The unofficial book club review no 1

I receive on average a book every week and manage usually a review for a mainstream publication once a month. Yet some of these books are superb and deserve attention, so I have decided to post occasional pieces about books that I think deserve coverage.

Birds of Passage: Hunting and Conservation in Malta, by Mark-Anthony Falzon (MAF), Vol 25 Environmental Anthropology and Ethnobiology, Berghahn, Oxford. £99

MAF is a birder but also an anthropologist and he has tried what few attempt: to understand the other side in the debate. Hunting and conservation in Malta are highly polarised spheres and yet theoretically there should be common ground between naturalists and shooters everywhere. Why?

Because both are deeply embedded in a relationship with nature. Both suffer great privations to fulfil this encounter. Both are deeply attached to the lives of their chosen objects – birds, mammals etc – and experience their ‘target species’ mediated by expensive equipment to which they devote substantial resources. Both are increasingly anxious about sustainable populations of, say, birds and mammals. Both are profoundly opposed to the extinction-by-neglect that threatens the biosphere, because of the massive increase in human indifference to the natural world. In short hunters and conservationists care about other species and the full repertoire of connections should be a source of shared ground.

Yet the two camps are fundamentally divided. Their relationship is really based on anatagonism. In the case of Malta, hunters have committed acts of shocking violence upon their opponents to defend their pastime.

I have always felt that entrenched attitudes but especially among my ‘own’ side (my side: since i have shot a single bird in my life and devoted half a century to enjoying and celebrating wildlife) are counter productive. So why are the two sides so siloed and antagonistic?

MAF draws out an interesting socio-economic overlay that informs the conflict. Maltese conservationists tend to see hunters as regressive, rooted in nature relations of the past, and largely of a lower socio-economic background – labourers and tradespeople. Conservationists by contrast are middle class, educated professionals and fell they occupy a moral high ground that has increasingly informed wider public opinion. This is impacting upon hunters and there is evidence of its effect, as MAF points out, in the decline of hunting not only in Malta but in mainland Italy, where it has halved in the last few decades.

It brings to mind for me the British scenario at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the successful abolition of finch and bird-keeping, song-bird competitions and commercial songbird sales were all achieved. For most conservationists, including me, there is nothing wrong in curbing such practices. At one time finch trapping threatened to inflict localised extinction upon several species including chaffinch.

What I do object to, however, is that we ended the working man’s delight in songbird competition yet it is written into the RSPB’s constitution that they cannot even challenge the sport of the upper classes: driven shooting, which is arguably a far more impactful practice. The truth is that finch keeping was easy prey to the powerful voices of the new middle-class conservation community. Meanwhile the upper class sport of driven shooting and, even worse, the now outlawed fox hunting with dogs persist more or less inviolate, because of the political clout exercised by an upper class cadre.

So I think a book that attempts to portray both sides with equal attention and neutrality is to be hugely welcomed. MAF even, in some sense, leans towards his hunter informants, partly I guess because of the simple human debt he owed to the people who trusted him, but also he was entering a cultural realm that has been, by and large, unacknowledged among naturalists. MAF sees his role as bringing back from across the lines the untold story to a substantial portion of his book’s audience. He is attempting to equalise the relationship a little, mediate and allow reconciliation, and all this has been done in the smoothest, largely jargon-free anthropological voice. It is a model of reasoned argument and I heartily recommend it despite the price. £99! Academic publishers!

The other very positive part of the book is its illustration of the massive changes and adaptations made by hunters’ collectives in Malta as they struggle to make their practices acceptable in a world increasingly dominated by the ethics of environmentalism. Caring for nature, concern for sustainable wild populations, engaging the community in good environmental works – all of these attitudes and actions have been adopted in public, at least, by Maltese hunters. They have shifted massively in response to an onslaught of negative publicity. All sides now agree that the bad old days, as described by the brilliant Natalino Fenech in his various books, have largely gone. I think there are really strong grounds for optimism buried beneath the ongoing rhetoric from both sides in Malta.

However, there is an interesting question that is really unanswered in the book and which cuts to the heart of matter. I have long pondered it and cannot resolve it myself. But it is this.

Both communities clearly feel profound attachment to nature. Both in many ways shape their worlds to live in alignment with this passion for wildlife. Alas, one side rises in the encounter to kill it. It calls to mind the paradoxical Wildean notion that each man kills the thing he loves.

My own thoughts about the shattering moment when the gun explodes centre on the issue of subsistence. If hunting were merely a reenactment of the protein-foraging which stretches back to the very origins of our species – the necessary winning of food from the wild – I really would have no objection. In fact I have no objection to subsistence hunting. A single large or 2-3 medium-sized prey taken for the pot and consumed in their entirety after a full’s day hunting: that, as far as I am concerned, can go until the end of our species.

What I think lies at the heart of the fundamentally irreconcilable division between the two camps is where hunting fulfils some pyschic urge to kill for its own sake. Hunters seem sometimes to need to take life, not because it is providing food, but because it is a consummation of their encounter with life. It may be atavistic, rooted and urgent but it is psychopathological. It comes from a dark place of failure. It is against human nature, although, one should add, that one finds it in nature too. But we are not just natural species. We aspire to something else.

Why would you shoot anything without having some socially acceptable or justifiable rationale? But if the killing comes from a dark and private hole within and nothing more, what are we to conclude? I should add that after someone kills a spring male golden oriole, or guns down a rainbow flock of bee-eaters, or slaughters a male Montagu’s harrier or a honey buzzard on its 7000km migration journey, I don’t doubt that they can still accommodate these destructive urges and emerge from the moment a relatively normal person. Ie the hunter can still integrate their pyschopathological desires with the responsibilites of being a good, kind citizen and a loving family member. But that is not the point. For the other side – for me and for all those who do not take life – this kind of killing will always look like mindless nihilism and a sickness that has to end.

In his exceptionally well written Birds of Passage: Hunting and Conservation in Malta Mark-Anthony Falzon has sent us – through his careful, cautious, open-hearted, even-handed probings – along so many avenues of fresh reflection. But he has not convinced me that anything other than subsistence hunting should have a future.

As well as an author and naturalist Mark Cocker runs wildlife holidays and breaks, and offers bespoke writing support. For the website click here.

For Sale: Six Bedroom Home with 1000 species attached

After 20 years of residence in the village of Claxton, 7 miles & 20 minutes from Norwich, we’re finally leaving and selling our wonderful home at the Hollies. It is a mid-Victorian three-bedroomed country cottage – once the village post office – with a fully integrated 1979 extension that includes 3 extra bedrooms, a downstairs study, a second shower room and toilet, utility room and garage.

In all, the property comprises kitchen with door to the back garden, 8m-long lounge, dining room, downstairs study, shower room, utility room and garage. Upstairs are six bedrooms, bathroom and separate toilet. My 8m-long office is one of the six and overlooks our secret garden at the back of the house, which offers views towards the marsh. Through the years I’ve seen or heard cranes, osprey, red kites and waxwings from its windows.

The house and location have been a source of inspiration for a great deal of writing, including c700 articles for the Guardian and Guardian Weekly. I also wrote my books Birds Britannica (’05), Crow Country (’07), Birds and People (’13), Claxton (’14) and A Claxton Diary (’19) as well as Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before it is Too Late (’18) in the same period.

Latterly the garden, which has been created with a view to encourage wildlife, has been a source of creativity both in words and images. In all I guess we have recorded about 1,000 species of all types of organism at the house, including c120 birds and 400 moth species, 20 butterflies including swallowtail and more than 20 bee species. Reporters from Sky Television have been to film and talk about its moths, while Radio 4 Today programme Nature Notes has been based on its many residents.

It is wonderful place for birds at all seasons. We feed tits and finches in winter and spring. Fieldfare and mistle thrushes come to feast on fruit if conditions are hard. There are always blackbirds on the lawn and they regularly nest in the hedge at the front. Blue tits nest every year at the back, great tits by the woodshed. Woodpigeons take to the hedges to breed come July and robins are daily. Sparowhawks and pergrines pass overhead in winter, while hobbies and marsh harriers are regular in summer.

Another speciality of the area is the local population of breeding swallows and house martins, which gather outside my office on the telephone wires come early autumn. In high summer, however, the skies above Claxton belong to the swifts. It is one of the joys of living here to sit at breakfast time watching the arrow-lines of 20-30 birds tearing over the rooftops.

Claxton is a village without streetlights and one of the advantages of its distance from the city is the lack of light pollution. We have the clearest views of the stars on many nights and the moon can look spectacular as it rises over the back garden.

Just ten minutes from the house is the southern bank of the River Yare, with walks all the way around Claxton Marshes to Rockland Broad. The place was described by Sir Thomas Browne as a seventeenth-century nest site for spoonbills. Alas they have gone but the marshes are rich in all sorts of nature: deer, herons, winter geese, foxes and owls. The paths have been the basis of our daily walks. They have also been the source of much inspiration. Mary’s instagram images are often inspired by our daily walks from the house. You can see them here. Much of m writing has been similarly shaped. Most memorable was the night, just half a mile from the house, when I encountered a sight that became the subject of Crow Country.

Throughout the winter the skies above Claxton and several of the neighbouring villages are a highway for roosting flocks of rooks and jackdaws. They gather nightly on the other side of the river and the noisy caravans of birds passing overhead in their thousands serve as a kind of hour glass on winter afternoons.

The marshes are atmospheric at any hour but they acquire particular magic in the evenings as the light fades. The sky-scapes can be spectacular. The image below is exactly as it was: no filters, no trickery, no manipulation in photoshop.

The house decor has been uplifted and modernised throughout. We have added a fitted kitchen and woodburning stove in the living room.

The Hollies provides masses of comfortable living space – 12 rooms plus the attached garage/store room – and we know it will really suit someone who wants to be immersed in nature and surrounded by wildlife: in the garden, the village and beyond. The French windows at the front are often open all day in summer and the Hollies really comes into its own, a residence where the indoors and outdoors merge. We would love to think of it giving daily pleasure to someone of like mind. If you think it is you please ring our estate agents here.

Nature Post-Lockdown II

2/3 The House Martins of Chatworth

This is part of the extraordinary flower-rich cultivated machair in South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, For my money this archipelago is the British landscape that’s most expressive of a creative partnership between its people and nature. Long may it continue so and congratulations to the Hebrideans.

Last month in the first of three blogposts on Nature post-Lockdown I highlighted what I saw as an egregious failure of two environmental agencies to defend the cause of a British bird in parlous decline. It was about the house martins at Chatsworth, whose nesting places were netted.

The owners argued that the birds were a threat to the Grade I listed building – Chatsworth Palace – but especially to the integrity of recently restored statuary on the walls, where the house martins find highly suitable niches to nest. Who could possibly resist the argument that the acid content in the birds’ droppings will dissolve the stone? Of course it will.

But probably not for 500 years! May be longer. By that time winter rain will have done as much damage as any house martin guano. The main point I want to highlight is the privileging of statuary over something alive!

At the heart of this is a deep Western bias, possibly it is a universally human bias (and my illustrations to accompany this blogpost tell their own very specific story about it), towards the importance of the abiotic. To translate this word bluntly, it means dead. The point is powerfully made by the late John Livingston the Canadian environmentalist in an essay entitled The Fallacy of Nature Conservation, where he argued that humans had no way of valuing what he called life process. I cited it in my book Our Place.

This is Cladh Hallan cemetery nr Kilpheder, which really comprises an extension of the coastal machair flora found on South Uist. It is hard to imagine a more beautiful setting for the human dead in our islands. What more fitting tribute to the departed than this glorious carpet of gold?

Livingston wrote:

‘The nearest thing we seem to have is the appreciation of form in music or poetry or dance – form, as opposed to specific content. This, as a kind of process, we understand and appreciate aesthetically. But we have not developed an aesthetic of life process. This is because our culture is essentially abiotic.’

This predilection for material objects over living essence is writ large in western consciousness since the early modern period and it goes hand in glove with the advance of capitalism. One can see an allied version of the same principles being applied in the arguments of the English philosopher John Locke during the seventeenth century.

Locke’s theories of value and property were deployed in the claim that, since native Americans did not till and cultivate the land, they did not technically own the hills, forests and plains where they had lived for 10,000-15,000 years. They had no title of possession. Implicit in this case was the idea that Euro-Americans, seizing and converting to farmland those very same vast territories, were the rightful owners before the court and before God. Nowadays we see it for what it is – a form of licensed banditry.

A similar version of the same ethical posture was embodied in the several thousand enclosure acts that were passed in this country from the eighteenth century to the late nineteenth century. These instruments of law levered about 7 million acres, a tenth of the land surface of these islands, of commonly held moorland and pasture across Britain – used for centuries if not thousands of years by subsistence rural communities – into the estate of the landed classes. The general principle on which it functioned was that the wealthier you were the more land you received. My guess is, though I don’t know the details, that a good many acres helping to fill the coffers of the Cavendish family today in Chatsworth, were acquired by this means.

Yet to mark out the cemetery as a cultural space rather than a part of the ‘wild’ flora of the Uist coastline, someone had strimmed completely all the ‘wildflowers’ and made of it a lawn-like ‘monculture’.

John Livingston’s argument was that our failure to accord value, or sufficient value, to a living world before the rights of ownership and the primacy of material objects would defeat conservation as a cultural and political project. Fundamentally, he was saying that human culture is a dead culture. If you prefer to the use the language of Freud and his concept of the anally retentive infant, it is our ‘shit’ that out-ranks everything when it comes to deciding what’s important.

Before going on to my own arguments just ponder a moment these questions. Say the word civilisation and what comes to mind? Big houses? Architecture? Paintings? Books? Statues? Libraries? Of course. Here’s a more challenging question. Which of these is a cultural landscape: the Lake District or the Flow Country? Finally, are the Serengeti and Yosemite or Yellowstone Parks expressions of nature or culture? Are they perhaps, even, outcomes of civilisation?

The truth is the living and the cultural are completely fused, whether we understand this or not. Livingston is wrong when he claims we have no sense of how nature can be cultural. Gardening is the most obvious example of a blending of the two elements. My guess is that visitors to Chatsworth are appreciative of precisely this interpenetration of human agency and the more-than-human parts of life, when they wander the grounds to the big house.

As substitute for that nasty golden carpet of bird’s-foot trefoil the relatives of the dead had placed at intervals these black marble vases holding beautiful bouquets of plastic roses and tulips! I know which i prefer.

Environmentalism is an expansion of the same understanding that nature is a cultural entity. It is not only cultural of course. The living world is entire unto itself and needs no humans to complete or fulfil its processes. The world will continue very well without us. But once we engage with it – through imagining a wolf, through erecting a blue tit box, by creating a nature reserve, or designating a national park – it becomes both things. It is the challenge of environmentalists to expand and substantiate this idea that nature is among the most important parts of our cultural lives.

We still have not come to recognise the extent to which the living world nourishes all parts of our cultural and living selves. Other organisms blended together in ecosystems sustain our bodies, refresh our minds and spirits, maintain our mental health, they also inspire creativity in all its manifold forms. The living world and the maintenance of it in all its astonishing and limitless diversity, should be at the heart of our highest values.

Covid and the partial suspension of capitalism have, in many ways, highlighted this. Lockdown has brought to the fore the essential place of the natural world. No one denies that capitalism is key to the production of wealth, but let’s not succumb again to its white noise which say it’s all that matters.

Reverting finally to Chatsworth. The presence and breeding of a petite, 19-gm pied mouse-like flying dinosaur with a heritage of 150 million years, made of air-filled bone and collagen-engendered feathers – which has visited this country for hundreds of thousands of years and now makes an annual two-way journey of 10,000 km from African winter quarters that are still largely unknown – these are cultural matters. The birds are a part of the integrity of Chatsworth just as much as stonework. The martins’ nesting on the statuary is absolutely entwined with its meaning.

In Macbeth Shakespeare has Banquo propose (ironically as it turns out) of the spirit at Cawdor House  

No jutty, frieze,

Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird

Hath made her pendent bed and procreant cradle;

Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed

The air is delicate.

My guess is the air is now less delicate at Chatsworth. May its occupants come to rue their decision and free the birds from their wretched nets.

Nature post-lockdown

1/3 The House Martins of Chatsworth House

Like almost everyone else in the nature community I have been fascinated to see how wildlife has come to the fore during lockdown. As the human project, with all its deafening white noise has receded, so has the rest of life stepped tentatively forward. Bird song has expanded and wild animals seem to have ventured into our space.

What does it portend for the future? What breakthrough could occur because of this resurgence of interest in nature? Will the British people discover a new relationship, valuing other species – flowers, birds, insects – for the life-enhancing joy that they bring, for their ability to buffer us against stress and enrich our lives when times are tough? But also when times are good? In a three-part post I tackle a number of issues and propose ways in which things could change.

Firstly, however, I want to highlight a local banishing of wildlife that went largely unreported during lockdown. In the late days of April, just as spring migrants were returning to this country, the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust highlighted a deeply sad and, to my mind, regressive measure undertaken at Chatsworth House by its owners.

The latter had sought permission to place nets over parts of their palace to prevent birds nesting in the statuary. They didn’t initially know what species they were dealing with, nor it seems did the ecological consultants, who had been called in to assess the matter (as is legally required when protected birds are to be stopped from nesting). Nor it seems did the Peak Park Planning Board, which passed the decision and approved the netting in the absence of this clear understanding.

As it turned out they were house martins. This is one one of the most charismatic of our summer visitors, famous for its pied plumage, swooping flight, conversational chattering calls and for a mud-cup nest that may have inspired early humans to the possibilities of clay and straw. Who knows?

What I do know is that house martins once nested in Derbyshire cliffs and caves as they must have done for hundreds of thousands of years until they saw the breeding possibilities entailed in our own homes. Their arrival in spring – about the first week of April now – is something of a miracle given that they complete this transcontinental journey and weigh about 19gm. Here’s a little piece I published in the Guardian which subsequently appeared in my book A Claxton Diary: Further Fields Notes from a Small Planet whose paperback version arrives next month click here for more details.

At Chatsworth, house martins have probably nested since the mid seventeenth century when the house was first built. However, when they applied to net their walls it seems as if all parties to the action were not certain if they were swallows, swifts or house martins. What was indisputable was that all three of these candidate birds were summer visitors. Why would you conduct a survey in December, on which you would base your decisions, at precisely the time when the birds were not present? Yet they did.

The nets were approved and legally placed over the statuary and as compensation a series of replacement artificial nests, initially it seems for swallows, and then, later, when it was plain house martins were involved, for those too. No one disputes that all parties acted legally. Yet it does beg questions of whether netting bird sites to prevent them breeding should be sanctioned in law. And Chief Executive of the Wildlife Trusts Craig Bennett thinks it is time to end it. I agree. It is a heartless gesture creeping into British planning procedure. The judgement (attributed to Gandhi) that a nation is measured by the way it treats its animals, seems deeply relevant.

What I challenge most is the meaningfulness of the legal process. That’s what this post is about. The problem with the due process at work in this case is that it always tackles the detail as they pertain to a specific circumstance. It is a process that is essentially ahistorical and blind to context. It assumes that each decision is equal to the last ad infinitum, and yet we know that house-martin numbers are shrinking at an alarming rate and have declined by 60 per cent in 40 years.

Thus, in effect, every time one makes a fresh decision that impacts adversely upon house martins their plight worsens. Every year overall house martins are doing worse in Britain. With each situation the legal guideline becomes less tenable. That is the background picture against which the Chatsworth decision was made. It highlights for me how wrong the decision was, especially by an agency, the Peak Park Planning Board, supposedly tasked with protecting nature in a national park. When will we recognise that in the situation we find ourselves –  where we live among a diminished and diminishing natural environment – this decision-making process is not adequate?

What could be done, as in the case of the house martins, is that where a species has declined by 25 per cent or more in 20 years, then no detrimental action could be taken other than in truly exceptional circumstances. At that point alternatives must be sought. And those could be based on a principle of net gain.

Yes, take action, but in a way that increases house martins at the site while solving your so-called problem with stone damage. It could have been a phased process, based upon a true survey in the correct season (summer), with genuine data of bird numbers and of the ways that they used the target stonework. Then you could make it a publicity campaign that enhances Chatsworth’s reputation for good wildlife practice. Make an opportunity, in short, of your so-called ‘problem’.

Once you had known how many house martins there were, they could have provided artificial nest sites elsewhere and then monitored the adoption of these alternatives. Instead of the ‘we’ve-put-up-boxes-surely-the-birds-will-see-the-need-to-move-from-the-stonework-to-the-new-sites’ approach. Wild animals don’t always know what humans plan for them to do! By a process of trial and error and incremental exclusion the birds could have been coaxed gradually from the house site. By providing more nests than were used previously you could have expanded house martin numbers at Chatsworth, where, as I point out, they have probably bred since the house was first built.

Are these wonderful birds not as as integral to the site and to all its cultural meanings as the very statuary that required such stringent protection? In fact, I would argue that in a land that is the 29th most denatured on Earth, we should privilege the living fabric over the lifeless infrastructure. For me, house martins are more beautiful, more engaging and more culturally significant than dragon-shaped stonework. That’s the issue of my next post.

Nature or nature: Views of the more-than-human in Pagnol’s The Water of the Hills, part 2


This is the second of my two-part blog about this remarkable book. The human narrative in the novel is tackled in the first. Here, I want to talk about Pagnol’s observations of humans relations with the rest of life. The book was published in 1962 and centres on a contest between two parts of one family over the ownership of a farm. At the heart of it all is a gushing fountain of spring water, on which both sides have founded their spiritual, as well as their agricultural, hopes.
It is surely unnecessary to point out that a story fundamentally about H2O has profound implications for our time, especially now that climate chaos confronts us all. And since it’s a book so pre-eminently about water – and given that I have no pics of Provence where the book is set – I have illustrated my posts with aqueous images of many kinds.
P1080087 (3).JPG
Very early in the story Pagnol sets up opposing views of nature as manifest in the two branches of a family. Jean Cadoret – the ‘Jean de Florette’ of the title – inherits his farm through his mother’s line and arrives in the village of Les Bastides to create a dream home in the country. He, his wife Aimée and daughter Manon are immediately established as what we would call today ‘nature lovers’. The long-neglected land at Les Romarins, with its overgrown thickets of dog rose, brambles and rosemary, is instantly heralded by Jean as a haven: or as he declares, it’s ‘Zola’s Paradise.’
Jean goes on to capture their united sense of enchantment with the farm’s wildness, cracking open a bottle of wine to toast their arrival: “I drink to Mother Nature,’ he says, ‘to the fragrant hills, I drink to the cicadas, to the pine woods, to the breeze, to the rocks of thousands of years, I drink to the blue sky!” What Jean names are precisely the unproductive parts that a peasant farmer like his nemesis Ugolin doesn’t even see, except for their possible implications for agricultural profit.
While Jean is no sandaled hippy I feel you can’t read his story and not see links between his attitudes and those of modern environmentalists (including me), for whom Nature has become an idealised entity. Jean says to Ugolin elsewhere in the story, “I came to the irrefutable conclusion that the only possible happiness was to be a man of Nature. I need air, I need space to crystallize my thoughts. I am more interested in what is true, pure, free – in a word, authentic, I hope you understand me?’ There is a deliciously comic irony here, because later Ugolin recounts the same conversation to his Uncle, Le Papet, where he reveals how completely he had misunderstood Jean’s words. He assumes that authentics are some kind of funny foreign crop Jean is seeking to grow at Les Romarins.
Yare at Rockland Staithe
There is not only idealism in Jean’s attitudes to Nature. There’s also a touch of pride. Like the tax auditor that he had once been, he loves to flourish his black notebook with its detailed statistics of monthly rainfall in that part of France, and quote them at Ugolin as the ultimate authority whenever the latter queries the practicality of his rabbit-breeding plan. These jousts of agricultural know-how pit theoretical book-learning about Nature against a peasant’s rooted experience of it.
Jean is unequivocally more sinned against than sinning, but there is an element of vanity in him. While it can never cancel, nor can it any sense justify, the wickedness of his relatives when they block up the Les Romarins spring, sometimes he seems overly pious. An example comes at the point when he has taken to dousing – pathetically and, ultimately, with fatal consequences – to try to locate a water well for the farm’s needs. He does it barefoot, explaining to Ugolin that:
‘… firstly shoes are very dear. So I want to get used to doing without them and I’m taking my first steps here, to give myself a horny sole, as strong as the best leather, and more supple … On the other hand, since I want to be a man of Nature, these ridiculous covers already seem to me to be perfectly useless. It’s a great pleasure to walk barefoot, and it seems to me that the subterranean currents of our Mother Earth penetrate my body better, to revitalize and rejuvenate it!’
River Wye in Millers Dale
For their part, Ugolin and le Papet embody traditional peasant values. They are steeped in first-hand experience of the soil. They are practical materialists. Ultimately, they relate to nature – not Nature – as a thing to be subdued in order to generate produce or profit, but also to be respected as an adversary and never to be under-estimated.
I’ve just learnt a rather nice word to summarise it. Umwelt. It means the world as experienced by a particular organism. They are both surrounded by the same swirl of life, but Ugolin and Jean take from it different things, they construct separate Umwelten and arrive at different conclusions. However there is a character in Pagnol’s book who combines both versions.
The real figure of nature and of Nature, reconciling all and looming over the whole book is Jean and Amelie’s daughter the eponymous Manon (the second volume is called Manon des Sources). She is an idealised symbol that fuses the human and the more than human parts of life.
She is firstly the daughter of a Caliban-like hunchback, a ‘creature’ of nature if you will, and, once ousted from Les Romarins as a fatherless minor, she is forced to take refuge in humankind’s first home on Earth – a cave. There she lives with her biological mother, Aimée a former opera singer, and her spiritual mother, Baptistine a Piedmontese peasant who has lived in the hills with her woodsman husband for decades. Mothered by both culture and nature, Manon grows up perfectly attuned to these wild montane surroundings.
rain on leaves in Solomon Islands
We find her surrounded by some of most telling classical motifs of the Dionysian. For example, she is a goatherd amidst a troupe of satyrs and fauns, and when alone communing with the elements, Manon delights to play her father’s harmonica, a twentieth-century version perhaps of Dionysus’ pan pipes. Most telling of all, is the moment when Manon bathes naked and dances and music-makes in the stream beneath the hot sun, in the dreaming hills.
This extraordinary scene is, as I noted earlier, one of the two decisive moments on which the whole drama turns. Because thereafter fortunes favour this goddess of the hills, rather than the money-grubbing, flower-growing peasants who would block up another person’s water source for profit. As Manon dances and bathes she is espied by Ugolin, out for a walk to escape the noxious chemicals that he administers to his intensively grown carnation crop at Les Romarins.
In stumbling upon a naked goddess – and Manon is actually described in the text as such – Ugolin is doomed like another Peeping Tom of Greek mythology. In this story the prince Acteon, while out hunting in the woods, stumbles upon Artemis as she disrobes by a secluded pool. His punishment for this transgression is to be turned into a stag, when he is set upon by his own dogs; and if Ugolin is not exactly torn to pieces by his own hunting pack, he is at least undone by the hounds of love. Because he falls into a hopeless infatuation with Manon and moons after her like a love-sick fool, ultimately succumbing to his unrequited passion and killing himself after he has gone mad.
It is worth noting that, until that moment by the stream, the unloved lover has worshipped a very different mistress. Every night Ugolin goes to his hearth to count and to add to the gold pieces that he stores in a tin by the fire. Thereafter, however, he is besotted with another kind of gold: the flowing blond locks on Manon’s beautiful head. Ugolin is, in a real sense, undone by nature or, at least, by one of its most irresistible forces: sex.
All of this complex trading upon classical imagery and ideas is lightly done by Pagnol and it’s easy to overlook his underlying metaphysic. Yet there is another example of it at the story’s other key moment that I must mention. It comes when Manon, following one of her goats into a hidden cave where it has strayed, discovers the aquifer that determines the prosperity and ultimately the well-being of the entire village. That she ventures into the underworld to find the secret source of life, that she acquires there the powers of life or death over Les Bastides and all of her neighbours, strikes me as somehow reminiscent of the myth of Persephone. Yet quite how it functions I am not sure. Perhaps a reader can enlighten me.
There is a secondary element to Manon’s role as hunter goddess in the hills. She is literally a seeker of game and a subplot in the interactions between Ugolin and Manon centres on her daily excursions to check her line of snares and traps for hares and thrushes. It leads to another deliciously ironic moment when Ugolin, desperate to please Manon, catches a hare himself and then places it in her noose as a kind a love token. She then promptly gives the prize to her actual lover, the man who will win her heart and marry her, the teacher Bernard. And if he is not a figure of nature in quite the way that Manon is, he is a geologist, a rock hound who strikes the Earth with a hammer. In this we should perhaps see a glance at Vulcan, the divine partner to the goddess of love Aphrodite. (Incidentally, I suspect for Pagnol, Manon is both representative of the virgin huntress Artemis and of the sexualised goddess of love).
But the key thing to note is that in delineating a female emblem of Nature, Pagnol saw nothing contradictory in presenting her as a killer of the other parts of life. Of course, this is no more than a reflection of the moral code of the author himself. Being ‘lover’ and ‘hunter’ simultaneously is the very order of things in twentieth century France. For me this aspect of Manon is perhaps the most important and most resonant for our times, because it raises questions about how we should understand our relationships and responsibilities to the other parts of life.
I am a devoted environmentalist and shot a magpie once, at my mother’s behest (she hated them!), and have then spent a lifetime of guilt atoning for my crime. This doesn’t mean that I have ever subscribed to the kinds of blanket opposition to blood sports one finds so often associated with my field. Much as I would never do it myself, I am tolerant and, in some ways, celebrating of our hunter past. Who is not awe-struck by the predatory prowess of hunter-gatherers such as the San or the Yanomami?
reed reflected in the embanked medieval Beck at Claxton
Anyone who knows the first thing about the other parts of life is aware that human moral codes have nothing to do with how nature itself functions. Nature is beyond notions of good and evil. There is no issue of ethics entailed in the mosquito infected with a malaria plasmodium. We cannot condemn the cordyceps fungus that grows in the brains of an insect and whose fruiting body sprouts from its head while obliging the victim to die in a posture best suited to the dispersal of fungal spores.  I have no truck with the attitudes of the otherwise great American ornithologist Alexander Skutch who, a vegetarian himself, saw snakes as an expression of a lower morally degraded part of life, compared, say with a frugivorous quetzal.
full moon on puddle at Holkham, Norfolk
Nature is a system entire unto itself and whenever I encounter attempts to lasso human notions of value around our fellow creatures, I find myself resistant to it. Let me qualify that. I despise trophy hunting of anything inedible and even edible – wolves, lions, giraffes, elephants etc. Yet where there is some semblance of the old subsistence hunting and the victim is eaten I really have no problem (theoretically, I should add; I don’t necessarily wish to encounter or see it!). And where there is no conflict with a species’ self-sustaining viability, again, I really don’t think it is an issue. If the target species were in anyway at risk – such as, say, snipe or woodcock in Britain – then I would oppose hunting, but if the prey were abundant and native and shot in numbers that reflected subsistence consumption I can see no obvious problem.
There are many instances where taking life in the interests of species conservation or habitat management is a necessity. Clearing islands of non-native invasive mammals – cats, rodents, goats, monkeys and possums etc – by systematic poisoning and trapping seems to me perfectly acceptable. Culling excessive numbers of grazing herbivores that are not controlled by some wild predators, such as the muntjacs in much of England England, or the red deer that presently help to reduce large swathes of northern Scotland to a wet desert, is not only tolerable, it is to be devoutly wished for.
Yet so often we find people implacably opposed to killing as if it were a matter of universal merit never to take life. One example is the person I met who opposed the conservation of Scottish wild cats on the grounds that one measure, proposed as a necessary prerequisite, is the trapping/killing of feral domestic cats; or their neutering to prevent interbreeding. Their position was to see wild cats go extinct in Britain as a species rather than cross a moral Rubicon and eliminate any of their domestic relatives.
Wild cat neutered male as part of captive breeding programme
We have come a long way from Manon and her slip knots to catch thrushes. But in straying on to this field, which is complex and fascinating, I wanted to illustrate the multiple issues about our relations with nature that are entailed in this wonderful novel sequence. For me, as I said earlier, it is among the most significant nature-centred books I know. It could so easily be the basis for an entire course on nature and the business of writing about it. It is a gloriously funny, desperately sad and brilliant mirror in which we find ourselves reflected over and over again. I hope you will be inspired to read it. 
reed reflected at Claxton

The Water of the Hills: A Parable for Our Times by Marcel Pagnol


Recently I returned again to the wonderful novel sequence Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources by the French playwright, author and film director Marcel Pagnol (1895-1990). This year I even made The Water of the Hills (L’eau des Collines), the title for the whole work, my book of 2019 in The New Statesman. Originally published in the same year that Rachel Carson released Silent Spring (1962), Pagnol’s great work is the most resonant modern parable about nature that I know.

Every European who has ever watched a screen in the last 40 years has been touched by it, because the famous harmonica riff that has been used ever since in Stella Artois adverts was initially inspired by Pagnol. Those few melancholy chords have morphed into a kind of audible signature for everything rural in France, but they were initially part of the soundtrack for Claud Berri’s brilliant screen adaptation of Jean de Florette (1986) starring Gerard Dépardieu and Yves Montand. (in fact, I learn that this music was itself borrowed from the overture to another tragic tale, Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, Force of Destiny, opera).

Together with the sequel Manon des Sources, Berri’s film is still the biggest box-office success among all foreign-language cinema and sealed the international reputation of Dépardieu. Yet I urge you to find and watch the films again here: like me you may come to judge Montand’s performance, at the very end of his life, the more complete and the most moving expression of broken human dignity.

Everyone thinks of both the novels and the films in terms of their dramatic human story and I shall outline this in the first of my two blog posts. (The Water of the Hills is, after all, shaped as two separate novels, so i shall respond in kind!). In the second post I’ll dwell on its implications for our relations with nature. The title, even, gives a strong clue to the underlying ecological themes. The work is a meditation on water’s centrality to life.

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Pagnol is rightly cherished as a kind of Gallic Thomas Hardy, with his books, in turn, celebrated for their rich, earthy, humorous accounts of Provencal life at the turn of the century. The author was born and raised in the high limestone country just inland from Marseilles and his landscapes and rustic characters have the authenticity that comes from deep firsthand knowledge. To the bucolic comedy, however, Pagnol blended plots that most closely resemble those of classical Greek tragedy. In fact the pair of novels contain heart-rending dramas that are of mathematically precise symmetry.

The first volume tells of Jean Cadoret, who is both a hunchback and an idealistic intellectual, a town-bred tax collector, who has inherited a family farm just outside the fictional village of Les Bastides. The farmhouse is called Les Romarins and is portrayed, at first occupation, as a forlorn plot, rank with weeds and brambles, the olive trees long neglected and its rich soils unproductive and dormant. The farm’s single saving grace is a private spring that flows perennially in its upper ground and offers potential to Jean Cadoret’s ambitious new rabbit-breeding scheme.

Unfortunately just before Jean, with his wife Aimée, a former opera singer, and their delightful young daughter Manon can arrive and take possession of the house, they are preempted by the machinations of  Ugolin Soubeyran. I love the way that the clue to his despicable behaviour is contained in the name. He is a young peasant farmer with his own grand designs for Les Romarins – an intensive carnation-growing operation that would be a thirsty consumer of its spring waters.

Egged on in these flower-growing plans by his elderly and wealthy uncle, César Soubeyran – known by all in Les Bastides as ‘ le Papet’ – Ugolin blocks up the spring at the Cadoret place. His hopes are that the owners and their plans will soon fail and enable him to snap up the farm at a bargain price. Quickly he inveigles his way into their household, feigning friendship and offering faux assistance, somehow always finding a way to be on hand for his charming and open-hearted neighbours, all the while enjoying a spider’s-eye view of the unfolding tragedy.

For no matter how hard Jean de Florette labours, and no matter how nobly he wrests from Les Romarins the makings of a successful enterprise, the hunchback is thwarted by basic meteorology and geography in that part of southern France. Unaware of ‘his’ spring or its blockage by the Soubeyrans, Cadoret resorts to ever more desperate measures to obtain water. Steadily, inexorably – with a growing thirst that can never quite be quenched by the wine that is his consolation and his increasing addiction – Jean dies for want of simple H2O.

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The second volume Manon des Sources tells a very different kind of story, but it is one of equally dramatic and emotional power. And, in a way, it is the perfect measure of Pagnol’s brilliance as a novelist, because the central tragic ‘hero’ – if we can call him that – is precisely one of the two villains of the first volume. César Soubeyran.

At the close of Jean de Florette we see César and Ugolin unblocking the well after purchasing Les Romarins from the destitute widow Aimée and the fatherless Manon. In their poverty the two Cadoret females are obliged to go and live with their Piedmontese friends and neighbours in a cave located near the only other water source in the area. The Soubeyrans, meanwhile, free the spring from its cement plug and the waters gush forth, at which point Ugolin cries:

“The carnations, Papet … Fifteen thousands francs a year … The carnations … It’s a fortune that’s bubbling up … Look! Look! It will run to the carnations … Look!”


Initially the waters and fortunes flow exactly as they plan. The Soubeyrans  do indeed found their carnation farm and Ugolin secretes in his hearth the gold louis that his profits yield. César is delighted to see his nephew flourish and anticipates that his wealthy young relative will soon take a wife and produce the heirs to inherit the Soubeyran land and money that his ancestors have salted away.

Manon, meanwhile, grows up into a gorgeous young woman, living freely in the hills above her old home, tending her goats, reading her fathers’ books and playing the harmonica that is her only other inheritance from him. The story then reaches a watershed in two Hardyesque moments of dramatic reversal, and fate flows in the opposing direction.

The first occurs when Ugolin, out hunting in those same hills, comes across the sumptuous young naked Cadoret maiden as she bathes Diana-like in a rock pool. He is intrigued, increasingly captivated and ultimately besotted with Manon, who moves centre-stage to direct the course of events in the second volume.

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The second key moment happens when Manon, following a lost goat into the Earth, discovers the underground chamber, where gather the waters that supply, not only Les Romarins and Ugolin’s thirsty carnations, but the entire supply for the village of Les Bastides. She thus reverses the situation and blocks up this mountain stream and inflicts upon the community what it has done originally to the Cadoret family. For Manon discovers that several of the villagers knew of the Soubeyran plot to oust them from their farm but had done nothing to stop the evil.

Two tragic consequences unfold as the water crisis grips the village. Ugolin, tormented by his guilt and his love for Manon, and realising that she will never consider him as a suitor, goes mad and hangs himself. Cesar is grief stricken by the loss of his only blood relative, but worse is to follow. For in his youth le Papet had had a love affair with the eponymous Florette, the mother of the hunchback Jean Cadoret and the grandmother to the beautiful Manon.

However he had departed into the army and had never learned why Florette’s had abandoned him and had gone to marry in a neighbouring village. He learns, however, his lover, far from leaving or rejecting him,  had written to tell him that she was pregnant with their child.

At the book’s close Cesar realises finally the devastating truth. The man whose misery he had sought, whose livelihood he had ruined, whose farm he had allowed to fail for want of water, whose plans he had thwarted in favour of a nephew, and whose family he had rendered destitute and turned into cave dwellers, was, in truth, his own son. Jean was his heir and Manon his granddaughter.

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The boy, the man and the Jack Snipe: why I jump for joy at being a naturalist

jack snipe


‘Is it a “Jack” snipe because it is like a jack-in-a-box?’ were the words I overheard from someone standing near me. A fair question, because as it feeds this tiny wader (technically it is called Lymnocryptes minimus) from Arctic Russia bobs up and down, the body performing a rhythmic movement that I timed at about one bob per second.

The seemingly involuntary vertical motion is in a separate plane to the jack snipe’s frenetic, horizontal mud-probing action, which I reckoned it was repeating at about five stabs every second. So in a minute of feeding the bird simultaneously pops up and down and jabs the head and beak forward at a rough ratio of 60:360. Let’s be frank: this is hilarious stuff. (Check out the various Youtube pieces here, apologies for the music).

But to answer the person’s question, this bouncing behaviour doesn’t explain the name. ‘Jack’ – first recorded in the seventeenth century – is a reference to the species’ size. It is a ‘little’ snipe, compared with the once-abundant resident bird known as a common snipe.

What I find entrancing about this secretive creature is that it reveals its identity, aside from the distinctive jack-in-a-box behaviour, by relative or negative capabilities. Jack snipes are less than their relatives. When visiting Britain they are also silent. In all my life I’ve never heard so much as a peep. They’re famous, when flushed, for flying less than common snipe and sometimes even refusing to move at all (for this reason the French call it Bécassine sourde, the ‘deaf snipe’). In fact the first I ever saw 46 years ago was plucked bodily by a friend like a gold-and-emerald treasure from out of its rush couch.

Since that moment a jack snipe has gifted me, through these negative details, an understanding of its identity each subsequent time that we have met. The process of acknowledgement by one species unto another, observer towards the observed, is for me the greatest privilege enjoyed by any naturalist. I recommend it to everyone. It peoples every day with so many live encounters; it has crowded a lifetime with ‘friends’, and around each of their names has accumulated a deep well of memories. So that an hour by a muddy pool with a little bobbing bird is part of a life steeped in meaning.

(The lovely photograph is courtesy of my good friend David Tipling, the wunderkind of British nature photography  The short article is taken from my Guardian country diary. You can find it on 29 October 2019. Confines of space meant that it was cut and part of the article’s real significance was lost. I’m posting it here so I can restore it to the original.)






(Ivy) Bee Aware

DSC_1250Here is a short visual essay on a wonderful addition to our parish. It is ivy time again and the lane down from the house has a hedge smothered in it. I always love to stop and examine the plethora of insects, which are intoxicated by its pollen and nectar. Last autumn I found a gorgeous addition to the village community called ivy bee Colletes hederae. This week I find it is back in even greater numbers.

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It is recorded as larger than honey bee but it looks to my eye about the same size. What is distinctive is the pattern of five pale hoops around the abdomen. The precise colour varies depending on the state of the season, as you can see below.

In fresh condition – right now (early September) – they are a gorgeous warm bright ginger on the thorax and the lines on the abdomen are a citrus orange. Both the front, sides and top of the head, as well as the sides of the legs, are all covered in fine blond downy hairs. As the bee wears and bleaches, the creature is still strikingly bright and more distinctive than any other family members in the ivy hedge, but the colours fade to washed-out sandy beige.

Bizarrely no sooner had I found the insect for the first time ever, I then located a small breeding colony elsewhere in the village. Like many solitary bees they burrow in soft sandy earth, often many together. The females then presumably provision the eggs in the nest chamber with quantities of ivy goodies (nectar and pollen?). Their entire ecology is tied to ivy and they occur only during the time of hedera blossom. They are gone by early November.

Let’s take one small step back to look at the host plant itself, which is one of the miracles of the European hedgerow.  Here is a typical flower cluster that is in full blossom, but


begins as an unprepossessing raceme of minuscule fig-like lime-green balls (just visible below main flower head). Even these unopened flowers are hugely attractive to insects and I notice all manner of bees, wasps and flies, scrape and lick the surface of the incipient buds. What are they getting from them?

The unopened flower then develops into a triangular cone topped by a nipple, from which peel away the five sepals. Eventually the flower opens and out burst the five tiny, sepia serrated stamens. This whole unit has a magnetic effect for so many insects. Ivy’s only competitor as a concentrated source of food for invertebrates is probably sallow blossom in March and April. It is worth thinking about the importance of ivy, incidentally, when you plan your wildlife garden. But back to the main story.

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The ivy bee is, like the Greenland glaciers, the hurricane in the Bahamas and the 2019 hottest July temperatures on record, an expression of climate chaos. It is remarkable to contemplate that this insect was not known to science (I learn from the fabulous Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland, by Steven Falk and Richard Lewington) until 1993. Nor was it recorded on the British mainland until 2001.

Rather like the newly spread tree bumblebee Bombus hypnorum, the ivy bee has subsequently colonised large areas of southern England. In a year it has substantially increased here but the species is also passing northwards at a high rate (now in Anglesey). The Bee, Wasp and Ant Recording Society have a website with a mapping project for this species. If you find it yourself then perhaps pass on the record here.

Before closing I urge you to take a close look at the nearest patch of flowering ivy. It is a wonderful source of fascination. Our patches are presently smothered with bush crickets, butterflies, bumblebees but also some rather exciting predators. The most abundant is the field digger wasp Mellinus arvensis.


This rather flat-bodied wasp does seem to enjoy the vegetarian delights of the ivy but it also runs among the foliage and inner core of the hedge, manoeuvring about in the twigs and leaves with almost primate-like smoothness, to hunt stronger meat. Every now and then, amid the more even drone of busy insects, there is a shrill outburst as another poor victim succumbs to the digger wasps embrace. It too, like the ivy bee, is provisioning the nest chamber, but in this case with fresh flesh. Imagine having to face your assassin in this near-sexual embrace:DSC_1225

There is also at present a more striking killer in our hedge. It is another wasp called rather appropriately the bee wolf Philanthus triangulum. Here it is – notice the very distinctive facial pattern and orangy brown edges to jaws (and also at the back of head).



This species specialises, as the name suggests, in honey bees and can apparently have a substantial impact on whole hive populations. Mercifully, so far, in our village, it seems the lion and the lamb have found a way to lie down together (bee wolf and ivy bee feeding on ivy).





A Kitchen-sink Drama

I am a naturalist of almost 50 years continuous practice, but I am still not entirely sure what to make of these moments. Maria and I were having our customary pot of tea when just before 8 o’clock there was a murderous shriek, which we had heard last year when I DSC_8623 (2)

plucked a rather dazed immature starling (alive and well; see my Guardian country diary here) from our wood-burning stove. This bird was clearly in a different danger and, sure enough, just beyond our back kitchen door, on the concrete strip that bounds the garden, jammed up tight against a low perimeter wall, was a young sparrowhawk with an adult starling.

For all their timidity when in the presence of humans, sparrowhawks with prey are remarkably persistent and brazen. You might have thought two agitated humans passing just 3m away, albeit behind thick glass, would have spooked him (actually I am not entirely sure which sex this sprawk is and would welcome feedback; it looked small enough for a male but was decidedly brown, had no grey above, except one single moulted feather visible in the image below. That it is last year’s bird is fairly sure. See the pale tonsure and rufous hind crown, as well as the yellow irides, which turn orange in adults) but he was unrelenting.


The other thing that was so apparent was the air of indifference to its victim. I chose my opening picture because so far as I know there was nothing there to elicit that upward  stare by the sparrowhawk . And notice how, as it kneads the life out of the starling (next two images), it barely looks at the other bird. Yet the starling is yelling ‘No!’ in its face, but it looks everywhere but at the victim. Of 30+ plus shots of this moment, only one suggests eye contact between the two. Of course the sparrowhawk must keep itself safe from its own predators as it persists in this rather vulnerable state, but you might also have thought that watching for that long yellow starling bill, would have been wise.


The other striking thing, aside from the sparrowhawk workaday ‘pitiless’ spirit, was the sense of pure terror that must have assailed the poor starling (see below). What made its plight all the more alarming is that this spring, as in every spring i can recall, I have starlings nesting in my office roof, just above where the pictures were taken. Even as I type now I can hear the chicks making their sneezing, wheezing begging calls and occasionally I see a parent fly into the roof cavity with food. Could that bird beneath the hawk be one of these parents? i cannot say. Will my chicks survive if there is only one parent? I probably will be unable to tell because i am due to leave for a trip. But I can tell you that throughout the latter stages of the whole drama, while i was rushing back and forth changing lenses and finding other vantage points to photograph the action, my starling nestlings in their nest were completely silent. Had they intuited or been informed that there was imminent danger?

DSC_8671 (2)Eventually the sparrowhawk carried the near-dead starling to the back wall of our back garden and proceeded to pluck and eat it. I continued to photograph the developments from an upstairs window and was mesmerised by the thoroughness of the sparrowhawk’s feeding method. The part first eaten was the head cavity, including the brain and both eyes. The work was done so thoroughly that eventually I could see almost the whole bare skull. DSC_8809 (2)The other thing that I would like to convey is the muscularity of this little hawk, who may not weigh 200 gm and just double the starling. Eating and plucking was a process that involved the  whole body and one sequence in particular which i produce in its entirety shows the sheer physicality of the process of eating. The ten images (to be read in sequence) represent less than 30 seconds. Look at the intensity of action, the whole body including that entirely elevated, pointing-in-the-air tail, working to prize food from the tough skin for which starlings are well known.



Here as a reprise in greater detail is that central shot when the bird is at its most focused.

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Finally I would say, as a moral commentary on the experience, just moments after it flew off I was placing our fish supper in the fridge for tonight. Is there any moral or attitudinal distinction between us and the sparrowhawk? I think not.

Painting Africa: Martin Woodcock 1935-2019

P1160359The birding world woke up last Sunday morning to learn that Martin Woodcock had died after a short illness. He and Barbara have been friends for more than quarter of a century, from a time when I was on the council of the African Bird Club, along with John Fanshawe, Gary Allport, Eng-Li and Paul Green and many others. Martin was our chair and later president of the society. Both he and Barbara were often fabulous hosts to meetings at their Kent home. Those occasions were always memorable. Later the Woodcocks moved to Blakeney in north Norfolk and for many years Barbara was our go-to girl for framing our paintings and art.

Everyone will tell you the same thing. They were, they are terrific people: kind, warm, modest, funny and lovable. This is a small tribute to Martin, on whom I wrote a short piece in 2005. Here’s the text:

“Some people are 50 years old and some are 70 years young. The wildlife artist Martin Woodcock might have the physical age of the second but he has the vitality of the first and has crammed into his three score and ten as much as most of us would achieve if we lived to be both ages added together. His work is currently part of the Norfolk Open Studios programme, which gives us a rare opportunity to meet the man and enjoy his artwork display at his Blakeney home.

My immediate impression on seeing the exhibition is the sheer variety of styles and materials. There are lovely loose pencil field sketches, intensely colourful oil works on wood, freer and more expressive water colours of Norfolk birds, such as a barn owl ghosting across an autumn landscape.


Perhaps my favourite is the painting of a small group of yellowhammers, whose dry metallic song – once known to every schoolchild as ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’ – was once one of the defining sounds of drowsy summer evenings in north Norfolk. The yellowhammers are painted in acryllics, a medium with which the artist has a love-hate relationship (apparently the paint dries too quickly). Although it is typical of the man that despite these reservations he plunged headlong into experimentation with acryllics.

The result is a detailed and deeply intimate portrait that, because of the darkness and enclosed feel to the surrounding vegetation, intensifies the sulphur yellow of the birds. I also love the way in which the subjects’ brilliant colours are picked out, one by one, in the lichens and foliage detail of the setting. Despite the seeming incongruity between the yellowhammers and their gloomy deadwood perch, there is, in fact, a beautifully harmonious interplay. The work exemplifies the way that much more is often happening in a Woodcock painting than might immediately strike the eye.

The current exhibition gives a good insight into his artistic versatility, yet it will tell you very little about his passionate understanding of music, his attachment to reading – and writing – poetry, his love of photography. Nor will you find any hint that by the age of 40, this Kent-born naturalist wasn’t a professional artist at all, but a stockbroker in the city. Although his passion for wildlife had been in the blood since he was four and his first ever published drawing, exactly 50 years ago, was notably of a bird seen in north Norfolk.



a plate from a late book Safari Sketchbook: A Bird Painter’s African Odyssey, in which I had a small hand

His big break came when he was commissioned by the publishers Collins to produce the plates for a field guide. It was, in a sense, in his guise as illustrator, that I first met him 15 years ago in the forest of Thailand. He wasn’t there in person, but he was present in the latest of his book, A Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia, and indirectly he helped me to identify every bird that we saw throughout our month in the country.

Field guides are intriguing documents. Some become such close companions, particularly during a long journey, that they are much more than written accounts of a group of animals or plans. The relationship is well captured in Redmond O’Hanlon’s wonderful book Into the Heart of Borneo, where the author treats his copy of ‘Smythies’, his guide to Bornean birds, more like a sacred text. These books get covered in hand-scribbled notes and are so loaded with memories about the creatures that they helped you to recognise and the context  in which they were encountered . And the more thumbed and battered the guide, the more one treasures it later as a personal memento of the past. Eventually one can also come to regard the author as a sort of friend by proxy.


(Part of a couple of Martin’s plates for The Birds of Africa)

It is in this context that so many of us know Martin, because he is one of the most prolific illustrators of field guides in our time. His titles include a Handguide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, The Birds of Oman, and the Gem Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. This last shirt-pocket-sized work has been in print for a quarter of a century and has sold perhaps as many as 500,000 copies.

Undoubtedly his most important contribution as an illustrator is his work for the seven volume The Birds of Africa. Just the vital statistics of the project should indicate the scale of his achievement. It took him more than 25 years to complete, it includes 220 plates of more than 5,000 bird figures and covers all the species of the entire continent. The quality of the workmanship evolved over the course of the project, but the whole set is remarkable and the plates in the final volumes include some of Martin’s finest work.


When I hear about the work of great nineteenth-century wildlife artists such as John Gould or J J Audubon, I am left in awe at the sheer stamina they showed for such huge multi-volume projects and wonder how on Earth they managed it. The Birds of Africa is a work created in much the same fashion. The key difference is that its artist is still very much with us and for one more week you can go along and meet him and ask how it was all done.”


I have two very fond memories of Martin and Barbara. One is from when I gave a speech of appreciation from us all when he stepped down as Chair of  African Bird Club. The second comes every time I lift my binoculars to look at the next wonderful wild creature or plant. Because a few years ago I bought Martin’s old Swarovskis. All naturalists will tell you how treasured their ‘bins’ are; mine are now doubly so.