Arthur Tansley published his magnum opus, The British Islands and their Vegetation, in 1939 and followed that with a version for the serious amateur in the style of the New Naturalist series, Britain’s Green Mantle, in 1949. Michael Proctor published a revised version of this in 1968. Since then he has been one of the editors of the five-volume definitive work on British Plant Communities (Rodwell, J., 1991-2000). He is one of our pre-eminent plant ecologists and in the ideal position to write this, the successor to Britain’s Green Mantle, as a New Naturalist.
This book is long, 21 Chapters and 484 text pages, though leavened with 328 pictures, most Proctor’s own, and many of them lovely. It describes each vegetation type, and much of the variation within each type, in detail. He writes about all the vegetation, including the bryophytes and lichens, many of which will be unfamiliar to non-specialists. He refers discreetly to the Rodwell classification throughout. There is an emphasis on species distributions and, almost inevitably, it descends into species lists in places. A great many are mentioned - there are 18 pages of species index.
Throughout the book Proctor is reflecting on how the vegetation has formed with all the natural and human influences on it. Knowledge of this has increased enormously since Tansley’s time, e.g. succession in many British wetlands is normally to Sphagnum bog, not woodland; the natural and human influences on our woodlands are much better understood; chalk grassland history is still somewhat mysterious but we have greater insight as to where these plants come from. Changes in the vegetation within the last sixty years are mentioned in places but, perhaps surprisingly, do not feature prominently.
Proctor has to assume some knowledge of the flora for the reader. It is not a book that most people would want to read straight through. But, as a discursive, illustrated, guide to British plant communities, it provides a thorough background and, by its very length, tells us something about how rich they are and how varied. Any serious ecologist will need to refer to the Rodwell classification itself, but this book provides a delightful adjunct to give us an overview of what plants grow where and why.