Tagged: nature writing

‘Sylvan Cities’ published on 2 May


My new book, Sylvan Cities, An urban tree guide was published by Atlantic in May 2019.

Sylvan Cities is a potted-journey through our cities’ woody places and a literary hunt for where their wild things are.

Inviting readers on an illustrated journey into the urban forest, it’s both a practical guide to identifying some of the most common trees standing sentry on our street corners, and a lyrical, anecdotal treasure trove of facts and history, culture and leafy lore.

A few reviews:

‘Dulce et utile. (I’m allowed the Latin for “both sweet and useful” here because the botanical science is as sound as the cultural, historical and poetic aspects.) This is a delightful book: clever, pretty, fun and informative – what more can a reader ask for?’
– Sara Maitland, author of Gossip From the Forest

‘Full of gems; a manifesto for green cities. Babbs will turn us all into urban rangers, an unquiet army of neighbourhood watchers.’
– Max Adams, author of Wisdom of Trees

‘A thoroughly enjoyable read, and a beautifully illustrated practical, cultural and historical guide to some of the most common trees in our cities.’
– Tony Kirkham, Head of the Arboretum at Kew Gardens, writing in Gardens Illustrated

‘This assured book reflects on the “quiet colossi” that frame urban life… [It’s] a practical, portable companion for city walkers. Her read-aloud pen portraits on common varieties are a joy.’
Financial Times

Adrift | now in paperback


My book about the people, politics, history, and wildlife of London’s canals and rivers – Adrift, A Secret Life of London’s Waterways – is published in paperback today.

‘A compelling exploration of river living’ – Homes & Gardens

‘One of the best waterways books for decades’ – Waterways World

‘Chapter after chapter of utterly captivating prose’ – Caught by the River

‘A serious and fascinating book’ – Hackney Citizen

‘Waterways writing at its finest’ – The Book Barge

‘Babbs is an excellent nature writer’ – The Bookseller

You’ll find Adrift for sale in all good bookshops, in the real world and online, priced £8.99.

BBC Wildlife | Getting Britain buzzing again

imageMy article about the re-introduction of the short-haired bumblebee to Britain is published in the September 2016 issue of BBC Wildlife magazine, with images from award-winning photographer Nick Upton.

The last known sighting of Bombus subterraneus was in Dungeness in 1988. It was declared nationally extinct in 2000. The reintroduction of this lost insect is not just about bringing a native bumblebee back to Britain, it’s also a bold attempt to restore an entire ecosystem.

It was fascinating to research and write this piece, and it’s a joy to see it in print. I absolutely love the first spread – just look at all that glorious yellow. The magazine is for sale online and in all good newsagents now.

Dungeness isn’t classically beautiful. Flat and, in places, shingly, it’s as famous for its nuclear power stations as it is for its nature reserve. But it is picturesque in its own wind-blown way, and important too – for birds, of course, but also for bees. In fact this whole coastal area is an insect hotspot. Rarities are recorded here, but so sadly are losses.

Urbanisation and agricultural intensification have seen 97 per cent of Britain’s wildflower meadows lost, threatening the future of farmland wildlife. The short-haired bumblebee – Bombus subterraneus – was last recorded in Dungeness in 1988, and officially declared nationally extinct in 2000. Starting a new millennium with an extinction was a wake up call – something needed to be done.

Dungeness is now at the heart of an ambitious project to bring the short-haired bumblebee back to Britain. Reintroductions are fashionable right now, and it would be a cold heart that couldn’t get a little excited about the return of charismatic creatures like the beaver. But can we get enthused about a lost insect, one many of us didn’t even miss? The answer is yes, we absolutely can.

Returning a native

In collaboration with Hymettus, Natural England and RSPB, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust is attempting to reestablish the short-haired bumblebee on our south-eastern shores. There have been five releases since 2012, with 203 queens set free so far.

The queens are collected from Sweden, where short-haired bumblebees are common. A tiny proportion of the population is caught – just 0.01 per cent – and then quarantined at Royal Holloway University. Once the queens are confirmed disease free, they are released and monitored throughout the summer by a team of eagle-eyed volunteers.

Worker bees have been seen buzzing about East Sussex and Kent, which means the queens are successfully nesting. The ultimate aim is to establish a self-sustaining, genetically diverse population. Data is still being gathered and analysed, but, so far, it seems to be working.

For Dave Goulson, founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and author of the bestselling A Sting in the Tale, losing the short-haired bumblebee was a tragedy of our own making, and bringing it back is about hope. ‘It will show that we can look after our natural heritage,’ he says. ‘Perhaps future generations will be able to enjoy a healthy British countryside, rich in wildlife of all shapes and sizes.’

Engineering an ecosystem

But are attention-grabbing reintroductions really what our wildlife needs? ‘It’s always controversial to bring something back, you have to be confident it will work,’ admits Richard Comont, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s science manager. ‘A few eyebrows raise when you do something innovative, but in general people are supportive.’

The short-haired bumblebee is the tiny figurehead of a project that actually has much wider, landscape-scale ambitions. Nikki Gammans, who is managing the reintroduction, is clear – bringing back this bumblebee is essential, and it’s about so much more than a single species: ‘It’s about restoring a whole ecosystem that has been lost,’ she says.

Before the queens could be released, the team first had to ensure there would be enough food available throughout the summer foraging season. Local farmers were crucial to this – encouraging them to return to a more wildlife-friendly way of working was the only way to create the expansive sweep of nectar-rich land the bees need.

‘There’s no point in having a little bit here and a little bit there,’ explains Nikki. ‘ You need to have connectivity, so species can move and colonise new areas. We’re using GIS to plot all of the habitat, mapping the flower species, how long they flower for, the management technique in use. We can then see the gaps, and see who we need to work with next.’

It’s been relatively easy to convince farmers to help – crops like broad beans and peas need long-tongued species like the short-haired bumblebee to fertilise them. Together with other pollinators, bees contribute hundreds of millions to the UK economy every year. By working with 72 farmers and 20 landowners,1,200 hectares of land have been improved for bumblebees since 2009, with knock-on benefits for a host of other insects, mammals and birds.

Signs of success

Nikki invites me to walk with her through a glorious hay meadow in Dungeness. Her eyes are attuned to the micro-life at work in the field, and she’s constantly spotting different bumblebee species zipping low among the knotty vetches, or busy feeding on the pom-pom-like flowers of red clover. A kestrel glides overhead, skylarks sing, electric blue dragonflies cut a dash around a reedy pond.

‘We’ve done five years of reintroductions, so this is an important year for us,’ Nikki explains. ‘This is when we review the population of subterraneus to establish what is happening, and the genetic diversity of the workers we’re seeing. We’ll also be quantifying the amount of habitat and the amount of bumblebees over it.’

What if it isn’t working, if the reintroduced bees aren’t establishing? Nikki insists that, although Bombus subterraneus is important, the success of the project doesn’t hinge solely on it. Increasing floral diversity and extending the length of the forage season is having a positive impact, and other rare species are expanding into and colonising newly restored habitat. ‘This year we found ruderal bumblebee in an area it hasn’t been found in for 25 years,’ says Nikki. ‘This keeps us going, gives us momentum.’

The plants in the Dungeness hayfield are knee high and the tenant farmer will soon cut them back, then bundle up the hay to sell as fodder. Within three weeks, the dead-headed wildflowers will be back in bloom and busy with insects. Later, cattle and sheep will be brought in to graze, keeping the grasses under control and disturbing the ground, encouraging more wildflowers to grow. It’s a nature-rich landscape that’s completely human made. Without any large herbivores roaming wild, it is machinery and livestock that enables the flowers, and all the creatures they support, to thrive.

Farming for the future

This field is just one example of many. Across Kent and East Sussex, a network of bee-friendly fields, margins and gardens are being created and maintained. Nikki is also trying to convince local councils to do more – by cutting roadside verges less frequently, and insisting that municipal planting is bee friendly, they could make a big difference.

But it’s agriculture that’s having the fastest, most exciting results. I ask Nikki about the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. She groans. The EU has backed many agri-environment schemes, and she’s concerned what the future will hold. ‘We must make farming sustainable, and agri-environment schemes are the main way we can do that,’ argues Nikki. ‘If they went completely it could be a disaster. We really must keep the pressure on our governments and say let’s have farming sustainable.’

For now, her focus is on engaging more farmers, and collecting the data that illustrates the impact the reintroduction is having. ‘The project is very much underpinned by science, which influences how it moves forward’, says Nikki. ‘We’re collecting results that show if you create the habitat, the bees do respond, they do come.’


1984 – the nationally extinct large blue butterfly is reintroduced to south-west England. It offers a strong template for future projects to follow, and shows what large-scale collaboration between scientists, conservationists and volunteers can achieve.

1988 – the last known sighting of a short-haired bumblebee – Bombus subterraneus – in the UK. It is recorded at Dungeness in Kent.

2000 – the short-haired bumblebee is officially declared extinct in Britain. Over the previous half century, the UK lost almost all its wildflower meadows, with disastrous consequences for bees and other farmland wildlife.

2006 – responding to a dramatic population crash – two species declared nationally extinct and several others in serious decline – the Bumblebee Conservation Trust is founded. Their aim is to support the conservation of all bumblebees, rare or abundant.

2009 – the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s project to reintroduce the short-haired bumblebee begins, focusing first on preparing the wider environment for the release. Local farmers and landowners are key to this.

2012 – short-haired bumblebee queens that have already mated are collected from Sweden, then released in Kent and East Sussex, after first being quarantined and screened for disease. Volunteers monitor their success in the newly restored wildflower habitat.

2016 – the fifth batch of queens is released, bringing the total set free to over 200. Thanks to local landowners and farmers, more than 1,000 hectares of habitat have now been restored. Other rare bumblebee species are regularly recorded by volunteers monitoring the project’s impact.

Find out more


The New Nature | just launched

Announcing the new nature, a brand new website dedicated to showcasing urban nature writing by a variety of authors. The site is home to creative and journalistic writing, fiction and non-fiction, prose and poetry – all inspired by London’s wild places and wild people.

Visit the site today to read…
The Gray’s Inn fox
Woodcock, Waterloo
Brazen buddleja
Iconic eel
The crow on the crossbar
Songs of praise
The peregrine man
The sun sets over Dartford
To the experimental lighthouse
Little owl
Into the wild

Sparkling new content will be added regularly. Add us to your bookmarks, sign-up for email alerts and join us on Facebook.  And, if you’re a writer, why not think about contributing something?

Interview | Richard Mabey | shock & awe

A word about the urban wild with naturalist and nature writer Richard Mabey

On London

It’s changed a lot since I lived and worked there in the 1970s, a lot of places have vanished, most notably under the Olympic Park, which back then was an exciting and genuinely wild part of east London.  The other place I meandered, and wrote the Unofficial Countryside about, was in west London, near Uxbridge and Heathrow.  I still walk there about once a year.  It’s a labyrinth that has escaped development, it’s pretty much untouched and still feels exciting.

On urban wildlife

I think that nature’s power is much stronger in the urban rather than the rural context because you get the sense of contrast so sharply.  There’s a tremendous metaphorical power in the improbable ability of nature to come into the city.  When you’re on Charlotte Street and you see a hobby streaking overhead, it feels miraculous.  Urban wildlife is by definition more resilient to human settlement.  It also has an astonishment value that’s much higher than elsewhere because the amount of wildlife per head is so much lower.

On nature’s cure

To think of nature as a kind of Prozac is an injustice to the complex relationship humans have with nature.  Our experiences with it have huge emotional power – we see the exhaustion of a migrating bird or the sacrifice an adult makes for its young, and it’s a lesson in what it means to be reduced down to the elemental level.  Nature should shock you and make you feel pain.  Sometimes I go out and I come back in tears.

On science and romance

I have scientific DNA.  I think the emotional and the scientific are both about intense observation and both get their power from a sense of wonder.  I obsessively track barn owls – at this time of year it is about us being together in the same winter landscape.  I see them as my neighbours and I worry about them when it rains and go and check on them.  That question, ‘where does a barn owl go in the rain’, is both emotional and scientific.

On writing

Once you’ve become a dyed in the wool writer it’s who you are.  When I’m out I’m subconsciously making images and stories in my head.  It’s about the precision of watching.  The framework of observation gives you a framework for your writing. It’s also the discipline of finding the right words.  A nature rwrite should respect the relationship between disciplined observations and emotional response.  You must observe your own responses.  Talk about the two way relationship, go to the very roots of what you feel.  Don’t be vague, be precise.  Don’t deal in generalities.  Be emotional and explorative, but precise.

On green government

I’m as outraged as everyone at the Government reneging on their promise to be the greenest one ever.  The new planning documents no longer see biodiversity as essential.  The fabric of biodiversity underpins all things, without it everything goes down the tube.  NGOs need to stop being so polite, they’ve really sucked up to the government and talked about nature like financiers.  We need to launch a head on attack on these new measures.  There also needs to be a propaganda campaign to show that the essential protection of the environment doesn’t undermine economic goals.  The number of job opportunities created if we adopted a low carbon economy would be enormous.

On the future

The big opportunity now is landscape-scale rebuilding – the joining up of nature reserves and the restoration of flood plains.  I see this happening in my home of East Anglia, where reserves are being created that you can talk about in square miles rather than mere hectares.  This is already having a significant effect on wildlife.

Interview by Helen Babbs for the spring 2012 issue of Wild London magazine

The New Nature | writing about wild London

Surely London doesn’t need yet another website about itself – there are already plenty enough. Well, perhaps there’s room for just one more, one that focuses purely on new nature writing about the city. That site, to launch in the summer, is called The New Nature and it’s looking for contributors.

London is not synonymous with nature by any means – as much as it ever has been, this is a city of thrusting tower blocks, clipped lawns, concrete and glass. But still a fantastic range of wild creatures of the non-human kind survive and even thrive in this heaving, seething city of ours.

London is wonderful for many reasons, one of which is the fact that two thirds of it is natural space (land and water), according to Natural England. And even the manmade landscape can offer important (and quirky) habitats. Whether it’s a butterfly dancing about some rogue buddleia that’s sprouting out of a bridge; a bird of prey perched on the Houses of Parliament eating a pigeon; the dawn chorus echoing down Holloway Road; or the rolling beauty and bunny rabbits of Hampstead Heath – London offers plenty when it comes to wildlife.

Urban nature can be a ripe subject for a writer, both of fiction and non-fiction. It’s a subject full of contrasts and wonder, astounding against-the-odds stories and ones of deep loss. It’s a strangely beautiful topic populated by eccentric characters. It also allows you to range over all kinds of issues including education, art and design, environmental justice, science, politics, economics and technology.

So ‘The New Nature’ is being developed, an online home for writing about wild London. It will be home to creative and journalistic writing, fiction and non-fiction, prose and poetry, inspired by the city’s wild places.

Contributions of 1,000 words or less are now invited for a summer launch. Get in touch if you’d like to find out more, pitch an idea or submit a piece of written work. Email Helen at newnaturelondon@gmail.com