Find your inner wildlife spotter: Emma Townshend reveals how to recognise the flora and fauna all around us
Ah, spring: the trees in blossom, the flowers in bloom, the birds in fine voice. Which trees, flowers and birds? Most of us wouldn't have the first clue, admits Emma Townshend – and it's high time we did something about it
Sunday 04 May 2014
In terms of knowing about wildlife, we may all start equal, but some of us are more equal than others. I was once standing with Sion (a friend educated at a nature-loving Rudolf Steiner school) on a driveway in suburban west London, at the end of a hot summer's afternoon of garage clearance. I looked at the Tarmac by my feet, saw a slightly disgusting, entirely two-dimensional corpse and declared: "Eww! A squashed frog!"
I was staring at the flat, dried-up remains as Sion ambled over. He gave the dead body his full measure of contemplative thought, standing over it with his hands behind his back like he was doing the thing's funeral. And after a minute, he said, "Hmm, no," in his characteristically thoughtful manner. "No, no. That's definitely a toad."
I never forgot his easy confidence in the face of something with the texture, essentially, of the British Museum Lindow Bog Man. And I remember it as spring erupts into life this year.
Birdsong pours into the street (somewhat earlier in the morning than we'd like), wild flowers fill the country lanes, and strange creatures get stuck in our hair as we try to take our green waste to the tip. But not all of us have the Steiner education nor the patient absorption of a Sion, both of which are needed to produce the sort of nature lover who can identify any of these phenomena. Most of us can just about manage an "Ooh look, it's a seagull." But Greater? Lesser? Black-backed? Herring? It's anyone's guess. As for that weird green insect crawling at an alarming pace across the dashboard, seriously, I want that thing out the car before we discuss it.
But should we care if we can't tell the difference between a frog and a toad – especially when it's squashed? In fact, do most of us have any chance of naming what we see in a normal day around the world? And does it matter?
The UK Ladybird Survey site offers useful PDF charts
The answer, I'd argue, is yes, yes, yes. Dawn Isaac, the enthusiastic author of 2014's stand-out 101 Things for Kids to Do Outside, agrees. "I do actually think," says Dawn, "that it's bloody important to know the names of species. Not for the sake of amassing facts but because knowing the name of anything means you suddenly notice it more. Tell someone the difference between stretcher bond, English garden wall and Flemish bond, and brick patterns will leap out at them. Watch a couple of episodes of Tractor Ted and you'll suddenly see obscure farm machinery at every turn."
I know what she means about Tractor Ted, weirdly. A burst of enthusiasm for the kids' TV series in our house a couple of years ago and suddenly I knew my forage harvesters from my combines; and for the first time in my life, as a direct consequence, I understood a little bit about the arc of the farming year.
Knowing the names is the essential first step; it's the basis of everything else. Once you know the names, you have an underpinned structure from which to hang your experience of the world; without the names, everything just slips past you in a motorway fog.
The big problem, then, is clear: it's really difficult to start when you know nothing. And it is undoubtedly hard to identify things from pictures in books. A friend of mine described the nature identification gift set sitting on his kitchen window sill, waiting for the mythical moment of peace when he would finally have time to sit down and acquire the knowledge contained within. But even in your own street, garden or park, there are plenty of chances to ramp up your encounter with wild nature and identify what's in front of you like an old pro.
I might not be quite of Sion's high standards, but I can tell a sparrowhawk from a falcon, cow parsley from angelica – and here's my short guide to learning the bloody names…
Give big leafy plants a shake and look out for shield bugs (Getty Images)
Inevitably, animals are more interesting to most adults and children – and fortunately two of modern life's most distracting devices, smartphones and tablets, provide a key way to maximising your fauna identification skills, with brilliant sites and apps devised by conservation groups and big institutions alike. One of the best providers is Nature Guides, which began with UK birds, but now offers a range from "Damselflies and Dragonflies" to "Bumblebees" (£9.99 each, iTunes).
Armed with smartphone or not, a garden dig around will soon start to reveal minibeasts such as woodlice, beetles, and caterpillars, as well as the larvae of bigger critters such as ladybirds. Ladybird larvae are particularly good to show to kids because there's a story of growth there which appeals to them. See ladybird-survey.org for a useful PDF chart.
Give big leafy plants a shake and look out for shield bugs, which appeal to knight-loving children due to their distinctive shield-like shape. Our native bugs have a little brown patch at the tail, whereas foreign immigrants in southern England are completely green; now there's a little discussion you can save for dinner about invasive species. Bees are another good place to start identification practice – bumblebees are beginning to fly now, and are big enough to get a good look. Try the Natural History Museum's free Bumblebee ID guide (http://bit.ly/1fevUmZ), which is clear and utterly usable.
Those noisy birds, as previously mentioned, are singing in the hope of a mate at the moment, so there's lots of warbling about. If you can see them, taking a photo with a digital camera can often help reduce valuable identification time. But if you are listening only, Isoperla offers an app for birdsong ("Dave Farrow's Bird Song", £2.49 from iTunes) that includes an auto-recognition features, though it only offers "probabilities" that you've got the right song, and you'll need some peace and quiet to make the initial recording.
The Forestry Commission's app lets you identify the trees around you
Trying to identify flowers is one of life's most bizarrely frustrating tasks. I like the French wild-flower app Fleurs en Poche, which is now available in English as Wild Flowers for £3.99, including all our common natives.
Or start with something bigger and more permanent: trees. Using a guide such as the Forestry Commission's free app, you can identify the street trees around you without needing to venture anywhere near the countryside. (Imagine my joy when I worked out that the pretty sapling outside my house was the charming "Bastard Service".) If you get really keen, try local botanic gardens: Cambridge's Botanic Garden (botanic.cam.ac.uk), for one, offers a day of Summer Tree Identification for £50 on 13 June.
If we all aim to add 10 new species to our knowledge list in the next month, the result is a net gain of joy. Two friends of mine are reading Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways at the moment, imagining wandering along various ancient trackways with the Cambridge don while he mumbles on about his favourite poet, Edward Thomas. And both mates came independently to a similar if trivial conclusion, which is that Macfarlane can identify a truly impressive quantity of birds. And flowers. And geological formations. He can tell you that the owner of an egg was a skylark by the shell's scumbled green; he can tell a Himalayan oak from a Holm. Both readers were left awestruck – and fantasising about one day getting to walk barefoot across a field with handsome Bob.
But aside from the self-evident pleasures of Macfarlane himself, there is the pleasure he describes so well: seeing more accurately. Interacting with the world in a more mindful way; being more present. Slowing you down, calming your heart rate. Even if you are using your phone to identify flowers, you're creating a ring-fenced before and after moment.
And it extends beyond identification, and right into knowledge itself. A deeper, greener knowledge of your own world. Where you might never misidentify a toad again.
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