Skip to main content

Vanishing Peregrines: J. A. Baker, Environmental Crisis and Bird-Centred Cultures of Nature, 1954–73

  • SEAN J. NIXON (a1)

Taking J. A. Baker's celebrated book The Peregrine as its focus, the article seeks to locate Baker's writing within a broader, less elevated field of postwar observation and publication that worked to shape new ways of understanding, apprehending and taking pleasure from the natural environment. This included the recording practices and publications of the national and county naturalist and birdwatching societies that flourished in these years. The article shows how Baker's book was as much the product of this world of organised amateur natural history as it was of the world of high literature. Baker's book also sheds light on the reconfiguring of bird-human relations within competing postwar cultures of nature and the article uses it to explore the relationship between birdwatching and the bird-centred field sport of falconry. As organised birdwatching sought to establish moral authority over other bird-centred countryside pursuits in its understanding of natural relations, it cast field sports and other countryside practices as atavistic and archaic relics of older cultures of nature. Baker's The Peregrine allows us to see the convergences between the close attention to birds of prey and an intimacy with them that was shared by birdwatchers like Baker and falconers, even as Baker's narrative also sheds light on the differences between the two practices.

Hide All


1. J. A. Baker Archive, Albert Sloman Library Special Collections, University of Essex (hereafter Baker Archive), A3/1.2, Letter from John Moore to Michael Walter, Collins Publishers, 19th October 1966.

2. Baker Archive, A3/1.3, Letter from Viscount Norwich to J. A. Baker, 17th December 1967. For contemporary reviews, see Baker Archive, J1.2, Hugh Barrett Reviews The Peregrine, Woman's Hour, BBC Light Programme, 8th June 1967; Richard Fitter Review, The Times, 24th April 1967, p. 24; Alan Bold, ‘A Demonstration of Summer’, The Times, 28th June 1969, p. 22.

3. Macfarlane, Robert, ‘Introduction’, in Baker, J. A, The Peregrine (New York, 2005 [orig. pub. 1967]), p. vii; Cocker, Mark, ‘Introduction’, in The Peregrine/Hill of Summer and Diaries: The Complete Works of J. A. Baker, introduced by Mark Cocker and edited by Fanshawe, John (London, 2011), p. 11 .

4. Cocker, ‘Introduction’, in The Peregrine/Hill of Summer and Diaries, p. 12.

5. Macfarlane ‘Introduction’, J. A Baker, The Peregrine, p. xii.

6. John Fanshawe, ‘The Diaries, Introduction’, in The Peregrine/Hill of Summer and Diaries; Macdonald, Helen, Falcon (London, 2008).

7. Access to Baker's private papers, including details of his personal library, confirm these suspicions revealing that Baker owned and was highly likely to have read Melville, T. H. White, Ted Hughes and Ernest Hemingway.

8. Marren, Peter, The New Naturalists (London, 2005 [orig. pub. 1995]), and, inter alia, Nethersole-Thompson, D., The Greenshank (London, 1951); Fisher, James, The Fulmar (London, 1952); Buxton, John, The Redstart (London, 1950).

9. Fanshawe, ‘The Diaries, Introduction’, in The Peregrine/Hill of Summer and Diaries, p. 281.

10. On the postwar growth of nature conservation organisations, see Sheail, John, Nature in Trust: The History of Nature Conservation in Britain (London, 1976); Sheail, John, Nature Conservation in Britain: The Formative Years (London, 1998); Sheail, John, An Environmental History of Twentieth Century Britain (Basingstoke, 2002); Evans, D., A History of Nature Conservation in Britain (London, 1992); Adams, William M., Against Extinction, The Story of Conservation (Cambridge, 2004).

11. On SS Torrey Canyon, see Sheail, John, ‘Torrey Canyon: the political dimension’, Journal of Contemporary History, 42:3 (2007), 485509 .

12. W. Kenneth Richmond, ‘Training the Yeoman's Hawk’, Country Life, 20th September 1956, pp. 586–7; Evans, Humphrey ap, Falconry (Manchester, 1973); Macdonald, , Falcon (London, 2006).

13. For a discussion of a regional manifestation of these conflicts see Matless, David, In the Nature of Landscape: Cultural Geography on the Norfolk Broads (London, 2015).

14. Matless et al. explore this question in relation to wildfowling and otter hunting. See D. Matless, p. Merchant and C. Watkins, ‘Animal landscapes: otters and wildfowl in England, 1945–1970’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (2005), 191–205.

15. Matless, David, Landscape and Englishness (London, 1998); Matless, In the Nature of Landscape; Matless, Merchant and Watkins, ‘Animal landscapes’, 191–205.

16. Matless, Landscape and Englishness, p. 228.

17. Macdonald, Helen, ‘“What makes you a scientist is the way you look at things”: ornithology and the observer, 1930–1955’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 33 (2002), 5377 ; Toogood, Mark, ‘Modern observations: new ornithology and the science of ourselves, 1920–1940’, Journal of Historical Geography, 37 (2011), 348–57.

18. For a popular account of the growth of birdwatching in this period, see Moss, Stephen, A Bird in the Bush: A Social History of Birdwatching (London, 2004).

19. J. A. Baker Archive, Albert Sloman Library Special Collections, University of Essex.

20. Nicholson, E. M., The Art of Bird-Watching: A Practical Guide to Field Observation (London, 1932).

21. Ibid., pp. 43, 50, 148. An adaptation of this use of aircraft was employed in the 1940s when the extensive wartime practice flights of RAF coastal command were used to photograph the seabird colonies on remote islands like St Kilda, Sula Sgur and Aisla Craig. Nicholson, E. M., ‘Origins and Early Days’, in Hickley, R., ed., Enjoying Ornithology (London, 1983), p. 25 .

22. Nicholson The Art of Bird-Watching, pp. 54–8.

23. Ibid., pp. 29–30.

24. Ibid., p. 97.

25. Ibid., p. 19.

26. Ibid., p. 177.

27. On this tradition of bird collecting, see Mearns, Barbara and Mearns, Richard, The Bird Collectors (London, 2002); Stoddart, Andy, Siberia's Sprite: A History of Fascination and Desire (London, 2016); Barrow, Mark V. Jr, A Passion for Birds: American Ornithology after Audubon (Princeton, 1998); Moss, A Bird in the Bush.

28. Hickley, ed., Enjoying Ornithology, p. 18.

29. Macdonald, ‘“What makes you a scientist”’, 56; Toogood, ‘Modern observations’, 348.

30. Toogood, ‘Modern observations’, 350; Harrison, T. E. and Hollom, p. D., ‘The great crested grebe enquiry 1931’, British Birds, 26 (1932), 6292 .

31. Marren, The New Naturalists, pp. 15–16; Burkhardt, Richard W. Jr, Patterns of Behaviour: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen and the Founding of Ethology (Chicago, 2005), pp. 69126 .

32. Bocking, Stephen, ‘Conserving Nature and Building a Science: British Ecologists and the Origins of the Nature Conservancy’, in Shortland, M., ed., Science and Nature: Essays in the History of the Environmental Sciences (London, 1993), pp. 89114 .

33. Nicholson, The Art of Bird-Watching, p. 132.

34. Marren, The New Naturalists, pp. 15–16; Matless, Landscape and Englishness, p. 259.

35. Marren, The New Naturalists, p. 69.

36. Matless, Landscape and Englishness, p. 258; Toogood, ‘Modern observersations’, 351; Macdonald, ‘“What makes you a scientist”’, p. 56.

37. Matless, Landscape and Englishness, p. 258.

38. S. Davis, ‘Britain an Island Again: Nature, the Military and Popular Views on the British Countryside, c. 1930–1965’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Cambridge, 2010).

39. Hickley, ed., Enjoying Ornithology, p. 30.

40. Ibid., p. 39.

41. Essex Birdwatching and Preservation Society, Essex Bird Report, 1955–1969.

42. Christy, M., The Birds of Essex (Chelmsford, 1890).

43. Ibid., 173.

44. G. Smith, ‘A History of Bradwell Bird Observatory’, in Essex Bird Report (2004), p. 150.

45. Essex Newsman, 19th December 1950, p. 8.

46. Cox, S., A New Guide to the Birds of Essex (Chelmsford, 1984), p. 8 .

47. Ibid., p. 13.

48. J. A. Baker, ‘The Peregrine in Essex’, in Essex Bird Report (1967), pp. 54–5.

49. Ibid., p. 54.

50. Christy, The Birds of Essex, pp. 47–71.

51. Baker, The Peregrine, pp. 31–2.

52. Worpole, K. and Orton, J., 350 Miles: An Essex Journey (Chelmsford, 2005); Shoard, M.The Lure of the Moors’, in Burgess, J. and Gold, J., Valued Environments (London, 1982), pp. 117 .

53. J. A. Baker, ‘The Diaries’, in The Peregrine/Hill of Summer and Diaries, p. 356.

54. Ibid., pp. 359–60.

55. Ibid., p. 283.

56. Ibid., p. 315.

57. Ibid., p. 341.

58. Baker, ‘The Diaries’, in The Peregrine/Hill of Summer and Diaries, p. 77.

59. Baker, The Peregrine, p. 105.

60. Ibid., p. 168.

61. Ibid., pp. 32–2.

62. Country Life, 18th October 1962, p. 897.

63. Ratcliffe, D. A., ‘The status of the peregrine in Great Britain’, Bird Study, 10:2 (1963), p. 65 .

64. Ibid., p. 73.

65. Ibid., p. 76.

66. Carson, R., Silent Spring (London, 1963 [orig. pub. 1962]), pp. 11–12.

67. Bird Notes, autumn (1960), 91.

68. Bird Notes, 29:8 (1962), 223; Carson, Silent Spring, p. 12.

69. Bird Notes, spring (1963), p. 166.

70. Carson, Silent Spring, p. 100.

71. Ibid., p. 11.

72. Ibid., p. 13.

73. Ratcliffe, D. A., The Peregrine Falcon (London, 1993), pp. 117–19.

74. Bird Notes, 30:7, summer (1963), p. 207.

75. Ibid., p. 219.

76. Ibid., p. 208.

77. P. Conder, ‘Comment’, Birds (November–December 1970), p. 124.

78. Ibid.

79. Benton, T., Natural Relations: Ecology, Animal Rights and Social Justice (London, 1993), p. 70 .

80. The Times, 2nd April 1973, p. 3.

81. Macdonald, Falcon, p. 99.

82. W. Kenneth Richmond, ‘Training the Yeoman's Hawk’, Country Life, p. 586.

83. Ibid.

84. I. Neill, ‘Goshawks for a Yeomen’, Country Life, 17th September 1970, p. 678.

85. J. Stevenson, ‘Grouse Hunting in Caithness’, Country Life, 26th September 1963, p. 724.

86. Ibid., p. 726.

87. Automobile Association, AA Book of the British Countryside (London, 1973), p. 159 .

88. Prestt, I., British Birds: Lifestyles and Habits (London, 1982), p. 40 .

89. Baker, The Peregrine, p. 29.

90. Ibid., p. 30.

91. Ibid., p. 31.

92. Ibid., p. 92.

93. Ibid., p. 41.

94. Ibid., p. 31.

95. Ibid., pp. 33–4.

96. Ibid., p. 30.

97. Ibid., p. 124.

98. Ibid., p. 124-5.

99. J. A. Baker Archive, Albert Sloman Library Special Collections, University of Essex, A6.36.D, Cooper letter to Baker, 7th March 1976.

100. A6.9, Mrs. Whitfield Vye letter to Baker, 15th February 1968.

101. A6.22, R. Berry letter to Baker, 13th December 1971.

102. A6.16, K. Morrison letter to Baker, 26th November 1969.

103. A6.29, N. Wheale letter to Baker, 21st May 1974; See also A6.22, R. Berry letter to Baker, 13th December 1971; A6.24, C. McKelvie letter to Baker, 21st March 1972.

104. A6.16, K. Morrison letter to Baker, 26th November 1969; A6.28, D. Smith letter to Baker, 19th March 1974.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Rural History
  • ISSN: 0956-7933
  • EISSN: 1474-0656
  • URL: /core/journals/rural-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed