Richard finds it difficult to separate out the different elements of his life because, as he says, it's all life – intricately connected just as is any 'web of life' which is what ecologists study.
As he says, “For me, an ecologist notices things visually, analyses them logically and writes them down accurately. If you have a sense of beauty, you notice the aesthetics of these things. If you possess a degree of curiosity, you want to know more about them. And if you want to remember these things, you write them down or draw them.”
Bringing all that together is where, for Richard, Art begins to make sense. A lapsed term these days is 'Natural philosophy'. Although an ecologist, Richard is happy to be called a Naturalist even though it's another term fallen into disuse these days due to ever increasing specialisation and reductionism. Specialism narrows scope and obscures the web of life, and you end up "not seeing the wood for the trees". Reductionism means you look in more and more detail and lose focus on the entire organism.
Richard writes some more about his wildlife here:
I was tempted to call this 'Some wild life' but by some standards it's not been that wild at all although at times it has seemed so.
Most children love animals, that's perfectly normal, although when I was growing up in the fifties kids still went bird-nesting and my father reared pristine butterflies and moths from caterpillars only to kill and stick pins in them to mount in glass cases. I could never understand or join in with any of these activities. It gave me a reputation of being 'soft-hearted'; I don't know what that means unless it's pathetic and babyish. I was certainly never that, but just never had, even from earliest years, anything but a deep respect for all living things, plants included.
One early memory which might serve to illustrate is lying on my front at the edge of our garden pond, fishing out flies and other insects from the water and laying them on sun-warmed rocks to dry. Many years later, I found myself doing much the same thing one afternoon in Kenya when out there studying birds.
Throughout my career, much of it spent in zoos and wildlife collections, people tried to brutalise me, 'desensitise' if you prefer, to absolutely no effect. In fact, if anything, it steeled me and I've never allowed the charge of sentimentality – one of the harshest charges you can lay on any scientist – to diminish me. As I wrote in one of my books, sentimentality can humanise us.
I could write a book about my zoological experiences, and it might be something if spared I'll do one year. But here I've decided to limit remarks to just two species: a bird, the Chough, and a mammal, the Badger.
While writing the badger book in 1985, Mij and I were ambitiously trying to start up a Field study centre on the fringe of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, and I was beginning my research into the decline and extinction of the Cornish Chough. Our aim to return it to its English homeland. As luck would have it, just as I was planning this I had a call from a local ornithologist of high repute, Steve Madge, telling me that a pair of Choughs had turned up on the Rame peninsular just in Cornwall, west of Plymouth. So I spent that winter, one of the coldest we'd had for a long time before and after, trekking over daily to study them (1990, Observations on two Red-billed Choughs Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax in Cornwall: habitat use and food intake. Bird Study 37: 199-209, see Bibliography).
Thus on the wild coasts of Wales, Scotland and Brittany my adventure with this iconic and beautiful bird began. Four years of intensive field work followed before writing it all up in Glasgow.
My affiliation with this strange and rare crow began once more in childhood (I suppose most things do for everybody). Father was the Chief District Engineer for the then Ministry of Works in North Wales principally in charge of Ancient Monuments. I was occasionally allowed to accompany him on his visits: Caernarfon Castle (Anglicised to Caernarvon in those days) was my favourite. And there, looked after by the Custodian, a tame Chough strolled around the castle bailey. Another odd quirk that I feel connects me with this odd bird is being brought up in Flintshire where there are no cliffs or any recorded history of Choughs having lived there and yet on its coat of arms are these four resplendent Choughs:
I guess they used to live and nest among the range of limestone hills just inland and which were my stamping ground then (Oh, I wish they were again!), and Thomas Pennant writing in the 18th century thought the same.
Arriving in Cornwall just as the species was becoming extinct simply reinforced what felt like a mystical connection. Extinction in Cornwall meant extinction in England. The remnants of a fragmented British population is scattered along the Celtic maritime cliffs which fringe the western coast of Britain, Ireland and Brittany.
If anyone is interested in this story please go to the Operation Chough website mentioned at the top.
I have to admit that my lack of formal education did make this whole doctoral enterprise an adventure but I had to do it. There was no-one else with the freedom or grounding to take it on and I felt that if I applied myself to the rigorous science then it wasn't beyond me. The field work was utterly intriguing and the writing and study presented no insurmountable problems but the gruesome statistics and mathematics - a part of any modern ecological study, especially given that I had not even a Maths O-level/GCSE – were a different matter. However we did it.
In my naivety I had no suspicion that later in life my unconventional background would mean effective exclusion from the scientific clique but even though I’ve never really been accepted, I'm gratified that the actual work has never been criticised. I've found some established ecologists (not all by any means) patronising and dismissive. Something which amazes me, especially since ecology should mean the very opposite of that.
If you read Influences under Writing , you'll see there a reference to Frances Fyfield. She dedicated a book to me based on a tragic reminiscence I told her of a girl student colleague who had plunged to her death on Skomer Island off the Welsh coast. It was called Looking down. Here a young Chough still missing its startling red beak and legs rests upon it.
This bird was one of the first Choughs we bred at Paradise Park in Cornwall as part of our re-establishment project. Choughs are now flying free around The Lizard peninsular and also on Jersey in the Channel Isles. A small but important triumph.
I wish I could say the same about Badgers.
Oh, what a grim and shocking story this is.
You know what it's like when you hear a report on the media about something you really know about and you're left thinking “No! It's nothing like that”? Well, think that in buckets about the subject of Badgers and Bovine tuberculosis.
Here Cornwall in the seventies again rears its craggy head. The Chough was dying out due to man's direct and indirect actions, and so was the Badger over much of its Cornish range, and was being gassed wholesale on Dartmoor in neighbouring Devon.
At that time I was busy breeding tropical soft-billed birds (these are mainly fruit and nectar feeders) and the badger saga existed in the background (see Articles under Writing). It was not for another ten years that it forced its black and white striped face into the foreground again.
I was doing a Natural History evening course with Exeter University when a few of us attended a public meeting about the plight of the Badger. Horrified by what we heard, we formed BROCK, the Cornish Badger Group. Being the only person near to being a professional naturalist, it fell to me to do a lot of the spade work; oops, sorry about that(!), let's call it research. This all began just as we were attempting to start a Field Study Centre on the edge of Bodmin Moor.
Our Study Centre became the focal point for meetings, but soon, as was inevitable, we upset the local farming community who, of course, hated badgers for a variety of reasons. We became ostracised and then excluded from all the land we'd hitherto had access to. It became very nasty indeed.
I had obtained a year's contract with the World Wildlife Fund (founded by my early mentor Sir Peter Scott) to liaise between farming and conservation interests. It was a near impossible job and yet out of this deeply depressing experience came my book The Fate of the Badger (Batsford 1986).
In 2016 it was republished as a 30th anniversary edition (see www.fire-raven.co.uk).
When this project was mooted I thought large chunks of it would have to be rewritten after so long. But reading it through, I realised that, it was all still true! I could hardly believe it. How could this be? So we decided, to prove the point by publishing the contents in facsimile form with just a new cover, new Foreword and new chapter with additional appendices grafted on at the end.
How many books about an important topical subject can be reprinted after 30 years with little or no editing? I submit not many.