Norman Maclean, editor of the best-selling Silent Summer, talks to NHBS about his career, early home-grown experiments with nature conservation and the state of wildlife policy in Britain today.
What first inspired you to pursue your field of study, and how old were you?
I have been interested in wildlife since my earliest years (aged 6), being brought up amongst fields and farms on the outskirts of Edinburgh. I was equally interested in insects, birds, mammals and fish. My parents were very tolerant of my rearing caterpillars, beetles, field mice and newts at home, mostly in my bedroom.
What were the books that inspired you when you were young?
The books of Richard and Cherry Kearton on Nature Photography in St. Kilda and elsewhere.
Later, “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson.
What is your all time favourite natural history book?
Who are your heroes in the field?
Gilbert White, Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, David Attenborough.
How do you split your time between the field and your writing projects?
You might call me a polymath. Academically, I am Professor in Molecular Genetics, but I have strong hobby interests in wildlife, trout fishing, playing tennis, gardening, antiquities and travel.
How has your core understanding of the subject changed since you began your research?
Enormously. As a geneticist I have lived through 50 years of amazing discovery and change. In terms of wildlife, ecology and conservation I have always been a keen field biologist and have taught on student field courses in Southern Spain for over 20 years. I have also been witness to the alarming decline in insects and some birds and mammals. I have studied wildlife in over 50 countries worldwide, seeing the destruction of so much natural habitat, yet savouring the riches of what is left.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
My main research topic is gene regulation, and I and my research group have made some signicant discoveries in this area. Maybe my proudest moment in youth was discovering the first breeding of the Golden Plusia moth in Scotland when I was twelve – confirmed by letter from the Edinburgh Museum of Natural History.
What do you consider to be the most interesting current developments in your field of study?
In genetics the sequencing of the genomes of many species including humans, and in conservation biology the return to the UK of breeding cranes, red kites, otters, pine martens and others.
Which current issues in conservation do you feel have the biggest impact on your field, and how would like to see these dealt with?
The realization that you cannot effectively conserve wildlife in the UK by making fences round reserves and letting nature take its course. Ecologically speaking, almost all of Britain and Ireland has been moulded by human interference and activity so our future responsibility lies in the active management of wildlife, including judicious culling where necessary.
How would you like to see your field develop in the future?
With increased political prioritization of wildlife conservation and the preservation of what remains of the countryside. We must urgently control further human population increase and resist further demands on space, water supplies, energy supplies and contributions to global warming. We should all be prepared to reduce our own standards of living in order to improve those of the other species with which we share the planet.
Where will you be taking your next study trip?
What will your next book be?
I don’t know. Any ideas welcome!
If you could spend a month working in another field, which would you choose?
How would you encourage young people who might be interested in pursuing a career in your field?
Get a degree in biology or genetics at a reputable university and learn your own fauna and flora.