Nature Studies: The man behind ‘British Wildlife’ is a hero to rank with David Attenborough

Now we enthusiasts for this marvellous publication worry about its future
  • @mjpmccarthy

If we look back upon who in Britain has done most for the natural world over the past 25 years – to publicise it, promote it, and thus protect it – the name that would spring to most people’s lips is of course that of Sir David Attenborough. The range and power of his televison wildlife documentaries have been unparalleled.

Some other names do come to mind – younger contenders for the Attenborough crown such as Chris Packham and Simon King, TV naturalists with an eccentric side such as David Bellamy with flowers and Bill Oddie with birds, or the mushrooming band of modern “literary naturalists” headed by Richard Mabey – but they don’t really compare, in terms of sheer output and body of achievement, with the great Sir David. Yet one man does compare in those terms – and his name is virtually unknown to the public.

Twenty-five years ago this summer Andrew Branson, a nature-obsessed young executive in a publishing firm, took out a bank loan and launched British Wildlife magazine, which he subtitled “the magazine for the modern naturalist”. It has grown into the most important and informative publication on wildlife of our times, the only one to cover all of it – animals, plants, insects and invertebrates, terrestrial and marine, common and rare – while providing news-in-depth of conservation projects, issues affecting our flora and fauna from plant diseases to climate change, and a regular panoramic overview of what in the natural world is really going on.

Yet you may never have seen it or even heard of it, because British Wildlife, beautifully produced in colour and about the size of a novel, does not appear on the newsstands; it is available only by subscription, six times a year. Nine thousand people subscribe to it (including me), and what we get is a perfectly judged half-way house between fairly stiff academic journals such as Nature and popular newsstand magazines such as BBC Wildlife, which tend to concentrate on colour photos of what zoologists sometimes refer to as Charismatic Megafauna (think tigers and elephants).

British Wildlife is at once more serious than the latter and more accessible than the former. The present issue, for example, features articles on eels and otters; Chobham Common nature reserve; bat detectors; the Great Fen; and breeding waders on the Somerset Levels. Over the life of the magazine, Branson has commissioned and edited about a thousand such pieces, which together form an unmatched body of detailed modern knowledge about the wildlife of the British Isles.

Beginning in Vol. 1 No. 1 in October 1989 with “The Return of the Large Blue Butterfly” by J H Thomas (now Prof Jeremy Thomas of Oxford), many of these are classic pieces of writing by our most distinguished naturalists, entertaining as well as erudite; perhaps my favourite of all of them is the scholarly but entrancing essay by Peter Marren (from Vol. 10 No.1, October 1998) on “The English Names of Moths”, which will explain to you how we came to have insects called the satin lutestring, the scarce forester, the Hebrew character and the powdered rustic. Himself one of our leading nature writers, Marren waxes lyrical about Branson and his journal. “For a quarter of a century British Wildlife has heroically held the middle ground between stiff academic journals and popular animal magazines.It is informative, readable, opinionated, beautiful, exciting and, to many of its faithful readers, lovable. I doubt if anyone except Andrew Branson would have dared to put it on the market, let alone maintained it to the highest standards for 25 years. He deserves the ecological equivalent of the Victoria Cross, though, knowing him, he would probably turn it down.”

Quiet, bespectacled and bearded, Andrew Branson does indeed come over as unassuming, but there is no doubting the determined character which has produced the magazine, as well as a terrific series of natural-history books from his associated British Wildlife Publishing. His philosophy has been inclusion: to cover everything, not just the birds and the mammals, but to produce a journal where, as he puts it, “the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland [the shell collectors’ club] has almost an equal footing with the RSPB”.

And now he’s left it. Just before Christmas, Branson sold British Wildlife and the publishing company to a much bigger outfit, Osprey Publishing, which specialises in military history. He feels that if the magazine is to be kept going into the digital age, it needs serious investment and specialised knowledge which he doesn’t have. And besides, he would like some time for himself after the huge quarter-of-a-century effort which has fallen on him and on his wife, Anne. So we enthusiasts for this marvellous publication wonder about the future, and hold our breath; but we have no hesitation in saluting the achievement of its onlie begetter Andrew Branson, the great unsung hero of the natural world in Britain.

Twitter: @mjpmccarthy

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