A book all about the wonder and delight of the wildlife we take for granted – and a passionate call for conservation
Review by Alex Roddie
“Without wildlife, landscape is merely background.”
This line from the book sums up what The Blackbird Diaries is all about. It’s the story of a year in the life of an ordinary family garden in Cumbria, told from the intimate and observant perspective of the author, Karen Lloyd. While many books about the English countryside – and particularly the Lake District – focus on the landscape itself, this author is concerned with the wildlife, and in particular the most ordinary of wildlife: garden birds.
Blackbirds are ever-present throughout the narrative. They tweet and chirp in almost every chapter, their distinct calls enjoyed and interpreted by the author as she watches them go about their little dramas through her binoculars from the kitchen window. They raise young in a garden that becomes a haven for birdlife of all kinds. The author goes on long walks in the surrounding countryside and her keen powers of observation help to illuminate a secret world of life that exists all around – although much of it is shown to be precarious, hanging on by a thread.
Conservation is an important theme and Karen Lloyd works with organisations helping to raise awareness of the catastrophic declines experienced by curlews in recent years. I had no idea how comparatively small changes to farming techniques have had such an enormous impact on the nesting habits of these wading birds, but I have certainly noticed how the haunting, warbling cry of the curlew has become less and less common over the last couple of decades. The Blackbird Diaries helps to illuminate this heartbreaking loss – how, in some areas, only a handful of curlew nests survive, and how entire populations are now absent. Rewilding is a frequent topic alongside conservation, and Karen Lloyd makes it abundantly clear that she’s against the recent UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for the Lake District. This author has a deep concern for the wildlife and biodiversity of a threatened and damaged ecosystem.
The writing is beautiful and insightful, with a clarity and attention to detail as the narrative turns through the year. Big events are covered too, such as the devastation of Storm Desmond and the Lake District floods.
Above all, The Blackbird Diaries is a book full to the brim of the joy and wonder of everyday wildlife. Not to be missed for fans of nature writing.
“Alone and with time on my hands, I could in some small way become absorbed into the landscape, become part of the scene and lost from life’s seemingly never-ending demands. There was the frisson of letting go, of being utterly alone – and of no one knowing where I was.”
Karen Lloyd’s The Blackbird Diaries: A year with wildlife is published by Saraband (£12.99, paperback)