Bowland Beth: the Life of an English Hen Harrier

Bowland Beth: the Life of an English Hen Harrier
David Cobham
Publisher:  William Collins, London
Page Count:  320
ISBN Number:  9780008251895

Bowland Beth manages to rise above the dark and contentious issues it covers to deliver an engaging read that transports the reader into the mind of one of the UK’s most controversial birds of prey.

This delightful book is written as two interweaving threads of narrative that follow the movements of a newly fledged Hen Harrier, Beth, from the moors of the Forest of Bowland in northern England. Short bursts of imaginative writing describe the perspective of Beth as she explores her wild moorland habitat for the first time, encountering well-loved bird species and observing the activities of humans in the environment. Between these interludes, the author David Cobham provides an interesting commentary on the natural history of Hen Harriers in the UK, and focuses particularly on human-wildlife conflict with the management of grouse moors.

While there isn’t much plot to the real-life story of Beth (if you are even vaguely familiar with the recent history of Hen Harriers in England, you’ll guess the ending), that isn’t really what this book is all about.

In recent interviews, Cobham expressed his hope that the book would inspire the non-birder to take an interest in the Hen Harrier in a similar fashion to the way his well-known film Tarka the Otter raised the profile of otter conservation, by drawing the reader into empathising with the bird and its environment.

And it certainly does that- I am a regular visitor to Bowland and the surrounding area, and I loved the way the author captured the wild and rugged atmosphere of the region through the eyes of Beth. The reader is taken on a journey through the seasons on the moor, and the descriptions of the behaviour of the harriers and other birds tell of a life spent carefully observing nature. These little touches really bring the story to life.

Additionally, the book is peppered with lively sketches by Dan Powell, depicting Hen Harriers and other upland birds in their natural environment. These artistic interludes complement the imaginative writing style nicely, and I found myself paying as much attention to the lovely drawings as the text.

The short chapters and straightforward language of the book make it a relaxing read and very easily snatched up for a quick 10 minutes over a cup of tea. I found that very occasionally the descriptions were a little florid for my taste, and sometimes the information in the commentary seemed a bit out of place in the context of Beth’s journey. However, overall I think David Cobham has done a good job in delivering a charming and informative perspective on English Hen Harriers.

With Christmas speeding up before we know it, I can see this book as a great gift for adults and teenagers interested in nature, and I am sure that it will inspire a new generation of conservationists in the future.
Katherine Booth Jones