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Leicester Naturalists

Common Sexton Beetle, Prior's Coppice

Common Sexton Beetle, Prior’s Coppice

In 1983 I applied for the position of graduate trainee at Leicestershire Museums Service and was agreeably surprised to be offered the job. I quit my well paid teaching post for more meagre remuneration and soon discovered that I had entered paradise.

So wrote Derek Lott in his The Leicestershire Coleopterists (2009). Thank goodness for enthusiasts like Derek Lott: beetle species constitute almost one quarter of known animals, so it requires exceptional dedication to record accurately even those in Britain (about 4,000 species). Derek documented 200 years of beetle-hunting in Leicestershire and Rutland, beginning with Crabbe and giving their due to subsequent important collectors, before discussing the transition from collecting to recording which began in the 1960s. He also documented changes in the local beetle fauna, and included some important notes on collections. Collecting has become unfashionable, yet the fact is that many beetles (and other insects) cannot be identified unless they are collected.

Recent experience suggests that even some of our more distinctive beetles are under-recorded. Graham Finch has mentioned the possibility of producing distribution maps for particular groups (like the longhorn beetles), which is an excellent idea. The curation of museum collections is no longer a priority in some quarters, yet we owe it to our predecessors to maintain and build on their legacy. So if you see an interesting beetle, at the very least take a photograph; then check the identification and inform the recorder.

Guy Messenger was a schoolmaster and naturalist who in 1971 published his Flora of Rutland based on 15 or so years of fieldwork. I know him only through his works and what has been written about him, from which it is clear that his interest in maps (he collected more than 5,000 OS maps) combined very effectively with his interest in botany. He was acutely aware of the importance of the introduction of the National Grid as a means of mapping distribution, and of how valuable such mapping can be when future generations attempt to make comparisons over time. Notable amongst his helpers was a pupil, John Ironside Wood, who ‘did much of the systematic recording of common species.’

Messenger devoted eight pages to a discussion of the changing flora of Rutland, which emphasised how much had changed in the relatively short time (37 years) since the publication of Horwood and Gainsborough’s The Flora of Leicestershire and Rutland. He considered 192 species to be declining or extinct, and 182 species to be increasing (including new records since 1950). This compares with the findings 40 years later of Jeeves (2011 in his The Flora of Leicestershire and Rutland), who listed 200 taxa – almost all aliens – which had not been included in previous works, and noted that 138 native and archaeophyte species may have been lost (estimated at about 15 per decade since 1960).

There is a great deal of detailed information in Messenger‘s work from which it is still possible to determine, for example, the distribution of important foodplants for butterflies and the locations of some former sites which have subsequently disappeared. It is no exaggeration to describe Flora of Rutland as indispensable to local naturalists. Guy Messenger is said to have introduced himself to the Charles Close Society as ‘a botanist with a fixation on OS maps’; from the perspective of my generation he was, without doubt, amongst the most important and influential Leicester naturalists.

John Wright with his new book, Rutland Water

John Wright with his new book, Rutland Water

Every so often a book comes along which offers something new.

The translocation of Ospreys to Rutland was controversial, but what is abundantly clear is that the project established a population in central England which has had a significant impact on the spread of the species in both Britain and Europe, and that we have learned a great deal about Ospreys’ migration and biology as a result of studies derived from the project.

The book gives a detailed account of the project from its inception up to 2012, and includes diaries by several of the volunteers involved. This year it already looks as though there may be an impressive four pairs in the area.

One of the most striking aspects of the book is the artwork and photographs by John Wright, which are based on long hours of detailed observation not only in Rutland but also on migration routes and in the wintering grounds. The result is some stunning images, and the discovery that individual Ospreys have a distinctive ‘fingerprint’ formed by their carpal patterns which I hope will be the subject of a note by John in ‘British Birds’.

Thousands of people now visit Rutland to see the Ospreys, and every one of them could learn something, and marvel at the images, by buying this book.

Terry Mitcham at Egleton with the new Atlas

Terry Mitcham at Egleton with the new Atlas

In1992, Terry Mitcham published his first Rutland Breeding Bird Atlas. Now, 21 years later, he has followed it with a second covering the years 2008-2011. Again published by Spiegl Press, it follows a similar format to its predecessor so that the tetrad maps are directly comparable. Line drawings and colour photographs by John Wright complement the text.

Since the previous Atlas, five species have been lost as breeding birds (Ruddy Duck, Snipe, Tree Pipit, Redstart and Lesser Redpoll); the reasons for their disappearance are discussed in an Appendix. During the same period, however, no fewer than 15 new breeding species have been recorded, including several birds of prey and species such as Little Egret and Cetti’s Warbler which have responded to climate change. The reserves at Rutland Water remain of vital importance to many of our breeding birds.

To have produced one Atlas is impressive, to have produced two is exceptional. Terry Mitcham deserves our thanks and recognition for his huge contribution to local ornithology. At less than £10 this book is a bargain which anyone with a serious interest in the birds of Leicestershire & Rutland will want to own. It is available from the AWBC at Egleton.

Ronald Hickling, who died in 2006, was an influential figure in local ornithology. In 2009 I summarised his contribution as follows in BLR:

A major milestone, and the most influential statement since Browne, was reached in 1978, when Hickling published his ‘Birds in Leicestershire and Rutland’ on behalf of the LROS. The book’s 199 pages included chapters on birds in the landscape, articles reprinted from LROS Annual Reports, four maps, 11 illustrations, 39 black-and-white photographs of habitats and a table of the arrival dates of migrants, as well as a systematic list. It provided a suitably balanced treatment of common, regular and rare species and summarised records up to 1974 (with an appendix listing unusual records up to 1977); it is therefore important as a review of the local avifauna before the development of Rutland Water. A notable strength of the work was its discussion of changes in bird numbers in relation to changes in the environment. The author’s economical style, however, did result in some texts which lack descriptive detail, both for commoner species (for example Turtle Dove, to which Hickling devoted only one line of text compared with 11 lines by Browne) and some rare ones (for example Great Snipe, which is treated dismissively by Hickling even though Browne cited three specimen records, one of which is in Leicester museum and another of which he had seen personally). 

What this brief summary doesn’t mention is that in 1995 Hickling published another work of local interest, this time about James Harley. The bulk of this booklet is made up of extracts from Harley’s diary for the years 1840-1847; Hickling provides a review of Harley’s work, though as noted above his style tends to be rather economical. Two of Harley’s entries (both reproduced without comment) are of particular interest. The entry for September 11th 1840 states: ‘A fine example of the hoopoe ‘Upupa epops‘ was shot on the 8th of this month at or near to Lutterworth in this county. This example is described as being found sitting on a rail near to the Midland Counties railway.’ This provides more information about the record than noted in BLR.

More, interesting, however, is the entry for August 12th 1840, which mentions a November 1839 specimen of Rough-legged Buzzard, then continues: Cinereous shearwater “length from tip to tip of the wings 39 inches [99.1 cm], from the point of the bill to the middle feather of the tail 18 inches [45.7 cm], from the caracord joint to the tip of the first feather of the wing 18 inches. Wings half an inch longer than the tail. Twelve tail feathers rounded. Bill black and hooked at the end. Nostrils raised, oval and lengthwise. Plumage on the upper part very dark ash colour, with the feathers tipped with brown. From the throat down to the vent a slatey ash colour, growing dark from the breast to the vent. Under the wings the feathers ash colour having a dark streak along their shafts approaching almost to black. Weight 22 oz. [624 grams]. This bird was captured at Cossington by a shepherd dog in a field of turnips, and was kept several days afterward in captivity. It manifested a very savage and ferocious disposition whilst it was alive in captivity, fighting furiously at a cat or dog that might come its way.”

It is remarkable that Hickling made no comment on this record. Browne had included the record in his Vertebrate Animals under Manx Shearwater (he thought “Cinereous Shearwater” was Harley’s name for Manx – he had presumably not seen the description); he adds that for several days it was confined to a grass plot by the foot. It was also included in BLR as the first local record of Manx Shearwater. In fact, the description and measurements identify the bird as a Sooty Shearwater, which would be an exceptional (or possibly unique, in Britain at least) inland record. This would also have been one of the earliest British records of this species. Its weight was low, which might be expected of an emaciated bird found inland.

Although Hickling (and others) overlooked something important here, had he not published his work on Harley this might not have come to light. The original Harley manuscript is said to be in the Leicestershire Museum archives. The record will now need to be reviewed.

Photo by David Attenborough

Photo of tree frog by David Attenborough

This tree frog in Panama, photographed by David Attenborough, was used on the cover of Life on Earth. It exemplifies the first-hand observations which lend him an authentic voice.

David Attenborough grew up in College House on the campus of University College, Leicester. He was educated at Wyggeston Grammar School for boys, and spent his childhood collecting fossils, stones and other natural specimens. One of his adoptive sisters gave him a piece of amber filled with prehistoric creatures which, 50 years later, became the focus of his programme The Amber Time Machine.

Before leaving school he won a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge, in 1945, where he studied Geology and Zoology and obtained a degree in Natural Sciences.

In 1952 he joined the BBC full-time, but was initially discouraged from appearing on camera because his teeth were considered too big! (The scale of this error of judgement is shown by the fact that in 2006 Attenborough was named as the most trusted celebrity in Britain by a Reader’s Digest poll.) He became a producer for the Talks Department, which handled all non-fiction broadcasts. In 1954, however, Attenborough took the opportunity to present Zoo Quest at short notice. This was also the year in which he first visited Sierra Leone; both his visit to the tropics and his initiation in presenting proved seminal.

In the early 1960s, Attenborough resigned from the permanent staff of the BBC to study for a postgraduate degree in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics, with the intention of interweaving his study with further filming. However, he accepted an invitation to return to the BBC as controller of BBC Two before he could finish the degree. Attenborough became the controller of BBC Two in March 1965, but had a clause inserted in his contract which would allow him to continue making programmes on an occasional basis. In 1969, Attenborough was promoted to Director of Programmes, making him responsible for the output of both BBC channels.  Yet his heart was not in administration, and when the post of Director General of the BBC became available in 1972 he is reported to have phoned his brother Richard to confess that he had no appetite for the job.

Early the following year, he left his post to return to full-time programme-making. Beginning with Life on Earth in 1979, Attenborough set about creating a body of work which became a benchmark of quality in wildlife film-making. From the comfort of our own homes, albeit by proxy, we can now all see scenes which the most dedicated and expert naturalist is unlikely to see in a lifetime of observation.

David Attenborough‘s career is an object lesson in prioritising long-term goals over short-term ambition. At a local level, there is no doubt that he has made a huge contribution to conservation. At a global level, whether his softly spoken pleas for the planet have been heeded remains to be seen.

Montagu Browne was curator of Leicester Museum, a member of the Leicestershire Archaeological Society, a member of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society, and Fellow of the Zoological Society.

When we published The Birds of Leicestershire & Rutland in 2009, I summarised his contribution as follows: The most influential of the early works, however, was Browne’s 1889 ‘The Vertebrate Animals of Leicestershire and Rutland’. Though limited to 300 copies, the critical assessment of records which Browne provided became accepted as the authoritative account of the Leicestershire avifauna for the next 90 years. His section on birds comprised a systematic list of 133 pages, a table of arrival dates of summer migrants, a map and three illustrations. Both the text and illustrations (which featured Black Redstart, Pallas’s Sandgrouse and Cream-coloured Courser) show that there was already considerable interest in rarities. As curator of the museum, Browne had a good working knowledge of taxidermy and was often critical in his assessment of records. His comments on a rejected Wilson’s Phalarope, for example, include the statement: ‘To relieve the historian of the future of any further anxiety I may say that, being behind the scenes in this matter, I can emphatically state that Wilson’s Phalarope was not obtained in the county, nor in Britain.’  Whilst his critical judgements were often sound, he may sometimes have been too dogmatic and was criticised for this trait in an 1896 review of his work on artistic and scientific taxidermy (Auk XIII: 247–249).

Browne’s contribution to our understanding of local natural history was of course not limited to birds.

Sketches of Natterer’s Bat by Montagu Browne

His account of how he obtained these sketches of Natterer’s Bat is revealing:

Being quite sure there were more in the church [at Aylestone], I purchased a “Bat-fowling” net, and went up on the evening of 12th August, 1887. There were numbers of Bats flying inside and outside the Church; but, choosing the inside, I stationed myself by one of the windows of the chancel, between which and a stove-pipe the Bats were flitting. After two hours’ work, and several misses, I managed to catch three Pipistrelles, and, much to my joy, one Natterer’s Bat. The flight of the two species varied much, the Pipistrelles flying quicker, and constantly changing the direction of their flight… whereas the flight of the Natterer’s Bat was more fully sustained, and much more direct, though somewhat slower…. The specimen, which was a male, was very amiable in captivity… I made several sketches of him, four of which, not quite life-size, I have reproduced here… 

Browne seems to have been that rare combination of museum worker and field observer. He paid close attention to detail and assessed evidence with a critical eye. He established a standard of recording local natural history which deserves wider recognition.