Rejoicing in All the Richness of Creation; Compendiums of British Wildlife with a Wealth of Fact and Folklore

By Mabey, Richard | The Evening Standard (London, England), September 16, 2002 | Go to article overview

Rejoicing in All the Richness of Creation; Compendiums of British Wildlife with a Wealth of Fact and Folklore


Mabey, Richard, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: RICHARD MABEY

FAUNA BRITANNICA: The Practical Guide to Wild and Domestic Creatures of Britain by Duff Hart-Davis (Weidenfeld, [pound]30)

FAUNA BRITANNICA by Stefan Buczacki (Hamlyn, [pound]40)

THE oldest "faunas" in northern Europe are the great Middle Ages bestiaries based on the Greek text Physiologus (cAD 200). They are a bizarre mixture of acute observation, religious parable and pagan magic. The whole lot are usually dismissed as over-fanciful, if colourful, mythology, but read more closely reveal a good deal about how the medievals perceived nature, their sense of the wholeness of creation and their underlying religious and social beliefs. The beaver (Castor), for instance, is featured in almost all of them, though neither the illustrators nor writers seem ever to have witnessed the animal first hand. They quote a persistent legend that, when hunted for its testicles, which were believed to be medicinal (the medievals were obsessive about genitalia), the beaver bit them off and hurled them at the huntsmen.

Eight hundred years later, two new Faunas (both doggedly retaining identical titles; they will be hearing from the Encyclopaedia B's lawyers) repeat the pattern of the bestiaries. They share the same mix of up-to-date and impeccable natural sciences, folklore (quoted, not believed) and what one might call ethnozoology, as well as revealing insights into our various cultural attitudes towards nature. They, too, annotate the beaver - a litmus species these days, since it has been extinct here for four centuries and is being reintroduced, to the delight of the general public and the horror of paranoid foresters.

For Hart-Davis, former countryside columnist for The Independent, the beaver is a curious and justabout-tolerable creature, provided it doesn't "get out of control", when culling by "marksmen with rifles" will be necessary.

Buczacki, zoologist and gardening broadcaster, covers the animal's behaviour, history and terminology, but is noncommittal on reintroduction. Neither mentions the oldest legend of all.

Already, one ideological rift line is clear. Buczacki is a kind of 1930s country angler, rambler and middle-of-the-road conservationist (just so long as humans make the rules).

Hart-Davis is strictly Victorian, a hunting-and-shooting landowner who still believes in the obsolete doctrine of humanity's dominion over the animals.

Both books cover immense territory, from bugs to bottlenose dolphins.

Hart-Davis, though his writing is pedestrian, still offers acres of intriguing facts: that badgers can climb; that hedgehogs kill and eat snakes; that grey mullet have the curious habit of feeding on mud, which their stomachs grind up, along with the plant and animal life it contains; that female woodcocks slowly rotate on their nests to keep their faces away from the sun (and are, of course, "testing targets").

Quarry species - rabbits, pheasants, grouse, deer - and contentious predators such as peregrine falcons and hen-harriers are extensively covered.

So is foxhunting, though there is not a word on the fascinating field behaviour of hunt saboteurs.

And in another throwback to the old bestiaries, Hart-Davis surprisingly includes domestic pets and farm animals (horses especially) in his catalogue of exterminated, culled, fenced and managed wild beasts. …

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