She laments, sir,….. her husband goes this morning a-birding

The book stall consisted of at least six large tables covered with all kinds and all sizes of books. Judging from the number of people milling around the stall, there was quality here although the prices (50p for paperbacks and £1 for hardbacks – with reductions for volume!) might have had a hand in this.

We were at the Church Fete in the West Dorset village of Burton Bradstock, about a mile from the Lyme Bay coast. This is a traditional village fete, held in the walled garden of the rectory. There was a large bric a brac stall, a bottle tombola, several children’s games; you could also play “splat the rat” and indulge in “pig racing”, although no animals were actually involved. The St Swithun’s Band (the Brass Band from the nearby town of Bridport) was on hand to entertain and there was a Punch and Judy show given by Professor Pete Milson; apparently all Punch and Judy shows are lead by a Professor (but those who are academics knew that anyway!). The fete is one of the high spots of the local calendar and was very busy on this sunny, warm, early August afternoon.

When we arrived, my daughter headed straight for the book stall and I followed her. She was after classic novels and I was just browsing. I looked at a few books in a desultory manner until I discovered three nature books, one on flowers and two on birds. I have always been a bit of a sucker for reference books and I thought these might be good additions to my collection. To be honest, I didn’t examine the books very carefully but at £2 for the three it seemed like a good deal. My daughter found a couple of large history books and was well pleased.

Later on, I had a better look at the books and was pleasantly surprised. The oldest of the three, dating from 1956, was “A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe” by Peterson, Mountfort and Hollom. This is a pocket-sized catalogue of all the birds you might see in these regions with hints for identification. For each species there is a short description, a distribution map and a colour illustration. Julian Huxley, writing in the Introduction, tells us that that this was the first book describing all the birds in Europe. To me, what is interesting about this book is that it describes the birds as they were half a century ago, but more about that later.

I also particularly liked the dedication at the front of the book:


She laments, sir,…..her husband goes this morning a-birding
Shakespeare, – Merry Wives of Windsor”

The second bird book dated from 1970. It was the “Collins Guide to Birdwatching” by Richard Fitter. This is very much a practical guide to watching the birds of Britain with very helpful tips on how to identify species based on visual and aural clues. I like his down to earth style which includes statements such as “we are back in the realms of the small brown bird”, summing up my own feelings about bird identification. The text is much more helpful than the illustrations which are black and white photos and line drawings.

The third book, dating from 1974, was “Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe” and was also by Richard Fitter although his son Alastair shared authorship and there are lovely illustrations based on paintings by Marjorie Blamey. There is an extensive practical guide to identification at the beginning of the book and, in my opinion, the illustrations of the flowers are more helpful than any I have encountered in other books.

It seems like quite a coincidence that two of the books I chose were by Richard Fitter, so who was he? He was a British naturalist heavily involved in nature conservation. He wrote many guides for amateur naturalists and these were immensely popular, selling in huge numbers. In his books, Fitter goes out of his way to make field identification of species, both flowers and birds, easier so it’s no surprise that his books were so popular. His son, Alastair is Professor of Biology at York and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

So, I was pretty lucky with these three books and they will be very useful additions to my collection. As I have written before, I am no bird expert. I am interested in the wildlife around me but I don’t make systematic observations. On the other hand, the people who compile these bird and flower books are often dedicated and systematic observers.

These apparently simple but systematic observations can have considerable power, as shown by the work of Richard Fitter and his son Alastair. Richard Fitter kept notebooks recording the flowering times of plants around his home in rural Oxfordshire for more than 50 years. When his son analysed this information, he found that the flowering patterns of plants in the four decades between 1950 and 1990 were very similar but that in the 1990s flowering advanced by an average of 4.5 days. The findings were published in Science in 2002 with both father and son as authors and the changes in flowering time were taken to be a strong biological signal of climate change.

It also occurred to me that if I compare the distributions of bird species in the 1956 and 1970 books with the distribution shown in the 2009 Collins Bird Guide, I might get an indication of any changes over a 50 year period. I haven’t done this extensively yet but I had a look at data on the Cirl Bunting, a species now confined in the UK to a coastal strip of Devon between Exeter and Plymouth, as the 2009 book confirms. The Cirl Bunting is a relative of the Yellowhammer and the male is particularly striking with its green and yellow head and chest. In 1956 the bird was found widely in the southern half of England, roughly below a line linking Liverpool and Ipswich. In 1970 the bird was still found quite widely and Fitter refers to seeing the bird in his Oxfordshire garden. The Cirl Bunting suffered a steep decline after the 1970s and by 1989 it was found only in South Devon with about 100 pairs remaining. The decline was due to changes in farming practice, especially the loss of spring-sown cereal crops and weedy winter stubble. When this was finally realised, changes to farming practice were encouraged through government-funded schemes and the number of Cirl Bunting pairs rose steadily, reaching 862 in 2009. This is a great conservation success story and again emphasises the power of systematic observation.

About Philip Strange

After more than 30 years as an experimental scientist, I decided to have a complete change and moved to the West Country. I now write about science for several magazines and web sites and blog at
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