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Michael McCarthy: Going cuckoo over New Nats books

Nature Notebook: The books' bold, highly stylised modernist dustwrappers are a key part of their attraction

They celebrated the New Naturalists yesterday and I missed it. The great series of groundbreaking books on the natural world, published by Collins from 1945 onwards and still going, has long been the object of reverence from wildlife lovers, including yours truly, and in recent years collecting the volumes (now over 130 of them) has become so popular that demand has driven some prices to fantastic levels.

A fine first edition of the rarest, Number 71, Eric Simms's British Warblers from 1985, will currently cost you £2,500. I've been collecting them for 10 years and I haven't got any of the really expensive ones, but even the affordable volumes give enormous pleasure, such as Miriam Rothschild's Fleas, Flukes and Cuckoos from 1952, a study of parasites with scarcely credible information on every page (did you know that there is a tiny creature that lives out its life in the tear-ducts of the hippopotamus?).

For a decade there has been a New Naturalists Collectors' Club, begun by an amiable Jersey bookseller, Bob Burrow, and continued after Bob's death by a wildlife artist from Hampshire, Tim Bernhard. Yesterday Tim organised the club's first annual meeting and symposium at the Nature in Art museum at Twigworth in Gloucestershire, and having been a member almost from the outset I was disappointed to a degree when I couldn't get there, not least as there were 20 "New Nats" authors present, as well as the panjandrum from HarperCollins (as it now is) who shrewdly presides over the continuing series, Myles Archibald.

What I most missed was the launch of the latest volume, Art of the New Naturalists, about the marvellous dust-wrappers, which are a key part of the books' attraction. They are bold, highly stylised modernist designs produced for the first 40 years by a husband-and-wife team of lithographers, Clifford and Rosemary Ellis (the 1950 cover of Mountains and Moorlands – it features an emperor moth – is one of theirs), and carried on since 1985, very much in the same tradition, by another terrific artist who works in linocuts, Robert Gillmor (his jacket for Wildfowl, left, published this year).

The new book is a detailed history of the artwork and has been written by Peter Marren, the acknowledged expert on the series, with Robert Gillmor himself. They were both there yesterday. I was stuck in the office. Never mind.

Dragonflies' price soars

I began collecting New Nats before the craze really took off, when it was still just about possible to go into the Cathedral Bookshop in Loamchester and find a copy of Dragonflies for 20 quid and offer the poor widder woman behind the counter 15. Those days are long gone (and Dragonflies will now cost you £400).