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CASSELL'S NATIONAL LIBRARY.
THE NATURAL HISTORY OF SELBORNE
BY THE REV. GILBERT WHITE A.M.
CASSELL & COMPANY, Limited: LONDON, PARIS, NEW YORK & MELBOURNE. 1887
Gilbert White was born in the village of Selborne on the 18th of July, in the year 1720. His father was a gentleman of good means, with a house at Selborne and some acres of land. Gilbert had his school training at Basingstoke, from Thomas Warton, the father of the poet of that name, who was born at Basingstoke in 1728, six years younger than his brother Joseph, who had been born at Dunsford, in Surrey. Thomas Warton, their father, was the youngest of three sons of a rector of Breamore, in the New Forest, and the only son of the three who was not deaf and dumb. This Thomas, the elder, was an able man, who obtained a fellowship at Magdalen College, Oxford, became vicar of Basingstoke, in Hampshire, and was there headmaster of the school to which young Gilbert White was sent. He was referred to in Amhurst's "Terrae Filius" as "a reverend poetical gentleman;" he knew Pope, and had credit enough for his verse to hold the office of Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1718 to 1728. His genius for writing middling verse passed on to his more famous sons, Joseph and Thomas, and they both became in due time Oxford Professors of Poetry.
Gilbert White passed on from school to Oxford, where he entered Oriel College in 1739. He became a Fellow of Oriel, graduated M.A. in 1746, at the age of six-and-twenty, and six years afterwards he served as one of the Senior Proctors of the University. His love of nature grew with him from boyhood, and was associated with his earliest years of home. His heart abided with his native village. When he had taken holy orders he could have obtained college livings, but he cared only to go back to his native village, and the house in which he was born, paying a yearly visit to Oxford, and in that house, after a happy life that extended a few years over the threescore and ten, he died on the 26th of June, 1793.
Gilbert White never married, but lived in peaceful performance of light clerical duties and enjoyment of those observations of nature which his book records. His brothers, who shared his love of nature, aided instead of thwarting him in his studies of the natural history of Selborne, and as their lives were less secluded and they did not remain unmarried, they provided him with a family of young people to care about, for he lived to register the births of sixty-three nephews and nieces.
It was one of his brothers, who was a member of the Royal Society, by whom Gilbert White was persuaded, towards the close of his life, to gather his notes into a book. It was first published in a quarto volume in the year of the outbreak of the French Revolution with the fall of the Bastile. He was more concerned with the course of events in a martin's nest than with the crash of empires, and no man ever made more evident the latent power of enjoyment that is left dead by those who live uneventful lives surrounded by a world of life and change and growth which they want eyes to see. Gilbert White was in his seventieth year when his book appeared, four years before his death. It was compiled from letters addressed to Thomas Pennant and the Hon. Daines Barrington.
Thomas Pennant was a naturalist six years younger than Gilbert White. He was born at Downing, in Flintshire, in 1726, and died in 1798, like White, in the house in which he had been born. His love of Natural History made him a traveller at home and abroad. He counted Buffon among his friends. He had written many books before the date of the publication of White's "Selborne." Pennant's "British Zoology," his "History of Quadrupeds" and "Arctic Zoology," had a high reputation. He wrote also a Tour in Wales and a History of London.
Daines Barrington, fourth son of the first Viscount Barrington, was a year younger than Pennant, and died in 1800. He became Secretary to Greenwich Hospital, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and President of the Royal Society. His "Miscellanies," published in 4to in 1781, deal with questions of Natural History, and of Antiquities, including a paper first published in 1775 asserting the possibility of approaching the North Pole. His most valued book was one of "Observations on the more Ancient Statutes."
LETTERS ADDRESSED TO THOMAS PENNANT, ESQ.
The parish of Selborne lies in the extreme eastern corner of the county of Hampshire, bordering on the county of Sussex, and not far from the county of Surrey; is about fifty miles south-west of London, in latitude fifty-one, and near mid-way between the towns of Alton and Petersfield. Being very large and extensive, it abuts on twelve parishes, two of which are in Sussex, viz., Trotton and Rogate. If you begin from the south and proceed westward, the adjacent parishes are Emshot, Newton Valence, Faringdon, Hartley Mauduit, Great Ward le Ham, Kingsley, Hadleigh, Bramshot, Trotton, Rogate, Lyffe, and Greatham. The soils of this district are almost as various and diversified as the views and aspects. The high part of the south-west consists of a vast hill of chalk, rising three hundred feet above the village, and is divided into a sheep-down, the high wood and a long hanging wood, called The Hanger. The covert of this eminence is altogether beech, the most lovely of all forest trees, whether we consider its smooth rind or bark, its glossy foliage, or graceful pendulous boughs. The down, or sheep-walk, is a pleasing, park-like spot, of about one mile by half that space, jutting out on the verge of the hill-country, where it begins to break down into the plains, and commanding a very engaging view, being an assemblage of hill, dale, wood-lands, heath, and water. The prospect is bounded to the south-east and east by the vast range of mountains called the Sussex Downs, by Guild-down near Guildford, and by the Downs round Dorking, and Ryegate in Surrey, to the north-east, which altogether, with the country beyond Alton and Farnham, form a noble and extensive outline.
At the foot of this hill, one stage or step from the uplands, lies the village, which consists of one single straggling street, three-quarters of a mile in length, in a sheltered vale, and running parallel with the Hanger. The houses are divided from the hill by a vein of stiff clay (good wheat land), yet stand on a rock of white stone, little in appearance removed from chalk; but seems so far from being calcareous, that it endures extreme heat. Yet that the freestone still preserves somewhat that is analogous to chalk, is plain from the beeches, which descend as low as those rocks extend, and no farther, and thrive as well on them, where the ground is steep, as on the chalks.
The cart-way of the village divides, in a remarkable manner, two very incongruous soils. To the south-west is a rank clay, that requires the labour of years to render it mellow; while the gardens to the north-east, and small enclosures behind, consist of a warm, forward, crumbling mould, called black malm, which seems highly saturated with vegetable and animal manure; and these may perhaps have been the original site of the town; while the woods and coverts might extend down to the opposite bank.
At each end of the village, which runs from south-east to north-west, arises a small rivulet: that at the north-west end frequently fails; but the other is a fine perennial spring, little influenced by drought or wet seasons, called Well-head. This breaks out of some high grounds joining to Nore Hill, a noble chalk promontory, remarkable for sending forth two streams into two different seas. The one to the south becomes a branch of the Arun, running to Arundel, and so sailing into the British Channel: the other to the north. The Selborne stream makes one branch of the Wey; and, meeting the Black-down stream at Hadleigh, and the Alton and Farnham stream at Tilford-bridge, swells into a considerable river, navigable at Godalming; from whence it passes to Guildford, and so into the Thames at Weybridge; and thus at the Nore into the German Ocean.
Our wells, at an average, run to about sixty-three foot, and when sunk to that depth seldom fail; but produce a fine limpid water, soft to the taste, and much commended by those who drink the pure element, but which does not lather well with soap.
To the north-west, north and east of the village, is a range of fair enclosures, consisting of what is called a white malm, a sort of rotten or rubble stone, which, when turned up to the frost and rain, moulders to pieces, and becomes manure to itself.
Still on to the north-east, and a step lower, is a kind of white land, neither chalk nor clay, neither fit for pasture nor for the plough, yet kindly for hops, which root deep in the freestone, and have their poles and wood for charcoal growing just at hand. The white soil produces the brightest hops.
As the parish still inclines down towards Wolmer Forest, at the juncture of the clays and sand the soil becomes a wet, sandy loam, remarkable for timber, and infamous for roads. The oaks of Temple and Black-moor stand high in the estimation of purveyors, and have furnished much naval timber; while the trees on the freestone grow large, but are what workmen call shaky, and so brittle as often to fall to pieces in sawing. Beyond the sandy loam the soil becomes a hungry, lean sand, till it mingles with the forest; and will produce little without the assistance of lime and turnips.
In the court of Norton farmhouse, a manor farm to the north-west of the village, on the white malms, stood within these twenty years a broad-leaved elm, or wych hazel, ulmus folio latissimo scabro of Ray, which, though it had lost a considerable leading bough in the great storm in the year 1703, equal to a moderate tree, yet, when felled, contained eight loads of timber; and, being too bulky for a carriage, was sawn off at seven feet above the butt, where it measured near eight feet in the diameter. This elm I mention to show to what a bulk planted elms may attain; as this tree must certainly have been such from its situation.
In the centre of the village, and near the church, is a square piece of ground surrounded by houses, and vulgarly called "The Plestor." In the midst of this spot stood, in old times, a vast oak, with a short squat body, and huge horizontal arms extending almost to the extremity of the area. This venerable tree, surrounded with stone steps, and seats above them, was the delight of old and young, and a place of much resort in summer evenings; where the former sat in grave debate, while the latter frolicked and danced before them. Long might it have stood, had not the amazing tempest in 1703 overturned it at once, to the infinite regret of the inhabitants, and the vicar, who bestowed several pounds in setting it in its place again: but all his care could not avail; the tree sprouted for a time, then withered and died. This oak I mention to show to what a bulk planted oaks also may arrive: and planted this tree must certainly have been, as will appear from what will be said farther concerning this area, when we enter on the antiquities of Selborne.
On the Blackmoor estate there is a small wood called Losel's, of a few acres, that was lately furnished with a set of oaks of a peculiar growth and great value; they were tall and taper-like firs, but standing near together had very small heads, only a little brush without any large limbs. About twenty years ago the bridge at the Toy, near Hampton Court, being much decayed, some trees were wanted for the repairs that were fifty feet long without bough, and would measure twelve inches diameter at the little end. Twenty such trees did a purveyor find in this little wood, with this advantage, that many of them answered the description at sixty feet. These trees were sold for twenty pounds apiece.
In the centre of this grove there stood an oak, which, though shapely and tall on the whole, bulged out into a large excrescence about the middle of the stem. On this a pair of ravens had fixed their residence for such a series of years, that the oak was distinguished by the title of the Raven Tree. Many were the attempts of the neighbouring youths to get at this eyry: the difficulty whetted their inclinations, and each was ambitious of surmounting the arduous task. But when they arrived at the swelling, it jutted out so in their way, and was so far beyond their grasp, that the most daring lads were awed, and acknowledged the undertaking to be too hazardous: so the ravens built on, nest upon nest, in perfect security, till the fatal day arrived in which the wood was to be levelled. It was in the month of February, when these birds usually sit. The saw was applied to the butt, the wedges were inserted into the opening, the woods echoed to the heavy blow of the beetle or mall or mallet, the tree nodded to its fall; but still the dam sat on. At last, when it gave way, the bird was flung from her nest, and, though her parental affection deserved a better fate, was whipped down by the twigs which brought her dead to the ground.
The fossil-shells of this district, and sorts of stone, such as have fallen within my observation, must not be passed over in silence. And first I must mention, as a great curiosity, a specimen that was ploughed up in the chalky fields, near the side of the Down, and given to me for the singularity of its appearance, which, to an incurious eye, seems like a petrified fish of about four inches long, the cardo passing for a head and mouth. It is in reality a bivalve of the Linnaean Genus of Mytilus, and the species of Crista Galli; called by Lister, Rastellum; by Rumphius, Ostreum plicatum minus; by D'Argenville, Auris Porci, s. Crista Galli; and by those who make collections, Cock's Comb. Though I applied to several such in London, I never could meet with an entire specimen; nor could I ever find in books any engraving from a perfect one. In the superb museum at Leicester House, permission was given me to examine for this article; and, though I was disappointed as to the fossil, I was highly gratified with the sight of several of the shells themselves in high preservation. This bivalve is only known to inhabit the Indian Ocean, where it fixes itself to a zoophyte, known by the name Gorgonia. The curious foldings of the suture the one into the other, the alternate flutings or grooves, and the curved form of my specimen, are much easier expressed by the pencil than by words.
Cornua Ammonis are very common about this village. As we were cutting an inclining path up the Hanger, the labourers found them frequently on that steep, just under the soil, in the chalk, and of a considerable size. In the lane above Wall-head, in the way to Emshot, they abound in the bank in a darkish sort of marl, and are usually very small and soft; but in Clay's Pond, a little farther on, at the end of the pit, where the soil is dug out for manure, I have occasionally observed them of large dimensions, perhaps fourteen or sixteen inches in diameter. But as these did not consist of firm stone, but were formed of a kind of terra lapidosa, or hardened clay, as soon as they were exposed to the rains and frost they mouldered away. These seemed as if they were a very recent production. In the chalk-pit, at the north-west end of the Hanger, large nautili are sometimes observed.
In the very thickest strata of our freestone, and at considerable depths, well-diggers often find large scallops or pectines, having both shells deeply striated, and ridged and furrowed alternately. They are highly impregnated with, if not wholly composed of, the stone of the quarry.
As in a former letter the freestone of this place has been only mentioned incidentally, I shall here become more particular.
This stone is in great request for hearth-stones, and the beds of ovens; and in lining of lime-kilns it turns to good account, for the workmen use sandy loam instead of mortar, the sand of which fluxes, and runs by the intense heat, and so cases over the whole face of the kiln with a strong vitrified coat-like glass, that it is well preserved from injuries of weather, and endures thirty or forty years. When chiseled smooth, it makes elegant fronts for houses, equal in colour and grain to Bath stone; and superior in one respect, that, when seasoned, it does not scale. Decent chimney-pieces are worked from it of much closer and finer grain than Portland, and rooms are floored with it, but it proves rather too soft for this purpose. It is a freestone cutting in all directions, yet has something of a grain parallel with the horizon, and therefore should not be surbedded, but laid in the same position that it grows in the quarry. On the ground abroad this firestone will not succeed for pavements, because, probably some degrees of saltness prevailing within it, the rain tears the slabs to pieces. Though this stone is too hard to be acted on by vinegar, yet both the white part, and even the blue rag, ferments strongly in mineral acids. Though the white stone will not bear wet, yet in every quarry at intervals there are thin strata of blue rag, which resist rain and frost, and are excellent for pitching of stables, paths, and courts, and for building of dry walls against banks, a valuable species of fencing much in use in this village, and for mending of roads. This rag is rugged and stubborn, and will not hew to a smooth face, but is very durable; yet, as these strata are shallow and lie deep, large quantities cannot be procured but at considerable expense. Among the blue rags turn up some blocks tinged with a stain of yellow or rust colour, which seem to be nearly as lasting as the blue; and every now and then balls of a friable substance, like rust of iron, called rust balls.
In Wolmer Forest I see but one sort of stone, called by the workmen sand, or forest-stone. This is generally of the colour of rusty iron, and might probably be worked as iron ore, is very hard and heavy, and of a firm, compact texture, and composed of a small roundish crystalline grit, cemented together by a brown, terrene, ferruginous matter; will not cut without difficulty, nor easily strike fire with steel. Being often found in broad flat pieces, it makes good pavement for paths about houses, never becoming slippery in frost or rain, is excellent for dry walls, and is sometimes used in buildings. In many parts of that waste it lies scattered on the surface of the ground, but is dug on Weaver's Down, a vast hill on the eastern verge of that forest, where the pits are shallow and the stratum thin. This stone is imperishable.
From a notion of rendering their work the more elegant, and giving it a finish, masons chip this stone into small fragments about the size of the head of a large nail, and then stick the pieces into the wet mortar along the joints of their freestone walls. This embellishment carries an odd appearance, and has occasioned strangers sometimes to ask us pleasantly, "whether we fastened our walls together with tenpenny nails."
Among the singularities of this place the two rocky, hollow lanes, the one to Alton, and the other to the forest, deserve our attention. These roads, running through the malm lands, are, by the traffic of ages, and the fretting of water, worn down through the first stratum of our freestone, and partly through the second; so that they look more like water-courses than roads; and are bedded with naked rag for furlongs together. In many places they are reduced sixteen or eighteen feet beneath the level of the fields; and after floods, and in frosts, exhibit very grotesque and wild appearances, from the tangled roots that are twisted among the strata, and from the torrents rushing down their broken sides; and especially when those cascades are frozen into icicles, hanging in all the fanciful shapes of frost-work. These rugged, gloomy scenes affright the ladies when they peep down into them from the paths above, and make timid horsemen shudder while they ride along them; but delight the naturalist with their various botany, and particularly with their curious filices with which they abound.
The manor of Selborne, was it strictly looked after, with all its kindly aspects, and all its sloping coverts, would swarm with game; even now hares, partridges, and pheasants abound; and in old days woodcocks were as plentiful. There are few quails, because they more affect open fields than enclosures; after harvest some few landrails are seen.
The parish of Selborne, by taking in so much of the forest, is a vast district. Those who tread the bounds are employed part of three days in the business, and are of opinion that the outline, in all its curves and indentings, does not comprise less than thirty miles.
The village stands in a sheltered spot, secured by the Hanger from the strong westerly winds. The air is soft, but rather moist from the effluvia of so many trees; yet perfectly healthy and free from agues.
The quantity of rain that falls on it is very considerable, as may be supposed in so woody and mountainous a district. As my experience of measuring the water is but of short date, I am not qualified to give the mean quantity. I only know that
Inch. Hund. From May 1, 1779, to 28 37! the end of the year, there fell Jan. 1, 1780, to 27 32 Jan. 1, 1781 Jan. 1, 1781, to 30 71 Jan. 1, 1782 Jan. 1, 1782, to 50 26! Jan. 1, 1783 Jan. 1, 1783, to 33 71 Jan. 1, 1784 Jan. 1, 1784, to 33 80 Jan. 1, 1785 Jan. 1, 1785, to 31 55 Jan. 1, 1786 Jan. 1, 1786, to 39 57 Jan. 1, 1787
The village of Selborne, and large hamlet of Oakhanger, with the single farms, and many scattered houses along the verge of the forest, contain upwards of six hundred and seventy inhabitants.
We abound with poor, many of whom are sober and industrious, and live comfortably in good stone or brick cottages, which are glazed, and have chambers above stairs; mud buildings we have none. Besides the employment from husbandry, the men work in hop-gardens, of which we have many, and fell and bark timber. In the spring and summer the women weed the corn, and enjoy a second harvest in September by hop-picking. Formerly, in the dead months they availed themselves greatly by spinning wool, for making of barragons, a genteel corded stuff, much in vogue at that time for summer wear, and chiefly manufactured at Alton, a neighbouring town, by some of the people called Quakers; but from circumstances this trade is at an end. The inhabitants enjoy a good share of health and longevity; and the parish swarms with children.
Should I omit to describe with some exactness the forest of Wolmer, of which three-fifths perhaps lie in this parish, my account of Selborne would be very imperfect, as it is a district abounding with many curious productions, both animal and vegetable, and has often afforded me much entertainment both as a sportsman and as a naturalist.
The royal forest of Wolmer is a tract of land of about seven miles in length, by two and a half in breadth, running nearly from north to south, and is abutted on, to begin to the south, and so to proceed eastward, by the parishes of Greatham, Lysse, Rogate, and Trotton, in the county of Sussex; by Bramshot, Hadleigh, and Kingsley. This royalty consists entirely of sand covered with heath and fern, but is somewhat diversified with hills and dales, without having one standing tree in the whole extent. In the bottoms, where the waters stagnate, are many bogs, which formerly abounded with subterraneous trees, though Dr. Plot says positively, that "there never were any fallen trees hidden in the mosses of the southern counties." But he was mistaken: for I myself have seen cottages on the verge of this wild district, whose timbers consisted of a black hard wood, looking like oak, which the owners assured me they procured from the bogs by probing the soil with spits, or some such instruments: but the peat is so much cut out, and the moors have been so well examined, that none has been found of late. Besides the oak, I have also been shown pieces of fossil wood of a paler colour, and softer nature, which the inhabitants called fir: but, upon a nice examination, and trial by fire, I could discover nothing resinous in them, and therefore rather suppose that they were parts of a willow or alder, or some such aquatic tree.
This lonely domain is a very agreeable haunt for many sorts of wild fowls, which not only frequent it in the winter, but breed there in the summer: such as lapwings, snipes, wild ducks, and, as I have discovered within these few years, teals. Partridges in vast plenty are bred in good seasons on the verge of this forest, into which they love to make excursions; and in particular, in the dry summers of 1740 and 1741, and some years after, they swarmed to such a degree that parties of unreasonable sportsmen killed twenty and sometimes thirty brace in a day.
But there was a nobler species of game in this forest, now extinct, which I have heard old people say abounded much before shooting flying became so common, and that was the heath-cock, black-game, or grouse. When I was a little boy I recollect one coming now and then to my father's table. The last pack remembered was killed about thirty-five years ago; and within these ten years one solitary greyhen was sprung by some beagles in beating for a hare. The sportsmen cried out, "A hen pheasant!" but a gentleman present, who had often seen grouse in the north of England, assured me that it was a greyhen.
Nor does the loss of our black game prove the only gap in the Fauna Selborniensis; for another beautiful link in the chain of beings is wanting. I mean the red deer, which toward the beginning of this century amounted to about five hundred head, and made a stately appearance. There is an old keeper, now alive, named Adams, whose great grandfather (mentioned in a perambulation taken in 1635), grandfather, father, and self, enjoyed the head keepership of Wolmer Forest in succession for more than a hundred years. This person assures me, that his father has often told him that Queen Anne, as she was journeying on the Portsmouth road, did not think the forest of Wolmer beneath her royal regard. For she came out of the great road at Lippock, which is just by, and, reposing herself on a bank smoothed for that purpose, lying about half a mile to the east of Wolmer Pond, and still called Queen's Bank, saw with great complacency and satisfaction the whole herd of red deer brought by the keepers along the vale before her, consisting then of about five hundred head. A sight this, worthy the attention of the greatest sovereign! But he farther adds that, by means of the Waltham blacks, or, to use his own expression, as soon as they began blacking, they were reduced to about fifty head, and so continued decreasing till the time of the late Duke of Cumberland. It is now more than thirty years ago that His Highness sent down a huntsman, and six yeoman-prickers, in scarlet jackets laced with gold, attended by the staghounds, ordering them to take every deer in this forest alive, and to convey them in carts to Windsor. In the course of the summer they caught every stag, some of which showed extraordinary diversion; but in the following winter, when the hinds were also carried off, such fine chases were exhibited as served the country people for matter of talk and wonder for years afterwards. I saw myself one of the yeoman-prickers single out a stag from the herd, and must confess that it was the most curious feat of activity I ever beheld, superior to anything in Mr. Astley's riding-school. The exertions made by the horse and deer much exceeded all my expectations, though the former greatly excelled the latter in speed. When the devoted deer was separated from his companions, they gave him, by their watches, law, as they called it, for twenty minutes; when, sounding their horns, the stop-dogs were permitted to pursue, and a most gallant scene ensued.
Though large herds of deer do much harm to the neighbourhood, yet the injury to the morals of the people is of more moment than the loss of their crops. The temptation is irresistible; for most men are sportsmen by constitution: and there is such an inherent spirit for hunting in human nature, as scarce any inhibitions can restrain. Hence, towards the beginning of this century all this country was wild about deer-stealing. Unless he was a hunter, as they affected to call themselves, no young person was allowed to be possessed of manhood or gallantry. The Waltham blacks at length committed such enormities, that Government was forced to interfere with that severe and sanguinary act called the "Black Act," which now comprehends more felonies than any law that ever was framed before. And, therefore, a late Bishop of Winchester, when urged to re-stock Waltham Chase, refused, from a motive worthy of a prelate, replying "that it had done mischief enough already."
Our old race of deer-stealers is hardly extinct yet: it was but a little while ago that, over their ale, they used to recount the exploits of their youth; such as watching the pregnant hind to her lair, and, when the calf was dropped, paring its feet with a penknife to the quick to prevent its escape, till it was large and fat enough to be killed; the shooting at one of their neighbours with a bullet in a turnip-field by moonshine, mistaking him for a deer; and the losing a dog in the following extraordinary manner: Some fellows, suspecting that a calf new-fallen was deposited in a certain spot of thick fern, went, with a lurcher, to surprise it; when the parent-hind rushed out of the brake, and, taking a vast spring with all her feet close together, pitched upon the neck of the dog, and broke it short in two.
Another temptation to idleness and sporting was a number of rabbits, which possessed all the hillocks and dry places: but these being inconvenient to the huntsmen, on account of their burrows, when they came to take away the deer, they permitted the country people to destroy them all.
Such forests and wastes, when their allurements to irregularities are removed, are of considerable service to neighbourhoods that verge upon them, by furnishing them with peat and turf for their firing; with fuel for the burning their lime; and with ashes for their grasses; and by maintaining their geese and their stock of young cattle at little or no expense.
The manor farm of the parish of Greatham has an admitted claim, I see (by an old record taken from the Tower of London) of turning all live stock on the forest, at proper seasons, "bidentibus exceptis." The reason, I presume, why sheep are excluded, is because, being such close grazers, they would pick out all the finest grasses, and hinder the deer from thriving.
Though (by statute 4 and 5 W. and Mary, c. 23) "to burn on any waste, between Candlemas and Midsummer, any grig, ling, heath and furze, goss or fern, is punishable with whipping and confinement in the house of correction;" yet, in this forest, about March or April, according to the dryness of the season, such vast heath-fires are lighted up, that they often get to a masterless head, and, catching the hedges, have sometimes been communicated to the underwoods, woods, and coppices, where great damage has ensued. The plea for these burnings is that, when the old coat of heath, etc., is consumed, young will sprout up, and afford much tender browze for cattle; but, where there is large old furze, the fire, following the roots, consumes the very ground; so that for hundreds of acres nothing is to be seen but smother and desolation, the whole circuit round looking like the cinders of a volcano; and, the soil being quite exhausted, no traces of vegetation are to be found for years. These conflagrations, as they take place usually with a north-east or east wind, much annoy this village with their smoke, and often alarm the country; and, once in particular, I remember that a gentleman, who lives beyond Andover, coming to my house, when he got on the downs between that town and Winchester, at twenty-five miles' distance, was surprised much with smoke and a hot smell of fire, and concluded that Alresford was in flames; but, when he came to that town, he then had apprehensions for the next village, and so on to the end of his journey.
On two of the most conspicuous eminences of this forest stand two arbours or bowers, made of the boughs of oak; the one called Waldon Lodge, the other Brimstone Lodge: these the keepers renew annually on the feast of St. Barnabas, taking the old materials for a perquisite. The farm called Blackmoor, in this parish, is obliged to find the posts and brush-wood for the former; while the farms at Greatham, in rotation, furnish for the latter, and are all enjoined to cut and deliver the materials at the spot. This custom I mention, because I look upon it to be of very remote antiquity.
On the verge of the forest, as it is now circumscribed, are three considerable lakes, two in Oakhanger, of which I have nothing particular to say; and one called Bin's, or Bean's Pond, which is worthy the attention of a naturalist or a sportsman. For, being crowded at the upper end with willows, and with the carex cespitosa, it affords such a safe and pleasing shelter to wild ducks, teals, snipes, etc., that they breed there. In the winter this covert is also frequented by foxes, and sometimes by pheasants; and the bogs produce many curious plants. (For which consult Letter XLI. to Mr. Barrington.)
By a perambulation of Wolmer Forest and the Holt, made in 1635, and the eleventh year of Charles I. (which now lies before me), it appears that the limits of the former are much circumscribed. For, to say nothing of the farther side, with which I am not so well acquainted, the bounds on this side, in old times, came into Binswood, and extended to the ditch of Ward le Ham Park, in which stands the curious mount called King John's Hill, and Lodge Hill; and to the verge of Hartley Mauduit, called Mauduit Hatch; comprehending also Short Heath, Oakhanger, and Oakwoods—a large district, now private property, though once belonging to the royal domain.
It is remarkable that the term purlieu is never once mentioned in this long roll of parchment. It contains, besides the perambulation, a rough estimate of the value of the timbers, which were considerable, growing at that time in the district of the Holt, and enumerates the officers, superior and inferior, of those joint forests, for the time being, and their ostensible fees and perquisites. In those days, as at present, there were hardly any trees in Wolmer Forest.
Within the present limits of the forest are three considerable lakes, Hogmer, Cranmer, and Wolmer, all of which are stocked with carp, tench, eels, and perch: but the fish do not thrive well, because the water is hungry, and the bottoms are a naked sand.
A circumstance respecting these ponds, though by no means peculiar to them, I cannot pass over in silence; and that is, that instinct by which in summer all the kine, whether oxen, cows, calves, or heifers, retire constantly to the water during the hotter hours; where, being more exempt from flies, and inhaling the coolness of that element, some belly deep, and some only to mid-leg, they ruminate and solace themselves from about ten in the morning till four in the afternoon, and then return to their feeding. During this great proportion of the day they drop much dung, in which insects nestle, and so supply food for the fish, which would be poorly subsisted but from this contingency. Thus Nature, who is a great economist, converts the recreation of one animal to the support of another! Thomson, who was a nice observer of natural occurrences, did not let this pleasing circumstance escape him. He says, in his "Summer,"
"A various group the herds and flocks compose; . . . on the grassy bank Some ruminating lie; while others stand Half in the flood, and, often bending, sip The circling surface."
Wolmer Pond, so called, I suppose, for eminence sake, is a vast lake for this part of the world, containing, in its whole circumference, 2,646 yards, or very near a mile and a half. The length of the north-west and opposite side is about 704 yards, and the breadth of the south-west end about 456 yards. This measurement, which I caused to be made with good exactness, gives an area of about sixty-six acres, exclusive of a large irregular arm at the north-east corner, which we did not take into the reckoning.
On the face of this expanse of waters, and perfectly secure from fowlers, lie all day long, in the winter season, vast flocks of ducks, teals, and widgeons, of various denominations, where they preen and solace, and rest themselves, till towards sunset, when they issue forth in little parties (for in their natural state they are all birds of the night) to feed in the brooks and meadows, returning again with the dawn of the morning. Had this lake an arm or two more, and were it planted round with thick covert (for now it is perfectly naked), it might make a valuable decoy.
Yet neither its extent, nor the clearness of its water, nor the resort of various and curious fowls, nor its picturesque groups of cattle, can render this mere so remarkable as the great quantity of coins that were found in its bed about forty years ago. But, as such discoveries more properly belong to the antiquities of this place, I shall suppress all particulars for the present, till I enter professedly on my series of letters respecting the more remote history of this village and district.
By way of supplement, I shall trouble you once more on this subject, to inform you that Wolmer, with her sister forest Ayles Holt, alias Alice Holt, as it is called in old records, is held by grant from the crown for a term of years.
The grantees that the author remembers are Brigadier-General Emanuel Scroope Howe, and his lady, Ruperta, who was a natural daughter of Prince Rupert by Margaret Hughes; a Mr. Mordaunt, of the Peterborough family, who married a dowager Lady Pembroke; Henry Bilson Legge and lady; and now Lord Stawell, their son.
The lady of General Howe lived to an advanced age, long surviving her husband, and, at her death, left behind her many curious pieces of mechanism of her father's constructing, who was a distinguished mechanic and artist, as well as warrior; and among the rest, a very complicated clock, lately in possession of Mr. Elmer, the celebrated game painter, at Farnham, in the county of Surrey.
Though these two forests are only parted by a narrow range of enclosures, yet no two soils can be more different; for the Holt consists of a strong loam, of a miry nature, carrying a good turf, and abounding with oaks that grow to be large timber; while Wolmer is nothing but a hungry, sandy, barren waste. The former being all in the parish of Binsted, is about two miles in extent from north to south, and near as much from east to west, and contains within it many woodlands and lawns, and the great lodge where the grantees reside, and a smaller lodge called Goose Green; and is abutted on by the parishes of Kingsley, Frinsham, Farnham, and Bentley; all of which have right of common.
One thing is remarkable, that though the Holt has been of old well stocked with fallow-deer, unrestrained by any pales or fences more than a common hedge, yet they were never seen within the limits of Wolmer; nor were the red deer of Wolmer ever known to haunt the thickets or glades of the Holt.
At present the deer of the Holt are much thinned and reduced by the night hunters, who perpetually harass them in spite of the efforts of numerous keepers, and the severe penalties that have been put in force against them as often as they have been detected, and rendered liable to the lash of the law. Neither fines nor imprisonments can deter them, so impossible is it to extinguish the spirit of sporting which seems to be inherent in human nature.
General Howe turned out some German wild boars and sows in his forests, to the great terror of the neighbourhood, and, at one time, a wild bull or buffalo; but the country rose upon them and destroyed them.
A very large fall of timber, consisting of about one thousand oaks, has been cut this spring (viz., 1784) in the Holt forest: one fifth of which, it is said, belongs to the grantee, Lord Stawell. He lays claim also to the lop and top; but the poor of the parishes of Binsted and Frinsham, Bentley and Kingsley, assert that it belongs to them, and assembling in a riotous manner, have actually taken it all away. One man, who keeps a team, has carried home for his share forty stacks of wood. Forty-five of these people his lordship has served with actions. These trees, which were very sound and in high perfection, were winter-cut, viz., in February and March, before the bark would run. In old times the Holt was estimated to be eighteen miles, computed measure from water-carriage, viz., from the town of Chertsey, on the Thames; but now it is not half that distance, since the Wey is made navigable up to the town of Godalming, in the county of Surrey.
August 4th, 1767.
It has been my misfortune never to have had any neighbours whose studies have led them towards the pursuit of natural knowledge; so that, for want of a companion to quicken my industry and sharpen my attention, I have made but slender progress in a kind of information to which I have been attached from my childhood.
As to swallows (hirundines rusticae) being found in a torpid state during the winter in the Isle of Wight or any part of this country, I never heard any such account worth attending to. But a clergyman, of an inquisitive turn, assures me, that when he was a great boy, some workmen, in pulling down the battlements of a church tower early in the spring, found two or three swifts (hirundines apodes) among the rubbish, which were at first appearance dead, but on being carried towards the fire revived. He told me, that out of his great care to preserve them, he put them in a paper bag, and hung them by the kitchen fire, where they were suffocated.
Another intelligent person has informed me, that while he was a schoolboy at Brighthelmstone, in Sussex, a great fragment of the chalk cliff fell down one stormy winter on the beach, and that many people found swallows among the rubbish; but on my questioning him whether he saw any of those birds himself, to my no small disappointment, he answered me in the negative; but that others assured him they did.
Young broods of swallows began to appear this year on July 11th, and young martins (hirundines urbicae) were then fledged in their nests. Both species will breed again once. For I see by my fauna of last year, that young broods came forth so late as September 18th. Are not these late hatchings more in favour of hiding than migration? Nay, some young martins remained in their nests last year so late as September 29th; and yet they totally disappeared with us by the 5th October.
How strange it is that the swift, which seems to live exactly the same life with the swallow and house-martin, should leave us before the middle of August invariably! while the latter stay often till the middle of October; and once I saw numbers of house-martins on the 7th November. The martins and red-wing fieldfares were flying in sight together, an uncommon assemblage of summer and winter birds!
A little yellow bird (it is either a species of the alauda trivialis, or rather perhaps of the motacilla trochilus) still continues to make a sibilous shivering noise in the tops of tall woods. The stoparola of Ray (for which we have as yet no name in these parts) is called in your zoology the fly-catcher. There is one circumstance characteristic of this bird which seems to have escaped observation, and that is, it takes its stand on the top of some stake or post, from whence it springs forth on its prey, catching a fly in the air, and hardly ever touching the ground, but returning still to the same stand for many times together.
I perceive there are more than one species of the motacilla trochilus. Mr. Derham supposes, in "Ray's Philos. Letters," that he has discovered three. In these there is again an instance of some very common birds that have as yet no English name.
Mr. Stillingfleet makes a question whether the blackcap (motacilla atricapilla) be a bird of passage or not: I think there is no doubt of it: for, in April, in the first fine weather, they come trooping, all at once, into these parts, but are never seen in the winter. They are delicate songsters.
Numbers of snipes breed every summer in some moory ground on the verge of this parish. It is very amusing to see the cock bird on wing at that time, and to hear his piping and humming notes.
I have had no opportunity yet of procuring any of those mice which I mentioned to you in town. The person that brought me the last says they are plenty in harvest, at which time I will take care to get more; and will endeavour to put the matter out of doubt whether it be a nondescript species or not.
I suspect much there may be two species of water-rats. Ray says, and Linnaeus after him, that the water-rat is web-footed behind. Now I have discovered a rat on the banks of our little stream that is not web-footed, and yet is an excellent swimmer and diver: it answers exactly to the mus amphibius of Linnaeus (see Syst. Nat.), which he says "natat in fossis et urinatur." I should be glad to procure one "plantis palmatis." Linnaeus seems to be in a puzzle about his mus amphibius, and to doubt whether it differs from his mus terrestris; which if it be, as he allows, the "mus agrestis capite grandi brachyuros," of Ray, is widely different from the water-rat, both in size, make, and manner of life.
As to the falco, which I mentioned in town, I shall take the liberty to send it down to you into Wales; presuming on your candour that you will excuse me if it should appear as familiar to you as it is strange to me. Though mutilated "qualem dices . . . ante hac fuisse tales cum sint reliquiae!"
It haunted a marshy piece of ground in quest of wild-ducks and snipes; but, when it was shot, had just knocked down a rook, which it was tearing in pieces. I cannot make it answer to any of our English hawks; neither could I find any like it at the curious exhibition of stuffed birds in Spring Gardens. I found it nailed up at the end of a barn, which is the countryman's museum.
The parish I live in is a very abrupt, uneven country, full of hills and woods, and therefore full of birds.
SELBORNE, September 9th, 1767.
It will not be without impatience that I shall wait for your thoughts with regard to the falco; as to its weight, breadth, etc., I wish I had set them down at the time; but, to the best of my remembrance, it weighed two pounds and eight ounces, and measured, from wing to wing, thirty-eight inches. Its cere and feet were yellow, and the circle of its eyelids a bright yellow. As it had been killed some days, and the eyes were sunk, I could make no good observation on the colour of the pupils and the irides.
The most unusual birds I ever observed in these parts were a pair of hoopoes (upupa), which came several years ago in the summer, and frequented an ornamented piece of ground, which joins to my garden, for some weeks. They used to march about in a stately manner, feeding in the walks, many times in the day; and seemed disposed to breed in my outlet; but were frighted and persecuted by idle boys, who would never let them be at rest.
Three grossbeaks (loxia coccothraustes) appeared some years ago in my fields, in the winter; one of which I shot. Since that, now and then, one is occasionally seen in the same dead season.
A crossbill (loxia curvirostra) was killed last year in this neighbourhood.
Our streams, which are small, and rise only at the end of the village, yield nothing but the bull's head or miller's thumb (gobius fluviatilis capitatus), the trout (trutta fluviatilis), the eel (anguilla), the lampern (lampoetra parva et fluviatilis), and the stickleback (pisciculus aculeatus).
We are twenty miles from the sea, and almost as many from a great river, and therefore see but little of sea birds. As to wild fowls, we have a few teems of ducks bred in the moors where the snipes breed; and multitudes of widgeons and teals in hard weather frequent our lakes in the forest.
Having some acquaintance with the tame brown owl, I find that it casts up the fur of mice, and the feathers of birds in pellets, after the manner of hawks: when full, like a dog, it hides what it cannot eat.
The young of the barn-owl are not easily raised, as they want a constant supply of fresh mice; whereas the young of the brown owl will eat indiscriminately all that is brought: snails, rats, kittens, puppies, magpies, and any kind of carrion or offal.
The house-martins have eggs still, and squab young. The last swift I observed was about the 21st August; it was a straggler.
Red-starts, fly-catchers, white-throats, and reguli non cristati, still appear; but I have seen no black-caps lately.
I forgot to mention that I once saw, in Christ Church College quadrangle in Oxford, on a very sunny warm morning, a house-martin flying about, and settling on the parapet, so late as the 20th November.
At present I know only two species of bats, the common vespertilio murinus and the vespertilio auribus.
I was much entertained last summer with a tame bat, which would take flies out of a person's hand. If you gave it anything to eat, it brought its wings round before the mouth, hovering and hiding its head in the manner of birds of prey when they feed. The adroitness it showed in shearing off the wings of the flies, which were always rejected, was worthy of observation, and pleased me much. Insects seemed to be most acceptable, though it did not refuse raw flesh when offered; so that the notion, that bats go down chimneys and gnaw men's bacon, seems no improbable story. While I amused myself with this wonderful quadruped, I saw it several times confute the vulgar opinion, that bats when down upon a flat surface cannot get on the wing again, by rising with great ease from the floor. It ran, I observed, with more despatch than I was aware of, but in a most ridiculous and grotesque manner.
Bats drink on the wing, like swallows, by sipping the surface as they play over pools and streams. They love to frequent waters, not only for the sake of drinking, but on account of insects, which are found over them in the greatest plenty. As I was going some years ago, pretty late, in a boat from Richmond to Sunbury, on a warm summer's evening, I think I saw myriads of bats between the two places. The air swarmed with them all along the Thames, so that hundreds were in sight at a time.
I am, etc.
November 4th, 1767.
Sir,—It gave me no small satisfaction to hear that the falco turned out an uncommon one. I must confess I should have been better pleased to have heard that I had sent you a bird that you had never seen before; but that, I find, would be a difficult task.
I have procured some of the mice mentioned in my former letters, a young one and a female with young, both of which I have preserved in brandy. From the colour, shape, size, and manner of nesting, I make no doubt but that the species is nondescript. They are much smaller, and more slender, than the mus domesticus medius of Ray, and have more of the squirrel or dormouse colour; their belly is white, a straight line along their sides divides the shades of their back and belly. They never enter into houses; are carried into ricks and barns with the sheaves, abound in harvest; and build their nests amidst the straws of the corn above the ground, and sometimes in thistles. They breed as many as eight at a litter, in a little round nest composed of the blades of grass or wheat.
One of these nests I procured this autumn, most artificially platted, and composed of the blades of wheat, perfectly round, and about the size of a cricket ball, with the aperture so ingeniously closed, that there was no discovering to what part it belonged. It was so compact and well filled, that it would roll across the table without being discomposed, though it contained eight little mice that were naked and blind. As this nest was perfectly full, how could the dam come at her litter respectively, so as to administer a teat to each? Perhaps she opens different places for that purpose, adjusting them again when the business is over; but she could not possibly be contained herself in the ball with her young, which moreover would be daily increasing in bulk. This wonderful procreant cradle, an elegant instance of the efforts of instinct, was found in a wheat-field suspended in the head of a thistle.
A gentleman, curious in birds, wrote me word that his servant had shot one last January, in that severe weather, which he believed would puzzle me. I called to see it this summer, not knowing what to expect, but the moment I took it in hand I pronounced it the male garrulus bohemicus or German silk-tail, from the five peculiar crimson tags or points which it carries at the ends of five of the short remiges. It cannot, I suppose, with any propriety, be called an English bird, and yet I see, by Ray's "Philosophical Letters," that great flocks of them, feeding on haws, appeared in this kingdom in the winter of 1685.
The mention of haws puts me in mind that there is a total failure of that wild fruit, so conducive to the support of many of the winged nation. For the same severe weather, late in the spring, which cut off all the produce of the more tender and curious trees, destroyed also that of the more hardy and common.
Some birds, haunting with the missel-thrushes, and feeding on the berries of the yew tree, which answered to the description of the merula torquata, or ring-ouzel, were lately seen in this neighbourhood. I employed some people to procure me a specimen, but without success. (See Letter VIII.)
Query.—Might not canary birds be naturalised to this climate, provided their eggs were put, in the spring, into the nests of some of their congeners, as goldfinches, greenfinches, etc? Before winter perhaps they might be hardened, and able to shift for themselves.
About ten years ago I used to spend some weeks yearly at Sunbury, which is one of those pleasant villages lying on the Thames, near Hampton Court. In the autumn, I could not help being much amused with those myriads of the swallow kind which assemble in those parts. But what struck me most was, that, from the time they began to congregate, forsaking the chimneys and houses, they roosted every night in the osier-beds of the aits of that river. Now, this resorting towards that element, at that season of the year, seems to give some countenance to the northern opinion (strange as it is) of their retiring under water. A Swedish naturalist is so much persuaded of that fact, that he talks, in his calendar of Flora, as familiarly of the swallows going under water in the beginning of September, as he would of his poultry going to roost a little before sunset.
An observing gentleman in London writes me word that he saw a house-martin, on the twenty-third of last October, flying in and out of its nest in the Borough. And I myself, on the twenty-ninth of last October (as I was travelling through Oxford), saw four or five swallows hovering round and settling on the roof of the county hospital.
Now is it likely that these poor little birds (which perhaps had not been hatched but a few weeks) should, at that late season of the year, and from so midland a county, attempt a voyage to Goree or Senegal, almost as far as the equator?
I acquiesce entirely in your opinion—that, though most of the swallow kind may migrate, yet that some do stay behind and hide with us during the winter.
As to the short-winged, soft-billed birds, which come trooping in such numbers in the spring, I am at a loss even what to suspect about them. I watched them narrowly this year, and saw them abound till about Michaelmas, when they appeared no longer. Subsist they cannot openly among us, and yet elude the eyes of the inquisitive; and, as to their hiding, no man pretends to have found any of them in a torpid state in the winter. But with regard to their migration, what difficulties attend that supposition! that such feeble bad fliers (who the summer long never flit but from hedge to hedge) should be able to traverse vast seas and continents in order to enjoy milder seasons amidst the regions of Africa!
SELBORNE, Jan. 22nd, 1768.
Sir,—As in one of your former letters you expressed the more satisfaction from my correspondence on account of my living in the most southerly county, so now I may return the compliment, and expect to have my curiosity gratified by your living much more to the North.
For many years past I have observed that towards Christmas vast flocks of chaffinches have appeared in the fields; many more, I used to think, than could be hatched in any one neighbourhood. But, when I came to observe them more narrowly, I was amazed to find that they seemed to me to be almost all hens. I communicated my suspicions to some intelligent neighbours, who, after taking pains about the matter, declared that they also thought them mostly females—at least fifty to one. This extraordinary occurrence brought to my mind the remark of Linnaeus, that "before winter all their hen chaffinches migrate through Holland into Italy." Now I want to know, from some curious person in the north, whether there are any large flocks of these finches with them in the winter, and of which sex they mostly consist? For from such intelligence, one might be able to judge whether our female flocks migrate from the other end of the island, or whether they come over to us from the continent. We have, in the winter, vast flocks of the common linnets; more, I think, than can be bred in any one district. These, I observe, when the spring advances, assemble on some tree in the sunshine, and join all in a gentle sort of chirping, as if they were about to break up their winter quarters and betake themselves to their proper summer homes. It is well known, at least, that the swallows and the fieldfares do congregate with a gentle twittering before they make their respective departure.
You may depend on it that the bunting, Emberiza miliaria, does not leave this county in the winter. In January, 1767, I saw several dozen of them, in the midst of a severe frost, among the bushes on the downs near Andover: in our woodland-enclosed district it is a rare bird.
Wagtails, both white and yellow, are with us all the winter. Quails crowd to our southern coast, and are often killed in numbers by people that go on purpose.
Mr. Stillingfleet, in his Tracts, says that "if the wheatear (oenanthe) does not quit England, it certainly shifts places; for about harvest they are not to be found, where there was before great plenty of them." This well accounts for the vast quantities that are caught about that time on the south downs near Lewes, where they are esteemed a delicacy. There have been shepherds, I have been credibly informed, that have made many pounds in a season by catching them in traps. And though such multitudes are taken, I never saw (and I am well acquainted with those parts) above two or three at a time, for they are never gregarious. They may perhaps migrate in general, and, for that purpose, draw towards the coast of Sussex in autumn: but that they do not all withdraw I am sure, because I see a few stragglers in many counties, at all times of the year, especially about warrens and stone quarries.
I have no acquaintance, at present, among the gentlemen of the navy; but have written to a friend, who was a sea-chaplain in the late war, desiring him to look into his minutes, with respect to birds that settled on their rigging during their voyage up or down the Channel. What Hasselquist says on that subject is remarkable; there were little short-winged birds frequently coming on board his ship all the way from our channel quite up to the Levant, especially before squally weather.
What you suggest, with regard to Spain, is highly probable. The winters of Andalusia are so mild, that, in all likelihood, the soft-billed birds that leave us at that season may find insects sufficient to support them there.
Some young man, possessed of fortune, health, and leisure, should make an autumnal voyage into that kingdom, and should spend a year there, investigating the natural history of that vast country. Mr. Willughby passed through that kingdom on such an errand; but he seems to have skirted along in a superficial manner and an ill-humour, being much disgusted at the rude dissolute manners of the people.
I have no friend left now at Sunbury to apply to about the swallows roosting on the aits of the Thames: nor can I hear any more about those birds which I suspected were Meruloe torquatoe.
As to the small mice, I have farther to remark, that though they hang their nests for breeding up amidst the straws of the standing corn, above the ground, yet I find that, in the winter, they burrow deep in the earth, and make warm beds of grass: but their grand rendezvous seems to be in corn-ricks, into which they are carried at harvest. A neighbour housed an oat-rick lately, under the thatch of which were assembled nearly a hundred, most of which were taken, and some I saw. I measured them, and found that, from nose to tail, they were just two inches and a quarter, and their tails just two inches long. Two of them, in a scale, weighed down just one copper halfpenny, which is about the third of an ounce avoirdupois: so that I suppose they are the smallest quadrupeds in this island. A full-grown Mus medius domesticus weighs, I find, one ounce lumping weight, which is more than six times as much as the mouse above; and measures from nose to rump four inches and a quarter, and the same in its tail. We have had a very severe frost and deep snow this month. My thermometer was one day fourteen degrees and a half below the freezing-point, within doors. The tender evergreens were injured pretty much. It was very providential that the air was still, and the ground well covered with snow, else vegetation in general must have suffered prodigiously. There is reason to believe that some days were more severe than any since the year 1739-40.
I am, etc., etc.
SELBORNE, March 12th, 1768.
Dear Sir,—If some curious gentleman would procure the head of a fallow-deer, and have it dissected, he would find it furnished with two spiracula, or breathing places, besides the nostrils; probably analogous to the puncta lachrymalia in the human head. When deer are thirsty they plunge their noses, like some horses, very deep under water, while in the act of drinking, and continue them in that situation for a considerable time: but, to obviate any inconveniency, they can open two vents, one at the inner corner of each eye, having a communication with the nose. Here seems to be an extraordinary provision of nature worthy our attention, and which has not, that I know of, been noticed by any naturalist. For it looks as if these creatures would not be suffocated, though both their mouths and nostrils were stopped. This curious formation of the head may be of singular service to beasts of chase, by affording them free respiration: and no doubt these additional nostrils are thrown open when they are hard run. Mr. Ray observed that at Malta the owners slit up the nostrils of such asses as were hard worked: for they, being naturally straight or small, did not admit air sufficient to serve them when they travelled, or laboured, in that hot climate. And we know that grooms, and gentlemen of the turf, think large nostrils necessary, and a perfection, in hunters and running horses.
Oppian, the Greek poet, by the following line, seems to have had some notion that stags have four spiracula:
"Quadrifidae nares, quadruplices ad respirationem canales."
OPP. CYN. Lib. ii. 1. 181.
Writers, copying from one another, make Aristotle say that goats breathe at their ears; whereas he asserts just the contrary: "[Greek text]." "Alcmaeon does not advance what is true, when he avers that goats breathe through their ears."—"History of Animals." Book I., chap xi.
SELBORNE, March 30th, 1768.
Dear Sir,—Some intelligent country people have a notion that we have in these parts a species of the genus mustelinum, besides the weasel, stoat, ferret, and polecat; a little reddish beast, not much bigger than a field-mouse, but much longer, which they call a cane. This piece of intelligence can be little depended on; but farther inquiry may be made.
A gentleman in this neighbourhood had two milk-white rooks in one nest. A booby of a carter, finding them before they were able to fly, threw them down and destroyed them, to the regret of the owner, who would have been glad to have preserved such a curiosity in his rookery. I saw the birds myself nailed against the end of a barn, and was surprised to find that their bills, legs, feet, and claws were milk-white.
A shepherd saw, as he thought, some white larks on a down above my house this winter: were not these the Emberiza nivalis, the snow-flake of the Brit. Zool.? No doubt they were.
A few years ago I saw a cock bullfinch in a cage, which had been caught in the fields after it was come to its full colours. In about a year it began to look dingy; and, blackening every succeeding year, it became coal-black at the end of four. Its chief food was hempseed. Such influence has food on the colour of animals! The pied and mottled colours of domesticated animals are supposed to be owing to high, various, and unusual food.
I had remarked, for years, that the root of the cuckoo-pint (arum) was frequently scratched out of the dry banks of hedges, and eaten in severe snowy weather. After observing, with some exactness, myself, and getting others to do the same, we found it was the thrush kind that searched it out. The root of the arum is remarkably warm and pungent.
Our flocks of female chaffinches have not yet forsaken us. The blackbirds and thrushes are very much thinned down by that fierce weather in January.
In the middle of February I discovered, in my tall hedges, a little bird that raised my curiosity: it was of that yellow-green colour that belongs to the salicaria kind, and, I think, was soft-billed. It was no parus; and was too long and too big for the golden-crowned wren, appearing most like the largest willow-wren. It hung sometimes with its back downwards, but never continuing one moment in the same place. I shot at it, but it was so desultory that I missed my aim.
I wonder that the stone-curlew, Charadrius oedicnemus, should be mentioned by the writers as a rare bird: it abounds in all the champaign parts of Hampshire and Sussex, and breeds, I think, all the summer, having young ones, I know, very late in the autumn. Already they begin clamouring in the evening. They cannot, I think, with any propriety, be called, as they are by Mr. Ray, "circa aquas versantes;" for with us, by day at least, they haunt only the most dry, open, upland fields and sheep-walks, far removed from water: what they may do in the night I cannot say. Worms are their usual food, but they also eat toads and frogs.
I can show you some good specimens of my new mice. Linnaeus perhaps would call the species Mus minimus.
SELBORNE, April 18th, 1768.
Dear Sir,—The history of the stone-curlew, Charadrius oedicnemus, is as follows. It lays its eggs, usually two, never more than three, on the bare ground, without any nest, in the field, so that the countryman, in stirring his fallows, often destroys them. The young run immediately from the egg like partridges, etc., and are withdrawn to some flinty field by the dam, where they skulk among the stones, which are their best security; for their feathers are so exactly of the colour of our grey-spotted flints, that the most exact observer, unless he catches the eye of the young bird, may be eluded. The eggs are short and round; of a dirty white, spotted with dark bloody blotches. Though I might not be able, just when I pleased, to procure you a bird, yet I could show you them almost any day; and any evening you may hear them round the village, for they make a clamour which may be heard a mile. OEdicnemus is a most apt and expressive name for them, since their legs seem swollen like those of a gouty man. After harvest I have shot them before the pointers in turnip-fields.
I make no doubt but there are three species of the willow-wrens; two I know perfectly, but have not been able yet to procure the third. No two birds can differ more in their notes, and that constantly, than those two that I am acquainted with; for the one has a joyous, easy, laughing note, the other a harsh, loud chirp. The former is every way larger, and three-quarters of an inch longer, and weighs two drams and a half, while the latter weighs but two; so the songster is one-fifth heavier than the chirper. The chirper (being the first summer-bird of passage that is heard, the wryneck sometimes excepted) begins his two notes in the middle of March, and continues them through the spring and summer till the end of August, as appears by my journals. The legs of the larger of these two are flesh-coloured; of the less black.
The grasshopper-lark began his sibilous note in my fields last Saturday. Nothing can be more amusing than the whisper of this little bird, which seems to be close by though at a hundred yards' distance; and when close at your ear, is scarce any louder than when a great way off. Had I not been a little acquainted with insects, and known that the grasshopper kind is not yet hatched, I should have hardly believed but that it had been a locusta whispering in the bushes. The country people laugh when you tell them that it is the note of a bird. It is a most artful creature, skulking in the thickest part of a bush, and will sing at a yard distance, provided it be concealed. I was obliged to get a person to go on the other side of the hedge where it haunted, and then it would run, creeping like a mouse, before us for a hundred yards together, through the bottom of the thorns; yet it would not come into fair sight; but in a morning early, and when undisturbed, it sings on the top of a twig, gaping and shivering with its wings. Mr. Ray himself had no knowledge of this bird, but received his account from Mr. Johnson, who apparently confounds it with the reguli non cristati, from which it is very distinct. See Ray's "Philos. Letters," p. 108.
The fly-catcher (stoparola) has not yet appeared; it usually breeds in my vine. The redstart begins to sing, its note is short and imperfect, but is continued till about the middle of June. The willow-wrens (the smaller sort) are horrid pests in a garden, destroying the peas, cherries, currants, etc.; and are so tame that a gun will not scare them.
A LIST OF THE SUMMER BIRDS OF PASSAGE DISCOVERED IN THIS NEIGHBOURHOOD, RANGED SOMEWHAT IN THE ORDER IN WHICH THEY APPEAR.
LINNAEI NOMINA. Smallest willow-wren Motacilla trochilus Wryneck Jynx torquilla House-swallow Hirundo rustica Martin Hirundo urbica Sand-martin Hirundo riparia Cuckoo Cuculus canorus Nightingale Motacilla luscinia Blackcap Motacilla atricapilla Whitethroat Motacilla sylvia Middle willow-wren Motacilla trochilus Swift Hirundo apus Stone-curlew? Charadrius oedicnemus? Turtle-dove? Turtur aldrovandi? Grasshopper-lark Alauda trivialis Landrail Rallus crex Largest willow-wren Motacilla trochilus Redstart Motacilla phoenicurus Goat-sucker, or fern-owl Caprimulgus europus Fly-catcher Muscicapa grisola
My countrymen talk much of a bird that makes a clatter with its bill against a dead bough, or some old pales, calling it a jar-bird. I procured one to be shot in the very fact; it proved to be the Sitta europoea (the nuthatch). Mr. Ray says that the less spotted woodpecker does the same. This noise may be heard a furlong or more.
Now is the only time to ascertain the short-winged summer birds; for, when the leaf is out, there is no making any remarks on such a restless tribe; and when once the young begin to appear it is all confusion: there is no distinction of genus, species, or sex.
In breeding-time snipes play over the moors, piping and humming; they always hum as they are descending. Is not their hum ventriloquous like that of the turkey? Some suspect it is made by their wings.
This morning I saw the golden-crowned wren, whose crown glitters like burnished gold. It often hangs like a titmouse, with its back downwards.
Yours, etc., etc.
SELBORNE, June 18th, 1768.
Dear Sir,—On Wednesday last arrived your agreeable letter of June 10th. It gives me great satisfaction to find that you pursue these studies still with such vigour, and are in such forwardness with regard to reptiles and fishes.
The reptiles, few as they are, I am not acquainted with, so well as I could wish, with regard to their natural history. There is a degree of dubiousness and obscurity attending the propagation of this class of animals, something analogous to that of the cryptogamia in the sexual system of plants: and the case is the same with regard to some of the fishes, as the eel, etc.
The method in which toads procreate and bring forth seems to be very much in the dark. Some authors say that they are viviparous, and yet Ray classes them among his oviparous animals, and is silent with regard to the manner of their bringing forth. Perhaps they may be [Greek text], as is known to be the case with the viper.
The copulation of frogs (or at least the appearance of it) is notorious to everybody, because we see them sticking upon each other's backs, for a month together in the spring: and yet I never saw, or read, of toads being observed in the same situation. It is strange that the matter with regard to the venom of toads has not been yet settled. That they are not noxious to some animals is plain, for ducks, buzzards, owls, stone-curlews, and snakes, eat them, to my knowledge, with impunity. And I well remember the time, but was not eye-witness to the fact (though numbers of persons were), when a quack, at this village, ate a toad to make the country people stare; afterwards he drank oil.
I have been informed also, from undoubted authority, that some ladies (ladies you will say of peculiar taste) took a fancy to a toad, which they nourished, summer after summer, for many years, till he grew to a monstrous size, with the maggots which turn to flesh-flies. The reptile used to come forth every evening from a hole under the garden steps, and was taken up, after supper, on the table to be fed. But at last a tame raven, kenning him as he put forth his head, gave him such a severe stroke with his horny beak as put out one eye. After this accident the creature languished for some time and died.
I need not remind a gentleman of your extensive reading of the excellent account there is from Mr. Derham, in Ray's "Wisdom of God in the Creation" (p. 365), concerning the migration of frogs from their breeding ponds. In this account he at once subverts that foolish opinion of their dropping from the clouds in rain, showing that it is from the grateful coolness and moisture of those showers that they are tempted to set out on their travels, which they defer till those fall. Frogs are as yet in their tadpole state; but, in a few weeks, our lanes, paths, fields, will swarm for a few days with myriads of those emigrants, no larger than my little finger nail. Swammerdam gives a most accurate account of the method and situation in which the male impregnates the spawn of the female. How wonderful is the economy of Providence with regard to the limbs of so vile a reptile! While it is an aquatic it has a fish-like tail, and no legs; as soon as the legs sprout, the tail drops off as useless, and the animal betakes itself to the land!
Merret, I trust, is widely mistaken when he advances that the rana arborea is an English reptile; it abounds in Germany and Switzerland.
It is to be remembered that the salamandra aquatica of Ray (the water-newt or eft) will frequently bite at the angler's bait, and is often caught on his hook. I used take it for granted that the salamandra aquatica was hatched, lived, and died, in the water. But John Ellis, Esq., F.R.S. (the coralline Ellis), asserts, in a letter to the Royal Society, dated June 5th, 1766, in his account of the mud inguana, an amphibious biped from South Carolina, that the water-eft, or newt, is only the larva of the land-eft, as tadpoles are of frogs. Lest I should be suspected to misunderstand his meaning, I shall give it in his own words. Speaking of the opercula or coverings to the gills of the mud inguana, he proceeds to say that, "The form of these pennated coverings approaches very near to what I have some time ago observed in the larva or aquatic state of our English lacerta, known by the name of eft, or newt, which serve them for coverings to their gills, and for fins to swim with while in this state; and which they lose, as well as the fins of their tails, when they change their state and become land animals, as I have observed, by keeping them alive for some time myself."
Linnaeus, in his "Systema Naturae," hints at what Mr. Ellis advances more than once.
Providence has been so indulgent to us as to allow of but one venomous reptile of the serpent kind in these kingdoms, and that is the viper. As you propose the good of mankind to be an object of your publications you will not omit to mention common salad-oil as sovereign remedy against the bite of the viper. A to the blind worm (anguis fragilis, so-called because it snaps in sunder with a small blow), I have found, on examination, that it is perfectly innocuous. A neighbouring yeoman (to whom I am indebted for some good hints) killed and opened a female viper about the 27th May: he found her filled with a chain of eleven eggs, about the size of those of a blackbird; but none of them were advanced so far towards a state of maturity as to contain any rudiments of young. Though they are oviparous, yet they are viviparous also, hatching their young within their bellies, and then bringing them forth. Whereas snakes lay chains of eggs every summer in my melon beds, in spite of all that my people can do to prevent them; which eggs do not hatch till the spring following, as I have often experienced. Several intelligent folks assure me that they have seen the viper open her mouth and admit her helpless young down her throat on sudden surprises, just as the female opossum does her brood into the pouch under her belly, upon the like emergencies; and yet the London viper-catchers insist on it, to Mr. Barrington, that no such thing ever happens. The serpent kind eat, I believe, but once in a year; or rather, but only just at one season of the year. Country people talk much of a water-snake, but, I am pretty sure, without any reason; for the common snake (coluber natrix) delights much to sport in the water, perhaps with a view to procure frogs and other food.
I cannot well guess how you are to make out your twelve species of reptiles, unless it be by the various species, or rather varieties, of our lacerti, of which Ray enumerates five. I have not had opportunity of ascertaining these; but remember well to have seen formerly several beautiful green lacerti on the sunny sandbanks near Farnham, in Surrey; and Ray admits there are such in Ireland.
SELBORNE, July 27th, 1768.
Dear Sir,—I received your obliging and communicative letter of June 28th, while I was on a visit at a gentleman's house, where I had neither books to turn to nor leisure to sit down, to return you an answer to many queries, which I wanted to resolve in the best manner that I am able.
A person, by my order, has searched our brooks, but could find no such fish as the gasterosteus pungitius; he found the gasterosteus aculeatus in plenty. This morning, in a basket, I packed a little earthen pot full of wet moss, and in it some sticklebacks, male and female, the females big with spawn; some lamperns; some bull's heads; but I could procure no minnows. This basket will be in Fleet Street by eight this evening; so I hope Mazel will have them fresh and fair to-morrow morning. I gave some directions, in a letter, to what particulars the engraver should be attentive.
Finding, while I was on a visit, that I was within a reasonable distance of Ambresbury, I sent a servant over to that town, and procured several living specimens of loaches, which he brought, safe and brisk, in a glass decanter. They were taken in the gullies that were cut for watering the meadows. From these fishes (which measured from two to four inches in length) I took the following description: "The loach, in its general aspect, has a pellucid appearance; its back is mottled with irregular collections of small black dots, not reaching much below the linea lateralis, as are the back and tail fins; a black line runs from each eye down to the nose; its belly is of a silvery white; the upper jaw projects beyond the lower, and is surrounded with six feelers, three on each side; its pectoral fins are large, its ventral much smaller; the fin behind its anus small; its dorsal-fin large, containing eight spines; its tail, where it joins to the tail-fin, remarkably broad, without any taperness, so as to be characteristic of this genus; the tail-fin is broad, and square at the end. From the breadth and muscular strength of the tail it appears to be an active, nimble fish."
In my visit I was not very far from Hungerford, and did not forget to make some inquiries concerning the wonderful method of curing cancers by means of toads. Several intelligent persons, both gentry and clergy, do I find give a great deal of credit to what is asserted in the papers, and I myself dined with a clergyman who seemed to be persuaded that what is related is matter of fact; but, when I came to attend to his account, I thought I discerned circumstances which did not a little invalidate the woman's story of the manner in which she came by her skill. She says of herself, "that, labouring under a virulent cancer, she went to some church where there was a vast crowd; on going into a pew, she was accosted by a strange clergyman, who, after expressing compassion for her situation, told her that if she would make such an application of living toads as is mentioned she would be well." Now is it likely that this unknown gentleman should express so much tenderness for this single sufferer, and not feel any for the many thousands that daily languish under this terrible disorder? Would he not have made use of this invaluable nostrum for his own emolument; or at least, by some means of publication or other, have found a method of making it public for the good of mankind? In short, this woman (as it appears to me), having set up for a cancer-doctress, finds it expedient to amuse the country with this dark and mysterious relation.
The water-eft has not, that I can discern, the least appearance of any gills; for want of which it is continually rising to the surface of the water to take in fresh air. I opened a big-bellied one indeed, and found it full of spawn. Not that this circumstance at all invalidates the assertion that they are larvae, for the larvae of insects are full of eggs, which they exclude the instant they enter their last state. The water-eft is continually climbing over the brims of the vessel, within which we keep it in water, and wandering away; and people every summer see numbers crawling out of the pools where they are hatched up the dry banks. There are varieties of them, differing in colour; and some have fins up their tail and back, and some have not.
SELBORNE, August 17th, 1768
Dear Sir,—I have now, past dispute, made out three distinct species of the willow-wrens (motacillae trochili) which constantly and invariably use distinct notes. But at the same time I am obliged to confess that I know nothing of your willow-lark. In my letter of April 18th, I had told you peremptorily that I knew your willow-lark, but had not seen it then; but when I came to procure it, it proved in all respects a very motacilla trochilus, only that it is a size larger than the two other, and the yellow-green of the whole upper part of the body is more vivid, and the belly of a clearer white. I have specimens of the three sorts now lying before me, and can discern that there are three gradations of sizes, and that the least has black legs, and the other two flesh-coloured ones. The yellowest bird is considerably the largest, and has its quill-feathers and secondary feathers tipped with white, which the others have not. This last haunts only the tops of trees in high beechen woods, and makes a sibilous grasshopper-like noise, now and then, at short intervals, shivering a little with its wings when it sings; and is, I make no doubt now, the regulus non cristatus of Ray, which he says "cantat voce stridula locustae." Yet this great ornithologist never suspected that there were three species.
SELBORNE, October 8th, 1768.
It is I find in zoology as it is in botany; all nature is so full that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined. Several birds, which are said to belong to the north only, are it seems often in the south. I have discovered this summer three species of birds with us, which writers mention as only to be seen in the northern counties. The first that was brought me (on the 14th May) was the sand-piper, tringa hypoleucus: it was a cock bird, and haunted the banks of some ponds near the village; and, as it had a companion, doubtless intended to have bred near that water. Besides, the owner has told me since that, on recollection, he has seen some of the same birds round his ponds in former summers.
The next bird that I procured (on the 21st May) was a male red-backed butcher bird, lanius collurio. My neighbour, who shot it, says that it might easily have escaped his notice, had not the outcries and chattering of the whitethroats and other small birds drawn his attention to the bush where it was; its craw was filled with the legs and wings of beetles.
The next rare birds (which were procured for me last week) were some ring-ousels, turdi torquati.
This week twelve months a gentleman from London, being with us, was amusing himself with a gun, and found, he told us, on an old yew hedge where there were berries, some birds like blackbirds, with rings of white round their necks: a neighbouring farmer also at the same time observed the same; but, as no specimens were procured, little notice was taken. I mentioned this circumstance to you in my letter of November 4th, 1767 (you, however, paid but small regard to what I said, as I had not seen these birds myself); but last week the aforesaid farmer, seeing a large flock, twenty or thirty of these birds, shot two cocks and two hens, and says, on recollection, that he remembers to have observed these birds again last spring, about Lady-day, as it were on their return to the north. Now perhaps these ousels are not the ousels of the north of England, but belong to the more northern parts of Europe, and may retire before the excessive rigour of the frosts in those parts, and return to breed in the spring, when the cold abates. If this be the case, here is discovered a new bird of winter passage, concerning whose migrations the writers are silent; but if these birds should prove the ousels of the north of England, then here is a migration disclosed within our own kingdom never before remarked. It does not yet appear whether they retire beyond the bounds of our island to the south; but it is most probable that they usually do, or else one cannot suppose that they would have continued so long unnoticed in the southern countries. The ousel is larger than a blackbird, and feeds on haws; but last autumn (when there were no haws) it fed on yew-berries: in the spring it feeds on ivy-berries, which ripen only at that season, in March and April.
I must not omit to tell you (as you have been so lately on the study of reptiles) that my people, every now and then of late, draw up with a bucket of water from my well, which is sixty-three feet deep, a large black warty lizard with a fin-tail and yellow belly. How they first came down at that depth, and how they were ever to have got out thence without help, is more than I am able to say.
My thanks are due to you for your trouble and care in the examination of a buck's head. As far as your discoveries reach at present, they seem much to corroborate my suspicions; and I hope Mr. —- may find reason to give his decision in my favour; and then, I think, we may advance this extraordinary provision of nature as a new instance of the wisdom of God in the creation.
As yet I have not quite done with my history of the oedicnemus, or stone-curlew; for I shall desire a gentleman in Sussex (near whose house these birds congregate in vast flocks in the autumn) to observe nicely when they leave him (if they do leave him), and when they return again in the spring: I was with this gentleman lately, and saw several single birds.
SELBORNE, Nov. 28th, 1768.
Dear Sir,—With regard to the oedicnemus, or stone-curlew, I intend to write very soon to my friend near Chichester, in whose neighbourhood these birds seem most to abound, and shall urge him to take particular notice when they begin to congregate, and afterwards to watch them most narrowly whether they do not withdraw themselves during the dead of the winter. When I have obtained information with respect to this circumstance, I shall have finished my history of the stone-curlew, which I hope will prove to your satisfaction, as it will be, I trust, very near the truth. This gentleman, as he occupies a large farm of his own, and is abroad early and late, will be a very proper spy upon the motions of these birds; and besides, as I have prevailed on him to buy the Naturalist's Journal (with which he is much delighted), I shall expect that he will be very exact in his dates. It is very extraordinary, as you observe, that a bird so common with us should never struggle to you.