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The Isles of Scilly by Rosemary Parslow


By Rosemary Parslow. Collins, London, 2007.

450 pages, 209 figures comprising mainly colour photos plus illustrations.

Softback ISBN-13 978-0-00-220151-6.

Hardback ISBN 13 978-0-00-220150-6.

Softback, 30. Hardback 40.

The surname ‘Parslow’ (John and Rosemary) is synonymous with wildlife in Scilly and Rosemary Parslow in particular is an expert in the flora and skilled in her knowledge of the fauna of the islands. I doubt there is another person as suited as she is to the task of composing a book about Scillonian natural history, having visited the islands annually since 1958, initially as a very junior scientific assistant at the British Museum of Natural History, but now as a tour leader sharing with others her encyclopaedic knowledge of the natural history of the islands. Thankfully Parslow has condensed this knowledge into such a wonderful new book to share it with a wider audience. The book is part of The New Naturalist Library series that aims, “to interest the general reader in the Wildlife of Britain by recapturing the enquiring spirit of the old naturalists.” Parslow is one of those enquiring naturalists and she achieves the series aim with perfection.

The book comprises 17 chapters. After an insightful introduction the next three chapters deal with history. Chapter 2 deals with the geology of the islands with a fascinating section about the submergence of Scilly as water levels rise transforming what amounted to one main island 2,000 years ago into the multitude of islands and islets that we see today. Chapter 3 looks at people and their influence on the islands from medieval times with particular reference to material transformations that have created modern day Scilly, from the ancient woodlands to modern day heathland, farmland and town. Chapter 4 introduces Scilly’s naturalists from the generalist Robert Heath in the mid-1800s, to the specialists who publish today in the Isles of Scilly Bird Group Bird and Natural History Review. We learn that there have been many interesting characters involved over the years that between them have amassed and published a wealth of information about the natural history of Scilly.

The next three chapters focus on the islands as such starting with St Mary’s (Chapter 5), the so-called off-islands that are the four remaining inhabited islands St Agnes, Bryher, Tresco and St Martin’s (Chapter 6), rounding off with the uninhabited islands (Chapter 7). These chapters provide a general introduction to the complexion of the islands for the most part in terms of habitats and the main flora and fauna to be found, and scenes and habitations to be witnessed. By this stage of the book the reader has developed a sound understanding of many facets of Scilly that facilitate full appreciation of the details of the flora and fauna to come.

Six subsequent chapters (Chapters 8-13) are systematic in coverage of the main types of habitat in Scilly and their flora, the wildlife that frequents these habitats, and key issues that affect habitat and wildlife alike. For example, the islands’ economy has drastically influenced the habitats with bulb fields dominant for many years accompanied by interesting/rare species of flowering plants, which are presented in a systematic list by Parslow. The bulb industry is in decline on the islands threatening some of these rare species of flowering plants. To boot, the equable climate of the islands permits native and many introduced plants to co-exist side-by-side and the subtropical aspect of this climate means frost sensitive flora may survive with human habitations swathed in palm trees and other exotics. The main habitat types covered by Parslow in these chapters are the sea and marine environment, the coast, grassland and heathland, woodland and wetland, cultivated habitats, and gardens.

The next three chapters introduce the fauna that frequent these habitats and their flora. Chapter 14 deals with the insects and other terrestrial invertebrates. Chapter 15 covers the mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Chapter 16 sees to the birds. Clearly each fauna type may be covered by a book(s) of its own so the chapters are not intended to be all-inclusive and far-reaching. However, they do provide an interesting introduction to the main species and are clever in highlighting those which are of especial interest and, depending on season, may be seen by a keen eyed visitor to Scilly … Hummingbird Hawk-moth, Clouded Yellow Butterfly, Scilly Bee, Scilly Shrew, Grey Seal, Puffin, and Hoopoe.

The closing chapter (Chapter 17) looks to the future of Scilly. There are numerous issues of concern for Scilly that need to be dealt with, even in a ‘feel good factor’ book such as the one at hand. Parslow does not shirk her responsibility in this regard. Topics covered include the medium- to long-term issues of sea-level rise and climate change, and the here and now issues of housing, tourism and wildlife, and changing farming practices. There is also a problem with introductions of plants and animals that are making permanent changes to the species assemblage. However, Parslow is pragmatic rather than pessimistic about the future understanding that change is inevitable and that there have been losses (e.g., the recent loss of Roseate Tern as a breeding species) and there may be gains, albeit by way of introductions. As Parslow recognises, “there is still a community of people on the islands and none of them would appreciate living in a museum.”

The 209 figures spread evenly throughout the volume appear exactly where needed, not clustered in the middle or at the end of the book. This must increase production costs. Collins is to be applauded for bucking the publishing trend of profit maximisation by producing a book within the spirit declared for the New Naturalist series. The figures are mainly excellent colour photographs of classic scenes, landscape, flora and fauna. There are many contributions by well known bird and wildlife photographers with Parslow’s own contributions of equal standing. Figures include artwork of wildlife by celebrated Scilly veterans Ian Wallace and Ren Hathway. The figures animate what is already a lively text.

Come on. Treat yourself to this wonderful book about the natural history of the Isles of Scilly. The book wraps up Scilly between its covers and permits you to take the islands back home where you can open the covers, and release and experience the wonders of Scilly in your living room again and again and again.

Bob Flood

Originally published in British Birds