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

Share

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

To see what British Wildlife is about, go to www.britishwildlife.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform