In my opinion there is no greater achievement for an author than to write so well that he can captivate me on a topic I have no interest in. Sadly there seems to be no end of authors who can bore me to tears while writing on topics that fascinate me. One of the most enjoyable books I have ever read was a book on bird watching by Bill Oddie. I think I read it in a single sitting and I loved it all the way through. I have never gone bird watching in my life nor do I intend to but the book was great.
Bird watching is one of those curious pass times that seem to exist solely to make it difficult to categorise a person. No sooner do you think you have a handle on someone's personality than some bizarre quirk turns up to make you wonder if you know them at all. Theodore Roosevelt was a keen bird watcher. An entire chapter of his autobiography is devoted to the birds you could see in close proximity to his home and the delight he felt in adding new species to his collection on a trip to England. This is Teddy Roosevelt we're talking about here, who never met an animal he didn't shoot.
Another bird watching freak was Field Marshal, Viscount Alanbrooke Chief of the Imperial General Staff in the Second World War. Apparently when Alanbrooke wasn't running Britain's war effort and keeping the brandy decanter out of Churchill's clutches he could be found crouching in bushes looking at robins. One wonders, hadn't he ever heard of a zoo?
The closest I have come to bird watching is staring avidly while my father carves a chicken. This is better than bird watching for a number of reasons. You can do it indoors, you don't have to get up early and there is a strong implication that very soon your plate will be laden with chicken. I don't really understand bird watching but then I don't understand most outdoor exploits. My father in law once showed me a farm where the owner raised pheasants for shooting. I suggested that if you liked shooting birds surely it made more sense simply to take a shotgun to an aviary. He generously assumed I was joking and I was, more or less.
Humans have a strangely schizophrenic relationship with animals. On the one hand we kill them all over the place but on the other we will frequently move heaven and earth to keep them alive. Quite often the same people are involved. I've already mentioned Roosevelt who killed more animals than an abbattoir but was almost single handledly responsible for creating the US Forest Service. There is an even more unlikely example; Hermann Goering, the bloated, morphine addled art thief who mismanaged the German Air Force in the Second World War also had a keen interest in conservation. As with Roosevelt it seemed to derive from his habit of killing animals every chance he got. Goering gloried in his title (he collected them like stamps) of Reich Jagermeister. Essentially this was a position which gave him responsibility for doing body shots off twenty year old girls. However Goering also used the position to reorganise Germany's national parks, reintroduce endangered species and implement a series of anti vivisection laws which are the model for those Germany has today. Yet whenever he could take time off from building concentration camps, bombing cities and working slave labourers to death Goering could be found in the forests shooting deer.
It does make a certain amount of logical sense that hunters should be conservationists. After all if there are no more forests and no more animals there will be nothing left to shoot. This fact leads me to a rather uneasy conclusion; it is probably a good thing that Greenpeace and sporting shooters don't realise how much they have in common. If they ever get together we will have the makings of a very well armed insurgency on our hands.