Natural heroes: the amateur naturalist

While wondering around my local neighbourhood yesterday looking for wildlife lurking in unusual places the chairman of the Bath Natural History Society, who was leading the walk, told me about some notebooks he’d picked up recently. They’d belonged to the postmaster, who had managed the local post office (which has now sadly closed). His family wanted them to have a good home. Over many years he’d recorded the natural history of Charlcombe on the eastern side of Bath.

I spend a lot of time walking through the meadows, with my family, down to the stream at the bottom of the Charlcombe valley. Its such a rich oasis for nature with low intensity management. To think that someone had trodden the footpaths before me recording the plants, butterflies, birds, insects, trees he’d seen brings a smile to my face. It presents a snapshot in time of the wildlife that could be found in this wonderful place; something for modern day naturalists to get their teeth into, re-recording the species found here the first time round.

Only in the UK could this sort of thing happen – following in the footsteps of Gilbert White who centuries before had written the first natural history book based around his observations of Selborne Common in Hampshire.

The UK is a natural history global superpower thanks to this army of people recording the wildlife that they see, jotting down their observations in notebooks, sharing them with the nature organisations, large and small. Its allowed us, as a nation, to build up a pretty comprehensive picture of the wildlife that calls these islands home.

Years back I came across a postman who’d be recording the birds he’d seen and the weather in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales at Malham Tarn. He had been doing it for forty years, filling up countless notebooks and then producing annual reports. Such a story of commitment, love and passion; adding to the knowledge that we have of a pretty special place. His story remains untold: a mixture of shyness and wondering what all the fuss is about.

And then there was the rare oil beetle uncovered on the picturesque south Devon coast. Discovered by a dedicated naturalist who by day was a solicitor but at weekends spent his time wandering along the South West Coast Path looking for the insects that called it their home. His determination and knowledge had come up trumps with a beetle that was thought to have been extinct for sixty years.

The digital camera is making it possible for a naturalist in the South East of England to catalogue dragonflies and damselflies found on National Trust land. Rather than spending hours in the field volunteers are sending him the pictures they have taken by email which then allows him to identify them and rank the different places in the region as hotspots for dragonflies and damselflies.

The amateur naturalist is a special breed. They are someone whose infectious enthusiasm for what they do is captivating and compelling. Often very unassuming and camera-shy their knowledge is awe-inspiring. Recording what they see allows us to paint a picture of the natural world in the UK. They help to shine a light on the species that live in the trees that are dotted across the landscape or the rivers that meander there way across the valleys.

Without their scribblings and field note books our appreciation of the countryside, coast and towns and cities would be so much less than it is thanks to their field skills and hunger. The amateur naturalist is a natural hero!


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