Monday, 16 June 2014

My Speech to the Recorders' Conference

Back in April of this year, the Greater Manchester Local Records Centre organised a Wildlife Recorders' Conference at Manchester Museum. I was asked to give a speech and you can read it below (well it took me long enough to write it!):

"I want to start by introducing you to a great Mancunian – a person who some of you may, possibly, have never heard of.

His name was James Crowther and he was born in 1768, in the cellar of a slum property near Deansgate. Most of his working life was spent as a porter on the canal at Knott Mill. His life seems to have been an extraordinary mixture of hardship and joy. He was an exuberant free spirit and his great passion in life was botany. It was said of him that: “[H]e was characterised by a cheerful, joyous disposition; was the life and soul of any botanical party, and pursued both botany and entomology with the greatest ardour.” He thought nothing of walking 15 or 20 miles, after work, in search of plants. He always received a week’s holiday at Whitsun and used to walk to the Yorkshire Dales. On one of these trips he discovered the Lady’s Slipper orchid.

Another of his finds was the Mudwort – which he found growing on the (appropriately enough) mud by the side of a mere near Knutsford. He told his friend Edward Hobson about this find and Hobson insisted that James take him to see it. In the interim it rained heavily and when they reached the mere the Mudwort was under water. Hobson went off to look for something else but when he came back there was no sign of James. Suddenly the surface of the mere erupted and up came James triumphantly clutching a specimen of the Mudwort!

Another lake which featured in James’s life was the one in Tatton Park. One day he arrived in the park with a home-made contraption – a long wooden pole with brass fittings. He was almost immediately grabbed by two gamekeepers who accused him of poaching fish and dragged him before the owner of the park, Mr Egerton. James explained to Egerton that the contraption was for retrieving water weeds – not fish. Such were his powers of persuasion, and so impressed was Egerton by his knowledge and enthusiasm, that he told his keepers that James was not be molested again and was allowed to enter the park any time he chose.

Gamekeepers were an occupational hazard for James and they invariably accused him of poaching. Once he was chased across 3 or 4 miles of open country and only just managed to escape. On another occasion he, and his friend Richard Buxton, were searching for Cloudberries on the moors above Stalybridge; they strayed onto a grouse moor and were apprehended by an irate gamekeeper who refused to believe that they weren’t poachers. They knew that the rich guarded their land zealously and that the penalties for poaching were severe. On this occasion they finally managed to talk themselves out of a dangerous situation.

James had many friends who shared his enthusiasm for plants and natural history. Two of these friends were John Bland Wood, a medical doctor from Salford and the aforementioned Richard Buxton, who was a poor shoe-maker from Ancoats. Both of these men published floras of the Manchester region and James contributed records to both publications.  Both of these books give us a tantalising glimpse of this part of the country before industrialisation and urbanisation wiped out many of its natural riches.

The confrontations that James and his friends had with gamekeepers reminds us that, from the middle of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th century, the rich and the nobility contrived to have acts of Parliament passed which allowed them to enclose lands which had formerly been held in common. These enclosures too often had a devastating effect on wildlife and natural habitats. We don’t know what James and Richard and their associates thought about this, but one of their contemporaries did make his views known. This was John Clare, a farm labourer and poet from the village of Helpston - which lies to the north of my home town of Peterborough. John kept a nature diary for a few years and his poetry reveals an intimate and detailed knowledge of his local wildlife – particularly of birds. One of his greatest poems, entitled ‘Remembrances’, describes the catastrophic effect that the Enclosure Movement had upon his beloved local countryside:

Inclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain
 It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still
It runs a naked stream cold and chill.

  And since Clare’s day, losses of wildlife have accelerated, especially since the Second World War when so-called ‘agricultural improvement’, and latterly rampant development, have become the norm. Recently, a wide-ranging alliance of wildlife conservation groups published a report entitled ‘The State of Nature’ - a comprehensive audit of what has happened to the natural world in Britain over the last half century. The report was co-ordinated and produced by the RSPB but 24 other bodies took part, ranging from the Bat Conservation Trust to the British Lichen Society.

The report is, essentially, a catalogue of loss. It examines the fates of 3,148 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates and plants in the British countryside since 1962. It concludes that 60% of these species have declined in numbers, 30% have declined by more than half and 10% are threatened with extinction. Populations of many species – like the House Sparrow or the Garden Tiger Moth - which were common only a couple of decades ago are now in steep decline. I note, in passing, that such a report would not have been possible without the work of thousands of wildlife recorders, working over decades, to accumulate the necessary records.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by these grim statistics. It’s sad to relate that our species has been wiping out other species for a very long time. It is now, more or less, agreed that when humans migrated out of Africa, between 100 and 200 thousand years ago, they exterminated large animals (mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths etc.) on five continents. A paleobiologist, named John Alroy, told the American journalist, Elizabeth Kolbert that this ‘megafauna extinction’ was a “geologically instantaneous ecological catastrophe too gradual to be perceived by the people who unleashed it.” But the rate of destruction appears to be exponential and we’re now on the part of the curve where it starts climbing close to vertical; the on-going catastrophe is now perceivable well within a single human life-time. There have been five major extinction events in the history of Planet Earth and we’re now living through the sixth. And there’s no doubt that our own species is causing this one.

But there’s something very odd about this sixth extinction. Others were caused by insensible natural forces – climate change, volcanism, asteroids etc. but what makes this one unique is that it is being studied, in meticulous detail, by elements of the causal agent! I wonder if there’s any evolutionary significance to that fact – I don’t know – ask me again in another 100,000 years!

But there’s more to recording than just cataloguing loss. Sadly, we live in a culture which is currently so uncivilised that it doesn’t recognise, as James and his friends did, and modern people like you and I still do, the value of the natural world for its own sake. We have to justify the conservation of landscapes and habitats by proving that they are notably biodiverse and worth conserving; and that means record keeping.
Everyone in this room understands where James’s mad enthusiasm came from and why he derived so much joy from the natural world. A world sterilised of its wildlife, and containing only humans and their artifacts, would not be worth living in – and would probably not even be survivable. And that’s why we have to stand against the rising tide of destruction. Record keeping may seem a rather mundane and bureaucratic activity – but it’s a powerful weapon in our armoury.

Dave Bishop, April 2014


1. ‘The Late James Crowther, The Naturalist’: Obituary in the Manchester Guardian, Jan 13, 1847 (Thanks to Andrew Simpson for directing me to this remarkable document).

2. ‘The Selected Poems and Prose of John Clare’: edited by Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield, Oxford University Press, 1967.

3. ‘The State of Nature’: Report from the RSPB and Partners, 2013 (www.rspb.org.uk/images/stateofnature_tcm9-345839.pdf)

4. 'The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History' by Elizabeth Kolbert, Bloomsbury, 2014