Wake up and smell the flowers

Victorians liked the natural world dead in a glass case. But did they have a sense of wonder that we lack?

Wander off the tourist track in Brighton and you'll find the Booth Museum of Natural History, a mile up Dyke Road. Step inside and meet in-your-face Victoriana. Lining the walls are more than 300 display cases, each with a stuffed bird or two propped up against a "naturalistic" backdrop. It speaks of a time when natural history was all about collecting dead specimens, and then re-creating wildness by ingenious artifice.

Wander off the tourist track in Brighton and you'll find the Booth Museum of Natural History, a mile up Dyke Road. Step inside and meet in-your-face Victoriana. Lining the walls are more than 300 display cases, each with a stuffed bird or two propped up against a "naturalistic" backdrop. It speaks of a time when natural history was all about collecting dead specimens, and then re-creating wildness by ingenious artifice.

Yet, behind the scenes, the Booth Museum is the epitome of modernity, a regional nerve-centre in the national biodiversity network. Its aim is to measure and monitor the health of our nation's ecosystems. At 125 years old, the Booth finds itself today at the cutting edge of contemporary concerns.

It all goes to show that "we are witnessing nothing less than the rediscovery of natural history", and not before time, too. So says Peter Marren, field botanist, conservationist and author. Mr Marren combines the enthusiasm and expertise of a Victorian naturalist with a modern sense of scepticism. In his latest book - Britain's Rare Flowers - Mr Marren gives us a deliciously unconventional account of the 20th-century conservation movement.

A turning-point for modern natural history was the Rio Convention, which put "biodiversity" into the headlines in 1992. Suddenly, the British government was prepared to pay people to venture out into the beleaguered countryside and find out what still survived there. Even better, there was money to investigate the needs of particular species, and come up with schemes to further their fortunes - known in the trade as Biodiversity Action Plans.

Before this flurry of fieldwork, we knew a lot about where a particular species of plant grew, says Mr Marren, but relatively little about why and how it grew there. "Quite often we completely misunderstood the situation and provided the hapless species with the last thing it wanted, such as the cattle we helpfully removed from the strapwort." Until 1968 strapwort grew in the footprints of cattle that came down to the lake at Slapton Ley in Devon - its sole remaining British site. Then well-meaning conservationists decided to remove the cattle, which were deemed "unnatural". It was not long before strapwort's muddy habitat was replaced by tall sedges and reeds. The poor plant came "within a whisker of national extinction", says Mr Marren, and was saved only by a timely change in conservation policy. Ecologists began to consider individual species, typically overlooked in broad-brush "habitat management" schemes.

But natural history should not become the sole preserve of professional conservationists. "Like the Victorians, I do think observing nature can beneficial, even morally improving, for everyone," Mr Marren says. "In this self-obsessed age, an interest in nature takes you out of yourself, and encourages you to look outwards, not inwards." And, besides, the world is an interesting place, not least because rare and interesting plants turn up in the most unlikely places. Colonies of the rare thistle broomrape survive alongside the A1, for instance. "This charming unpredictability of our native flora makes it vital that people can identify plants accurately," says Mr Marren, as only those capable of telling one plant from another can hope to keep an eye on them. Much depends on a growing band of local "Flora Guardians", a scheme promoted by the wild-plant charity Plantlife, which befriends imperilled patches of beleaguered species.

The sad tale of the sickle-leaved hare's ear shows just how useful grassroots vigilantes could be. This charming little plant was once common along Essex roadsides between Chipping Ongar and Chelmsford, but was down to one last patch by the Fifties. In 1962 the Essex botanist Stanley Jermyn found a scene of ruin; the highway authority had cut down the hedge and cleaned out the ditch while realigning telegraph poles. Where the hare's ear had been there was nothing but a burnt patch of ground. That, it seemed, was that. Surprisingly, in 1979 the plant was found again on the same spot, perhaps resurrected from dormant seed in the soil. Yet that remnant too was finally destroyed in 1980, when the highway authority sprayed it with herbicide.

All the same, Mr Marren refuses to come to the stock conclusion that some plants are rare simply because we have made them so, through habitat destruction. "The reality is more complicated," he says. Each rarity "is an individual, each with its own story". He takes particular delight in the unexpected. Even now-rare cornfield "weeds", all but driven to extinction by intensive agriculture, still flourish in unlikely places. "Shepherd's needle, for example, is still sometimes common enough in parts of Suffolk to cause a nuisance. I really perked up when I learnt this; it's like being plagued with dodos."

Dodos, of course, were hunted to extinction, a fate that nearly befell the Killarney fern. Even today, "it is one of only three species for which grid references are never given, not even on confidential computer records at the Biological Records Centre". The fern became the prize of the Victorian fern-hunters."It was rare. It was pretty. It was associated with wild, romantic scenery." Everyone wanted one in a fashionable glass "Wardian case" in the front parlour. "All this helped to put a price on its head," says Mr Marren. Unfortunately, this particular fern "is a slow-growing plant that seldom strays far from permanently moist hollows and caves, and seems unable to compete with other ferns".

The Killarney fern was ill-prepared to survive the Victorians' penchant for wholesale looting of wild places. This "was not done in a sneaking, guilty spirit but as a fashionable amusement," says Mr Marren. "Prints from contemporary books show family parties in ferny nooks and dells, busily filling boxes and hampers." You could argue, he says, "that dragging nature indoors, dead or alive, was what Victorian natural history was all about."

Back in the Booth Museum, virtually every bird on display was shot by the wealthy Victorian Edward Booth. His aim was to bag all the birds of Britain before he died, and he nearly succeeded. Money was no object; in search of the white-tailed eagle, the guidebook reports, "he kept a train under steam in Brighton station for a week waiting to speed him to the Scottish Highlands as soon as he heard from his ghillies that the eagles had nested".

Today, we frown on such collecting zeal; indeed, we've made it illegal. Death is surely not the best way to celebrate life. But Mr Marren is reluctant to jump on moral bandwagons. In recent decades conservationists have made "do not pick the flowers" the chief take-home message from visits to the countryside. "But have we lost something of the past familiarity with wild flowers by this 'hands-off' attitude?" asks Marren. "Ignorance is a far greater threat to our flora."

Mr Marren fears that "we have lost some of the sense of wonder at nature" that the Victorian naturalists had. His beautifully illustrated book will inspire many people to search out botanical hotspots across the country. The Lizard in Cornwall may top the list; there you can probably see more rarities in half an hour than anywhere else - and can walk in the footsteps of generations of eccentric naturalists brought to life by Mr Marren's engaging prose.


'Britain's Rare Flowers' by Peter Marren is published by T&A Poyser (£24.95) in association with Plantlife and English Nature

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