Patrick Barkham's account of a year spent looking for all of Britain's butterflies is a wonderfully well balanced book. While his quest for the 59 species known to breed in the UK is central to the book, there is so much more to the story that just his quest for each species.
The book seems to follow the tradition of a number of bird watching stories where a person (often, but not inevitably, a man) seeks to see all, or as many as possible, of some form of list. What separates this book from some of the more mundane "number chase" books is the complexity and intent of the material that revolves around the central chase.
There is the relationship with the author's father, which is interwoven with childhood memories. This aspect of the book glows with remembered affection, but, thankfully, seems to avoid sentimentality. There is the relationship with Lisa, his girlfriend, which for a few pages dominates the book, but is always present elsewhere. There is the nature of the environment, both ours and the butterflies. The contrast between the condition of sites that the author had visited as a child and their current condition is used to highlight the issues that face butterflies and the wider natural world. While there is little new in this particular aspect of the book, it is remarkably effecting at showing the range of issues and challenges that our wild places face today.
A regular theme is the challenge of conservation, with good new stories (such as the Large Blue) as well as the more side spread bad news stories. If ever we needed more evidence that conservation is a multi-faceted activity that depends at its heart on good biological knowledge, then it could be found within the pages of this book.
And finally, centrally, there are the butterflies that weave their way through all the aspects of this book. Beautiful, plain, robust, delicate common or shockingly rare, each plays a part. Some are seen with remarkable ease, other prove more elusive. Although the book inevitably becomes a kind of check list of sightings, it never becomes simply just a catalogue of success or failure. The personality of each species is brought to the fore in a way that is both charming and probably accurate.
I would recommend this book most highly, not only to those who have childhood memories of buddleia, thick with butterflies, or for those who see the butterflies of today and are capture by their charm and grace, but also to those who are interested in first rate nature writing.