Why we're still fighting Alfred's battles, 150 years on
PUBLISHED: 12:45 27 June 2018
A speech in Norwich 150 years ago this summer saved the lives of millions of birds. And it was all down to remarkable East Anglian naturalist Alfred Newton. Trevor Heaton reports.
Ten years after his unsuccessful quest to find a living great auk (as we explored in a separate feature), Alfred Newton was back on home territory – East Anglia – and once again he was a man with a mission.
Not to find an extinct bird this time, but instead to save countless others going the same way.
And it was in the unlikely surroundings of the Friends’ Meeting House in Norwich that his rallying call for conservation lit a flame that changed a whole nation’s attitudes to its wild birds.
It is hard to overstate its importance. Up until then mankind’s view of birdlife had overwhelmingly been one of plunder and exploitation. There were still many, many battles to be fought – some to be lost, some to be won - but nothing would ever be the same again.
But few of the audience on August 22 1868 could have expected what they would soon be hearing.
Alfred – who had been created the first-ever professor of zoology and comparative anatomy at Cambridge two years earlier – was in Norwich as part of a grand series of lectures under the umbrella of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
This august body, formed in 1831 (and still going strong as the British Science Association), had its aim to bring the latest developments in science direct from the experts to the public.
Its meetings were Big News wherever it went. It would bring a coterie of internationally-renowned experts to towns and cities around the country, taking over venues big and small. It was as if professors Stephen Hawking or Brian Cox had turned up in your village hall.
In a pre-internet age, this was the place to hear about cutting-edge science, with the scientists unveiling their latest research to an audience of local experts, keen amateurs, and the great and the good.
The BAAS’ meetings were divided into various sections. Norwich audiences heard talks on Mathematics, Chemistry, Geology, Biology, Geography, Economics and Mechanics.
For all their laudable intentions, it doesn’t take much to guess that some – most? – of the speakers were probably a little on the ‘dry’ side. After all, there is only so much, say, on the nature of sedimentary rock or the nature of acid salts that the average person can take, and - this being the Victorian era - many of those lectures were delivered at enormous and detailed length.
A hint of this is given by the Norwich Mercury, which said in a long editorial how ‘the Norfolk and Norwich citizens and their visitors appear to be reconciling themselves to the strong dose of science to which they have been subjected’, a dose which was ‘not their usual intellectual food’. You don’t have to be a scientist to read between the lines on that one.
That didn’t stop it giving column after column in small type of the many, many subjects under discussion, however. But we should be grateful that we did, for its record of Newton’s talk is not only full of detail but also of the powerful reaction of his audience.
When Newton stood up at the Upper Goat Lane meeting shortly before noon on that Sunday morning, his audience probably expected more of the ‘intellectual food’ they had been served up to then.
When the professor stood up – with difficulty, thanks to a permanent lameness – his grim expression, bushy side whiskers and lofty build probably put many more in mind of a sermonising vicar rather than a scientist at the cutting-edge of zoology.
His subject was ‘The Zoological Aspect of the Game Laws’ which promised to be as dry as some of the rest. But from the get-go it was clear that this was to be no ordinary speech. For Professor Alfred Newton was a very angry man indeed.
He began by savaging the press – ‘even that of the first class’ – for its reporting of Natural History matters, and called on public opinion to help to establish conservation laws. In the living memory of everyone in the room, he said, the great bustard – once common in Norfolk - and the large copper butterfly had been ‘extirpated’.
Unless action was taken, and taken now, there would many more species to follow.
He focused his lecture on the cruel treatment being meted out to birds of prey and to seabirds.
Did the ‘calm observers of the county’, he said, really believe that ‘wholesale destruction of so-called vermin’ by gamekeepers was really materially increasing the stock of pheasants and partridges?
“Is it by exterminating the kite or the kestrel that rats and mice will take the hint and make themselves scarce? The idea is ridiculous!” he fumed, attacking the ‘ancient prejudice’ of gamekeepers.
And as for seafowl, ‘no class of bird is so cruelly persecuted’, made much worse by this slaughter (by ‘Cockney sportsmen’) being in the birds’ breeding season. It was not just these sportsmen who should take the blame, he said. Ladies of fashion who were keen to wear bird plumes in their hats gave ‘impetus to the slaughter’. He highlighted how thousands of kittiwakes were being killed every year for the fashion trade.
“Fair and innocent as the snowy plumage looks in a lady’s hat I must tell the wearer the truth: that she bears on her head the band of a murderess!” That drew some gasps and uncomfortable laughter from the audience, which no doubt included some of those very ladies of fashion.
Other countries had brought in conservation laws, Newton added - but not Britain. ‘It should be as penal to shoot a hawk or a seagull out of season as a pheasant or grouse,” he said. “Each has its proper function, and if in spite of what we can do to prevent it certain species become extinct, then they should not discourage us from protecting the rest.”
If we did not take action now, he concluded, then we would receive ‘few thanks from posterity’. And with that he sat down to loud applause.
His comments were widely reported – and widely praised. The Sea Birds Preservation Act of 1869 was directly inspired by his campaign, giving protection – for the first time in British history – to birds for conservation reasons.
Newton went on to live for almost four more decades, keeping the chair of zoology at Cambridge until his death. He was painstaking in his research, forthright in his views, voluminous in his correspondence – Charles Darwin and Norfolk’s John Henry Gurney being but two of his friends – and, above all, passionate about the need to research and protect the world’s birds. Newton died in his beloved Magdalene College, Cambridge, in June 1907, revered as one of this country’s founding fathers of zoology, and who took it from the age of the cabinet of curiosities to a modern science.
But what would Alfred say now, I wonder, if he could look down on us? He would be shocked, I’m sure, by the disappearance of millions of seabirds worldwide through climate change and human intervention. He would have been particularly grieved by the decline of the kittiwake, the bird he based much of that 1858 speech around. In Shetland alone, the number of kittiwakes has fallen from more than 55,000 in 1981 to less than 5,000 now.
He would be astounded too by the volume of plastic in our seas and on our beaches – substances only just beginning to be developed in his lifetime.
And he would be saddened by the continued persecution of birds of prey by misguided gamekeepers and landowners.
The harsh fact is that we are still fighting Alfred’s battles. And here in Norfolk too. The wildlife filmmaker and conservationist David Cobham, who sadly died a couple of months ago, wrote a brilliant account of the continuing persecution of birds of prey, A Sparrowhawk’s Lament, in 2014. Another great Norfolk nature writer, Mark Cocker, has recently published Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late?
Alfred’s successors – the RSPB, the Norfolk-based BTO, the Wildlife Trusts, the likes of Sir David Attenborough - are tireless in their efforts to educate us to the danger, the very real danger, that we will go past the point of no return unless we act now.
A hundred and fifty years on, the message that Alfred Newton stood to deliver to an audience in Norwich still rings true. And as he warned us back then, we will receive few thanks from posterity if we do not listen to it.