Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The 21st century bodes ill for non-human species

If the Earth is eventually to be overwhelmed by the human species, is it a crime to speak up for the Earth? Our morality is anthropocentric: at the heart of our notions of good and bad lies human suffering, and what we can do to avoid it.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Of all our conservation failures, this is the saddest

It's a hoary old cliché, the dream that died, but perhaps we may be allowed to write the dream that is dying: for such is the situation facing anyone who has supported the noble aim of restoring salmon, the finest of all freshwater fish, to the River Thames.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Of the dingy footman, and other such creatures

With a thump, a thick tome lands on my desk: it is the Provisional Atlas of the UK's Larger Moths. Two adjectives in that title, provisional and larger, may well deter some people as they give off a definite whiff of nerdiness, but having by now been infected with the nerd germ I am immune to such concerns, open the volume eagerly and at once find myself immersed in the world of the oblique carpet, the dark spinach, the smoky wainscot, the brindled pug, the snout, the beautiful snout, the Bloxworth snout and the true lover's knot.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Have we learned nothing since 'Silent Spring'?

Nicotine, found in tobacco, is a deadly substance – and not only for smokers. It has long been known as a powerful natural insecticide, and its presence in the tobacco crop has evolved to deter pests; it is toxic to virtually all of them (except one, the Carolina sphinx moth, whose fat green caterpillar, known in the US as the tobacco hornworm, has evolved a way of dealing with it).

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Survival skills of the highest order

Alpine Dorset: that was a new one on me, in the heart of that most gently rolling of counties, but such the landscape seemed to be as we trudged on Christmas Day up the slopes of Maiden Castle, the colossal prehistoric hillfort on the outskirts of Dorchester. As far as the eye could see the countryside was white, apart from the woodlands which were black against the snow, while above, all was blue: a high-pressure system meant there was no cloud in the sky, and the sun poured down unhindered. Blinding white, luminous blue, searing sun: I've only seen that palette high in the Alps, on skiing holidays.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The winter solstice, festival of rebirth

Let us celebrate the day then, the long-awaited day, the great midwinter feast, and let us give thanks for what it represents, most of all, its restoration of hope. I'm not referring to tomorrow, though, I'm not referring to Christmas. I'm referring to last Tuesday: the winter solstice.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Cancun was a triumph for global co-operation

It is difficult sometimes, when one understands a situation but imperfectly, to make an accurate assessment of it; and such may be the case with some of those who have belittled the achievement of the United Nations climate conference which ended in Cancun, Mexico, a week ago.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: On the trail of the resplendent quetzal

What do you think is the holy grail of wildlife watching? For some people undoubtedly it would be the big beasts of Africa, whereas others might say the great whales, or polar bears, or a tiger in the wild. Me, I've long held more modest ambitions: I've never seen a hawfinch.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Climate change can't be stopped. So adapt to it

Watching global warming negotiations in a Caribbean beach resort when the news from Britain is of deep snow at the very beginning of winter has an incongruous feel about it, to say the least, and it strikes me forcibly, here in Cancun, Mexico, where the UN is holding its latest climate conference, that the number of Britons considering this climate change gubbins to be all a load of old cobblers must, in the last week, have risen appreciably.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The end of abundance

If we ask ourselves what has been lost, that we really care about, in the last 50 years, what has gone from the natural world in Britain that was special and is now much missed, we might come up with many different answers.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: A rare glimpse of the glorious woodcock

Sometimes you only get a glimpse, but a glimpse is enough. A week last Tuesday, I was tramping across a Surrey heathland, a place that was but 15 minutes in the car from Guildford but looked so wild, with its dark heather plains and its pine-clad and birch-clad horizons, that it could have been Russia. In fact, it has represented Russia in movies more than once. Surrey continues to amaze. You think it's all London suburbs. Half of it is wilderness. It's the county most taken for granted.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The chestnut that conquered the world

It is curious that the horse chestnut tree, whose nuts are useful only to small boys playing conkers, is so much better known in Britain than the sweet chestnut, whose nuts have supported whole societies.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Kingfisher blue, nature's most enchanting colour

If you were asked what is the most memorable colour in the natural world, what would you reply? Off the top of my head I would say the lipstick scarlet of poppies comes close, and maybe the lustrous orange of the large copper butterfly (now extinct in England, but you can see it in Holland) or perhaps the pale purple flash along the flanks of a rainbow trout.

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.

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