Somehow, today is my 50th birthday. So I thought I’d mark it with a short post about my personal evolution as a naturalist and, ultimately, professional scientist.
One of the great things about the internet and social media such as Facebook is that you can make exciting discoveries on a weekly basis. Recently I found out something that means a lot to me on a very personal level: I discovered that a family* who lived in the same street when I was growing up in Sunderland in the 60s and 70s have digitised some old home movies and made them available on YouTube. In our digital age in which every phone and camera can capture and share events as they happen, it’s sometimes easy to forget that owning a movie camera in the 60s was quite a rarity and the majority of kids living at that time were never filmed.
These movies are exciting not just because one of them shows me aged about 5 years (in the blue shirt) playing with friends (I’m there from 3’53”) but because it documents, in colour and moving pictures, one of the reasons why I became a professional naturalist with a deep fascination for biodiversity.
The grassland in which we are erecting a tee-pee is not some country meadow, the kind of wild rural landscape cited by so many other naturalists as inspiring their childhood fascination with natural history. These grasslands had arisen spontaneously on cleared demolition sites, following the removal of Victorian terraced housing and tenement blocks, some of which were slums and others that had suffered bomb damage in the Second World War (now that does make me sound old!)
Up until the 1950s this area had been very built up, with the houses, shops and pubs serving the local families who were employed mainly in the shipyards and coal mines to the north of the town. You can get a sense of how urban it was from this 1898 map of Southwick; the places I refer to are just south-west of The Green to the left of the map.
Following demolition the sites were left to their own ends, and were colonised by plants, insects, birds and mammals from patches of habitat closer to the river that had either been cleared of buildings earlier in the century, or which had never been built upon at all. There are some nice areas of magnesian limestone grassland nearby along the higher banks of the River Wear valley, and typical calcicole plants such as Greater Knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) could be found on these post-demolition grasslands. In fact, in the absence of horse chestnut trees, we used to play a version of conkers using the unripe seed heads of Greater Knapweed. Was that an echo of earlier children’s games in Britain, prior to the introduction of horse chestnuts in the 17th century? Apparently similar games were played with snail shells and hazelnuts.
If you watch the opening minute of this piece of footage from the same series, and ignore the girls posing and playing in the foreground, the background reveals a rich flora of plants, with butterflies hopping between flowers. The first bird species that I can remember identifying, and being fascinated by its bright colours, was Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) feeding on the seeds of tall thistles in the very area where this was filmed. The first butterfly that I could put a name to was the Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), also feeding on thistles, but this time on the nectar-rich flower heads, as a pollinator. We’d collect its caterpillars from the nearby nettles and raise them in jars.
So you don’t have to have had a rural upbringing to appreciate and benefit from nature, and to later influence your profession and passions, any piece of land can inspire interest in kids, regardless of its origin, if nature is left to colonise. Unmanaged, semi-wild green space within towns and cities has huge value, both for wildlife and for the culture of childhood. They need to be protected just as much as rural nature reserves, including the generally disparaged but actually biodiverse “brownfield” sites, as Sarah Arnold has discussed in a recent blog post.
Some of the riverside grasslands still remain and I hope that they are fascinating new generations of kids with their colour and diversity and flouncing butterflies. But the post-industrial grasslands on which I played and looked for bugs and flowers are all gone; they were cleared and built upon in a flurry of housing and retail development in the 1980s. Perhaps in the future they may return if those buildings are themselves demolished and the land allowed to lie undisturbed for a while. That is what nature does: it ebbs and flows across our landscapes in response to human, and natural, interventions, endlessly changing and endlessly fascinating to the curious minds of children and scientists, no matter how old they are.
*My sincere thanks to the Scrafton family who took the original footage, made it available on YouTube, and gave me permission to use it in this post.