The Angry Corrie 69: Nov 2006-Feb 2007

Plants and birds and rocks and things

Hostile Habitats: Scotland's Mountain Environment, edited by Nick Kempe and Mark Wrightham

Scottish Mountaineering Trust, 2006, ISBN 0 907521 93 2, 256pp, £15

Review: Val Hamilton

According to its sub-subtitle, Hostile Habitats (HH) is "A hillwalkers' guide to the landscape and wildlife" - and, in theory at least, it fills a genuine gap for a book of this type. There are a number of "where to see nature in Scotland" books, and field guides for different aspects of natural history, but nothing comprehensive limited to the Scottish mountains or specifically aimed at hillwalkers. Not just ramblers, either: "A familiarity with the [...] better-known Munros and Corbetts has been assumed."

There are two elements to the book: explanatory text, intended to provide the answer to Why?; and identification sections to answer What? The former is more successful than the latter, perhaps not surprising when you consider the range of subjects that HH aims to cover. Working through, the impression grows that the real impetus for the book was the expository element, with the guidebook idea tagged on to give wider appeal.

HH is in the standard SMT/SMC format, well-made with grained laminated board covers, large font and some great pictures. It is keenly priced at £15, due (according to Amazon) to a subsidy from Scottish Natural Heritage; the book itself merely mentions "support from SNH". If you don't pay taxes in Scotland, you're getting a bargain.

Seven of the nine main chapters include "identification" sections, but the same page-header, "Identification", is used for all seven when "Birds - identification", "Invertebrates - identification" etc might have worked better, especially for the point-and-click generation. The introduction sets out the book's scope, namely all aspects of natural history above enclosed farmland, "everything beyond the boundary wall or fence." The first substantial chapter is Mountain Climate (by Jonathan Gregory and Richard Essery - typoed as Richard Essary on the copyright page), and it opens with a great foul-weather picture of two becagged walkers. But despite early assurance that "no particular knowledge of natural history should be required", I soon felt the accursed legacy of a girlie arts education and recalled the sinking feeling experienced throughout a meteorology evening class. Even the dumbing-down didn't help much: the sun's power is described as "a thousand, million, million domestic light bulbs". I can't see this working for anyone: the engineer will want to know "what watts?", while the ingénue would be content with the Douglas Adams' school of "vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly" powerful.

image from source document

The Geological Foundations chapter (Kathryn Goodenough) provides little respite. Faced with "subducting crystal plates" in the second paragraph, I wondered if I really needed to understand this to enhance my day on the hill. After the principles have been expounded, regional geology is set out, but in very broad areas. There are no placenames in the index, a shame as this might have provided an easier way in for the complete novice. Many of the pictures in the identification section have no indication of scale and it's not clear what the key aspects for identification are.

Shaping the Landscape (John Gordon) is a continuation of the geology lesson, concentrating on glaciation and weathering. The photos show different examples of what can be seen, but again it isn't made clear what elements are required to distinguish and identify them. I wondered why peat hags didn't feature, but guessed correctly that they would occur in the next chapter, Vegetation Cover. I had to guess because "peat" is not in the index.

Vegetation Cover (Mark Wrightham) has a different style: there are more value judgements, a lightness of touch, analogies that work, a real impression that this is written by a hillwalker who happens to be a scientist, with references to trees as belays and moss carpets inviting an extended coffee break. The identification photos are usually useful, and there are Gaelic names and information on traditional plant-uses, but the coverage is very selective. Some grasses, mosses and lichens, but no orchids or thistles, no ferns other than bracken. Fungi don't get a mention, although my seeing two or three regularly on high ground probably means there are another 20 or 30 which I don't spot. Milkwort and lousewort, among the first upland plants I would teach anyone, are mentioned in the text but not illustrated or indexed. Other favourites not included are starry saxifrage and dwarf cornel, a hill-treat plant in the same way that the dotterel is a hill-treat bird (a fine concept from the Birds chapter). Of course there have to be limits on coverage, but they seem too harshly drawn here.

Invertebrate Life (Keith Miller) can likewise only provide a taster of what is out there, but there are some surprising omissions. The only flies covered are the midge and the deer ked. So, does the black-fly cloud of sweaty days consist of common-or-kitchen bluebottles? Would I feel less malevolent towards clegs if I knew their life histories? Most seriously, there is a scary picture of a tick but no mention of Lyme disease or effective tick removal. This is strange given that the deer ked entry states: "they are not known [...] to transmit any disease to humans." Tick-borne diseases are getting plenty of publicity elsewhere, including a helpful poster at the Angry Corrie Conveniences at Keiloch. Surely this is key information in a book of this type. In a similar vein, I would have been interested to read expert opinion on the safety of water from hill burns. I still drink it by the pint but things do change, and it is a feature of the natural world of direct relevance to hillwalkers.

And so to Mountain Birds - my strongest area, although I am far from expert. One question I wanted answered was: are all the little brown things meadow pipits, unless they ascend Vaughan Williams-wise, in which case they're larks? The answer seems to be yes, although it would have been helpful to have photos of both species together. The style is again readable and enthusiastic. The author is occasional TAC contributor Stuart Benn, and his comments on the buzzard/eagle confusion even raised a chuckle, while giving practical help: "Buzzards call frequently, hover readily, often perch on telegraph poles [...] If a bird does any of these, then it isn't an eagle." However, I still start with my friend Geoff's rule of thumb: an eagle looks like a sheep flying.

image from source document

The coverage of species seemed fine, although I would have chosen some different photographs. The black grouse in full display is a great picture, but not much help when trying to identify a dark lump in a tree. Similarly, if you're only going to illustrate one crow, choose the hoodie, a rarity for southerners, rather than the more common carrion.

Unfortunately the style of Mammals, Reptiles, Amphibians and Fish (Rob Raynor and Roger Owen) reverts to the worthy; and worse, it isn't very helpful. The only small rodent-type creature I'm familiar with is the field mouse, from too-frequent domestic encounters. But the scattered information given here on mice, voles and shrews is not easy to use, especially as references to bank voles and wood mice occur in several places but not in the index, and only field voles and water voles feature in the identification section. The emphasis on habitat rather than species means getting an animal overview is difficult. Frequently, you have to work to find the information you need; a casual glance is likely to be misleading. For example, the only amphibian with an identification heading is the common frog (wot, no Nessie? - Ed.), but the entry in fact includes information on both frogs and toads. So my initial flick-through conclusion, that all those jumping things I see are frogs and never toads, was simply wrong.

Human Traces (Andy Dugmore and Ian Ralston) is an unexpected but interesting inclusion. It covers the range of buildings present over the years, as well as impacts such as forestry, hunting and even plane wrecks. The Future of Our Mountains (Nick Kempe) is a thought-provoking conclusion and far from anodyne: it opens with a photo of a windfarm. There is useful political context such as information that the dotterel, once rare in the European Union, became common overnight once Sweden joined. Kempe calls for a shift in the balance between the long-standing emphasis on nature conservation, with its accompanying "species-ism", and the more recent recognition of the value of landscape per se.

Overall, HH gives the impression that someone saw the need for a context-setting book and the guidebook element was an afterthought. The result reads at times like an academic textbook - so much so that some chapters could be submitted for the university Research Assessment Exercise. Much of it needs to be read carefully, rather than dipped into as a reference book.

And it certainly is not designed as a reference book. The index is barely fit for purpose: as is clear from the examples given above, it frequently doesn't indicate the text and is arranged by broad subject, so you have to be part of the authors' mindset to find what you are looking for. There are no synonyms ("forestry" appears only under "afforestation"), no "see also" references, and the simple convention of indicating illustrations in bold is ignored. It's not just odd words which are missing: "racomitrium heath" occurs on several occasions, it being an important upland habitat, as I have learnt, but it isn't in the index. The only person indexed is W H Murray, despite quotations from various poets and other individuals. If there is to be a second edition, this is the first area to be revised.

The next problem is the approach of the identification sections. Of course, there has to be selectivity: my favourite mountain flower book (Wild Flowers of Mountain and Moorland, by Roger Philips) has over 100 entries, most of which I've seen in Scotland, but there are issues with the way the HH selections are set out and illustrated. The headings sometimes understate the content (as with the frog/toad example), and more information is provided than indicated from a casual dip in. It is always going to be hard to illustrate a field guide using only one photo per species. Many birds need four pictures (male/female, summer/winter) and plants too can benefit from this, for example with the similar cowberry and bearberry: the pictures are of cowberry berries but bearberry flowers. Perhaps the eventual way forward is a searchable electronic book with digital photos matched to a species database. More immediately, there's a case for some kind of HH-lite field guide, or, more practically, a series of pocket guides.

Since obtaining HH, I have made an effort to be more observant on the hill. Sometimes this has been rewarding: in August and September, I spotted for the first time both heath and bilberry bumblebees (having been unaware of the range of bee species) and learnt more about dragonflies and butterflies. But sometimes it's frustrating, as with the numerous caterpillars seen on Ben Venue. No entry for caterpillar in the index, flicked through to find a couple of photos, read the entries for all moths and butterflies, descriptions of caterpillars patchy: none the wiser. But I have been inspired by HH, and have already bought a couple of specific guides from the excellent SNH Naturally Scottish series. It's surprising that the further-reading section in HH only refers obliquely to these booklets, some of which (notably the dragonflies one) are available free from the SNH website.

Despite all this criticism, which stems mainly from disappointment at missed opportunities, HH is worth owning. There is nothing similar and it contains plenty of useful and interesting information, with some elements more accessibly expressed than others. It rarely works as a practical identification guide: it was probably an impossible expectation that it could. And it's good that it's so cheap, as anyone inspired by it is going to have to spend a lot more building up a decent library of proper field guides.

TAC 69 Index