Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Two lives on one quest for British butterflies

It's not often that you're brought up with a start, right at the beginning of a book, but here's an insight from the first page of a new volume on butterflies which did that for me. "For most of us," writes the author, "butterflies are bound up with childhood."

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: A toxic question on mushrooms

Why are some mushrooms poisonous? I must admit the question had never occurred to me until last weekend, when it suddenly thrust itself into my consciousness in the middle of a mushroom-gathering expedition in France. We were in Bellême in southern Normandy, a small hilltop town which is bidding fair to be France's wild mushroom capital: every autumn it hosts a four-day national mushroom festival centred on the nearby Bellême forest, 6,000 acres of exquisite oak woods where fungi grow in astonishing profusion.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: A celebration of the English apple

Why might one feel passionate about English apples, but not about English green beans? For if you examine the proposition, is it not the case that Cox's Orange Pippins excite enthusiasm in many people when even the juiciest and most flavoursome English runner bean is unlikely to do so, although they are both in essence the same thing, namely seed pods?

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Welcome signs that winter's on its way

If we greet the bringers of spring with elation, should we greet the bringers of autumn with gloom? Logically, I suppose we should. But we don't seem to and I wonder why this is. Anyone close to the countryside knows the delight of hearing the first chiffchaff singing in March, having returned from the Mediterranean, and then the first willow warbler a little later; and even more, the pleasure of seeing the first swallow in April, just back from South Africa. The intensity of our welcome of these migrant birds is in large measure a seasonal one: they are signalling the great change in the calendar, the shift from warm to cold, from dark to light, and even more, the move in the natural world from death to rebirth. No wonder the first sound and sight of them make many hearts skip a beat.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Why are some alien invasions welcomed?

Stick insects are some of the world's most curious and recognisable creatures. They provoke fascination not only for their startling resemblance to sticks or leaves, a perfect piece of evolved camouflage, but also for the sheer anorexic skinniness of many of them; perhaps there is an ancient gene in us that triggers alarm at the sight of anything preternaturally thin.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The missing contribution to the great debate of our age

Anyone who saw the Hollywood movie Gladiator will remember its villain: the demented young Roman emperor Commodus, played by Joaquin Phoenix. The most vivid historical picture we have of Commodus is by Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Gibbon hated him because he felt it was with Commodus that the Roman rot set in, after four emperors who had ruled wisely and well, the last being Commodus's own philosopher-father, Marcus Aurelius.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Rarity has a value all of its own

Why is rarity so prized? What deep psychological roots in us does it tap? It clearly has nothing to do with the inherent properties of a given object, as a tatty and overprinted postage stamp will have immense allure for stamp collectors, if very rare, whereas a clean and exceptionally beautiful stamp which has just been issued in its millions will carry no cachet.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: It's time I embraced the word 'biodiversity'

What's your reaction to the word biodiversity? Do you know what it means? Legend has it that when John Prescott took up office as the Environment Secretary in the New Labour government of 1997, he thought it was a washing powder. But of course he soon learned, as all of us learn, that biodiversity is basically a portentous way of saying wildlife.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The sparrow that survived Mao's purge

Recently in The Independent we summarised the 10 years of our campaign to save the house sparrow, which has largely disappeared from central London for reasons which remain a mystery. In terms of sparrow stories, this vanishing act is hard to beat. Yet there is another sorrowful sparrow tale which is up there with it, in terms of drama, and which bears retelling.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The delights of the vibrant harebell

I first became aware of harebells when I was 18 and working as a volunteer warden at a nature reserve on Anglesey. It was August, and I hadn't appreciated that small, bell-like, sky-blue flowers nodding on the ends of their stalks appeared at the end of the summer; I thought such things appeared in the spring, and were called bluebells. I suspect the confusion between harebells and bluebells, superficially similar although not related, is quite widespread, and indeed, north of the border the harebell is sometimes called "the Scottish bluebell" as it is found in the Highlands, where the bluebell is largely absent (although the oakwoods of southern Argyll are bluebell-crammed in May). There is one reference to the harebell in Shakespeare, in Cymbeline, but in Jessica Kerr and Anne Ophelia Dowden's Shakespeare's Flowers of 1970, Ms Kerr suggests that your man was referring to the bluebell, and the bluebell is indeed the plant which Ms Dowden has illustrated.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The French have a way with butterflies

I have just spent a fortnight in a farmhouse in the Normandy countryside where the garden was full of butterflies. There are more butterfly species in France than in Britain – more than four times as many, something like 250 as compared with fewer than 60 here – and there also appear to be simply more individual insects, as the French countryside seems not to have suffered quite the battering inflicted on the natural world in Britain by intensive farming. The roadside verges were overflowing with splendid wild flowers, agrimony, betony, yellow toadflax and even glowing blue cornflowers, which in Britain are virtually extinct; there were red squirrels, roe deer and green woodpeckers in the wood across the road and hares in the fields, and my wife saw la fouine, the beech marten, run through the garden.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Big ambitions for Britain's small ponds

Sometimes it dawns on you why you love your country, and I had one of those moments the other day in contemplating the fact that Britain has a full-time organisation devoted to the welfare of ponds. I may be wrong, but I simply cannot imagine that France or Germany or Italy, still less Albania, Paraguay or Ghana, has a charitable body, employing a full-time staff, which focuses entirely on the health of small bodies of standing water.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The dazzling wings that define summer

What is the supreme marker of high summer? What sensations most come to mind of hot, lazy days? Do you see a yellow beach, a blue pool, or hear the shouts of children splashing? Do you hear the purr of an evening lawnmower? Do you taste rosé wine, chill and savoury in its glass? Do you smell a barbecue aroma wafting across from a neighbouring garden?

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Should wildlife art look like photography?

It's easy to forget, when we think about art, that the first subjects for painting were animals: stags, wild horses, wild bulls and other creatures delineated in charcoal and ochre on the walls of caves such as Lascaux in southern France, or Altamira in northern Spain. What, we wonder, looking at these arresting images painted by flickering torchlight 17,000 years ago, was in the minds of the painters? Some sort of awe, or some sort of reverence for the great beasts, undoubtedly.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Such intoxicating displays of mimicry

Very occasionally a book comes along which enables you to see the world in a different way, and I have just discovered one. The title is Butterflies: Messages from Psyche and the author is Philip Howse, a retired Professor of Entomology at the University of Southampton. Published six weeks ago, the book is large-format, and since it is profusely illustrated with splendid photographs of butterflies and moths, many of them magnificent tropical species in bravura colours, your first thought is: coffee table. Yet something radical is going on in these pages which marks this volume out as one to be read rather than left lying around in your sitting room.

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