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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Richmond Fellowship: Executive Director

£66,192 per annum including car allowance of £5,700): The Richmond Fellowship:...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Recruitment Genius: Office Junior

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Site Agent

£22000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This traditional family company...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Fighters from Isis parading in Raqqa, northern Syria, where the ‘Islamic State’ has its capital; Iranian-backed Shia militia are already fighting the group on the ground in Iran  

Heartlessness towards refugees is the lifeblood of jihadist groups like Isis

Charlie Winter
Refugees try to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia, near Gevgelija, on Wednesday. The town sits on the ‘Balkan corridor’ used by refugees, mostly from Syria, to travel from Turkey to Hungary, the gateway to the EU  

The UK response to the plight of Syrian refugees is a national embarrassment

Kevin Watkins
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent