Wild Mull: a natural history of the island and its people

By Stephen Littlewood and Martin Jones

Pelagic Publishing, 2021

Pbk, 297pp; many colour photographs

ISBN 978-1-78427-276-0; £24.99

Mention of the Hebrides often sparks the imagination and, over the decades, centuries even, there have been numerous publications covering every aspect of the archipelago’s history and natural history. Wild Mull presents a fresh view of one of the jewels of the Hebrides, Mull, and some of its smaller outlying islands. It seeks to explore the natural history of the island and the relationship and impacts that humans had – and have – on it. It is not a field guide, a textbook, a site guide nor a species guide, but instead delves into the forces and complexities that have, and still drive the assemblages and communities of fauna, flora and people on the islands. It is divided into 13 chapters, each covering a specific area of ecology, from birds to people, Celtic rainforest to invasives and historical species. Each chapter is lavishly illustrated with colour images, though a big omission is any kind of map, something I would normally continually refer back to whilst reading such a book. The layout lends itself well to being dipped in and out of, with easy-reading chapters and numerous boxed-texts that highlight particular topics of interest, from Great Northern Divers Gavia immer to Mull’s indigenous cattle. There is a comprehensive bibliography with historical texts highlighted and a ‘Useful Contacts for Further Information’ section. 

The authors write enthusiastically and sometimes eloquently about almost all facets of this island’s human and natural ecology, though some topics, such as soils and soil chemistry, are only touched on, while geology has significantly more space granted to it. It is great to see groups such as moths and lichens getting as much attention as mammals. The authors devote significantly more pages to White-tailed Eagles Haliaeetus albicilla and Otters Lutra lutra – but these are, after all, emblems of Mull. 

The authors are clearly proud Mulliaechs and very much celebrate their natural heritage. However, they may be partially blinded by this in not recognising the monumental impact practices such as farming and forestry have had on Mull over the centuries, as much as in many other areas of western Scotland and elsewhere. Overall, they play down the significance of human-induced change from land modification to introductions, persecution and fishing, and also draw attention to other nature-depauperate parts of the world without mentioning Scotland. The narrative sides very much with people, and champions what the islands have, but doesn’t really condone or even look to rectify some of the impacts of the past and present. Salmon farming is only given three sentences and over-fishing is not covered. The authors claim that tourism is the ‘biggest pressure on the wildlife/human relationship’, a bold and surprising statement given other island activities and the economic importance of nature-based tourism on Mull. 

There are many omissions (of course, no book can include everything) and apparent anomalies; while the endangered Flapper Skate Dipturus batis is included, the Argyll Hope Spot (a superb community initiative to protect the inshore waters of Mull and Argyll) isn’t. Similarly, when it comes to plants, there is no mention of the Plantlife Scotland reserve on Mull and only one page is given to bryophytes. As much space is given to the Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus as is given to all the gulls and, while the passage acknowledges the invasive nature of the species, it heavily skirts around the huge body of evidence regarding the impact it can, and does, have on native fauna. Climate change and the potential impact on Mull’s natural history is also scantily covered and not fully understood, suggesting species like Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos may colonise and Long-eared Owl Asio otus may disappear. These, together with frequent small factual inaccuracies (e.g. confusion over insects and invertebrates), and some slightly strange uses of ecological terminology, tainted my overall enjoyment of the book.

This book is a good meld of natural and human history, anecdotes and facts and a useful reference for those visiting or with an interest in Mull, though the many small factual inaccuracies and the exclusion of, or lack of comprehension around, certain key topics leave it falling short of something great. 

Dan Brown

Issue 9
Start Page: 
Display Image: 

Stay at the forefront of British birding by taking out a subscription to British Birds.

Subscribe Now