The Beauty in the Beast by Hugh Warwick

I spotted this book whilst browsing the ‘Nature’ section in Waterstones. My course has made me more inclined to stray away from my fantasy novels for a time and read some interesting non-fiction.

Initially, it was the cover of the novel that got my attention. The combination of foxes, owls and bats leaping all over the cover drew my eye and I quickly read the blurb and flicked through it – each chapter beginning had a lovely little illustration of the chosen creature – and decided I would buy it as it sounded refreshing and different from what I usually choose to read. In this novel, Hugh Warwick gives us a snapshot into the worlds of 15 different iconic British species and the sometimes eccentric people who are passionate about them.  The intention was for Warwick to gain a greater understanding of the various creatures as well as to find one that could join his recent hedgehog tattoo which he got whilst at an Ecology project known as ExtInked which was raising awareness for endangered British species.


The beautiful inside cover of the novel

From foxes to owls to otters to dragonflies to house sparrows to bats to dolphins… there is certainly a good about of variability in the choice of species which I appreciated. In each chapter, we meet an ambassador of a particular species – whether a scientist or purely a passionate enthusiast and we get a brief snapshot into the world of each species. Each ambassador attempts to show him their species in its natural habitat as well as teaching him about the creature as they go and where their enthusiasm originated.

I respect passions and it was refreshing to encounter so many people with passions for so many species. I learnt loads of snippets of information about the various creatures that I hadn’t considered or known before. For example, it never occurred to me that bats would enjoy being handled and actually make a purring sound when handled or the extent of the impact of urban light pollution on bat pollutions. Nor did it occur to me that pheasants eat baby adders, or that the British loved the robin so much that the Brits attempted to introduce it into America and Australia when they colonised those countries. Perhaps one of the most powerful pieces of information this book bequeathed to me was about dolphins – the media spoon feeds us this image of dolphins as friendly and intelligent creatures of the sea that everyone must come into contact with. They have been said to heal the sick and have a profound impact on people’s lives… and yet at the end of the day they are almost a tonne of muscular carnivore and have been known to practice infanticide in a fashion similar to lions. Studies have shown that dolphins are known to kill porpoises and the theory is they do it to ‘practice’ for when they need to kill of baby dolphins in order to make the female fertile again…. Destroyed a few illusions of dolphins? I thought so.

These are only a few examples, there is a wealth of information in this book and obviously I won’t recount it all here. All in all, this was an interesting and informative read. That said, however, as someone now studying environmental science, what this book lacked was the scientific depth I long for. Each chapter was just the tip of the iceberg into each creature and although I believe that was part of the point of the novel – a fleeting glimpse to encourage further research – in some places the use of language and description was downright patronising. Yes this is all very well for making it more ‘accessible’ for Joe Public who is not necessarily doing a degree in the environment….but for me, it wasn’t enough.

Although I admire Hugh Warwick, his keen love of hedgehogs as well as the other people in this novel… it all seems a bit blind-sighted to me. I appreciate that people can and will have favouritism for certain animals – I for example absolutely love birds of prey, they are the embodiment of top predators.  That said, however, though I do show some favouritism, what this book seemed to lack until the last minute was the importance of conserving whole ecosystems; every element of a food chain needs to be conserved and understood rather than focusing only on the ‘cute and cuddly’ that we so often see in conservation adverts. It’s all very well getting enthusiastic about the protection of one species but we need to understand whole ecosystems and protect who ecosystems in order for this to work. If my degree has taught me anything so far, it’s we cannot focus all of our attention on one creature alone and this novel seemed… almost ignorant of that and when it did come up, it was vague.

I am aware I’m being quite critical here but I think the main point I want people to take from this review is this: this is a undeniably delightful little book full of Warwick’s easy-to-read good humouredness – unfortunately, for me it lacked the scientific depth I was looking for and gave too much of a fleeting glimpse into the importance of nature conservation. Although, as I have said, this is probably because of the audience it is aimed at. Nevertheless it is an enjoyable read full of useful and interesting snippets of information and it’s nice to find that there are people out there with an enthusiasm for creatures so many of us fail to even notice or care about. I shall be using this book for future reference as I have earmarked so many of the pages…

On a final note, this novel introduced me to a concept I have never encountered before –biophilia. The word literally means “love of life or living systems.” And I think I can commented without dispute that this word is extremely applicable to myself. I am a biophiliac and it feels amazing to actually encounter a word for my ardent love of nature and all things natural. So thank you Mr Warwick for opening my eyes to this new concept.

You can find a link to Hugh Warwick’s blog here.


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