The idea of nature as a restorative for our damaged psyches has been around for a long time, at least since the beginning of the romantic period in the late eighteenth century.

In 2015, Richard Mabey, one of our best nature writers, published Nature Cure, a nuanced and intelligent memoir all about this phenomenon. Of course, there is no intrinsic quality to the natural world that makes it therapeutic. However, simply paying attention to the wild allows us to escape our introspective lives, giving us a sense of our place among the myriad beasts and birds of the world.

In 2016, Stephen Rutt left his claustrophobic London life to live for seven months on North Ronaldsay, an island north of Orkney. He was trying to shake off a period of intense anxiety and depression that had left him unable to leave his room for days on end. On Ronaldsay, he volunteered for the bird observatory. His job was to track, record and ring its avian population, most of them seabirds. The experience rekindled an old love for birdwatching and Seafarers, his first book, recounts his many subsequent birding trips around the coastlines and islands of Scotland, Wales and Northeast England.

Rutt’s love of birds is partly down to their “power to express untouchable freedoms. If the world we live in can feel entangling, entrapping; birds can transcend that.” Seabirds live at the margins, where Rutt feels most comfortable. For him, birding is no gentle art. When a gale-force north-westerly is blowing, it’s Rutt’s cue to head out to sea-cliffs in the hope of seeing a few long-tailed skua on their yearly migration from the South-Atlantic to Norway.

Birders are solitary types and Seafarers is a book about solitude. Rutt hardly talks to anyone on his travels. Clearly, he prefers reading. His book is written in the shadow of RM Lockley, the twentieth century natural history writer and ornithologist who was also drawn to the quiet unpeople life. His most famous book is The Private Life of the Rabbit, which Richard Adams used whilst writing Watership Down. Rutt first introduces us properly to Lockley in a chapter on storm petrels. For most of his life, Lockley lived alongside these birds on Skokholm, a small island off the coast of Pembrokeshire. In 1933, he set up Britain’s first bird observatory on the nearby island of Skomer.

A love of nature and solitude can sometimes lead to misanthropy, or vice versa. JA Baker, the author of The Peregrine (the superlative book about birdwatching), has been marked down as a misanthrope. It is often over-stated, but it is there and it stems from his knowledge that humans are the most destructive species on the planet, so much so that “we stink of death. It sticks to us like frost.” In the 1960s, when The Peregrine was published, the environmental worry was of pesticides, the dangers of which were written about in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

Rutt doesn’t hate people, but he has read his Carson and has a similar environmental consciousness. His main worry, along with oil slicks and wind turbines, is the effect plastics are having on birds. In his chapter on auks, of which our most beloved is the puffin, Rutt tells of two studies in Greenland that found microplastics in one hundred percent of the birds tested. It is thought these birds are mistaking the material for krill, the tiny fish that make up their main diet.

From environmentalism to nature tourism, migration, and tales of other ornithologists, Seabirds is a meandering book, in a good way. There is plenty of fascinating insight for the novice and expert birdwatcher. But it can take some navigating. Amateur naturalists – like myself – might find themselves tempted to skip certain passages, like, for instance, when Rutt starts delineating on the subtle yet inconsequential differences between Arctic and common turns.

It doesn’t help that Rutt’s writing sometimes stumbles over itself, becoming entangled in double (and triple) negatives, and lapsing into cliché and imprecision. There are passages, however, where he is pellucid and engaging, such as when he describes a night-time search for Manx shearwaters. With only a moth-trap for light, he first sees them as “white streaks...meteors disappearing through the lit-up square of sky.”

One of the most difficult aspects of nature writing is the extent to which the writer is present in the narrative. Rutt is at his best when he is simply observing nature, without reflecting on himself. The final two chapters relate a trip around Orkney to watch fulmars and gannets. They contain some fine prose. The writing lures you in, making you feel that you too might benefit from venturing out in inclement weather, just on the off-chance of seeing something remarkable on the wing to lift your spirits.

Seafarers: A Journey Among Birds
Stephen Rutt
Elliott and Thompson, £14.99