There comes a point in November when even the most ardent naturalist gives up on the outdoors, giving in to the long nights, doom-laden mists and seemingly wildlife-free days of the dourest of months. This is the time when we retreat to the comfort of our libraries. Diverse, pleasing and a constant reminder of the wildlife of summer and exotic travel, the books on a naturalist’s shelves tell the story of our connection to wildlife, past, present and future.
The prized possessions in my library are the great books by pioneering natural history writers – Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne, Thomas Bewick’s beautifully engraved guides to birds and Goldsmith’s A History of the Earth and Animated Nature. Some of the best natural history writing originated from the pens of country sportsmen for whom the pursuit of their sport required an exacting understanding of the biology of their quarry. Izaak Walton’s 1653 The Compleat Angler tells us much about the brown trout’s behaviour and ecology and is as useful a guide to the rivers of the Peak District today as any other book.
Like Walton’s Angler, Humphry Davy’s 1828 Salmonia is both a literary and scientific classic. Davy was an imaginative thinker, a passionate countryman and keen angler who went on to be one of the world’s most famous scientists. He identified the importance of key chemical elements such as calcium, potassium and sodium and developed the famous “safety” lamp for use in mines. Davy wrote that “when we endeavour to form an idea of paradise, we always suppose a trout stream going through it”. A few pages of his book transports me back to the rivers of summer, and away from the gloom of November.
Think like a duck
If the upland landscapes can seem bereft of wildlife in winter, then the lowland coastal and wetland areas of Britain in contrast teem with a wealth of the winter wetland bird migrations. For the birdwatcher, a wetland is the place to head for. Our estuaries and coasts are among the world’s most important for wintering swans, geese and wading birds. I called in last month to Abberton Reservoir; recently enlarged and not far from the Essex coast it is one of England’s largest artificial bodies of water. While they are big in area, many of the great modern reservoirs can be disappointing for birds. The water held in a reservoir, like our savings, house values and spirits, can go up and down. These great bowls can be poor feeding grounds for birds that need to be able to dive or dabble for food every day.
The underwater landscape at Abberton has been designed to allow feeding places for ducks as the water levels rise and fall. Throughout the winter, and whatever the level of the reservoir, the ducks have access to places to feed. Abberton was always important to wildfowl, but the enlarged reservoir is even better. A good walk around the site takes in expanses of wilderness it is difficult to imagine existing in an area so close to London and the fast-growing towns of Essex.
As you pass headland after headland, it is the sheer quantity of wildfowl that impresses — tens of thousands of coot, wigeon, teal, mallard and tufted duck, as well as geese, swans and waders.
Abberton is also a great example of partnership between the very enlightened Essex & Suffolk Water (whose water forum I chair) and the Essex Wildlife Trust. Habitat management, bird censuses and educational work are done to the highest standards on a site that shows that wildlife and economic progress can work together well. For a wildlife experience in England, Abberton is difficult to beat and is an example of where the simple process of thinking like a duck and designing the land and water infrastructure accordingly has been a great benefit to wildlife and to the people of Essex.
Lighting up winter
I have never mastered the art of rare moth identification but, like most naturalists, I know the common species. I am entranced always when I’m in the company of those who do know their unusual moths. A bright moment in winter is the appearance of a moth at a light in the garden. Only the males are strong fliers. These are, in some ways, unremarkable brown or greyish moths without the flashiness of a summer-flying moth like the garden tiger or magpie, sporting only the faintest band of decoration across their wings. But to have adapted to a lifestyle that brings them to the wing at such a difficult time of year, gives me a degree of cheer and pleasure that few summer moths can achieve.