This morning I received my bimonthly copy of British Wildlife Magazine. On the cover there's a brilliant photo of hares boxing in the snow by Richard Revels; inside there's a diverse range of articles, two of which are as much about people as they are about wildlife.
"Extreme Butterfly Collecting" by Matthew Oates is a biography of Ian Robert Penicuick Heslop (1904-70), a splendid example of the old school of eccentric naturalists. In the company of characters such as Baron de Worms and Colonel Labouchere, he risked life and limb to amass a collection of Britain's rarest butterflies. In 1953 he proudly announced, "By a coincidence I have caught exactly as many purple emperors as I have shot elephants".
By contrast, in his "Twitcher in the Swamp" column, Peter Marren offers a scathing critique of the BBC's recent series British Isles - A Natural History. He writes, "Deep down, the telly people think that nature is boring. Or, to be more accurate, they are convinced that the public thinks so." This is why, he claims, natural history programmes have become more and more gimmicky and obsessed with technology. I found myself nodding in agreement as I read the piece: the best natural history programmes show that nature is endlessly fascinating in its own right, without resorting to technical gimmickry.
Earlier in the week, I found myself watching a re-run of Ape-Man on UKTV History. This series marks, for me, the point at which the BBC's documentary output started to go seriously astray. They took a fascinating subject, human origins, and made a programme that is virtually unwatchable. Information is delivered in the briefest of snippets, punctuated by doom-laden chords and blurred, oddly-coloured footage of chimpanzees. It's as if the programme-makers thought, "People won't be interested in this, so we need to find a way of making it more dramatic." That seems a very strange view point for a documentary-maker. Surely it's better to assume that your audience will be interested provided you explain the subject clearly.
I've just started reading How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher by Simon Barnes. His philosophy is that studying the natural world, even in a casual and non-scientific way, can be a life-affirming experience. As he says, "Look out of the window. See a bird. Enjoy it. Congratulations. You are a bad birdwatcher."
I couldn't agree more with Simon's philosophy. Trudging home through the snow on Thursday afternoon, I spotted a starling singing its heart out on a TV aerial. Despite the gloomy winter weather, this little bird was full of the joys of spring: chest puffed out, wings fluttering, throat quivering. My spirits were instantly lifted.
About a year ago I took the decision to become more involved with the Sorby Natural History Society. Although I had been a member (on and off) for about 30 years, I hadn't attended many of the society's meetings until last year. Sorby has many experts in different fields of natural history. They are enthusiastic amateurs from all walks of life and, as far I know, none of them has ever caught a purple emperor and/or shot an elephant!