Author interview: Peter Marren

Written with Peter Marren’s usual wit and insight, Emperors, Admirals & Chimney Sweepers takes you on a journey back to a time before the arts and science were divided. When entomologists were also poets and painters, and when a gift for vivid language went hand-in-hand with a deep pre-Darwinian fascination for the emerging natural world.

Peter took the time to answer some of our questions about his new book and the origin of butterfly and moth names.

Tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in the etymology of species names?

I’m a natural history writer (in the sense that I’ve written a lot about natural history) with a background in nature conservation in Britain. I’ve loved butterflies and moths since boyhood, and I suppose I must have realised even then that many of them have unusual names. What the hell was an eggar? Or a lutestring? Probably like most people I didn’t think too much about it – weren’t names just labels? – until, out of curiosity, I went into the name of the Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta, and discovered a real Vanessa and a real Atalanta. And then I realised that even Latin names weren’t randomly chosen but had a particular resonance with that particular species. Names hid a whole new world of allusion, poetry and wordplay. I discovered that those who named our Lepidoptera, in English and Latin, were equally educated in the arts and the sciences. They knew their myths, and they knew about colours and designs, and they were completely fascinated. I feel a strange empathy with that vanished world.

What was the original inspiration behind Emperors, Admirals & Chimney Sweepers?

It started as a kind of sequel to my book Rainbow Dust, about how and why butterflies and moths inspire people. Names were confined to a single chapter in that book, but there was so much more to say, not only about the names themselves but the social ambience that spawned them: the world of Georgian London with its clubs and field excursions, its gorgeous illustrated books and the sense that nature was all the more wonderful for being 1) divinely inspired and 2) almost completely unknown.

The lightbulb moment came when I thought of dealing with names not as an entomologist might do, by families and related groups, but by themes: species named after animals, birds, moods, occupations, jewels and so on, all laid out alphabetically. I loved the fact that certain fine moths were named after weddings, focussing on bridal underwear worn in eighteenth century Sweden!

Emperor, Admiral and Chimney Sweeper are, of course, names of a butterfly and two moths.

If you could name a new species of moth or butterfly, how would you go about it?

Well, it ain’t a blank slate. There are written rules for scientific names and unwritten ones for common names. I’d love to call it Marren’s Glory but it would not be approved. I’d have to stick with the established vocabulary. So if it resembled, say, a wainscot moth, it would continue to be called that, distinguished by whatever word best caught its character. Overlooked Wainscot? Lenitive Wainscot? Look-alike Wainscot?  

What would be your advice for any budding entomologist out there?

There’s more to the natural world than pure science. Keep your eyes, and your mind, open. And enjoy yourself. And don’t say, “Oh that’s a Lenitive Wainscot, a Schedule 7 species graded as Least Concern in the latest IUCN Red List.” Just the name will do.

What is your most memorable butterfly or moth name, and why?

There are lots, but let’s go with the poor little Narrow-bordered Bee Hawk-moth, whose Latin name, tityus, commemorates the most hideous giant in all mythology. The giant’s poor mum exploded at his birth and when full grown his body covered nine acres. What do they have in common? Well, the old name for hawk-moths was Sphinx, and the Sphinx was a monster. Ergo (Linnaeus thought), hawk-moths should be given monstrous names. And the bee hawk accidentally got the worst of them because of its place on the list, wedged between two other appalling creatures.

I quite like Zygaena, the name of the burnet moths which they share with the hammerhead shark. For reasons too convoluted to go into here (but it’s in the book).

Any new books/projects in the pipeline?

I will have to find another project for it’s in the DNA. I suspect it will involve nature and childhood. Trouble is, others are on to it.

A limited number of signed copies of Emperors, Admirals and Chimney Sweepers are available from  NHBS.

Other works by Peter Marren

Peter writes frequently in as ‘Twitcher’ in the British Wildlife column ‘Twitcher in the Swamp’ and has had a string of successful publications including Chasing the Ghost (now in paperback), Rainbow Dust and the first volume in the British Wildlife Collection series. Click here for more books by Peter Marren.

Author Interview: Kate Bradbury

 

If you want to attract more bees, birds, frogs and hedgehogs into your garden, look no further than Wildlife Gardening for Everyone and Everything. Award-winning author and journalist, Kate Bradbury offers tips on feeding your neighbourhood wildlife and explains how you can create the perfect habitats for species you’d like to welcome into your garden.

Kate kindly took some time out to answer our wildlife gardening questions, to help us get our gardens wildlife-friendly for summer!

(c) Sarah Cuttle

Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in the natural world?

I grew up in a house with half an acre of garden out the back. I spend my early years out there, grubbing around in the soil looking for worms, watching the birds. I started gardening from a very young age and the natural world has always been a part of that, for me.

What interests you about gardening for wildlife?

I’ve always been a softie and I’ve always championed the underdog. I love garden wildlife but I’m also passionate about looking after it, and can see the potential our gardens have for saving so many species. Wildlife gardening is all about the power of the individual. There are so many things going on in the world we might feel powerless to change, but simply by planting flowers and caterpillar foodplants we can make a difference for local wildlife species.

I get particularly excited if I find a slow worm in the garden. What animal gives you the most pleasure if you see it visiting, or making a home in your garden?

I couldn’t pick just one! In my new garden I’m desperate to see a toad. They’re so rarely seen these days – I’d be honoured if they found their way to my garden. I’m lucky enough to have hedgehogs so I love seeing them. And a grass snake would be pretty special!

If you could pick just a single thing or activity anyone could implement in their garden that would benefit wildlife, what would it be?

Grow a few native plants. Just one native tree can support hundreds of different species – providing flowers for pollinators, leaves for caterpillars and then seeds or fruit for birds in autumn. Not to mention shelter! Non-natives have a great role in gardens – especially for pollinating insects. But it’s the natives that attract the leaf munchers – the caterpillars, leaf miners, things that need leaves to breed. And, being at the bottom of the foodchain, these are hugely important to anything from hedgehogs to frogs, toads, newts, birds and bats.

What can cause the greatest harm or damage to wildlife living in, or wanting to live in your garden?

Erecting new fences and walls. If wildlife can’t get in to your garden, you’re closing off feeding and breeding habitat to them and potentially blocking off more gardens, too. Make sure wildlife can access your garden and chat with your neighbours so they know this too. Hedgehogs need just a four inch gap beneath or cut into a fence.

If your outdoor space is very small, what are the best ways to make even a tiny outdoor space a home to wildlife?

Grow a mix of nectar- and pollen-rich plants for pollinators, plus native plants for caterpillars. In a small garden you might have room for only one tree – try a Silver Birch or standard Hawthorn, which are great for wildlife. In courtyard gardens and balconies grow forget-me-not, primroses and foxgloves. These provide nectar and pollen for pollinators but also leaves for caterpillars to eat.

Do you have any new projects in the pipeline that you’d like to tell us about?

I’ve got an exciting project coming up that I can’t talk about yet – you’ll have to wait and see!

Kate Bradbury has authored many popular gardening books and the wonderful The Bumblebee Flies AnywaySee below for a list of her books available at NHBS.

Wildlife Gardening: For Everyone and Everything  £14.99

With handy charts tailored to the needs of every size and style of garden, this easy-to-use book also includes practical projects such as making bee hotels or creating wildlife ponds, compost corners and wildflower meadows, as well as fact files for the UK’s most common garden species.

 

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway: A Year of Gardening and (Wild)Life From £9.99

Finding herself in a new home in Brighton, Kate Bradbury sets about transforming her decked, barren backyard into a beautiful wildlife garden. She documents the unbuttoning of the earth and the rebirth of the garden, the rewilding of a tiny urban space.

The Wildlife Gardener £16.99

The Wildlife Gardener is a book which helps you to create wildlife habitats in your very own garden, and is very handily split into sections on shelter, food and water.

 

We have also made a collection of our favourite wildlife gardening books and equipment to get your garden a wildlife haven.

Author interview: Benedict Macdonald

Did you know that 94% of Britain isn’t built upon, that Snowdonia is larger and emptier than the Maasai Mara National Reserve, or that Scotland’s deer estates alone cover an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park?  Britain has all the empty space it needs for an epic wildlife recovery.  So what’s stopping it from happening in our country – and how can we turn things around? 

Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and its Birds is a bold roadmap to reverse the decline of bird populations in Britain, suggesting we need to restore ecosystems, rather than modify farmland.

Author, Benedict Macdonald offered his valuable time to answer our questions about his important new contribution to the discussion of rewilding.

Rebirding Author: Benedict McDonald

What inspired you to become so passionate about restoring natural ecosystems?

In 2014, I began writing Rebirding in the certain knowledge that conservation in this country is failing, the birdsong around us is dying out every year, yet we have all the resources, skill and wildlife lobby to turn things around. I hope that in its small way, Rebirding will do for the UK what Sir David Attenborough’s Our Planet is beginning to do for worldwide conservation – to make people realise that nature is essential, profitable and saveable, even now – and that we have all the resources and skill to do so.

Tell us a little about your background and how you became interested in the natural world?

I never remember the moment of first being fascinated by nature, but I do remember that by the time I was five, I would make weekend visits to Berkeley Castle Butterfly Farm and was entranced by watching the butterflies drinking salts from my fingertips, and I began a collection of ones passed to me by the lady running it – after they had died.  Then early trips to the Welsh coast, and Norfolk, transformed that interest into a lifelong love of birds as well.  From there, their plight has drawn me into understanding and studying ecosystems and a far wider understanding of protecting nature.  Since then, my love of the natural world, both as a naturalist and a TV director, has now taken me to over forty countries.

At 14, I first remember telling someone at a dinner party that I wanted to work in wildlife television. Since graduating from university, I’ve been lucky to work on a range of programmes such as Springwatch, The One Show and The Hunt for the BBC.  Last week, aged 31, I attended the premiere of Sir David Attenborough’s Our Planet for Netflix, launching in the Natural History Museum in London. This is the largest conservation series ever made. I work as the researcher and a field director for the Jungles and Grasslands episodes, directing a number of sequences including desert-nesting Socotra cormorants, the secret life of the Alcon Blue butterfly, and the remarkable lives of the world’s only tool-using Orangutans.

In your opinion, what is the most detrimental practice to the wildlife of Britain?

We are often sold the untruth that what happens to British land is necessary for food production. This is almost entirely untrue.  Only the profitable arable farms of the south, and east of our island, provide a bounty of food for our children.  Dairy lawns and sheep farms in fact create tiny volumes of our daily diet relative to the land area they use. For example, 88% of Wales grows lamb, an optional food resource. 

Of the epic wastage, however, the grouse moor is the ultimate. Eight percent of Britain’s land is burned for the creation of 0.0008% of its jobs and a contribution of just 0.005% to our GDP.  For hundreds of years, thousands of beautiful wild animals have been removed, just so that Red Grouse can be turned into living clay pigeons and killed in their thousands once a year.  Even hunters from other countries find this wasteful and disgusting.  This area covers an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park – blocking jobs and wildlife alike on an epic scale. Hunting estates in Finland or Sweden, by contrast, juggle the ambition of hunters to shoot a few animals with ecosystems of immense beauty and variety.

Wildlife and commerce are often presented as being in conflict, do you think this is a fair assessment, or can land stewardship that favours biodiversity over profit be of economic benefit?

This is surely the greatest imaginary conflict of our time, successful insinuated, perhaps, by the damaging economies that prevent nature from reaching its full economic potential in our country.  In truth, wildlife IS commerce.  Nature IS money. 

Every year, even without a single charismatic megafauna such as Bison, Elk or Lynx running wild in our country, without a ‘Yellowstone’ or ‘Maasai Mara’, the English adult population make just over 3 billion visits to the natural environment each year, spending £21 billion as they do so. In Scotland, nature-based tourism is estimated to produce £1.4 billion per year, along with 39,000 FTE jobs. 

In contrast, the current models of upland farming demand money from us to survive, but they do not reciprocate jobs, income or natural capital – this is life on benefits and there is no future for young people in it.  In contrast, wherever nature is allowed to flourish, it’s capital potential is wondrous.  In 2009, the RSPB’s lovely but very small reserves brought £66 million to local economies, and created 1,872 FTE jobs. This is more than all of England’s grouse moors, but in just a fraction of their land area.

Right now, however, we are just seeing snapshots of how nature can power and rekindle communities. In Rebirding we often look to other countries to see how true ecosystems could transform economies on a far greater scale.   The final myth that we kick into touch is that Britain is short of space, 94% of our country is not built upon. Most of this area does not create essential food supplies – and is jobs-poor.

Is there one single practise or cultural shift that would be of most benefit to restoring natural ecosystems?

The Forestry Commission is the largest single land manager in Britain.  It now needs to split its forests in two – rewilding key estates like the New Forest and the Forest of Dean: cutting down the spruce and replanting with native trees, then, crucially, leaving large native animals such as Beavers, Elk, cattle and horses to become the foresters.  Economies in these forests would be driven through ecotourism revenues and perhaps some hunting.  Elsewhere, timber forests would remain.  It is hard to think of one single decision that could effect a greater transformation on British land than a decision to return Britain’s once world-class oak-lands to our nation.  Another, however, would be if Scotland’s deer estates, which again cover an area twice the size of Yellowstone, could be incentivised to rewild and regrow their trees.  Hunting could remain – but in this regrowing wilderness would be the potential for Elk, Lynx, Wildcats and a huge expansion in woodland species like Capercaillie. 

Are you optimistic for the future of Britain’s wildlife?

Yes – but only if our conservationists act with the same pragmatism and determination as those who have prevented land reform for decades.  In my closing chapter, I’ve argued that whilst farming unions behave with absolute conviction and coherence, our nature charities often simply say that a few more Skylarks would be nice.  Only if we can unlock the economic arguments of nature, and harness the millions of voices effectively, will we see large areas rewilded in our country.  It is the social and economic transformation that nature provides that needs to be realised – but for that, you need space, and power over land.  At that moment, things will change. In my lifetime, I genuinely believe that after many fierce battles, we will see Dalmatian Pelicans flying over Somerset, and huge areas of Scotland, Wales and upland England slowly returned to a wilder state.  But without absolute conviction this is possible, it will never come to pass.

Benedict Macdonald’s book is out now as part of our Spring Promotion

To discover further reading on the past, present and future of the British countryside, browse our collection.