Lewis-Stempel is a superb observer; he is also lucky, or perhaps spends a lot of time wandering outdoors. He chances across a fox taking a late swim. He watches the resident heron “happily stabbing the toads. Through binoculars, I see he knifes them in the nape of the neck.” Herons eat voles or mice; to swallow them more easily it dips them in the water to make them slippery. Nature is cunning. At one point the author puts his feet into a pond and describes “a writhing black torpedo [that] appears in seconds, then latches on to my flesh” — apparently at the practice’s Victorian zenith, 42 million leeches a year were used for phlebotomy (bloodletting). He also has an original turn of phrase; colourful, but not overwrought. He talks of the “Dalek din of croaking frogs”; a startled heron taking off “cranks into the air, on wings raised by pulleys”; frogs “squat on stones, like turd splats”. A dull February sky is “the weird white of boiled fish eye”. When his labrador, Bluebird, leaps into a pool in western France to chase a coypu, the dog becomes “a canine destroyer seeking a U-boat”; the rodent, which can stay underwater for 20 minutes, dives and hides in the darkness beneath
Lewis-Stempel gives us lovely visual snapshots of animal behaviour, from a pheasant with his ‘mincing Ming Emperor arrogance’, to two mallard drakes at their show-off courtship displays as the two ducks look on ‘monarchically unamused’... Great nature writing needs to be informative, detailed, accurate, lyrical, and, above all, to instil a sense of gratitude and wonder. John Lewis-Stempel succeeds in all these things triumphantly, taking the reader back to dreamy days spent crouching beside those sunlit ponds of childhood, watching the whirligig beetles and the pond skaters in silent fascination. Magical.