John Lucas and Nature

Warton’s 18th century parish historian John Lucas was – on the whole – more interested in history than in natural history.  It would certainly be a stretch to suggest that he was an early naturalist in the mould of Selborne’s Gilbert White. But in his History of Warton Parish Lucas does make interesting observations about the local wildlife …even if he sometimes misinterprets what he’s seen.  Here are a few excerpts from Lucas’s book read by Granville Tunnicliffe-Wilson. Please give them a moment or two

While walking by The Ware — the lake that probably gave Warton its name — Lucas noticed the following bird behaviour.

 

So is this true? Do eels bite the feet of ducklings?

Friends who know more about birds and eels than me say that this does happen: eels and pike will snap at the feet of ducklings and even adult ducks. Pike have been known to eat ducks whole!

So one point to John Lucas for a correct observation!

But what about this.

 

The Heron and the Eel: from the original handwritten version of Lucas’s history.

 

My knowledge of natural history is mostly gleaned from watching David Attenborough on the telly but I’m pretty sure that herons do not swallow eels and then eat them a second time around as they emerge from their bottoms or “per anum”, as Lucas puts it.  This time the historian has either been taken in by a tall story or perhaps his informant mistook what he saw. I’ve watched a heron wrestling with an eel.  With all the thrashing about I think it would be easy to think that an eel was disappearing down the gullet and emerging back into daylight after navigating the bird’s digestive system. In modern times, of course, we have binoculars and can watch such episodes much more closely.

In any case, I’m afraid John Lucas can’t win any points for this one.

Elsewhere in the book he has quite a few things to say about snakes…which is interesting because we don’t have many snakes locally these days. Back in the early eighteenth century the Midleton family — who owned Leighton Hall —  were so troubled by adders that they brought in outside help.

 

I’m not sure the peacock’s raucous call would scare off snakes. But a quick trawl on You Tube reveals that in India peacocks do confront and sometimes kill cobras. So keeping them as snake deterrents might make sense.

On the other hand, very few people today would believe this next account and to be fair even Lucas doesn’t seem entirely convinced.

“George Mason…told me, and others, very seriously, that going to see a Throstle’s Nest under Barrow Scout on Warton Crag, he found a snake or adder devouring the young birds, at which being moved…with great indignation, he struck the bush with a stick, and the serpent immediately flew to an old tree at several yards distance.”

Adders I feel confident in saying do not have the power of flight.  I wonder whether it’s worth noting that just as in the case of the eel and the heron, this is a yarn told to him by a third party, not something he witnessed with his own eyes.

A third and final snake story was something he saw for himself.

“When I was a boy a cartwheel accidentally running over a small snake in Warton Moss, the pressure thereof burst his belly and squeezed out a whole mouse, and to the best of my remembrance, a frog too.”

This slightly nauseating reminiscence – typical of the sort of thing a young boy would remember with relish  – sounds altogether more convincing.

I’m intrigued by these observations – accurate and inaccurate alike – because I suspect the very act of recording them represents the emergence of a scientific approach. Writing down ‘I saw a bird do this out on the Moss’ allows other people to go and try to spot the same behaviour – or to laugh it out of court! John Lucas clearly did not devote his life to natural history. But just as his book questions traditional superstitions like that of the ‘Shrew Tree’ (which I really should try and research further) and the fairies dancing on Warton Crag, his natural history observations show that he was an educated man who adopted a reasoned approach to problems. It’s interesting to note in passing that Lucas was recording these episodes several decades before the Reverend Gilbert White published The Natural History of Selborne.

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