The Accidental Conservationist: naming names

Willow beauty - Amanda Lawrence

When I was a child, my parents made me go for walks with them in the countryside. It was not my favourite activity: for me, the best bit of the walk was the point when we turned back. Despite this, a habit was formed which I’ve never lost.

One of the things I remember about these walks is my mother telling me the names of the various flowers we encountered. Some of them, anyway. I also remember her saying – on virtually every walk – “I should have brought the flower book” and “I should have brought the camera”. From Mum, I absorbed the idea that to see something in nature was to want to know its name. And that the best ID book/camera is the one you’ve got with you… 

What’s in a name?

Many years later, when I moved to the countryside and began to be interested in nature again, the first thing I did was wonder what the bird/flower/tree/insect I was looking at was called. The second thing – because I was grown up and prone to introspection – was to wonder why. Why do humans want to name things? Why can’t we just admire? Why do we need to identify?

A tale of two beetles

Obviously, there are good scientific reasons for distinguishing one species from another - how to say if beetle A is in need of urgent conservation if it can’t be distinguished from beetle B? This can also be important to the beetles in question. The first beetle I encountered and wanted to name was a gorgeously-red-coated cardinal beetle. Often confused with the moderately similar lily beetle, apparently. The risk for the inoffensive cardinal beetle is that it will be crushed, sprayed or otherwise annihilated by vengeful gardeners bent on retribution for the damage inflicted by lily beetles. Have you ever googled ‘lily beetle’? It’s a shocking experience. So much hate for one small creature. Whose lily is it, anyway? Without lilies, who would starve? Not the gardener…

Red-headed cardinal beetle - Amanda Lawrence

Red-headed cardinal beetle - Amanda Lawrence

Species poker

Then there’s the competitive element to identification which plays to the human interest in collecting and one-up-manship. The first event to get me really interested in identifying things was a weekend bioblitz designed to provide a baseline survey for a new GWT reserve. We spent the time roaming the valley identifying everything that moved or grew. Good scientific stuff – but also fun, and let’s admit it, a lot of the fun was in the competitive listing of species, in the element of ‘I’ll see your bullfinch and raise you two damselflies and a juvenile badger”. Otherwise, why were we so interested in the final total?

Hogweed and bonking beetles - Amanda Lawrence

Hogweed and bonking beetles - Amanda Lawrence

In praise of eye candy and earworms

I can’t learn lists of species names by heart. Particularly not the Latin variety. (Although I do understand why these matter - it came home to me when a fellow-surveyor of Eastern European extraction pointed out a plant to me and called it by its Latin name. “What’s its common name?” I asked. The reply was something incomprehensible involving c’s and z’s and not enough vowels. Which was their common name, as far as she was concerned.) I have learned the names of things piecemeal and remember them for entirely non-scientific reasons. Once seen, who wouldn’t remember the female thick-legged flower beetle – the eye candy of the beetle world? (‘Do my legs look thick in this?’) Or the common red soldier beetle, aka the hogweed bonking beetle? (‘Make love not war’.) Once heard, who wouldn’t remember the scientific name of the willow beauty moth – Peribatoides rhomboidaria? It’s a Latin earworm - I challenge you to say it two or three times and not have it going around in your head for the rest of the day.

Thick-legged flower beetle - Amanda Lawrence

Thick-legged flower beetle - Amanda Lawrence

Flight patterns

Repetition is what does it for me. I can now recognise a buzzard by its flight, not because I’m an avid bird watcher but because there are lots of buzzards round here and I see them almost every day. Human beings are very, very good at pattern recognition. This has been my first year of using a light trap to attract moths, and starting from absolute ignorance, I am already able to guess where to look for them in the book by thinking what other moths their shape, movement and general demeanour remind me of.

Curing arachnophobia

So why do I identify? For me, I think, the desire to name is the desire to know. I belong to a Facebook group focused on spider identification and I am struck by how many people join the group because they want to stop being terrified of spiders. Naming is the beginning of knowing and knowing, it seems, drives out fear. A named plant or creature is no longer a stranger. A relationship begins. Writing this on Christmas Eve of the strangest Christmas I’ve ever experienced; it occurs to me that it’s the same with people. Our relationships are what really matter to us, leading us to care and take action. In this year when our human relationships have been so disrupted, many of us have been building relationships with other parts of the natural world. Let’s hope that will benefit both parties in the long run.

Willow beauty - Amanda Lawrence

Willow beauty - Amanda Lawrence