarce Footmen, Least Carpets and Brown-tails,

Apart from the greater number, the only things in the big trap which turned us appropriately green with envy was a Green Silver-lines and an L-album Wainscot, and we had several species not in the big one, including Bright-line Brown-eye, Iron Prominent and Latticed Heath, together with the distinctive nose-down micro Pediasia aridella and a Sexton-beetle.

Second outing was close to the Wivenhoe Barrier, overlooking salt-marshes, a generally dark zone but again with distracting intrusion from security lights. Almost instantly the LEDs attracted hundreds of Water Veneers, a short-lived whitish micromoth which emerges in a coordinated way to maximise the chance of meeting and breeding.  Ruby Tiger, Yellow Shell, Diamond-back, Cloaked Minor and Dingy Footman also popped in, along with the mayfly Cloeon dipterum, several caddisflies, and from an entirely different habitat, a Nut Weevil.

Two nights’ later in the same locality, it was a rather different picture. A little cooler, a little breezier, a more lingering twilight, and no emergence of Water Veneers. But again a few moths came in the hour or so of dark we were there, mostly LBJ micros (many being Bryotropha species) with only one different macro, a Rosy Rustic.

Finally, a truly dark location, Wivenhoe Old Cemetery, an old Victorian graveyard which has grown up into woodland, where trapping sadly terminated a bit early because of rain. The attraction was instant, the diversity reasonable, including several Orange Swifts and Straw Underwings, together with micros such as Nephopterix angustella (still considered to be an Essex Red Data species, despite recent increases) and Mint Moth, and the usual variety of hangers’-on, including caddis-flies, Nut Weevils and damsel-bug nymphs.

In a nutshell, this LED trap will never supersede an MV trap for numbers (of individuals or species), but not everyone has the time to process five hundred or more moths in the morning. But with the phasing out of mercury, MV bulbs are on the way out. And the portability (and flatpack storage) of the LED trap means that is likely to be the future of mothing for us.


Book Review: The Orphaned Spaces

For me it all began in the mid-1970s with the publication of Richard Mabey’s ‘The Unofficial Countryside’. As a naturalist and proto-conservationist, I had grown up fascinated by wildlife in close proximity to humans, in those places without a name apart from ‘wasteland’; at last there was a suitable, non-pejorative name for the places I inhabited as a child, chasing butterflies, building dens, and generally finding my own space.

My fascination with the unofficial countryside has remained unabated. As a professional conservationist one of my proudest achievements was the safeguarding of Canvey Wick (see blog), and the acceptance of what had now become called brownfield or post-industrial land, as having a legitimate part to play in ’proper’ nature conservation.

Forty years on, and there is a new book, introducing a new name – The Orphaned Spaces – written by MW Bewick and illustrated by Ella Johnston. And a new approach, going behind the science and the evident conservation values, into the personal reflections on how such places help mark the passage of time and of our lives. The poetic prose transports me to every orphaned space I have ever been and conjures up the unpredictable magic of the interface between human decay and natural bounty.

Written in diary format, mostly during the winter months, it also succeeds for me in highlighting the role of such places in guiding us through the low season. I am one of those who lives in the shadow of the winter gloom, from autumn equinox until the advancing daylength of January; the improbable pinpricks of nature which adorn our orphaned spaces are essential signposts to a brighter future. This book thus neatly bridges one Mabey theme – Unofficial Countryside – to another – Nature Cure.

The text may seem sparse, but sometimes just a few words can convey meaning which punches above their weight. Take the entry for 24 July:

Travelling thugs on the banks of the river by the derelict furniture warehouse. Giant hogweed and Himalayan balsam are rough brutes. The sewerage pipe trickles into the murk of almost stagnant water and the banks are littered with human detritus. A muddy trainer. Plastic bottles and old tin cans. A jumper. A half-submerged supermarket trolley. Just who is the invasive species?

…thus taking this book into the sphere of natural philosophy, giving voice to some of the questions which need repeating over and over in the modern world of spurious civilisation.

Of course as a scientist and therefore a nit-picker, I have my quibbles. The failure to observe standard typographic representation of scientific names for example. And the assertion of 1 May that ‘There is unique quality to overlooked spaces. More bio-diverse than an arable field.’ – damning with faint praise, to anyone with an ecological background. But such quibbles miss the point of the book…and the fact that I happily read it in one sitting should speak volumes.

And then there’s the subtitle. ‘The Orphaned Spaces: Waste ground explored’. Yes, maybe we called it wasteground as kids, but the adjectival use of ‘waste’, without even ironic quotation marks, upsets me greatly. And I think to anyone who approaches this book with an enquiring mind, you will find its thoughtful contents give the lie to the subtitle.

The Orphaned Spaces‘ by MW Bewick & Ella Johnston, publisher Dunlin Press, 2018.

Price £9.99 from Dunlin Press Online Shop.

Also available is a made-to-order boxed set, which should be a thing of beauty as well as a stimulating read.

For more on the wonders of our unofficial countryside, see my blogs on Canvey Wick and Gunnersbury Triangle, and for the delights of post-industrial ‘dereliction’ Orfordness and Wapping Hydraulic Power Station