In defence of collecting

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.

Share This Post

About Author Profile: Nige

Cravat-Wearer of the Year Nige, who, like Mr Kenneth Horne, prefers to remain anonymous, is a founder blogger of The Dabbler and has been a co-blogger on the Bryan Appleyard Thought Experiments blog. He is the sole blogger on Nigeness, and (for now) a wholly owned subsidiary of NigeCorp. His principal aim is to share various of life's pleasures.

10 thoughts on “In defence of collecting

    James Hamilton
    September 9, 2011 at 14:00

    You certainly are off down memory lane: egg collecting has been illegal for 57 years and legislated against for 130.

    I was a keen birdwatcher as a boy and spent many an silent hour in hides, in woods, flat on my stomach in remote marshes: still do it when I can. Egg collecting struck me then, and struck me now, as acquisitive, rather than inquisitive, a cruel and narcissistic act.

    Five minutes spent with Autumnwatch and Springwatch’s segments devoted to the often amazing films and photographs taken by teenagers ought to be enough to convince anyone that there are ways to “collect” nature that are less damaging, more challenging, and more (and more deeply) emotionally engaging than the crass and heartbreaking invasion of nests. Given that Attenborough’s words are being reported by the Daily Heil, I’m prepared to take them with a huge pinch of salt.

    I don’t like making comments of this nature, or coming across as a prig, but, egg collecting? Really, truly?

    September 9, 2011 at 15:13

    Blimey – so I was a criminal even then!
    For me the impulse behind my egg collecting was never acquisitive, let alone cruel or narcissistic. I didn’t really have a ‘collection’ as such – it was more a way of getting closer to the birds’ lives, knowing them better, and enjoying the beauty of the eggs. And it was always carefully done – a single egg missing from a clutch will usually go unnoticed or be promptly replaced, and if care it taken to disturb nothing, a bird will rarely desert the nest just because a human has been around. I know there have been – and are – egg collectors of a very different kind, but I was never one of them.
    I feel much worse about the butterflies…

    September 9, 2011 at 15:43

    As grass will grow faster the more it is mown so with a number of bird species the more they lose the more they make. ‘Our’ moorhens are really the suppliers of chicks to the heron and stoat trade, the wood pidgeons ditto to the passing crow trade. Nature is a weird and wonderfull thing and bird nesting was a done deal by many boys in the fifties, as opposed to boys in the noughties who have a habit of sticking knives in their headmasters. For every action there inevitably is a reaction, often over reaction, fed by the BBC mindset that appears to put fur and feather before folk.

    September 9, 2011 at 18:07

    As usual, your response sums it up in a curiously unique eggshell nutshell, malty – hear, hear! Nige, beware the EU Bird Directive… you’d better go into hiding now, before you’re slapped with a CPRO (Community Punishment and Rehabilitation Order).

    September 9, 2011 at 19:08

    I feel I have to side with James on this as, while I was an avid collector of all things natural in my youth, I never knowingly killed for my collections.

    Whilst I appreciate the value of those millions of pinned insects that have formed the worlds identification resource since at least the Victorian era it still depresses me to see those serried ranks of spread and pinned specimens. Even now when I go looking for an ID on a butterfly or dragonfly on-line I’ll find that the source is a scanned dead beastie with a pin through the thorax.

    But technology really has changed things tremendously. The simplicity and affordability of digital photography means that even a cackhanded dunderhead like myself can eventually get a half decent picture of just about anything. Oh except birds…I cannot photograph birds… too damned sneaky.

    But as to hands on experience, well I’m all in favour. Just put it back where you found it, preferably with the same number of legs as it started out with. Banished Jr is 4 and he delights in picking up just about anything he can lay hands on, all boys do. His latest collection is of the discarded larval shells of emerged cicadas. He can keep all those he wants, last count he had about 50

    September 9, 2011 at 20:39

    Well I’m a child of the 80’s and was an avid butterfly and moth collector and I admit that as an 8 year old I did kill a fair few in glass jars full of laurel leaves; why? Because the butterfly books I read (like the observer books for instance) told you that that’s what you did if you were a serious collector. Never managed to properly pin one up though and always felt a bit guilty for having killed one without then knowing how to present it properly

    September 9, 2011 at 21:08

    We do so many cruel things to animals as a matter of course, it seems odd that collecting bird’s eggs should be illegal, except in the case of endangered species, of course. If we eat eggs for pleasure, why should we not handle them for knowledge, experience and understanding?

    Digital images are no substitute for physical contact with the world in all its tactile, filthy, violent glory- any more than a viewing of “One Night in Paris” is a substitute for actual coitus with another human being. I’m with Malty & Nige on this.

    September 9, 2011 at 22:01

    It was Coventry circa 1960. William Hickey was writing in the Daily Express, and Ian and I would swarm all over it looking for a girl getting out of a car badly. But our spare time was taken up with collecting….collecting anything from steam train numbers, to stamps. And yes, we collected eggs from the nest, and lepidoptera – butterflys and moths, using chloroform to subdue them. It felt the most natural thing in the provincial world we inhabited and we had no thought for the knowledge we were amassing – though we were. Put the fish back. Only take an egg if….
    I lost track of Ian for over 40 years but, using the web I am using now, I found him again three years ago in Spain. He was there to visit the wetlands of the Costa de la Luz to watch wading birds. Not he, nor I, need the books we used back in leafy Warwickshire; we can identify most birds by the way they move about, by the way they fly. Because back then, fifty years ago, we were not just killing. We didn’t know it at the time, and we didn’t care – but we were learning too. Killing and learning.

    September 11, 2011 at 16:17

    James Hamilton is only a bit correct when he says egg collecting has been illegal for 57 years – i.e since 1954.

    The Protection of Birds Act passed that year protected a specific list of bird species. These were mostly rarities like Red-backed Shrike or Woodlark. The list was extended in 1967, but still birds were by default unprotected under the act.

    It was only with the passing of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in 1981 that the situation was reversed, i.e. all species were protected other than those listed.

    I was an egg-collector as a boy, and I can second Nige’s sentiments. The interesting thing is how much our idea of nature has changed. Until Rachel Carson, it was common sense that nature was infinite, bountiful, beyond control, and potentiallly dandgerous. Then overnight it was tame, threatened, and under our patronage. A moral issue has been created where none existed.

    The other thing that changed is the number of people potentially involved. When I started birdwatching at Tring reservoirs in say 1958, we hardly ever saw anyone else. There’d be a dogwalker around midday, maybe the odd tweeded chap with a pair of ex-service 8 X 30s. No other car parked up. The hide was a garden shed slowly subsiding into the ooze. Now the place is like Kew Gardens, except free. Likewise bluebell woods. There was no need to protect wild bluebells – the whole idea would have seemed insane back then – because there was insignificant interest in them.

    Nature has changed from being something ‘out there’, interesting to some but a matter of indifference to most – to a cross between an object of worship and a theme park.

    I still visit Tring now and again. What I’d like to see is a cull of dog-walkers, casual gawkers, blank-eyed gazers, mountain-bikers, joggers, baby-buggy merchants, and other blots upon the lanscape. We could achieve a reduction in the population of these unwanted and unsightly invaders to an acceptable level, scientifically and with a minimum of unnecesary suffering, by the use of methods pioneered during recent wars. Collateral damage in the shape of the odd prig or two is to be expected and will be deemed acceptable (or even desirable in some cases).

    Who will join me?

    RV @ Wilstone Res. carpark 0700 hrs Sunday 18/9/11 for briefing and deployment instructions. I’ll bring the sandwiches. Pass it on.

    September 12, 2011 at 10:31

    As a child I took my lead from the Famous Five in this matter – they always seemed to be protecting wild birds’ nests from smugglers and ‘suspicious-looking coves’.

    You can enjoy nature without raiding it – teach kids that they can collect all the eggs they want because ‘the birds will just lay more’ and they’ll take the lesson for the future that they can take all they want with no respect for others. Whether it relates to taking from birds’ nests or taking from people, it’s a bad lesson to teach.

Comments are closed.