Urchin and heath
The Naturalist in South-East England S. A. Manning (David and Charles, 0.95)
At London's Television Centre there were just five frenetic minutes to air-time and another doom-laden nine o'clock news. Not the time when a telephone call is most welcome, but they told me this was urgent and from Northern Ireland. What further disaster might have befallen that hapless land? With quickened heartbeats I took the call. A man's voice with the unmistakable much-aired accent was asking my advice. His little girl aged eight had found a baby starling that afternoon — what should he do with it? I am ashamed to say that I very nearly told him.
A trivial incident but an indicator of the upsurge in interest in natural history and wildlife which has taken place in Britain over the past ten years or so. This is surely one of the more positive and hopeful aspects of our computerised age of unease.
I suppose no part of England has suffered more from over-population and pollution than the south-east, and yet it still manages to support a surprisingly rich and varied wildlife. We are now indebted to Mr Manning for this addition to the David and Charles 'Regional Naturalist' series. Through the expert if slightly pedantic eyes of Mr Mannin,g we look afresh at such well worn territory as the North and South Downs, the Weald, the London Basin and the coast. Having myself been born south of the river in Surrey, this was my stamping ground before the war but many changes have occurred since then. Nowhere more so perhaps than on the South Downs where sheep once safely grazed in their tens of thousands. The excellent flavour of local mutton being attributed as Mr Manning reminds us to the presence of numerous snails in the close-cropped turf. Changed farming methods led to the disappearance of the sheep, and then with myxamatosis the rabbits almost vanished too. The plough and the combine harvester moved in and, sadly, great stretches of springy turf once such a joy to walk over have disappeared.
We must be all the more thankful that the South Downs Way remains — eighty miles of ancient bridlepath running from Eastbourne to the Hampshire border. Thankful too for the permanence of the great white cliffs where in some parts samphire and sea cabbage still show their yellow flowers as they did to the 'father of English botany,' William Turner, some four hundred years ago.
Last autumn on the isle of Ramsey off the Pembrokeshire coast I delighted in watching the aerobatics of that rarest and most musical of the crow family the red-billed chough. Several pairs breed there still but they have vanished from Shakespeare's Cliff, one of their former haunts near Dover.
Among other important features of the region are the great shingle foreland of Dun
geness and the alluvial flat lands of Pevensey Levels and Romney Marsh. Everywhere there is the tug-of-war not only between conserva tion and development, but between conser vation and recreational interests. Chichester and Pagham harbours are important for wildfowl and waders, but holidaymakers and speedboats cause inevitable disturbance with breeding birds. Mr Manning pays tribute to the Kent Trust for Nature Conservation for establishing reserves in several areas, instancing in particular the acquisition of parts of Sandwich and Pegwell Bays at the entrance to the Stour estuary. But even here there has been a hoverport development at Pegwell Bay. All of us will have to care very much more and there will have to be a great deal of in telligent co-ordination and planning if the coast and remaining countryside are not to be further despoiled.
After his general survey the author devotes five sections to mammals, birds, trees and other plants, freshwater fishes and other wildlife. The greatest threats to mammals, apart from the spread of people and buildings, are of course the casualties on roads or in heath and forest fires. But some of us may not realise that a bottle heedlessly thrown away may well become a living tomb for shrew or vole. It is all too easy for them to squeeze through the opening but, once inside, the slippery surface of the glass makes escape practically impossible.
One of the mammals whose numbers have declined all over England is the hedgehog. This may in part be due to his instinctive reaction to curl up when in danger. Fortunately there have been indications recently that some suburban hedgehogs at least are getting the message that this is not the best way to stave off modern traffic. Although I have always thought of the 'urchin' with affection it is clear that some of his ways are less than lovable. As the author records:
An interesting display of self-anointing occurred in the case of a young hedgehog which had been deserted by the mother before its eyes opened, and was taken care of by the obierver who reported on its behaviour. Each day, on being released for an hour, the animal chewed dog excrement until a brown foam exuded from its mouth. After placing the foam on those parts of its body within reach, it set off on its exploration of the garden. This case certainly seems to support the suggestion that hedgehogs use the saliva to disguise their own scent and thus protect themselves from potential enemies.
The south-east is also a region of great interest to the botanist. In Sussex it appears that some five thousand records were added during the three days of a recent spring bank holiday meeting. Country names given to flowers and plants have greatly enriched our language, but if it had not been for Mr Manning I should never have known for instance that yew berries were known locally in Sussex as 'snotty gogs'. He is highly informative too when it comes to that common species of hedgerow and woodland known as 'lords and ladies'. As he says: i have collected fourteen such names from our region, the longest being the Kentish 'Kittycome-down-the-lane-jump-up-and-kiss-me.' This and the other lack the down-to-earth vulgarity of many of the names used elsewhere, though the old name of 'cuckoo-pint' (Old English pintle or pintel, the penis) plainly refers to the spadix, the long fleshy axis on which the flowers are arranged, that stands enclosed in a large sheath or spathe. The names 'lords-and-ladies' and 'ladies-and-gentlemen' (Kent) refer to the barren upper part of the spadix which is usually bright purple (lords) but sometimes butter-yellow (ladies).
As they say on the wireless: 'all this and more' in Mr Manning's compendium. Grateful as we shuld be for the diligent research, some detailed illustrations would have been helpful and there are occasions when his oblique style is less than compelling. This is unfortunate because books of this kind surely deserve the widest possible readership. For instance I submit that the interest of the uninitiated is unlikely to be grabbed by sentences such as: "When scanning open ground with the aid of binoculars the naturalist will often detect hares lying up or feeding in areas where he may not have expected to see them." And so on. In fact, my only criticism of this admirable and valuable book of reference is that it smacks somewhat of the schoolroom.
Robert Dougall, who has just retired as a BBC newscaster, is President of the Royal 'ociety for the Protection of Birds.