Gilbert White changed how England viewed nature – and birdwatchers can relive his birding past with a visit to his Hampshire home
Gilbert White is credited as the man who ‘started birdwatching' HE SLEEPY PARISH of Selborne, just within the extreme northern boundary of the South Downs National Park, remains a good spot for birds. Within this Hampshire village and its environs, the parson-naturalist Gilbert White changed the way we viewed and interpreted the natural world. White never married and devoted his life to the observation and recording of natural phenomena. He was fascinated by interdependence, relating bird migration to harvest and habitat. He received no scientific recognition.
For millions of Englishmen and women, the Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne by Gilbert White has embodied the story of their countryside. The book describes the 18th Century landscape of White’s village beneath chalk downs. It notes the changing seasons and their impact on the fauna and flora. It observes the interdependence of animals, plants and man. The book was carried to the ends of empire, reminding imperial generations of the home country and its virtues. White was the English Virgil, celebrant of rural bliss. He was also the first true ecologist, a man who understood nature in the round. The book was first published in 1789 and has been continuously in print since. It was published in a series of letters and may
be enjoyed for its gentle charm and apparent simplicity. However, its potency and brilliance is not to be underestimated. It creates a vision of pre-industrial England and, as such, is a cogent reminder of what we have subsequently lost. White wrote of Nightjars (‘the fern-owl’) sitting on his roof and churring away throughout the night. Species such as Black Grouse and Great Bustard inhabited his local patch. Imagine that. While the parish of Selborne still has a wide array of downland and woodland birds, such red-letter species are long gone. Happily, the village and White’s house, ‘The Wakes’, remain as they were. Charles Darwin once wrote that “from reading White’s Selborne…i remember wondering why every gentleman did not become an ornithologist”. No doubt he was impressed by the minutiae of White’s observations. Most famously, White was one of the first naturalists to work out that the bird known as a ‘willow wren’ was in fact three look-alike warblers – Wood Warbler, Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler – on account of their different songs. He also identified whether species were migratory or sedentary: “You may depend on it that the [Corn] Bunting, Emberiza miliaria, does not leave this country in the winter.” The biannual appearance of Ring Ouzels in his parish reinforced his thinking. One has to remember that White’s observations, what he called ‘observing narrowly’, were made in the days before cameras and tape recorders. Everything was meticulously recorded in his notebook. Whereas other natural historians of the age received information from all over Britain, White closely observed nature purely within his
MAN WITH A VISION