The Natural History Book

Matt Merritt talks to Amy-Jane Beer, the author of one of the most ambitious natural history books of recent years

One of the most noticeable developments in British birdwatching in recent years has been the way in which many birders have started to branch out into other areas of wildlife study.

It’s something we intend to reflect on this website, and you’ll already have noticed that while the focus, of course, is on birds, we’re also keeping an eye on dragonflies, butterflies, moths, mammals and whatever else takes our fancy.

If your interests extend to all areas of the natural world, then The Natural History Book (Dorling Kindersley, £30), billed as “The ultimate visual guide to everything on earth”, is a pretty essential volume.

I have to admit that, when I saw that subtitle, I was slightly doubtful as to just how comprehensive it could be, but once I got the book open, I was hooked. There’s double-page spread after double-page spread of photos of everything from microscopic life to the Blue Whale, the world’s largest mammal. It’s one of those books that really ought to come with a warning – open it for five minutes’ browsing and you’ll still be there hours later.

I spoke to Amy-Jane Beer, one of the wildlife experts who compiled this superb volume, about how she became involved in such a gargantuan task.

“I have written bits for DK in the past,” she said. “I wrote around half the mammal accounts for this, plus most of the big spreads as well.”

Amy-Jane is a perfect example of someone with an interest in all the different parts of the natural world.

“I did my PhD on sea urchins, but most of my freelancing work has been about mammals. Once you specialise people do seem to put you in a neat category. But I can’t imagine anyone who spends a lot of time out and about birdwatching or whatever turning a blind eye to other aspects of nature.

“The BTO, I know, has been involved in getting other groups involved and looking at other types of wildlife.”

Amy-Jane lives in Malton, North Yorkshire. When we spoke on the phone, she was five months pregnant with her first child, but said that in the normal course of things, she tried to balance wildlife-watching with work.

“I suppose you never get out and about as much as you want to, but I try. I get up to Bridlington and Bempton and the coast whenever I can.”

She also kayaks (one of our favourite ways of seeing birds here at Bird Watching), and said: “There’s a lot of pleasure in that, and wildlife seems to view you in a different way. That’s a privilege.“

She’s heavily involved in mammal recording with Mammals UK, work which has, for example, flagged up the decline in hedgehog numbers. When we spoke, Pine Martens were in the news, after a study showed they might be far more widespread than previously thought.

Amy-Jane said: “Pine Martens suffered a dreadful decline because of loss of habitat, and persecution from gamekeepers, but there’s a lot more habitat now that seems to be ideal for them. They just didn’t seem to be spreading as quickly as you might expect.

“They can be mistaken for other things. A new distribution map shows that they have spread into northern England. We’re doing a scat survey and hoping that they’ve spread into Yorkshire too.”

So what’s been the wildlife highlight for someone whose work can involve such a spectacular variety of species?

“Oh, that would have been my honeymoon, on Shetland. There were Gannets and Puffins, all sorts of things, and we got great pictures. It was pretty overwhelming.”