These days almost any form of nature collecting is frowned upon. Here Nige recalls his own youthful collecting experiences and explains how they gave him a lifelong appreciation of the natural world…
A little while back David Attenborough spoke out against the misguided laws that prevent children collecting almost anything in the field. Good for him. His argument might seem to sit oddly with his passion for conservation, but there’s no real contradiction. Children who grow up with the close, hands-on experience of nature that comes with early collecting experience (rather than an abstract idea of Nature) are more likely to value it in true and useful ways.
It is strange that so much of nature is apparently open to us now – with books, photographs and TV films of a quality I in my boyhood could only dream of, available to all – and yet children, enjoying less freedom to roam outdoors than ever before, and circumscribed by ‘conservation’ laws, have less and less direct, close-up experience of nature, of how creatures feel and smell and behave as well as look, of their variations and distinctions and minute beauties of form.
I was a collector myself in a very small way – and even in my boyhood it was beginning to seem eccentric (especially butterfly collecting). Though I now regret every butterfly I killed and set (they weren’t many), I am glad of the time I spent examining specimens in the old round glass-topped metal specimen cans into which I carefully transferred them from the net. Fossils – Attenborough’s favourites – I never really took to, though I joined my much keener brother on a few geological jaunts.
Collecting birds’ eggs was much more fun, demanding keen observation and, often, good tree-climbing abilities (and you never really know a tree until you’ve climbed into it) and rewarding them with small objects of great beauty and interest. The thrill of reaching into a nest and feeling eggs, startlingly warm – or, if deserted, icy cold – would be followed by the delicate task of blowing the egg (a small hole at the mouth end, a rather larger one at the crown of the egg) and, if the egg was unfamiliar, identifying it in, usually, the Observer’s book of birds’ eggs. I remember the thrill of finding a dunnock’s nest in a hedge (beautiful sky blue eggs), a linnet’s nest full of eggs that seem randomly scribbled on, a long-tailed tit’s nest, oval, beautifully made, with a tiny opening in the side, a cosy feather-and-moss-lined interior, and a clutch of tiny freckled eggs… O dear, I’m off down Memory Lane again.
What I want to say is simply this, that collecting in childhood – which necessarily involves learning how animals behave, as well as handling and closely observing specimens – is the best possible basis for real knowledge and appreciation of nature, or at the very least for taking an interest in what is around us, for paying it due attention.