Field Notes From A Hidden City: An Urban Nature Diary

Esther Woolfson

(Granta, £9.99)

Raised in Glasgow’s Pollokshields, Esther Woolfson studied Chinese at Edinburgh University and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, hardly the background you would expect for a nature writer – but it was her facility in that field which led her to an artist’s residency at Aberdeen University's Aberdeen Centre for Environmental Sustainability. This book, published in 2013, is the result, though Woolfson has been a resident of the Granite City on and off for decades, her time there interspersed with stints in London and Fort William.

In a previous book, Corvus: A Life With Birds, Woolfson delved deep into the world of corvidae (the family which includes crows, rooks, ravens and jackdaws), so there’s a great deal of avian life in Field Notes, a season-by-season and near day-by-day survey of the natural world as viewed through the prism of a city-dweller. Woolfson widens her net, however, writing winningly about the “busy presence” and “lovely, hazy, crazy, frantic call” of the oystercatchers which return to Aberdeen after wintering in the south (did you know there are more urban, roof-nesting oystercatchers in Aberdeen than anywhere else in Europe?) as well as many other birds beyond the corvid family.

Come spring she tackles spiders, riffing on their intriguing characteristics and their place in literature and watching an orb-weaver spin a web across her back door. She tackles worms, slugs, snails, woodlice, and when she sees a red squirrel in her garden she feels a pang of guilt about the anti-squirrel device she has rigged over the bird-feeder. It’s mostly to deter rats, though even Rattus norvegicus has a place in her heart. In one extended passage she manages to knit together a discussion of their cultural as well as their environmental impact and even bring in the subject of street graffiti: iconic Parisian stencil artist Blek le Rat has long used the rat as his signature and she even mentions Banksy, also fond of rats (and much in the news this week for having stencilled some sneezing ones onto carriages on the London Underground). If your nature rambles extend no further than looking out of the window or strolling around the garden, this is the book for you.

Nature On TV

Bears About The House

BBC Two, Wednesday, 8pm

Concluding episode of the two-parter following conservationist Giles Clark year-long involvement in the development of a bear sanctuary in Laos. This week he meets two moon bear cubs which have been rescued after being offered for sale illegally online.