BLACK OPS AND BEAVER BOMBING:
Adventures with Britain’s Wild Mammals
Fiona Mathews and Tim Kendall
Oneworld Publications, 2023, 368 pages
Hardback: £17.99 | ISBN 0861545567
Review by Ian Bond
I almost never buy books on wildlife. They mostly seem to be reflections on someone’s journey to find themselves in nature. Either that or the author jets off to various parts of the world to interview researchers when they could have done it via Zoom and saved us all the carbon footprint; thanks for that. This book does neither of those things. In fact it specifically promises to spare us the moody sunsets, a promise that I’m delighted to say it keeps.
As a mammal enthusiast I seem to hear of one of the authors, Fiona Mathews, wherever I turn. A professor of Environmental Biology at the University of Sussex, she is a former chair of the Mammal Society and lead author on the Red List and Population Review on British Mammals (which is handily tabulated as an appendix in this book). Her output seems so superhuman that if Fiona Mathews proves to be a collective rather than an individual that would make a lot more sense. Her partner, in life, Tim Kendall, I hadn’t heard of at all. I suspect that is because he is a Professor of English Literature, a subject I only just managed to scrape an O level in and haven’t read any of since. Needless to say the book’s prose flows like… (I’ll let you insert your favourite babbling brook or honey metaphor, as I don’t do English Literature).
The book weaves a contemporary overview of a selection of British mammal species and their conservation, with the author’s attempts to see them. Or, perhaps that should be, interact with them, as for mammal enthusiasts examining their poo is as good as seeing them. As a bonus, there is an entertaining collection of frivolous facts on each species. Who knew that bats are the only non- primates to engage in oral sex and that when they do so it makes coitus last longer. (It strikes me that an even more fascinating fact is that someone out there must be timing bat’s sexual preferences – anyone want to own up to that?).
Specifically they cover the eight mammals illustrated on the book’s jacket, or at least they would have had someone not drawn a harbour seal for a grey seal and a bank vole for a water vole (sorry, I just couldn’t let that go). These are all species that have a high profile in conservation, whether as totems for the new religion in the form of wild boar and beaver; as examples of conservation successes, pine marten, greater horseshoe bat and grey seal; or ongoing failures, red squirrel and water vole. Of course conservation isn’t just about the wildlife and for anyone who has been frustrated at the way in which politics can frustrate conservation (and I’m writing for ECOS so that’s all of you) the book throws more than a few straight jabs. I suppose it wouldn’t be a book review without trying to find some sort of negative to put on the other side of the scales. It wasn’t easy but if I had to find one (well, two if you include my disappointment that I didn’t write it), it’s maybe that the book is a little too biased in favour of mammals. But I suppose that’s a bit like saying the Bible is a bit too biased in favour of God. I tried my best.
I once described Britain as a fairly boring place to live if you are into mammals. No more. This is wildlife writing at its most engaging and even though I list my only skill in life as knowing stuff about mammals, I learned something about everything and a lot about somethings. There are at least another 50 species of mammal living wild in Britain, so I do hope there is a sequel. I would definitely buy that.