Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: It's badgers and cuckoos that really matter


It is a curious sensation, to be working in the middle of a national newspaper newsroom convulsed with the noisiest scandal for years, involving public outrage, gross malpractice, a media group in meltdown, Scotland Yard in turmoil and the political system in ferment, and to be writing about badgers and cuckoos.

The feeling is even more curious if one has earned one's living from newsgathering all one's working life and the words instinctively on one's lips, as shocking development is piled upon shocking development, are Gimme A Piece Of This! and one finds that one is restricted to reporting on the affairs of a burrowing mammal, and a bird.

And yet, and yet. Such is the nature of news that what can one day appear of immense importance may shrink sharply in significance as time passes, and even come to seem as an ephemeral flutter, whereas items which did not make it into the headlines may later be seen as of great consequence, or even as turning points.

I can give you an example. Margaret Thatcher was brought down as Prime Minister in 1990 by her fellow Conservatives because of her poll tax, so unpopular that Tory MPs feared they would lose their seats because of it at the next election (some did). The Thatcher administration did not foresee the hostility the measure would provoke, and a major reason was that when it was first announced, no one seemed to notice. And this was because on the day the poll tax Green Paper was published, 28 January 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger blasted off from Kennedy Space Centre and 73 seconds later exploded, killing the entire crew, and banishing from the next day's headlines any mention of local government taxation reform.

I don't want to exaggerate. I'm not suggesting that the announcement this week, at the height of the News of the World phone-hacking frenzy, that the Government is likely to permit the culling of wild badgers in a bid to limit the spread of TB in cattle, is an unnoticed ticking time-bomb which may ultimately bring down David Cameron. But I do think that it is of much more significance, and worth more headline space and airtime, than the phone-hacking scandal allowed it, likely as it is to set farmer against animal-lover in a bitter countryside conflict where both sides strongly believe they are right.

Although, to be honest, the badger cull was fairly widely reported, if not at great length. What has been much more effectively swamped and squeezed out by the phone-hacking palaver has been the cuckoo news. Cuckoos are birds of magic and mystery, with their call the most inspiring sound of spring, and it took centuries to uncover their secrets, such as how they got their eggs into other birds' nests, and how the cuckoo chick survived alone. Yet one mystery has always remained – where do they go in the winter? We know it's Africa, but where in Africa, and how do they get there?

It matters because cuckoos are rapidly declining in Britain, and we need to know where the problem lies. And in the last few days, with phone-hacking holding the nation in thrall, the answers have started to become clear. Five cuckoos, fitted with tiny satellite transmitters by the British Trust for Ornithology, are being tracked on their journeys back to Africa, and two are already there, having now flown across the Sahara desert (in Senegal and Niger), with a third yesterday in the "toe" of Italy, poised to cross over.

To have the fine detail of these amazing 3,000-mile migratory odysseys unfolding, as they have done this last week, for the first time in history, before the eyes of anyone who wants to log on to the BTO website, seems to me to be absolutely wondrous. It will fascinate far into the future, even if at the moment of discovery, most people, intoxicated by brouhaha, were looking the other way.

Flashes of blue searched for in vain

Something that the dire weather of July is depriving us of is the sight of blue butterflies. Am I alone in thinking that any blue butterfly encounter is something of an event? We have holly blues in spring which come into gardens and look like scraps of sky blue silk, and then common blues which are far from common in their appearance, and smaller silver-studded blues which flit about heathlands; and now in high summer we should be watching the two best of all – chalkhill blues, which are the milky-blue colour of a hazy sky, and Adonis blues, which are as brilliant and intense in their blueness as a sunlit sea. And the rain is depriving us of all of them.

Walking with bats

If you can't feast your eyes on nature in this washout summer, you can at least feast your ears by going on a bat walk. You gather in the evening at a suitable site (a lake or a wood, say), in company with bat experts and other bat enthusiasts, and wear a bat detector – earphones which pick up the bat's high-pitched squeakings and let you identify the species. It's great fun. You could try the London Wetland Centre in Barnes, which is currently holding weekly bat walks. I've done it and the bats are there even in the rain.;

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