On 10 December 1943, when all railway stations were plastered with notices asking 'Is your journey really necessary?', these people travelled to the Natural History Museum in London. Their patriotic mission, headed by Francis Butler, an inspector of schools from London, led to the foundation of the Field Studies Council. They knew that Britain was not only under attack from Hitler but was in the throes of an uncivil war that threatened to destroy the living heart of the country.
Appalled that the countryside was being ripped apart by road building and ribbon urbanisation, they were also worried that the teaching of natural history in the field was being replaced by classroom-bound biology. How, they argued, could the urban masses of the future ever come to respect and care about wildlife and their rural heritage if they had no exposure to it?
Their worst fears have, of course, been justified; for once the Second World War had come to an end, the War on Nature began in earnest. Since that time Britain has lost 97 per cent of its flower-rich meadows and grasslands, 50 per cent of what was left of its ancient and coppice woodlands, 200,000 miles of hedgerows, 10 species of dragonfly, and much more.
What the damage toll would have been without the work of the FSC one can only guess, for in the past 50 years it has given field experience to tens of thousands of people.
The journey those people made that cold December day was absolutely necessary. Their vision created a chain of 11 field centres where people can come and immerse themselves in field studies of every type. There they rub shoulders with scientists, artists, historians, gamekeepers and landowners - local experts in every field. Most important of all, they learn through and in the local landscape: each of them a living experience. And what an experience they are, as I well remember.
Jim Bingley, at Flatford Mill field centre, Suffolk, despite greatly impaired vision, was a master of the craft of identification. With a telescopic monocular fitted to his better eye, he would make the biodiversity of Constable's country a living reality. The mosses on the roof of Willy Lott's Cottage, the spiders in their Grade I listed webs high in the cruck frame of the warden's house would come to life.
It was while at Flatford that I converted my BSc into real results; good enough for me to head for a PhD on the boglands of Europe under Francis Rose, whom I had first met at Juniper Hall field centre, Surrey. Francis had inspired me to become a botanist and taught me much of what I know about plants. John Sankey, warden at Juniper Hall, has done the same for thousands of larval entomologists. He could walk bare-legged through a patch of stinging nettles and emerge unscathed with a clutch of caterpillars.
Charles Sinker, at Preston Montford, Shropshire, introduced me to the complexities of rural ecology. We tried to predict what would happen to the acid peatlands of his patch once lime subsidies were introduced. He was right: despite acid rain, 30 per cent were badly affected. It was at Dale Fort field centre, Dyfed, that I first dipped into marine studies and became sufficiently hooked that when the challenge came I dived in to study the pollution of the cold North Sea.
This put me in the public domain, for when the Torrey Canyon disaster covered the beaches of Cornwall with oil I was dragged from my ivory tower. Not long after, I had made it: with pictures on the front of Radio Times and that most august scientific journal, Nature. The latter was of me with a lawnmower chasing a girl wearing a grass skirt. The caption was 'Science is Fun' - and so is natural history the FSC way.
I should like to apologise to all the wardens and their staff that some of my student parties were not the best behaved - that midnight glowworm hunt at Juniper when we all fell off the stepping stones; washing-up after Flopsy Bunny's party at Preston, and the ladies' bathroom at Dale Fort. I am pleased to hear that the latter has now been brought up to European Community standards, for the baths were too narrow for budding botanists.
These were happy and important days for those people - and for the many thousands of others now out there, part of the informed grassroots working to turn the still rising tide of destruction. Primed by their days at the FSC, they are doing their bit to help our country to hold up its head as one of the signatories to the biodiversity and other environmental directives of the Rio Summit.
There is still much to do: road building and unplanned development threaten our countryside, and the planned privatisation of the Forestry Commission threatens to undermine so much of the good work it has done in the past few years. Last year 50 million visitors enjoyed access to its forests; the only worry is what will happen to these forests in the future.
The author is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and itinerant field botanist.
Further information can be obtained from the Field Studies Council, Shrewsbury (0743-850674).
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