Apiece of Fleet Street folklore departed The Independent this week. Michael McCarthy finally hung up his binoculars as the paper's Environment Editor.
Why binoculars? Because as anyone who knows Mike will testify, he's happiest out in the wild, tracking animals in their natural habitats. His knowledge of his subject is truly encyclopaedic, even down to being able to recite the Latin name of any species he finds.
He's that rare creature himself – someone who combines a life-long passion with their day job. The result, down the years, has been brilliant coverage for The Independent of all things environmental, exclusives galore, memorable front pages and a clutch of awards for its indefatigable expert.
Mike led the field on climate change, determined to keep it at the top of the news agenda, never shirking from taking on the deniers. There was, though, more to his writing than "heavy" news stories. I well remember him phoning me in a state of high excitement as he was about to be allowed to view the lady slipper orchid, the first journalist to do so since it had been kept at a secret, tightly guarded location since the 1930s.
It was Mike who persuaded the powers-that-be here to open the company wallet and put up a cash prize for someone who could best explain the disappearance of the sparrow from Britain's gardens. And when the British Trust for Ornithology said it was going to fit 13 cuckoos with mini-satellite transmitters to track them on their 10,000-mile flights to Africa for the winter and back to Britain for summer, Mike had the idea of calling one of them "Indy" and recounting its epic journey in these pages.
Wrote the RSPB'S former conservation director, Mark Avery in a tribute on his blog: "Mike McCarthy has been, outstandingly, the premier writer on nature and nature conservation in the print media for many years – we nature conservationists will miss him." Added Avery: "I have shared many a bottle of claret and champagne with [him] and chewed the fat about wildlife, nature conservationists, politicians, literature, poetry, football – but the conversation always came back to wildlife as that is his passion and mine."
Mike is special, reports Avery, because his take on the world is so different from other journalists he has come across. As well as a football team (Fulham), McCarthy has a favourite flower (the greater butterfly orchid, because he likes its delicacy and the fact it grows in the shade but its vivid yellow flowers illuminate the darkness) and a butterfly (the silver-washed fritillary, because the slightly flattened curve of the leading edge of the forewing reminds Mike of Georgian silver – seriously).
Now Mike is retiring to write what we all hope will be a best-selling novel. Fortunately, he is not disappearing completely. He will still share his nature studies with us every Thursday. And today, there's a special treat, as he gives us his valedictory thoughts on the changing shape of the environmental movement.