The Illustrated Natural History of Selborne 5 (5/08/’20)

Researching the biographies of Rev. Gilbert White’s two main correspondents provides an interesting insight into the methodical studies of late 18th century intellectuals – the two main correspondents being Thomas Pennant (1726 – 1798) and The Honourable Daines Barrington (1727 – 1800).

Pennant was a Welsh naturalist, writer and antiquarian who corresponded with many contemporary intellectuals/scientific persons as well as Gilbert White. Most of his collection of antiquarian books is now housed at the National Library of Wales. Pennant undertook many horseback tours over parts of Britain accompanied by his male servant who sketched landscapes seen on route and later reworked then as colour illustrations for books recording the journeys.

The Honourable Daines Barrington (1727 – 1800) was a lawyer, antiquary and naturalist and wrote many ‘papers’ published by the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. He promoted the idea of methodical daily record keeping of things seen and heard e.g. weather, plants, birds, insects, mammals etc. which is the main component of Rev. White’s letters. Both White and Barrington clung to a folklore notion that swallows hibernated under water over winter before re-emerging in April, one rationale behind this idea being that it must have been impossible for such a small creature to fly for hundreds of miles south to ‘Darkest Africa’. Barrington also made a study of birdsong, this before any means of sound recording was invented.

These two potted biographies and the correspondence of Gilbert White example the efficiency of the postal system well before Robert Peel’s Penny Post system was devised. Prior to the Penny Post (and the Penny Black postage stamp) it was the recipient who paid the cost of postage for each letter. No junk-mail then.

Many people such as those here mentioned had ample leisure time (including Church of England incumbents) but they used that time to improve the nation’s body of knowledge, not in simple self indulgence – or many did anyway.

The Illustrated Natural History of Selborne 4 (4/08/’20)

Throughout the Rev. White’s lettersĀ  are recorded moments when he shot birds, indeed it might seem sometimes as if he carried his gun on all his walks. To the mind of the modern conservationist this seems unforgivable but in an age before ‘protected species’ and the R.S.P.B. it must be stated that his reason for doing so was invariably so he could take home the the corpse to study – detailed study of plumage, contents of gut, small anatomical features and the like. There is, as far as I know, no reference to an ‘eye-glass’ so, although he clearly had very good eyesight, this might have been his main way of studying birds anatomies.

A number of high profile figures in the 20th century have, during the course of their lives, changed from being hunters to conservationists, the best known to me being Sir (after 1970s) Peter Scott (1909-1989), only son of Robert Falcon Scott of ‘race to the South Pole’ fame 1912. One of Peter’s ‘sporting’ interests as a young man was wildfowling (shooting ducks and geese in wetland environments) but, overwhelmed by the beauty of his prey, he abandoned the gun. One of his great achievements, one of a number, was to co-found the Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Gloucestershire just after the Second World War – the photo above being taken there in 1954 (from website).

Today’s shooting parties hardly deserve the title ‘sportsmen’, with cartridges filled with many pellets that fan-out on firing and ‘up-an-over’ repeater shotguns it must be harder to miss than to hit the target! Of course they argue on the grounds of country sports and rural tradition. Most ‘game’ is wounded in flight and, most likely, it is the impact on falling to the ground that kills them (this paragraph represents a personal opinion, as a teenager I too had an air-gun and a single-barrel 4-10 shot gun). Would the Rev. Gilbert White approve of killing birds for ‘sport’, who knows?

The Illustrated Natural History of Selborne 3 (3/08/2020).

An undated letter (probably 1775/’76) on p. 100 of the above book has added to it the colour plate shown above. To see a sparrow-hawk take its prey is a fearful sight, the final swoop to the prey being so lightening fast. The plate correctly shows the sparrow-hawk having gone for the throat of the prey for a quick kill to minimise struggling. As regards the representation of the two birds both show that the artist had an accurate knowledge of the birds in question. The relative sizes of the two birds shows that the sparrow-hawk is but a medium-sized bird, nevertheless in the sparrow-hawk kill that I saw a large wood-pigeon was the prey, much larger than the predator.

The colour plate of the robins (see previous blog) is less convincing, unless robins have grown shorter and plumper since the late 18th century. This line of thought invites some discussion on the relative merits of illustrations v. photographs in modern flora and fauna instruction books. The former can show a scene which allows the most distinctive features of the plant/animal to be seen/studied, although in so doing it can give a misleading impression of the size of the subject/s (as above in my view where the perch looks more like the base of a tree-trunk than the stump of a shrub). Photographs, on the other hand, can be 100% accurate but maybe don’t show the best angle, and anyway need a good photographer. Personally I am on the fence, of my two favourite wild plant reference books one has photos, the other illustrations.

In the letter Rev. White recounts a story of a local boy who climbed up a tree to capture some fledgling sparrow-hawks and failed but found remains of many ‘new-flown swallows and martins’ they having ‘not acquired those powers and command of wing that enable them, when more mature, to set such enemies at defiance’ (p. 101).

(to be continued).

The Illustrated Natural History of Selborne 2 (3/08/2020).

The Rev. Gilbert White (see previous blog), being a keen gardener and observer of farming practices as he walked around his parish as well as being an ornithologist, wrote that harvest bugs (s.p.b.) gathered on kidney beans and legumes and that they could swarm in such numbers on the chalk South Downs as to discolour the landscape. Doubtless this does not happen today.

Perhaps unthinkingly but progressively, White, in the same letter as writing of the harvest-bug, proposes ‘A full history of noxious insects hurtful in the field, garden and house, suggesting all theĀ  known and likely means of destroying them, would be allowed by the public to be a most useful and important work’, and goes on to write ‘A knowledge of the properties, economy, propagation, and in short of the life and conversation of these animals, is a necessary step to leads us to some method of preventing their depredations’. Would he applaud the multi-billion pound insecticide industry of our time? Was his letter of the 30th March 1771 the beginning of the end for insect-eating birds?

The Rev. Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne has been often re-printed since it was first published in 1789. It is a collection of very thoughtful letters mostly written to two devotees of ‘natural history’, the Honourable Daines Barrington and an eminent zoologist Thomas Pennant. It is often clear from White’s wording that he is addressing issues raised in letters sent to him. My copy is The Illustrated Natural History of Selborne as reprinted in 2007, here hand-drawn and coloured plates have been added where appropriate these taken from a selection of botanical and ‘natural history’ reference books of the late 18th and early 19th centuries sourced from the British Library Reference Division. The above picture is just one example.

(to be continued)


2nd August, 2020 The Illustrated Natural History of Selborne.

(Sorry for the ‘break in service’ – personal issues).

If swifts, swallows and martins rely on winged insects, or more correctly insects on the wing, then this seems to be a niche food source and thus more susceptable to changing environmental conditions. On the short theme of flies I can remember as a child having sticky lengths of ‘fly-paper’ hanging from the glass lamp-shade this covered with the dead and dying and still there would be dozens of flies buzzing around the room (part of the explanation given was the number of piggeries in the parish). Little wonder that swallows were abundant (I don’t remember seeing swifts until I moved to an urban environment). I don’t remember being then aware that when flies land on human’s food they vomit thereon although if that is Nature’s way so be it – this seems to have become a human paranoia, how much bulk can there be in a fly’s vomit and have we become so flimsy as to have no capability to cope with unfortunate inputs.

In terms of the food chain I think most fly varieties are omnivorous scavengers, but if they did feed on tiny creatures on the wing then what do those tiny creatures feed on, etc.

The Reverend Gilbert White (1720-1793) had comparatively little to say about insects compared with his wealth of observations and detailed correspondence related to birds, this mostly undertaken in his parish of Selborne, Hampshire where he was born, where he grew-up and where he served as curate. Selborne, now on the edge of the South Downs National Park, is/was about 20 miles from Southampton and the coast of the English Channel, an area he sometimes visited beyond his home parish.

The illustration above is of a ‘harvest-bug’ which White wrote about in March 1771.

(to be continued).

27th July, 2020 Flies.

The picture above shows a species of fly called Voria ruralis and was scanned from a website titled ‘Nature Spot, recording wildlife of Leicestershire and Rutland’. The v.r. may be seen in flower meadows and on waste land in the summer months and is fairly common in parts of the Midlands and Easter Counties south of the Humber. It is mainly black in colour and is covered with long bristly hairs, probably not the prettiest of flies but then ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.

At this point I need to come clean about my lack of knowledge about flies of the British Isles but clearly some people in the counties of Leicestershire and Rutland are as the above website includes close-up photos of 306 (as counted by myself so not to be assumed as correct) varieties of flies ‘in two dipteran sub-orders’ of ‘higher flies’ (therefore not including species such as crane-flies, midges and gnat, these classed as lower orders – less complex). I counted 56 categories within the two ‘sub-orders’, so there is a lot to learn if flies are your thing.

The experience that set me off on this train of thought was while sitting on a park bench a few days ago at just before 10pm I was watching a few swallows feeding on the wing (have not seen any official figures but from casual observation there seems to have been far fewer swallows and swifts this year), these followed by the first bats feeding on the wing before light faded to darkness. With ‘feeding on the wing’ they were twisting and turning in the air to follow and ‘get’ insect prey that may well have been flies.

Flying insects are essential to the food chain of these birds and bats. Swallows, martins and swifts migrate (some to Southern Hemisphere) as the life cycle of many local flying insects comes to an end.

(to be continued)