I have mixed feelings when reading the output of Britain’s main nature writers. These authors are fine wordsmiths. Their poetic observations immerse us in wilder experiences of nature, but as they concoct their celebrations of wildlife and reveal how they get in touch with the elements, the activity can feel forced. Too often we are left with the musings of what appears as an indulgent liberal elite.
From the evidence of Few and Far Between, Charlie Elder is not in this category. He certainly passes as a decent nature writer but his text is anything but contrived and mushy. He writes with purpose, clarity and humility. The book follows his travels across Britain as he tracks down secret mammals, birds, reptiles and fish, and meets the local wardens and rangers doing unsung work researching and monitoring them. We learn of the harsh logistics required for such a safari in Britain - travelling in remote areas and struggling through long hours to time a visit right.
The tour includes encounters with the Duke of Burgundy butterfly, the newts, slow worms, and Dartford warbler of Dorset heathland, the Scottish wildcat, the spiny seahorse, the wart-biter cricket and the basking shark. There are regular surprises as other remarkable creatures turn up when he is pursuing his main goal – he marvels at a displaying capercaillie in Abernethy Forest while he is waiting and hoping to see a Scottish wildcat, which as usual has stage fright.
As he discusses the forces of change affecting these creatures, he considers the labels used to mark their status: criteria such as declining, scarce, uncommon, and of course, rare. He notes that what is rare can be deceptive – there is a geographical context, and something rare in one location may be less so in different conditions close by, or over the channel. These descriptors, especially rarity, can dictate how we manage a species in one area, and the resources and attention devoted to it, despite the bigger picture of how it fares in its overall range.
For me what distinguishes the book is the sense of thrill and wonder captured by the author when he glimpses each of these animals and enters their realm. The habitat and the place becomes transformed as he explains it from the host animal’s perspective, and we sense its vulnerability while he watches it mastering the conditions in its own niche. Each observation may be a few seconds, but brings special moments and profound thoughts.