What kind of naturalist are you?

English, 01 February 2020 Different kinds of naturalist


Naturalist (n.): An expert in or student of natural history.

Natural history (n.): Studying nature by observing it.

A naturalist is anybody who is interested in nature and knows something about it.

(No, not a naturist. A naturist is a person who likes to be naked in public.)

Nature's a huge subject, and naturalists come in all shapes and sizes:
Accidental naturalists like to see nature, but they don't study it or go looking for it.
Armchair naturalists love reading about nature and watching it on TV.
Amateur naturalists may be very scientific and expert. There are lots of these, especially ornithologists (bird-lovers).
Fishermen and hunters. It has to be said: Many of them are naturalists too.
Environment professionals: Scientists, environmental technicians, research ship crew, park rangers and guides, etc.
Other professionals: Farmers, foresters, hedgers, gardeners.
Collectors and twitchers: They especially like to see the rarest birds or plants.


Accidental naturalists

If you do outdoor leisure, you meet animals. Walkers and hikers, gardeners and picknickers, kayakers and canoeists, rock climbers, scuba divers and sailors - a lot of them are accidental naturalists, who like to see living things and to know what they're looking at. They may put food out for birds, but they won't do a lot of research, and they won't spend Sunday hiding in a tree with a pair of binoculars.

I'm mainly an accidental naturalist. I do a lot of river and sea kayaking, which is a quiet sport. I often see birds or animals that you don't normally see. Once I was sea kayaking on a summer day in England when I got into a group (a "pod") of common dolphins going in the same direction. They went faster, I went faster. They went even faster, I went as fast as I could. Finally I had to stop, and I sat and watched the pod disappear. After a couple of minutes, two of them came back and put on a quick show for me, jumping out of the water about 10 metres in front of my kayak. I've also met orca while kayaking in Scotland, and otters, lots of seals, dippers, herons, kingfishers, etc. But no whales yet.


Armchair naturalists

Armchair naturalists like to read about nature, and watch nature documentaries on TV. Everybody's an armchair naturalist on rainy winter days. Charles Darwin was an armchair naturalist for most of his life, but he also did research on the bees and earthworms in his own garden. And sailed around the world for five years as ship's naturalist aboard HMS Beagle.

Language note: An armchair is a deep, soft, comfortable chair. An "armchair quarterback" is a person who is an expert on American football but never plays sport; and an "armchair organiser" is somebody who organises parties and other events - by telephoning people and asking them to do things. When anything goes wrong with a complex project (a nuclear power catastrophe, or your national football team is beaten by Fiji) there are always lots of "armchair experts" to give their opinions, even if they know nothing about it.

"Armchair naturalist" is sometimes used as an insult. I saw a television documentary about people from North America and Europe who buy forest land in South America and Africa, to prevent forestry companies from cutting the trees down. An economist said they were wrong to do this, because those countries are poor and they need to cut down the forests for economic development. (I'm sure he was right that it's important to consult the local community, but it's also important not to cut down forests.) He called these people "armchair naturalists." Hmmm ... see my page of jokes about economists!

Armchair naturalists are very important. First, their money pays for essential research and conservation, because they join nature organisations like the RSPB and the National Audubon Society. Second, they're the reason we have all those great nature documentaries on television. Third, their votes and petitions make a difference to politics. Fourth, as Jacques Cousteau said, "people protect what they love". In a world where species and habitats live or die because of human actions and opinions, armchair naturalists are vitally important.


Amateur naturalists

Now we're talking about real naturalists. Serious amateur naturalists can identify unusual species at a distance or just from their tracks. Also, they know something about how they live.

Naturalists of all kinds

Language note: "Amateur" doesn't often mean "lover of...". It usually means "non-professional". In other words, "he or she does this for fun, not as a job". There are lots of very expert amateur photographers, amateur astronomers, amateur musicians and amateur sportsmen and women. "Amateur" can also mean "unprofessional", in other words "he or she does this, but not very well" - nobody wants to fly with an amateur airline, get advice from an amateur lawyer, or have an amateur plumber work on their bathroom.

Any intelligent amateur can do anything a professional can do, it just takes longer. Amateur naturalists come in every flavour from wildflower lover to Apocalypse Now. Amateur or professional, you can be a world expert on hedgehogs or mycorrhiza.

Aristotle is the first person we know who had a really scientific approach to natural history. He was fascinated by nature, and spent half his life observing it. He made very careful examinations of all kinds of animals, large and small. He also questioned fishermen and others about animals and their behaviour, and recorded what he discovered.

Being an amateur naturalist was very popular in 19th century Britain and America. US President Thomas Jefferson was a keen naturalist, who met and corresponded with Alexander von Humboldt, and instructed Lewis & Clark to take notes of plant and animal life as they made the first US expedition across the western half of north America. Theodore Roosevelt was another US president with a great interest in nature. In the 21st century, natural history is coming back into fashion, this time with environmental activism.


Fishermen and hunters

People who do fishing, wildfowling, shooting and hunting often know a lot about nature. These are "field sports" if you like them, or "blood sports" if you don't. "Wildfowling" is shooting wild ducks and geese. People who go fishing for fun are often called "anglers." In Britain, "hunting" usually means fox-hunting, but in the USA it usually means hunting deer or bears. The birds, animals and fish that sportsmen kill to eat are called game.

People who do these sports have a difficult relationship with naturalists, but it wasn't always so. Until recently, most naturalists were also fishermen and hunters.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau was one of the first marine conservationists, but he enjoyed spear-fishing in the sea. That was one reason why he invented the aqualung for scuba divers. Sir Peter Scott was an enthusiastic wildfowler. However he stopped killing them, started painting them, and helped launch the Slimbridge nature reserve, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature).

The relationship between naturalists and field sportsmen has changed in the last fifty years, and particularly in the last 30 years. The main reason is that there are now nearly 8 billion people on the planet, many species are at risk of extinction, and many people have never seen animals that were common in their area fifty years ago. This is mainly because of changes to farming and construction projects, but sometimes it's a direct result of field sports. The number of mountain hares (Lepus timidus) has decreased 99% in the last 50 years in those parts of Scotland where visiting sportsmen shoot grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica). That's because businesses that offer grouse shooting employ gamekeepers who kill hares to reduce the number of parasites on the grouse. That is legal, but they also illegally kill rare birds of prey. That is just one example of many conflicts between field sports and the modern world.

People who do field sports say they are traditional and create jobs; naturalists say that traditions need to change when the world changes. A YouGov survey in 2018 found that 69% of people in the UK think shooting birds for sport should be illegal. That would be OK with me. Many young people want to go further, and have a world of purity where everybody is vegetarian and we don't keep domestic animals for meat or milk. There is a lot of anger between field sportsmen and naturalists. There's a new word for being quick to tell other people that they're cruel, racist or sexist. The word is woke. Barack Obama says that being woke is not a great way to change society. It is worth remembering that many field sportsmen know a lot about nature, and some of them protect it just as effectively as government organisations. Fishermen, in particular, do a lot to protect game fish such as trout (Salmo trutta) and salmon (Salmo salar) from pollution, illegal fishing and hydro-electric power schemes.


Environment professionals

Do you want to be an ecologist, biologist, marine biologist, botanist, ethologist, mycologist, etc? Or work on the technical side as an engineer, diver, ROV technician, research vessel crew, etc? Or work with the public as an environmental educator, ranger or guide? Good jobs in the natural environment are hard to get. Most of them are in the public sector (working for the government) so in these strange times they may not be very secure, but no job is very secure these days. Of course, you could work in finance, sales, law, driving, vehicle repairs, business or manufacturing, but then where's the joy?


Other professionals

If you work outdoors, you meet animals. Farmers, foresters and other people who work in the natural world know a lot about animals and birds. Farmers kill wild things, accidentally or on purpose, but that's always been what humans do. Farmers usually like to see interesting wildlife, and will protect it if they can. Many farmers manage parts of their land for conservation, with wild flowers, ponds and hedges.


Collectors and twitchers

We often know exactly how a species of bird became extinct, because the last specimen is in a museum somewhere with a note that says something like: "Shot by the Reverend James Abercrombie-Tomlinson, Strathspey, 6th March 1822".

In the 19th century, "naturalist" meant "person who collects rocks, eggs, dead animals and birds, and dried plants". They were often happy to pay large amounts of money to get one of the last specimens of a rare bird. In fact, this is what killed the Great Auk, a bird similar to the dodo. When museums and private collectors heard that there were only a few hundred Great Auks still alive, they offered large amounts of money to get one. The last Great Auks, a pair with one egg, were killed on 3 June 1844 on a small island off Iceland. Their eyes and internal organs are now in the Zoologisk Museum, Copenhagen. In 1895, a cracked Great Auk egg was sold by one private collector to another for £173 5 shillings, which would have been enough to buy a small house in London, and in 1971 the Icelandic Museum of Natural History paid the equivalent of £9000 for a stuffed Great Auk.

In Britain, it's now a criminal offence to kill many species of bird, to take their eggs, or even to try to photograph them near the nest. It's also a criminal offence to pick wild flowers, or take stones from a beach. That isn't "law gone crazy", it's the only possible reaction to having 70 million people in Britain, many of whom have cars, lots of leisure time and an interest in collecting. Even in the 19th century, when there was a fashion in Victorian England for collecting ferns, every fern was taken from every natural area near a town or a tourist place. If 70 million people all decided to go to the beach and start looking for animals in rock pools...

In the 21st century, the collector is the person who wants to see every species of bird - once. To make this easier, bird books often contain a checklist of every possible species. "Twitchers" specialise in rare birds, and they'll drive for hundreds of kilometres for a chance to see a new one.