A hundred years ago a good naturalist was a good collector. He robbed birds’ nests, and caught butterflies, or dug up rare wild orchids. The results can be seen in museums all over the country, in dusty cabinets and drawers full of specimens. The foundations of important scientific work were laid, but if people today continued to collect on the same scale great damage could be done. Even then, some kinds of birds disappeared. One beautiful butterfly, the large copper, was exterminated in East Anglia partly by over-collecting. Fortunately our way of thinking has changed. Today, rather than collecting dead specimens, naturalists are more interested in ecology, the study of living things in their own surroundings and the relationships between different parts of the natural world. Bird behaviour is much more interesting than egg collecting. One observer decided to watch a wren visiting her nest. He watched all day, and found that between sunrise and sunset she came to the nest to feed her young or for other reasons 1217 times, in a working day of 15 hours and 45 minutes. Another watched a moorhen pulling a piece of plastic sheeting over herself as she sat on her nest in the rain. Botanists were puzzled by lines of weeds in fields, until they realized the seeds were being dropped by birds perched on telegraph wires. On one day in the year, hundreds of people all over Britain get up in the middle of the night, to listen to bird song, and they record the exact time each bird joins in the dawn chorus, plotting which kinds of birds get up first. Another nation-wide scheme is the recording of butterflies, birds, flowers, and other forms of wild life, wherever they occur. The results are analysed by computer at the Monks Wood research laboratories in Huntingdonshire, run by the Nature Conservancy, so that eventually it can be worked out how many of each species really exist in our country and where they are. You can join in this recording if you are a reasonably careful observer and can fill up the details on a form. Alternatively, a real feeling of achievement comes from photographing wild life, because it demands patience, skill, ingenuity, and imagination. The tape recording of bird song and animal noises is another absorbing interest. If you prefer to collect, the variety of nature is well illustrated by collections of leaf prints, leaf skeletons, or bark rubbings, to give just one example of a kind of collecting that is not harmful.
THE wild life of Britain is extraordinarily interesting. Perhaps it is not as dramatic as that of the jungle and tropical forest, but on a smaller scale it is equally fascinating. Unfortunately today it may be seriously threatened. The countryside is being swallowed up, as land is required for houses, schools, factories, motorways, airports, reservoirs, and everything else needed by a growing population with rising standards of life. It is feared that pollution will cause birds to be poisoned, butterflies to disappear, and fish to die in their thousands in polluted water. Changes in agricultural practice, such as more intensive farming and the removal of hedges, may also be damaging to wild life.
On the other hand, there is a more widespread concern for the future of nature in Britain, and more is being done about it. Many major decisions affecting our environment will have to be taken on a nation-wide, or even a world-wide, scale, but all of us can play some part in the work. What may seem a trivial action when taken by one person can have tremendous effects when followed by all of us. Conservation is too often thought of as a passive attitude, one of leaving things alone, but it is really an activity, to be pursued in the ordinary circumstances of our daily lives, in town or country.
LEAF PRINTS, SKELETON LEAVES, AND BARK RUBBINGS
1. TO MAKE BLACK AND WHITE PRINTS OF LEAVES, hold a tin lid or plate over a lighted candle until it is blackened. Add a few drops of olive oil or machine oil, and mix well. Rub the mixture over the back or underside of the leaf, with your finger. Then press the leaf on to a sheet of white paper, black side down, cover it with newspaper and rub gently.
2. TO MAKE COLOURED PRINTS OF LEAVES, Use powder paints (mixed very thickly), or shoe polish, of the right colours. Apply it to the back of the leaves, instead of the black mixture suggested in (I), and then print as before.
3. TO MAKE SKELETON LEAVES, use rather old, tough leaves, not fresh green foliage. Soak them in cabbage water, or simmer them gently for about an hour in boiling water with a tablespoon of washing soda in it. Then carefully brush away the tissue of the leaves, and soak the skeletons overnight in a solution of water and domestic bleach, before rinsing and drying them between sheets of blotting paper.
4. TO MAKE BARK RUBBINGS OF TREES, hold a sheet of thin white paper against the bark of a tree, and rub the surface from side to side, or up and down, using heel ball or cobbler’s wax. Another way is to use an ordinary white candle, and then paint over your rubbing with Indian ink.
WILD LIFE IN DANGER
Even today, though, if a very rare bird is known to be nesting, such as the osprey, a 24 hour a day watch has to be kept, to prevent the nest being robbed. Many wild flowers are becoming scarce, because too many are picked, before they have time to seed and spread themselves. A famous naturalist has suggested butterfly nets may have to be banned, because it is too easy for people to catch too many butterflies in them. Even frogs are becoming scarce, partly because too many are collected for classroom study and examination purposes. We all have to watch ourselves to make sure our private interests and hobbies do not become harmful. There are far too many of us in the world today for us all to be able to do exactly what we want and go exactly where we wish to go. People can do great harm to the countryside simply by being there. Some special kinds of place — mountain areas, sand dunes, some woodlands – are damaged by being trampled. There are still far too many forest and heath fires, caused by carelessness. They bring great suffering to birds and beasts as well as causing economic damage. Litter is still a problem. It is not just unsightly – it can be very hurtful to wild life. Birds may garner unsuitable food from litter bins, feeding their nestlings on bread when they cannot digest anything but their proper food. Scavengers such as rats may be attracted. Tins and bottles are particularly dangerous. Small animals such as mice and voles climb into bottles and may be trapped there. The remains of 28 small mammals were once found in a milk bottle abandoned by the roadside. Tins with lids only partly removed have cruel jagged edges. A lonely couple in a country cottage were once startled by an odd irregular knocking outside. They went to the door and found a hedgehog lodged in a jagged tin, bleeding to death, and unable to drag itself clear. Traffic on roads causes great slaughter. The Automobile Association in America reported in 1968 that at least a million creatures a day were killed by cars on American roads. In Britain also many birds are killed, as well as deer, rabbits, moles, hares and badgers. So are hedgehogs, in great numbers, though there is some evidence now that they are at least learning to remove themselves quickly instead of ‘freezing’ when frightened. Detailed information is lacking about the extent of this loss on roads. Groups of people in different areas could keep regular and exact records of how many dead creatures they found in measured lengths of road over a
HOW TO PREPARE BONES AND SKULLS
Here are some simple ways of preparing bones and skulls of birds and animals, if you wish to preserve these for study. Use only animals you find dead or killed on the roads, or others such as rabbits and hares which you can buy at the butcher’s. 1. A small animal, such as a shrew or a mouse, can be buried in an ant hill. The ants will eat all the surplus flesh in a few weeks. 2. Larger animals, such as rabbits, can be buried in earth, and then left for at least a year. 3. Any animal carcase or part of it can be boiled until the flesh can be picked off with tweezers or a darning needle. The boiling is best done on a camp fire in the garden, using old tins or billy cans. Wash the bones after boiling them, and put them in a household bleach to whiten them. 4. After partial boiling, a small skull, such as that of a bird, can be hung by a thread in an aquarium containing a lot of tadpoles, which will eat the flesh. period. Often the bodies are not very damaged, so that skeletons, especially skulls, could be collected for study.
HUNTING AND SHOOTING
This last kind of killing is a pity, but it is not usually deliberate. What then about hunting? Many people who love wild life and the countryside cannot bear to think of foxes and deer being hunted to death. They find it impossible to condone any form of blood sports or killing simply for pleasure. Others feel that though the chase itself may be cruel, sportsmen do no harm to conservation, because they know how important it is to protect a breeding stock of any game animal or bird and they do not kill too many for replacement. Sportsmen also see the need for maintaining living space and the right conditions for wild life, if for no other reason than to protect their sport. But many of them genuinely care for the countryside. The Duke of Edinburgh has written: ‘I am always amazed that so many townspeople seem to be incapable of understanding that hunting and conservation are now entirely compatible. … They simply will not, or do not wish to recognize that in most parts of the world the leadership in conservation has come from experienced hunting sportsmen’ And there are sometimes strong arguments for ‘culling’ – the reduction of a population of animals, for instance deer, or seals, when their numbers have grown too great in certain areas for their own health or proper survival. But these matters are very debatable, and even conservationists do not always agree with each other. Whatever the case for fox or deer hunting, none of them would approve of otter-hunting, still organized in parts of Britain, although otters are becoming scarce and do very little damage. There are more than a dozen packs of otterhounds listed in the sporting journals. (There are more than two hundred packs of foxhounds.) As for badger digging and baiting, still said to be among village sports and pastimes, it always was sheer brutality, and should most certainly be stopped.
Talk of hunting takes us far beyond Britain. Throughout the world beautiful animals are being exterminated because their furs have a high market value. Fashion bears a heavy responsibility for the hunting of these wild creatures. Ocelots and jaguars are slaughtered in South America; cheetahs in Africa; leopards in Asia. All the large cats are in danger of extinction, although they are among the world’s rarest and most beautiful animals. Would you wear a leopard skin coat, if you knew that fourteen of these animals had been killed to make that coat? And this is only the beginning. Whales are slaughtered and are in danger of extermination because whale oil is used in cosmetics and other preparations. Turties are becoming rare partly because people eat turtle soup. Crocodiles and alligators are killed to make handbags and shoes. Expensive scent is based on musk from civet cats.
Great damage to the animal world is also inflicted by wasteful and cruel methods of hunting animals for Zoos, wild life parks, circuses, and the pet trade, although the first two of these have done great service in protecting rare species. The whole subject of animals in captivity raises questions to which we may give different answers. Naturalists and nature lovers are individuals. They do not all think alike. One would enjoy seeing elephants performing in the circus ring; another would be sickened by the sight of animals trained to do tricks. One would keep wild animals as pets; another would consider it wrong to take such creatures from their natural surroundings, and tame them, making them into something different from what they are by nature.
WHAT IS NATURE CONSERVATION?
Nature conservation is not about whether we should love animals as pets. Nor does it mean that all animals, in all circumstances, everywhere, should be protected or left alone. Things do not stand still, especially as there has already been almost world-wide interference in the processes of nature by man for his own ends. Intelligent management is now required, in the interests of the natural world.
Conservation does imply the protection of species of wild life, if not of all individual animals, and too many species have already been lost or are on the brink of extinction. Fortunately we are now much more alive to this danger than we used to be, and thanks to such organizations as the World Wildlife Fund, there is a continuous policy of watchfulness all over the world, to try to make sure we do not lose any further species. Allied to the protection of species is the protection of the places where they live (their habitats), because many kinds of animals, birds, plants, and other forms of life, have very specific needs that must be met if they are to survive and reproduce. How this can best be done, to perpetuate a rich variety of life, is a matter for urgent thought and action.
For these reasons, this is a post about conservation in Britain – its various forms, what can be done, and why, and how; what you yourself can do, in your own environment, even if you live in a town, and your opportunities of going to the countryside are limited; and where and how to study the living pattern of nature, so that you can learn what may need to be done in the future. Nature conservation requires a sympathetic understanding of the living pattern, of which man himself is a part, and it implies a respect for life as such. We have to become more aware of what is going on around us. Nowadays, in the twentieth century, man often seems to be living in an artificial world of his own making, too far removed from the rest of the natural world. Perhaps he needs to learn afresh that he cannot survive if he destroys too much of nature’s network – the fabric of life in a living world. And while learning that lesson, he should protect other forms of life as much as he can, trying not to leave the world a poorer and a duller place for his children and grandchildren.