Shaftesbury will be treated to an evening of interesting, unexpected tales about Britain’s best-loved birds at The Grosvenor Arms next week. BAFTA-winning Springwatch producer and president of Somerset Wildlife Trust, Stephen Moss, spoke with Alfred.
Prolific nature writer Stephen Moss has written many books about the UK’s countryside and his concerns about intensive farming methods decimating native species. He says that Thursday’s talk will be positive, and he’s picked popular birdlife subjects.
“What I’m planning to do is look at two biographies of birds that I wrote in the last couple of years – one on the robin and one on the wren,” said Stephen. “They’re a summary both of the birds lives, from egg to death, but also about their behaviour, habits, what they do, where they go. It’s about our human contact with them, the cultural side of those birds.”
Stephen will introduce a third bird about which he’s writing a book – the swallow. He says he intends talking about that during his Shaftesbury Book Fest appearance in November. These three birds are part of the British psyche and the robin was named as the nation’s favourite bird back in 2015. “I wanted to talk about the biological, real robin, but also the other side of the robin,” said Stephen. “The fact that we love it, put it on our Christmas cards, and we think it’s cute. We have strange beliefs that if it comes in the house it’s bad news because someone is going to die.”
Stephen said his book, ‘The Robin: A Biography’, ‘absolutely flew off the shelves’ three Christmases ago. His publisher wanted a follow-up so he next featured the wren. “It’s our commonest bird. It’s got a huge amount of extraordinary folklore and stories attached to it,” he said.
The bird was once featured on the lowest value pre-decimalisation coin, the farthing, worth one-quarter of a penny. “I think it was chosen because people thought it was Britain’s smallest bird. It isn’t. A wren is twice as heavy as the goldcrest,” he said.
As we speak, Stephen says he’s listening to the wrens outside his office window. “That will be the male and he’s not trying to attract the female,” said Stephen. “He’s going to take her around to up to six nests that he’s built. She’ll only choose one of them. No other British bird does that.”
Stephen says a curiosity of the swallow is some rather disturbing behaviour that was once featured on live television. “I watched this footage on Springwatch a few years ago. Bill Oddie and Kate Humble watched aghast as a male swallow came back to the nest where he’d been courting the female and threw out all the little, naked, newborn chicks. They died. They were not his chicks. He knew it. Something had happened to the original male. He’s probably been killed. He was going to mate with the female. Swallows do these bizarre things.”
Stephen says you don’t need to be expert in ornithology to attend his Grosvenor Arms Hotel talk. “I like writing for people who love and know something about birds. If you look at my Amazon reviews, people don’t go into a lot of detail. They say things like, ‘I bought this for my mum and she loved it’. A lot of people think you can’t write intelligent books for people who aren’t bird experts. Of course, you can. You can write something that appeals to educated, interested people who may not know a lot about the bird in question. I’d defy even some expert birders to know the things that I’ve discovered about the robin, wren and swallow. Once you start trawling through the literature and science, you find all sorts of bizarre things,” he said.
Stephen explained how these garden birds became personified and characterised in childhood books. “When I wrote the book on the wren, I didn’t call it ‘The Jenny’. ‘Jenny Wren’ is the nickname for a wren, rather like ‘Tom Tit’ and ‘Robin Redbreast’. Isn’t it odd that redbreast was the name and robin was the nickname? But robin stuck. We call it a robin but that is like calling a wren ‘a Jenny’. We are so close to it, we don’t realise that we call it by this affectionate name,” said Stephen.
He then posed a question. “Why are robins call redbreasts when they’re orange? The reason is simple,” he explained. “The word ‘orange’ didn’t exist when robins got their name redbreast, because oranges hadn’t come to Britain. We’re looking back to medieval times. Oranges came over in about the 15th or 16th century and the colour is named after the fruit.”
Stephen clearly understands the connections many of us make with garden birds. “GP Rachel Clark has written a very good book about the way that we’re very bad at understanding the process of dying. She’s written a positive guide to how you deal with it. Her father was a GP and he died a couple of years ago. She wrote this beautiful tribute to him in the Sunday Times a couple of weeks after he died, saying that a wren appeared in the garden the next day. She felt it was him sending a message to her. I get this a lot,” said Stephen.
He explained that he had received an email from a young woman whose grandmother had loved Stephen’s robin book. “The grandfather had died, and the grandmother would see a robin and ‘grandpa’s coming back to talk to me and give me a message’. People find this a huge comfort and I think that is lovely. This young woman had written to me to say her grandmother recently passed away as well but she has this lovely memory of her and she connects her with robins. I love the fact that birds interweave themselves in our lives without us necessarily realising it.”
Stephen is president of Somerset’s Wildlife Trust but remains fond of next-door Dorset, his childhood holiday playground. “You have those wonderful chalk downlands in Dorset, both inland but also around Lulworth on the coast. Dorset is probably the best county for butterflies in Britain. I write a whole piece in the swallow book about watching the last swallows disappear off the end of Portland Bill in October. Dorset is what Somerset wants to be when it grows up,” he smiled.
Not all parts of the UK have received such praise from Stephen. In his book ‘Wild Kingdom’ he described in eerie detail about how he had parked in a lay-by on the A47 in Norfolk and stepped out of his car to hear complete silence. The treeless, hedgeless commercial, agricultural landscape was bereft of birdlife. Thankfully, we’re doing much better in Dorset,” he said, reassuringly.
“I’ve just written a book which comes out in two weeks called ‘The Accidental Countryside’. I will also bring it along on the night. The book is about places that were built for human beings but where nature is now coming back. I went around Blandford Forum with a guy from Dorset Council recently and they have done wonders changing the roadside verges. They’ve made these brilliant roadside strips of wildflowers. They’ve saved council taxpayers £93,000 a year. We’ve got flowers and butterflies and savings.”
Stephen says that proves that wildlife preservation doesn’t always come at a cost. “You’ve got visionary people at Dorset Council. And in the Dorset Wildlife Trust,” he said. “I’m sure there’s a lot of ordinary amateur naturalist and volunteers who are helping as well. I think in a county like Dorset people have always valued wildlife. They haven’t messed it up in the way that parts of Lincolnshire, East Anglia, and Yorkshire are wildlife-free deserts. That hasn’t happened in the West. We still have better farming methods and people do care. But we’ve still got to find a way of reversing the decline of the numbers of the skylark, linnet and yellowhammer.”
During Stephen’s talk, he’ll explain how Shaftesbury residents can make a difference even if they are not landowners. “In places like Dorset and Somerset, people buy locally. They support more wildlife-friendly farmers, of whom there are many. They cut down on food miles. You can’t do that with everything but you can eat more seasonally, support local farmers’ markets and when they do something good, praise them for it,” said Stephen. “Farmers are under a lot of pressure, particularly small farmers. It’s tough. They work hard. They do not make a lot of money. We can find ways of helping them.”
Stephen Moss’ talk takes place at 7pm on Thursday 12th March. You can buy tickets on the Grosvenor Arms Hotel website.