All books in the New Naturalist series deal with ecology and natural history in one way or another, but this is the first to take ecology itself as the main theme. It provides a broad but comprehensive overview of the subject, based mostly on what has been learnt from field experiments and long-running studies in Britain.
Each chapter is introduced through a well-known study site and some of the key individuals who have worked there. Wytham Woods, Oxfordshire, is used to help explain how species fit into ecological niches and the role of competition; Gilbert White’s observations of nesting Common Swifts Apus apus in Selborne, Hampshire, introduce ideas about population ecology and density dependence; and Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire, is the starting point for a discussion of the role of succession in how habitats change over time. Most sites are in England but Cwm Idwal in North Wales, and the Isle of Cumbrae and the Cairngorms in Scotland are also included.
Having studied ecology at university, I was especially interested to see the author’s take on how the science has developed over the last three decades. Much of the book was broadly familiar based on hazy memories of lectures from long ago – but some subjects have sprung to prominence since my time, spurred on by new ideas and the use of modern research techniques. There is now a far greater focus on the very small, reflecting the fact that (genetically, at least) life on earth is dominated by the things we can’t see.
Inevitably, a single volume can only introduce the main topics and ideas rather than explain them in detail. There is no maths, and graphs and charts are used sparingly. The author has a pleasant ‘storytelling’ style, well suited to the task; this is a book that could, I think, be read and understood by anyone with a keen interest. I’ve bought plenty of books in this series over the years but this is the first for a while that I’ve been inspired to read through, cover to cover, within a few days.
Colour photographs are used throughout and are generally well chosen to show the species and places discussed in the text. They are almost all taken by the author, an impressive feat, and something that helps to reinforce the connection with the reader. It is obvious that he knows intimately the places and the ideas he is describing, and I felt I was in safe hands as the story unfolded.