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A Newsworthy Naturalist: The Life of William Yarrell (cover)

Publisher: John Beaufoy Publishing, Oxford

Publication Year: 2022

Binding: Hardback

Page Count: 228

ISBN Number: 9781913679040

Price: £ 25.00

A Newsworthy Naturalist: the Life of William Yarrell

Yarrell’s is a name that you have probably come across, if only through its association with the British race of White Wagtail – which we know as Pied Wagtail or Motacilla alba yarrellii. He is, however, a somewhat distant figure now, whose significant contributions to the study of birds (and fish) have largely been forgotten. Yarrell’s A History of British Fishes and A History of British Birds, published in the 1830s and 1840s respectively, were the main reference works on these subjects for the remainder of the century. As a partner in a newspaper agency and bookseller, Yarrell was well placed to interact with other eminent naturalists, including Charles Darwin and John Gould, and he became a central figure in the study of ornithology at this time, including throughboth the Linnean and Zoological Societies. He was also the first to recognise that Bewick’s Swan was a distinct species from Whooper Swan, something that helped to make his name.

This new book, published in association with the British Ornithologists’ Club, provides significant detail on his life and achievements, and it is through the thoroughly researched text that we can glimpse something of the man himself. The initial six chapters are structured around a chronological framework, although these do jump about a bit in places and there is some repetition of facts. These outline the development of Yarrell’s interests (which were broad and deep) and his ‘career’ as a gentleman naturalist. The final three chapters, together with a series of shorter end sections, explore his interests, publications (there were at least 80 papers published in scientific journals), and the societies with which he was involved. Accounts of his correspondence and where this is held, together with a list of known portraits, deliver additional detail that serves to underline the central role that Yarrell held within the wider sphere of natural history interest. Yarrell was, for example, seemingly influential in directing Charles Darwin in his early studies and pivotal in the latter’s decision to publish the zoology of the Beagle voyage.

Being able to glimpse the man behind the name, and to discover his incredibly productive research career, shines a timely light on our ornithological past.

Book reviewed by Mike Toms

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