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:

Book Review: Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914

Mosquito Empires examines the dynamics of empire in the ‘Greater Caribbean’ – the Caribbean Islands and the coastal regions of North, Central and South America – bringing disease and ecology into traditional political and social history. John Robert McNeill argues that ecological change led to the proliferation of mosquito vectors which shaped subsequent wars, empires and revolutions (p.3). Mosquito Empires is divided into four main parts, structured around chronological case studies. McNeill first establishes the lethality of malaria and yellow fever through accounts of conquest and colonisation by Atlantic powers prior to the proliferation of mosquito vectors. This is followed by multiple examples of the deadly effect of disease on Western arrivals, including the disastrous malaria epidemics suffered by the 1655 English assault on Jamaica, establishing the rise of a new ‘ecological-military order’ (p.101). The second section studies British attempts to conquer Spanish possessions in the Caribbean (1690-1780) and the defeat of General Cornwallis’s forces during the American War of Independence, all of which suffered in varying degrees from malaria and yellow fever. In its third part, the book discusses the role of disease in the success of Caribbean revolutions in St. Domingue, New Granada and Cuba, from 1790-1898. Finally, the book concludes with the eventual overthrow of the ‘Mosquito Empire’ as means of controlling yellow fever and malaria emerged via the experience of the United States in Cuba and Panama (p.313).

John Trumbull’s ‘Surrender of Lord Cornwallis’ 1820. Cornwallis’s forces suffered from heavily from malaria at Yorktown

In the historiographical context, Mosquito Empires draws upon a tradition of incorporating disease into wider historical contexts. A well-known example is the works of Alfred Crosby, which places microbes alongside soldiers in the battle for the Americas. McNeill’s work similarly identifies the role of disease in the formation of empires. In the Greater Caribbean, ecological changes produced by the transition to plantation economies allowed mosquitoes carrying malaria and yellow fever to flourish, wreaking havoc among non-resistant populations, particularly European expeditions and colonialists (p.4). Mosquito Empires supports the idea of Western expansion as a two-way process, facilitating the movement of disease while creating new environments for disease vectors. The example given of U.S. triumph in Cuba and Panama appears to confirm disease control as a tool of empire, allowing conquest in regions previously closed off by the disease barrier. McNeill – to his credit – also covers clashes between Western empires in disease ridden zones, encompassing differential immunity among colonists and the manipulation of disease environments as a strategic defense (pp.141-142).

McNeill contrasts the heavy toll suffered by French workers on the Panama Canal in the 1880s with American efforts following anti-mosquito campaigns from 1904-1914 (pp.310-312). “The Panama Canal — The Great Culebra Cut” by Charles Graham (1852-1911), artist – Reproduced from an original illustration drawn from photographs and published in Harper’s Weekly.–_The_Great_Culebra_Cut.jpg

Occasionally overarching statements and interpretations weaken the author’s arguments. The link between man-made ecological change and the establishment of the ‘mosquito empire’ lacks firm evidence, respective diagnosis is problematic and questions over human agency and environmental determinism are left unresolved. The importance of human agency is ambiguous, the book being ‘not quite an essay in mosquito determinism’ (p.6). Certain claims made in the book surrounding the heritability of disease immunity (p.46), would benefit from the inclusion of arguments in K.F Kiple’s The Caribbean Slave (1984), which goes unmentioned despite its presence in the bibliography. Yet the book produces a sound main thesis, drawing heavily upon contemporary sources, while telling a forgotten story through a combination of environmental, political, military and medical history.

McNeill, John Robert, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 

The Travelling Rat (1850-1950) at BSHS Conference, University of Swansea

Last week, a surprisingly high proportion of beach-goers on the coast near Swansea were historians or philosophers of science. The British Society for the History of Science annual conference was underway, featuring subjects as diverse as science fiction, Renaissance anatomy and nineteenth-century beliefs in extraterrestrials. One panel that caught the eye of many was “The Travelling Rat, 1850-1950,” which featured three presentations on historical attitudes towards our furry neighbors:

The Rat Catcher’s Prank – Neil Pemberton 

Jack Black, rat-catcher by appointment to Queen Victoria:

It is unsurprising to see that rat-catching practices are shaped by continuous battle with the ingenuity and behavior of rats. One man who understood this was Jack Black, rat-catcher by appointment to Queen Victoria. Black paraded around Victorian London in a self-made uniform, complete with a belt covered in iron rats. One of his numerous exploits involved confronting another rat-catcher in a pub, after stealing 10 live rats from the rival’s cart. Black displayed them to his rival’s dismay, the latter being bitten as he attempted to retrieve his lost rats. In this context, rats were objects of public display and spectacle. Yet today, rats are considered vectors of disease, not a subject for humorous pub pranks. Contact with rats has not always been perceived as dangerous. Jack Black boasted of being bitten everywhere (even in places he couldn’t name). Others catchers killed rats like dogs, using their teeth. In his interview with a Victorian journalist, Black didn’t talk about the sewer-dwelling habits of rats. Such a setting was hardly suitable for spectacle. To avoid plagues of rats on London streets, Black advocated the fitting of rat-proof drain grating. Strangely, hunting rats in their natural (sewer-based) habitat would constitute a form of “animal murder”.

Rattus-Homo-Machine: Rats as Seafarers in the Nineteenth Century – Kaori Nagai

Joseph Conrad’s novel Youth (1898) describes the spectacle of rats abandoning the author’s ship following a refit. Later Conrad’s ship caught fire and sank, proving the innate wisdom of seafaring rats. During this time, it was quite normal for rats to inhabit ships, embarking and disembarking at their leisure. Alexander Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe, was greatly pestered by rats and cats on his island. He was forced to tame the latter to keep the rats away. With rats taken on shipping routes to countries all over the world, nineteenth-century writers characterised rats as the ultimate colonisers. These animal colonisers caused their human counterparts no end of trouble, attacking farms and plantation. Rats also preyed on both native and other introduced species. According to Joseph Hooker, the Maori of New Zealand stated that just as European rats had driven away their native ones, the same phenomenon would occur on the human level. In the Encyclopaedia of Natural History (1837), Charles Partington recognised that the alarming multiplication of rats abroad was entirely the fault of human migrants.

The ‘Modern’ Management of Rats Moving Across Farm and Field: 1900-1940 – Karen Sayer   

Rat catchers, 1900's (5) (1)
Rat-catchers in Sydney, c. 1900.

By the late-nineteenth century, rats had long been subject to population control in rural Britain. Existing attitudes towards rats as “vermin” were reinforced by a (minor) outbreak of plague in rural Suffolk in 1910. Newspapers panicked and staff from the Lister Institute were sent to examine rats and their fleas. There were also debates in Parliament, which predictably pronounced the affair a matter for the local authorities. Detractors noted that reliance upon local controls were clearly insufficient when rats are able to travel. In 1919 the rats and mice destruction act was passed, threatening fines for those who allow rats to inhabit their land. In a new era of regulated control, modern, “scientific” methods of extermination, including gas and salmonella bacterium were promoted. The Victorian-era rat-catcher was confined to the annals of history. Newspapers dismissed traditional practitioners as part of an idyllic, or “silly” illusion of the countryside.

(Re)Introducing the Capercaillie to Scotland, 1837-1900

Animals seem to drop in and out of popularity like the latest trends in fashion. In history, this malleable approach to nature was clearly evident in nineteenth-century Scotland. I felt moved to introduce this topic today thanks to the eighteenth-century reading group here at the University of Leeds. The members kindly agreed to alter their meeting times to include yours truly, who is interested in their latest book choice – Fredrik Jonsson’s Enlightenment’s Frontier: The Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism (2013). Needless to say, a review will follow once we have finished! But for now, here is a bit of species history, courtesy of a large woodland grouse, the capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus).


Hunting the capercaillie: Plate from J.A. Harvie-Brown, The Capercaillie in Scotland (Edinburgh, 1879).

The capercaillie had been driven to extinction in Scotland by 1785, when the last two recorded individuals were shot at Ballochbuie in Deeside. The extirpation of the capercaillie was largely attributable to habitat loss, the species being adversely affected by decreasing forest cover since the Mesolithic. However, the role of direct human pressure through hunting undoubtedly contributed to its disappearance. The hungry Reverend Lachlan Shaw in his 1775 The History of the Province of Moray described the flesh of the capercaillie as “tender and delicious,” with a hint of “resinous fir.” As the species vanished (possibly into Reverend Shaw’s stomach), poetic flourishes came from saddened Scotsmen, who spoke of the capercaillie as the “finest of feathered game”, once residing in the “noblest” Scottish forests.

During a thirty-year absence, changing land-use practices inadvertently restored former capercaillie habitat. Highland estates that had been previously cleared for sheep established deer forests and grouse moors, catering for the new leisure pursuits of the Victorian upper classes. The reforestation of Scottish estates, at first driven by aristocratic social assertiveness, aesthetic sense, patriotism and long-term profit, began a process of “unconscious rewilding.” Estates such as Rothiemurchus were cleared of sheep for grouse shooting, while other forests reappeared following the end of the French War. A competitive lease market also lent itself to the profitable exploitation of sporting visitors to the estate by the late eighteenth century.


Changing depictions: From left, in B.R. Morris, British Game Birds and Wildfowl (London. 1855) and R. Lydekker, The Sportsman’s British Bird Book (London, 1908). The birds photographed on the right are taxidermy specimens.

According to naturalist John Alexander Harvie-Brown, the first attempted reintroduction of the capercaillie to Scotland took place in either 1827 or 1828, with the importation of Swedish birds to Mar Lodge. The following year, the Highland Society of Scotland debated reintroduction, but reached the conclusion that attempts to alter the natural relations between wild animals and the state of a country’s population and terrain was fraught with difficulty. Despite such setbacks, the first successful introduction of the capercaillie took place at Taymouth thanks to Lord Breadalbane in 1837. A successful introduction at Arran in 1843 resulted from birds sent from Taymouth, with more birds arriving from Sweden in 1846. In 1868 capercaillies were bred in Torwood and eggs were successfully hatched at Invereran, in Strathdon in 1873. The feverish rush by landowners to claim possession of the bird is explained by the economic and social advantages associated with game ownership in the nineteenth century.

The Vertebrate Fauna of Sutherland (1884) described the capercaillie as a “desirable addition” to the range of game in the district. Capercaillies on the estate of Monymusk were first shot in 1891, following sightings of the birds only two years earlier. Sportsman Charles St. John considered the reintroduction of the capercaillie a “spirited example”, preceding the introduction of other “ornamental and valuable” game birds.

However, these avian arrivals were by no means universally embraced in Scotland. While certain estates, including those at Athole and Forfar, preserved and nurtured capercaillie populations, on others they were killed at every opportunity. Controversy seems to have arisen over the effect of capercaillie on black grouse populations. The reception of capercaillies on Scottish estates was dependent upon the outcome of this debate. Sir Robert Menzies, writing to Harvie-Brown in 1843, preserved migrating capercaillies on his lands, because he believed they did no harm to “the grouse or black game.” Sportsman Charles Dixon (1893) pointed to a lack of evidence linking the supposed “theft” of black grouse and pheasant nests by capercaillie.

However, legitimate concerns were also raised regarding forest damage. Capercaillies were capable of considerable damage to small forests, eating large amounts of the shoots and buds of the Scotch fir. Harvie-Brown agreed with this assessment, declaring the damage done to woods and forests a “sad thorn” in proprietor’s sides. At the time of writing (1879), Harvie-Brown also reported that the appearance of numerous capercaillies on an estate would lead to shooting, rather than fostering. Ornithologist Robert Gray reported the shooting of “wandering” capercaillies in pine plantations near Glasgow in 1876.

Reintroductions of the capercaillie were driven by thoughts of economic and social gain through the restocking of a new game species. However, these very human factors could be extremely fickle, as many of the newly-arrived birds discovered to their cost.

Further Reading:

Grey, R., ‘On the Birds of Galsgow and its Vicinity’, in E.R., Alston, R., Gray, P., Cameron, J., Ramsay & J., Stirton, Notes on the Fauna and Flora of the West of Scotland (Glasgow, 1876), pp. ix-xvi.

Harvie-Brown, J.A., The Capercaillie in Scotland (Edinburgh, 1879).

Ritchie, J., The Influence of Man on Animal Life in Scotland (Cambridge, 1920).

Stevenson, G.B., “An Historical Account of the Social and Ecological Causes of Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus. Extinction and Reintroduction in Scotland”, PhD Thesis, University of Stirling (2007).