BBC Radio 4 – Squirrels & Knotweed

Last week I was delighted to share some of my knowledge of exotic and invasive species on national radio, thanks to an invitation by Kat (@harpistkat) and Helen Arney (@helenarney) to appear on their series “Did the Victorians Ruin the World?”

In the episode I talk about the introduction of the grey squirrel to Victorian Britain and how negative attitudes towards native red squirrels rapidly changed thanks to the new arrivals. I also discuss the introduction of Japanese knotweed, which was once advertised as an ornamental and desirable addition to every garden.

You can listen to the episode at:


Attitudes Towards the House Sparrow in Victorian Britain

On Wednesday evening the Leeds Animal Studies Network ( met for the latest installment of its seminar series. For those of us intrigued by animal history, the Network’s seminars have offered some great topics: from beagle colonies to the role of elephants in the timber industry of colonial Burma.

Male and female house sparrows. From Thomas G. Gentry, The House Sparrow at Home and Abroad (Philadelphia, 1878). Available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

But the latest seminar featured my own (freshly published!) research on the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) in 19thc Britain. During this time, sparrows were generally perceived as “pests” or “vermin” which consumed farmer’s crops and damaged orchards. This attitude was summed up by the complaints of a farmer named Charles Newman, who wrote to his local newspaper in 1861 to protest against bird conservation. Newman, a self-proclaimed “practical farmer,” had little patience for those who wished to preserve sparrows:

“No doubt many persons are opposed to their [sparrows’] destruction, considering that this feathered race were created for some wise purpose. Such was undoubtedly the case in the original order. But the Great Creator made man to rule over the fowls of the air and the beasts of the field, leaving it to his judgment to destroy such that were found more destructive than beneficial.”

Newman was by no means alone in his hatred of sparrows, or as he termed them, “flying mice.” Arable farmers and horticulturalists regularly trapped, poisoned or shot sparrows on their land. Yet others thought that sparrows were not destructive, but useful. In 1862 the Royal Agricultural Society of England and Wales  stated that insectivorous birds like sparrows consumed as much animal [insect] as vegetable matter, acting as ‘‘faithful protectors’’ of ‘‘cultivation in general.” Some naturalists feared that destroying sparrows would upset the delicate balance of nature. As early as 1841, a letter to The Quarterly Journal of Agriculture told the tale of a horticulturalist who had exterminated sparrows in his fruit orchard, only to suffer ‘‘myriads of caterpillars, green and black-marked ugly things,’’ which stripped whole bushes of their leaves.

The English sparrow in the USA. From William Yarrell’s A History of British Birds Vol.1 (London, 1843): 474-478. 

The idea of using sparrows as a form of biological control against harmful insects was enacted across the globe. Sparrows were introduced to both Australia and the United States by acclimatisation societies during the 1860s. Yet attitudes towards the sparrow in both countries quickly turned sour. In 1878 an article in The Derby Mercury charted the rapid reversal of Australian opinion:

“For ten or fifteen years, perhaps, the Australian gardeners and farmers and the sparrows got on exceedingly well together. The busy little birds faithfully performed all that was expected of them, and the land was well nigh rid of grub and caterpillar. Presently, however, there gradually arose a feeling of uneasiness as to the increase and multiplication of the imported blessing.”

In the face of such failures, the acclimatisation movement declined. Natural history also suffered a decline during the latter half of the 19thc ( Economic ornithology, described as ‘‘the study of the inter-relation of birds and agriculture’’ by the President of the Royal Agricultural Society in 1892, took over the issue of whether sparrows were harmful or beneficial for agriculture. British economic ornithologists followed the lead of their American counterparts by condemning sparrows for consuming cereal crops. Following the outbreak of the First World War, sparrows were therefore persecuted on a systematic basis.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the sparrow in 19thc Britain, or how matters of social and scientific consequence were decided during this time, my paper “The Sparrow Question: Social and Scientific Accord in Britain, 1850–1900” has just been published by the Journal of the History of Biology. It is Open Access and you can read or download it from the journal’s website at Or you can read it and my other publications on my Academia page:

The Decline of Natural History & Rise of Biology in 19thc Britain

For the past few weeks, the history and philosophy of biology (HPBio) reading group here at the University of Leeds has been tackling a series of readings on a contentious historical issue: how biology came into existence and what it replaced.

E. Donovan, 1805 Instructions for Collecting and Preserving Various Subjects of Natural History. Second edition. Plate 2, Figures 5-9.

Natural history: Consisting of field observation, collection and classification, natural history consisted a grand civic and scientific project in Victorian society. Clubs and societies, with associated journals and museums sprang up across nineteenth-century Britain. Natural history was (at least in theory) open to all comers, from both genders and any social class. The field remained remarkably stable for a long period, in terms of the practices and equipment utilised. Historian of natural history David Allen remarks that in entomology, basic field equipment used in the 1950s such as the collecting tin and the vasculum were indistinguishable from their mid-eighteenth century counterparts (Allen. 1998: 362).

Its decline: Allen (1998) goes on to claim that natural history suddenly lost its preeminence in the late-nineteenth century. A rising class of professional scientists – largely based in universities – turned against amateurish natural history in favor of a new experimental biology, often based in the laboratory. These professionals derided practitioners of natural history as ‘bug-hunters’ while the latter returned fire by labeling laboratory biologists ‘worm slicers’ (Allen, 1998: 366). Attempts by naturalists to reintegrate themselves in British science were unsuccessful. In ecology, amateur naturalists initially found a role for their taxonomic expertise in biological surveys. Yet by the outbreak of the First World War, ecology adopted a physiological approach, pushing out the naturalists. Ecology remains ‘dauntingly technical’, especially following its adoption of statistics (Allen, 1998: 367).

John Richardson, 1837. Fauna boreali-americana. Volume 4.

Biology: The word biology is generally perceived to have been coined early in the nineteenth century. Joseph Caron (1988: 247) locates the emergence of a distinct science of biology in England between the 1850s and 1890s. Here, scientists such as T.H. Huxley proposed a new synthetic and general perspective on living beings and life in general (Caron, 1988: 247). These calls were backed up by action, with figures such as J.D. Hooker working to have ‘biology’ adopted at the university level. As it lacked a distinct research programme, Caron (1988: 253) describes English biology during this period as a publicist science par excellence. Controlling university teaching and examination allowed the subject to flourish – a point both Allen and Caron agree upon.

Our reading:

Allen, D.E., ‘On parallel lines: natural history and biology from the late Victorian period’, Archives of Natural History 25 (1998): 361-371

Caron, J.A., ‘Biology’ in the life sciences: a historiographical contribution’, History of Science 26 (1988): 223-268

Johnson, K., ‘Natural history as stamp collecting: a brief history’, Archives of Natural History 34 (2007): 244-258



Environment(s) in Public: Histories of Climate, Landscape & Ecology at UEA

Following my recent visit and presentation at the University of East Anglia for the Environment(s) in Public workshop, I returned pleasantly surprised by the plenary session. Two great talks and a intriguing discussion from Professors Mike Hulme and David Matless certainly got the event going!

Cultures of Climate: From Antiquity to “The Climate System”

Professor Mike Hulme (Professor of Climate and Culture, KCL) began discussions by relating a cultural history of climate – tackling that age-old question of how changes in climate can interact with society. We currently possess a specific, constructed idea of a global climate, but there are other ways we can think (and have thought) about climate and how it interacts with humans. The recent 2014 IPCC Synthesis Report made use of several terms and ideas indicative of our present ideas of climate, including “the climate system,” the fixing of a global objective and the world acting together to restrict warming.


Quantification and the instrumental in “the climate system”. Global temperature, sea level and sea ice changes. From the IPCC Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report, 1st Nov 2014: SYR-83

Four historical views on climate were introduced, beginning with Greek ideas of climates (or “Climatica”) fixing human life and society. Local climates could fix behavior – placed in the European context, this scheme manifested itself in the development of national characteristics, which often associated warm or tropic areas with sloth and idleness. Or in a more sophisticated manner, the Annales school of historical thought incorporated geography and climate into their understanding of historical development. Next up was the early nineteenth century and Alexander von Humboldt (everyone’s favorite biogeographer). Climate was now related to the distribution of species for Humboldt, who saw himself as unifying disparate scientific domains, discovering “definite laws” as part of Europe’s civilising mission.

Moving into the more recent past, the twentieth century brought quantification and enumeration to climate science. Bringing order and predictability to climate was of great important to developing nation-states. During the 1980s, the contents of the recent IPCC terminology and methodology were established. Earth system scientists created an interconnected planetary system, bringing issues of complexity, the need for simulations and mathematical models, but also possibility of prediction. Intriguingly, all of the historical ideas covered are still in circulation in our cultural world (in one form or another).

Geographical Scales & the Scientific Environment

Professor David Matless (Cultural Geography, University of Nottingham), then treated the workshop-attendees with extracts from his (2014) book In the Nature of Landscape: Cultural Geography on the Norfolk Broads, which covers narratives of leisure, natural history, landscape and conservation. This contribution kicked off with a potent observation from Prof. Matless, namely that landscapes such as the Norfolk Broads are haunted by their prospective end (in this case, flooding from rising sea levels).

As a framework for the following talk, the term “Regional cultural landscape” was introduced and the question asked: What follows from the use of this term? To use “regional” with any kind of meaning, the complex and somewhat controversial model of cultural geographies of scale was invoked. Two key points on geographical scales followed: 1) Scales are relational and are intertwining with one another, with concepts of “environments” being produced through this. 2) Scale and its definition is an active cultural force. But how can one define them? What is the cultural context of this definition?

The Norfolk Broads then had their history recounted as a scientific environment, beginning with the 1911 meeting of the International Phytogeographic Excursion (IPE). This body was working on the vegetation of British Isles, attempting to create a common language of ecology, with participants including such notable names as Arthur Tansley. The IPE toured numerous river valleys in the Broads region, but simply refused to work with local naturalists. After all, in 1904 the British Vegetational Committee (forerunner to the IPE) had resolved not to rely on “local workers.” The local naturalist society returned the favour in kind, simply ignoring the work of the IPE in their region.


The Norfolk Broads:

Questions for the History of Environmental Sciences

Both these talks raised questions of considerable interest when discussing the relationship between science and the environment. In terms of scientists communicating with the public on environmental crises, Prof. Hulme contrasted responses to two twentieth-century atmospheric dangers, ozone depletion in the 1980s and climate change. For the former, science used models to engage in politics. However, such an approach may not be successful with climate change as there was no cultural history of ozone (as a previously unknown phenomena). A lack of inherited stories and experiences forced reliance on quantitative, scientific modelling. For climate change, scientific accounts presented to us and arguments for political action are saturated with “global imagination,” borne of the 1980s “climate system,” which cannot sit well with all human experience and tradition.

In an engaging discussion, questions on expertise in science were raised. Prof. Matless’s example of the IPE and local naturalist societies demonstrated that questions of authority in science are based on locality. Sometimes a scientist’s authority is improved by field experience, but sometimes not (this being issues of language and translation). Prof. Hulme finished on the intriguing note that in 1938 Guy Stewart Callendar made the connection between rising land temperatures and carbon dioxide, but was received sceptically. This was in part because of his training as a mechanical engineer, which  did not sit well with meteorologists.

Science, whether warning us of climate disasters or cataloguing regional vegetation, is very much dependent on culture and scale when making claims to knowledge.