A Selection of British Field Guides

By Dan Puplett

Britain is fortunate in having a long and rich natural history tradition and there are a lot of great field guides to choose from. We also have some outstanding nature writers – naturalists who have observed deeply and written from the heart about their observations and insights. Drinking from the well of British nature writing can be really inspiring and eye opening.

My intention is to highlight a few favourite field guides and works of nature writing below. There are many other great books (it’s sometimes hard to choose which are the best!) and you may already have your own favourites, but if you were wondering where to start, any of the books below would be a worthwhile investment.

I wholeheartedly recommend any of the books in the Reader’s Digest Nature Lover’s Library (Animals, Wild Flowers, Water Life, Butterflies etc). These are all beautifully illustrated, packed with good information and a joy to browse (I still have a couple I was given for Christmas when I was eight, and they’re still some of my favourite guides!). Some of the range maps are now out-of-date, but even so they’re real gems. Other good ‘uns include:

Collins Bird Guide by Killian Mullarney et al

Excellent guide with beautiful illustrations. It covers Europe as well though so it has many birds we’d never see here which can be overwhelming if you’re starting out.

RSPB Handbook of British Birds by Peter Holden and Tim Cleeves

Keeps it closer to home, which is helpful if you’re new to birdwatching.

 

A Bad Birdwatcher’s Companion by Simon Barnes. A helpful and very entertaining guide to identifying Britain’s “50 most obvious birds.”

Birdwatching with your Eyes Closed: An Introduction to Birdsong by Simon Barnes

Again, helpful and funny! Includes some bits on basic bird language. There is also an accompanying podcast.

Tracks and signs of the Birds of Britain and Europe by R. Brown et al.

This superb guide is great for identifying feathers and other bird signs.

Bird Songs and Calls by Geoff Sample

A book with two great CDs of bird calls in many British habitats. Also nice to put on in the background!

The Easy Edible Mushroom Guide by David Pegler

Includes good descriptions of edibles, their lookalikes and also of poisonous species.

Animal Tracks and Signs by Preben Bang and Preben Dahlstrøm

The classic guide to British and European tracks and signs. If you get one track and sign book, get this one.

Animals: Tracks, Trails and Signs by R.W. Brown, M.J. Lawrence, and J. Pope.

This is a good accompaniment to the one above.

Collins Complete Guide to British Animals by Paul Sterry.

A good overview of British fauna. It uses photos (many prefer illustrated field guides) but is still very helpful.

Wildflowers of Britain and Ireland by Marjorie Blamey, Richard Fitter, and Alistair Fitter.

Anything by this awesome trio of naturalist elders is a worthwhile investment!

Food For Free by Richard Mabey.

The classic forager’s guide. There are plenty of other good ones around but this is among the best.

Fauna Britannica by Stefan Buckzacki

Packed with natural history, folklore and culture related to the British fauna.

Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey

Packed with natural history, folklore and culture related to the British flora.

Collins Complete Guide to British Wildlife by Paul Sterry

Again, it uses photos (many prefer illustrated field guides) and it doesn’t go into a lot of detail either but is still very helpful and is a handy ‘all-in-one’ guide.

Collins Complete British Insects by Michael Chinery

A brilliant guide to hundreds of insects (except butterflies and moths – Collins do a separate guide to these.)

Trees of Britain and Northern Europe by Alan Mitchell.

The classic tree guide.

Wildguide by Simon King.

An inspiring book by a great living wildlife cameraman and field naturalist. Packed with tips on observing wildlife and some great stuff on British bird language.

The Collins Gem series are also really good if you are on the move and don’t want too much weight. BBC Wildlife Magazine is also worth getting. It has good pointers on what to look out for each month and is great for natural history ‘current affairs’.

Nature Writing

The Peregrine by J.A. Baker

A breathtakingly wild and lucid account of a naturalist’s study of peregrines in a small part of Essex over the course of a winter. It’s full of incredible observations along with bird language descriptions that you can almost hear. The Peregrine has been hailed as one the finest pieces of 20th century prose and among the greatest works of nature writing in the world … ever!

The Natural History of Selbourne by Gilbert White

The classic work by a superb British naturalist. Delve into the 18th century nature diary of a man with an incredible gift for observation.

How to be a Bad Birdwatcher by Simon Barnes

Barnes has a gift for celebrating nature, keeping his tongue in his cheek, and making natural history accessible to anyone.

Other nature writers to look out for include Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin, Robert MacFarlane, Kathleen Jamie, etc

If you have any questions about which field guide to choose, or have your own favourites, I’d love to hear from you: dan.puplett@gmail.com

Enjoy!

Dan