The Not So Little Book Of Dung, by Caroline Holmes

Fertile subject-matter that leaves the reader up to their ears in doo-doo
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The Independent Culture

There are 7,000 different types of dung beetle. Count 'em - or, perhaps, don't, but take the word of Caroline Holmes in this cheerful survey, which, despite the subject, doesn't make you want to wash your hands or mind. This is a book for all the family; even members not yet reading will thrill to the colour photographs of the dung beetles manhandling a ball of elephant poo, and of the snuffbox carved into the shape of a man squatting and straining.

The book is well titled. "Dung" emphasises the positive aspect of the waste product of cattle: the fact that it can be spread over soil to enhance plant growth. Human dung has the same function: droppings from the holy inhabitants of 15th-century Mount Grace Priory in Yorkshire were flushed straight over the fields downhill, although tilling them must have been something of a bum job. The soil around Caroline Holmes's cottage, also 15th-century, is unusually rich thanks to the trenches into which the weekly bucket was emptied until the 1970s.

No wonder the dung beetle, which drags the stuff tidily down into holes, was sacred to the ancient Egyptians. Dovecotes were built so that birds would leave their rich droppings on the floor. And a big hand (or paw) for the South African rock badger, a rabbit-like creature whose latrines provide scientifically invaluable samples of pollen from over the decades.

In Arizona, when there isn't much snow, which there usually isn't, people ski over the plentiful heaps of bat guano. In Australia, "roo-poo" is recycled to make textured paper. Highly recommended is the black rhino "zoo poo" from Paignton, not to mention the odourless but fertile "Che Guevara's number two" from the llamas that roam the trackless wastes of Surrey.

Dung is involved in a traditional cure for warts, although you might prefer to stick with the warts. Like Theseus with his ball of wool, hippos leave a trail of droppings as markers so they can retrace their steps to the water.

This book propounds no fundamental theory. It is underwritten rather than overwritten, with a straightforward style that can only be described as cutting the crap. (Cutting some of the quotes that have been simply slapped down would have helped.) And I for one shall not complain about the easy, though amusing, puns in the chapter headings: "Time and Motion", "Law and Ordure" and "Stool for Scandal". To do so would be pedantic - indeed anal.

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