Go for a walk almost anywhere in Britain, from a city-centre park to a remote offshore island, and the chances are that you’ll come across a naturalist or, as they may prefer to be called, birder, botaniser, wildlife-watcher, nature-addict.
What are the giveaway signs? They might be carrying a pair of binoculars and gazing either up into the sky or down towards the ground. Every now and then they may pause and cock their head, to listen to some distant sound; or crouch down to pick up an object for a closer look.
If you stop and ask them what they’ve seen (perhaps using the classic birder’s greeting of “Anything about?”), they’re likely to be friendly, eager to discuss their latest sighting with another enthusiast. Having shared your mutual enjoyment of the natural world, you will both continue on your way.
When we were growing up, such encounters were less frequent and usually less friendly. Most people out and about in the countryside were birdwatchers (to use the old term), and it often seemed as if they’d chosen their hobby to allow them to escape from the rest of humanity and indulge their mildly sociopathic tendencies. Just occasionally, you would meet a kindred spirit: willing to share their sightings and enthuse about yours in equal measure. But such meetings were few and far between.
Fortunately, during the past 30 or 40 years, things have improved. Most naturalists are only too eager to offer help and advice. The former dominance of the older male birder has given way to a far more mixed bag, with old and young, men and women, families and groups of friends all out enjoying the natural world.
This is a very British phenomenon: no other nation has embraced the natural world quite as strongly as we have. But how did this come about? How did the British learn to fall in love with nature? And what does this story tell us about the varied ways in which we interact with the natural world today?
The advent of what’s come to be known as “new nature writing”, focusing on our relationship with the natural world, was a revelation. The publication in 1973 of Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside was an affirmation that wildlife didn’t only thrive in the remotest, most cosseted reserves, but was busy insinuating itself into our towns and cities.
Since then, thanks to modern pioneers such as Chris Baines, urban wildlife has become a mainstream interest. Our streets, gardens and parks are natural laboratories, often the best places to see the latest arrivals and for us to monitor the changes in status and distribution of plants and animals, whether native or introduced.
Radio and TV have helped spread both knowledge of and a passion for the natural world much further. Much of the credit must go to the people who present these programmes. Bill Oddie, Kate Humble, Ellie Harrison, Chris Packham and of course the great Sir David Attenborough have become household names, and in doing so have helped to make natural history mainstream again.
A key recent turning point in transforming Britain into a nation of self-taught naturalists is the BBC’s long-running series Springwatch. What’s so refreshing is its focus on intimate portraits of common creatures rather than the more exotic and far-flung. The ongoing drama of the nature all around us is far more gripping than any soap opera.
The internet has also allowed the immediate sharing of knowledge, observations, photos and videos. So if you should find some unknown insect lurking in your flowerbed or local wood, you can immediately get an accurate identification simply by sharing images online.
Perhaps even more importantly for the future of natural history in Britain, social media have also enabled a new generation of young naturalists to connect with their peers, publish their own observations and opinions via blogs, and provide a much-needed injection of energy and enthusiasm.
Ten years ago, articles appeared that glumly predicted the “death of the naturalist”. But these now look both overly pessimistic and premature, as organisations such as A Focus on Nature and Next Generation Birders help hundreds of young people discover and share the joys and pleasures of wildlife-watching.
Whether you spend all your holidays searching for rare orchids, or have devoted your life to the study of a single species of beetle, or simply enjoy watching the blue tits on the bird-table, you are a naturalist.
This is an edited extract taken from Wonderland: a Year of Britain’s Wildlife, Day by Day by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss