Friday, November 11, 2016

E. B. Ford: Butterflies (The New Naturalist, 1945)

Specimens of the extinct English subspecies of the Large Blue (Maculinea arion, spp eutyphron)

In such places the Aurelian might not infrequently be seen with his surprising equipment.

Variety hunting had yet attained no considerable proportions, while the difficulties of studying geographical variation were great, nor was its interest appreciated; for Darwin had not yet come.

(of data labels...) What we did others could have done, and they were culpable for their negligence.

Their knowledge was largely empirical and died with them, but it was great; I rarely find their like today.

All these sentences are taken from the first chapter, a history of butterfly-collecting. The style is Latinate and poised, and to me it seems remarkable: we'd labour to match its quickness today. But Ford finds no use for it in the rest of his book. Its suppleness is of use when the subject-matter is human and social. When he buckles down to genetics, he writes a plain prose.

Ford was a scientist who began as a butterfly collector. A passage such as the following reveals the connection between acquisitiveness, violence and knowledge.

(The Monarch) “is the largest butterfly seen in Britain, though but few collectors have the pleasure of encountering it. Yet it was my good fortune to do so on the evening of August 30th, 1941, at Kynance Cove, Cornwall, within two miles of the most southerly point in Great Britain. Those who know that exquisite spot, now largely spoiled through having been popularised for tourists, will remember that the steep path up the cliff reaches a short piece of level ground just before the summit. Climbing from the cove, I arrived, net in hand, at this place at 6:20 p.m., double summer time, and glancing to the left saw a Monarch Butterfly about twenty feet away flying inland perhaps fifteen feet from the ground. It was slowly flapping and gliding and looked immense, and the honey-coloured underside of the hind-wings showed clearly. It quickly reached a small rocky hill and disappeared over the top. Now every collector knows that if one loses sight of a butterfly one rarely sees it again. It was with a sinking heart therefore that I gained the top of the hill and, turning to the left in the direction which the insect had taken when last seen, found my way barred by a steep rocky slope. I threw myself over, landing in a heap at the bottom and, on picking myself up, beheld with joy the Monarch about fifty yards away. It was hovering over a path, no more than a foot above the ground, and then slowly rose. By the time I arrived it must have been about two feet above the heather, and I caught it with a single stroke of the net. It proved to be a female in good condition, and is the specimen represented on Plate 27, Fig. 1.

“On this occasion I was much impressed by the resistance of this species to pressure and by its leathery consistency; a well-known characteristic of these protected insects, which allows a bird to peck them sufficiently to realise their disagreeable qualities without killing them. As this specimen was too large to go into my killing bottle or boxes, I kept it in the net and repeatedly pinched it. This would have cracked the thorax of a large Nymphalid and caused its immediate death, but after each pinch this insect would lie still for a few minutes and then revive apparently none the worse. A faint musky odour hung about it, and I was greatly tempted to bite into it to determine if it were unpalatable but, having regard to the interest of the specimen in other ways, I thought it well to restrain my curiosity in this respect.” (pp. 159-60)

(It seems that Ford’s interest in palatability was, however, indulged on larvae of the Large and Small Whites.)

It must be admitted that butterflies are elusive, often refusing to stay still even for a photo. If you are deterred from killing them, as I am, you aren’t likely to get to know them very well. But even the collector’s relationship to an insect in the wild is brief; that’s why he tells us how it flies two feet above the heather.

As for us, we're only too familiar with the migration of the Monarch across our screens, advertising everything from hair-dye to laser printers.

Ford and his readers could not have imagined that; and in his book the colour photographs of living specimens are pointed out by the editors as a significant novelty. 

Note: The Collins "New Naturalists".

Insect Natural History, A.D. Imms, 1947

This is one of my favourites and I've read it lots of times. "On Wings and Flight", "Concerning Feeding Habits", etc, all wonderfully readable and informative. 

Birds and Men, E.M. Nicholson, 1951

"The late Sir Hugh Gladstone calculated on the basis of data given in the Book of Numbers that about the year B.C. 1580 the Children of Israel killed within thirty-six hours in April upwards of 9 million quail at the place afterwards called Kibroth-Hattaavah." Similar figures were regularly achieved in Southern Italy in the later nineteenth century: the main market was Britain.

Dartmoor, L.A. Harvey and D. St. Leger-Gordon, 1953

March 1947 produced the Great Ammil - a glazed frost of freezing rain atop two months of snowy work. "Every bush, tree, sprig of heather, bracken-frond or reed, every rail or post, each inanimate object, was sheathed in ice as though in a glass case. ... The grandeur of the scene was unsurpassable, but in this enchanted world no living thing had a place. ... 'I've been on the land for fifty years,' one local farmer remarked to me, 'but I never saw rabbits starved to death before.'..."

The authors argued strongly that "it is difficult to reconcile the minimum military demands for land on Dartmoor, in so far as these are known, with the idea of it as a National Park" and you must admit, they do have a point. Dartmoor had just become Britain's fourth national park (1951), but the anomaly of around a quarter of it being used as ranges has never been resolved. Military use began at the end of the 19th century, and expanded greatly especially during WWII. The military areas have reduced a little since their book was published, but not much. Comparing their map with today's, the whole area in the south around Legis Tor has been given up, and the ranges in the North have withdrawn in a few places, e.g. from Black-a-tor Copse and the neighbourhood of Postbridge. Access to the ranges (except sometimes Willsworthy) is possible on nearly all week-ends and throughout the month of August, as well as at other times (check it out at - so the situation compares quite favourably with e.g. the Imber Ranges on Salisbury Plain, which are permanently inaccessible. But in truth, such an extensive and genuine wilderness as Dartmoor Forest - right here in the S. of England - was too useful for the army to give up.      

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