Help choose a wildlife icon for Britain

Unlike many countries, the UK has never had a national species to call its own. Patrick Barkham introduces our public poll to find a wildlife icon for the nation.

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Opening page of A Wildlife Icon for Britain feature.

Unlike many countries, the UK has never had a national species to call its own. Patrick Barkham introduces our public poll to find a wildlife icon for the nation.

Search for “Australia” and “identity” using Google Images and you will find pictures of kangaroos. Type “New Zealand” and up pops the kiwi. But try “Britain” and “identity” and all you get are some bland images of identity cards.

Britain is bereft. We have never chosen one plant or animal to symbolise our nation. If there was an obvious candidate, we might have picked it years ago, like South Africa, which has the graceful, speedy springbok, or Russia with its brown bear.

Or perhaps we are such an ancient, complacent nation that we have never needed to seek unity through the endearing face of an animal or the allure of a wild flower.

Can we choose one species that unites us? Beast or bird? Tree or flower? An endemic species unique to our isles or even a new non-native?

Something that is typically British in character would be good, but what would that be? A popular, common creature or a rarity? This is a far trickier task than it first appears.

Lions, unicorns and bulldogs

According to Paul Ward, a professor of history at the University of Huddersfield, Britain deployed animal symbols when it first came into being as a political entity with the Union of the Crowns in 1603.

The lion and the unicorn were conscripted to symbolise England and Scotland – but neither is particularly appropriate for the 21st century. The unicorn is a mythical beast, while the lion, as well as not even being native, is so unoriginal it has been adopted by many other nations already.

Ward points out that national symbols are always defined in opposition to notions of ‘The Other’ and, in the 18th century, the bulldog became a potent symbol of Englishness: brave, solid and, crucially, ugly.

In that era, the enemy, France, was associated with effeminacy, and so the English fêted John Bull and his bulldog, an animal bred for the then-popular but barbaric sport of bull-baiting.

The bulldog vividly embodies the disquieting blend of love and sadism we displayed towards animals in the past. We surely need a more positive symbol for modern times.

But when I sought nominations from people known for their affection for a particular species, I was constantly surprised.

Ken Livingstone, that notorious newt fancier, does not suggest the great crested newt (surely worthy of an award for its role in stopping wildlife-unfriendly developments), but thinks that the wildcat would be a good candidate.

Surely Alan Titchmarsh would go for a flower, but he plumps for the common, or English, oak: “Sturdy, long-lived and home to hundreds of species of insect – a durable image of a durable pattern of islands.”

And Richard Fox of Butterfly Conservation does not choose a butterfly, but surprises me by picking the bluebell. “I do feel a bit of a traitor for not saying the garden tiger moth,” he admits.

The bluebell is a popular choice. A national symbol must inspire people to savour our wildlife, and plenty of urbanites walk in our ancient woods in spring to admire the carpets of brilliant blue.

The bluebell is found across Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England – another prerequisite for a symbol of Britishness – and, perhaps most compellingly, is almost unique to our nation. We have three-quarters of the world’s population of native bluebells; no other country enjoys such spectacular displays.

Flora or fauna?

I consult Kevin Walker of the Botanical Society of the British Isles, expecting him to clinch the case for the bluebell – but he demolishes it. “The bluebell is a bit boring,” he confesses. “It’s a beautiful plant, but is always given as the symbol of our natural flora.” Better, he thinks, would be the primrose or cowslip, of which the UK also has globally important populations. What about an animal, though?

“Fauna is always trumped by flora – creatures are always dependent on plants,” laughs Walker.

A decade ago, Plantlife ran a successful campaign to choose a flower for every county, and writer and BBC Wildlife columnist Richard Mabey approves of such markers of regional identity.

“Very often these county flowers really shape the character of a local landscape, so people feel genuine affection for them. National flowers are slightly artificial – they are arbitrarily picked,” he says.

The idea of a national species implies an attitude of “this is ours, not yours”, Mabey suggests. “That’s not a sentiment I like politically, and I’m not sure it makes sense ecologically.”

Mabey’s alternative is to propose a ‘United Nations’ flower. “What is virtually England’s national flower, the rose, is the best international flower as well because it’s a symbol of beauty and elegance and fleetingness across the temperate world,” he says. “Many cultures revere it.”

With its influence on everything from architectural forms to romance, the rose’s cultural resonance is, as Mabey says, overpowering.

I wonder if all Shakespeare’s references make the flower rather Anglo-centric for an international symbol, but Mabey puts me straight.

Most of our cultural ideas about roses are borrowed from the Middle East. In the 16th century, British poets wrote about nightingales singing by pressing their breasts against rose thorns, a myth derived from ancient Persian poetry. The image of a bed of rose petals is taken from a Middle Eastern feasting tradition.

Writer Simon Barnes admits to a similar discomfort to Mabey about a national species, but thinks adopting one might be “a pleasantly humbling thing”.

He suggests a species that emphasises our connectedness to the rest of the planet: the swallow. “Swallows are birds of hope. They come and make a summer. When we see a swallow, we don’t think, ‘We’re Britain and we’re all right.’ We think, ‘We are Britain and we are connected to the rest of the world,’” he says. Swallows show that we are not an island.

Metaphors and newcomers

Plenty of other birds clamour for our attention, too, of course: the nightingale and skylark, so inspirational in music and poetry; the humble though sadly declining cockney house sparrow; grand predators like the golden eagle; and inspiring conservation success stories such as the red kite. Or how about the raven?

When ravens are no longer found at the Tower of London, it is said that our kingdom will collapse. These big, shaggy crows are a metaphor for how human life depends on wild things.

According to Grace Kimble,  a doctoral researcher at the University of London’s Institute of Education, the robin is the British bird that most animates kids. “Children are highly perceptive about character, because they are able to interpret visual clues very easily,” she tells me.

“Robins have an appealing personality: there is something about the gentle expression of one of these pretty birds that they might decode as being quite kind.”

Moving on from the avian contenders for our national wildlife icon, how about the seven-spotted ladybird? This handsome, hard-working beetle – another perennial favourite with children – impresses gardeners with its no-nonsense, aphid-munching graft.

It’s the perfect symbol of the benefits of biological pest control.

I began by assuming that our national species should be native, but what better symbol of modern Britain than an exotic newcomer?

Giant hogweed or the ring-necked parakeet might be taking it a bit far, but the brown hare and horse chestnut are much-loved parts of our landscape that were introduced by humans.

However, one of the most successful introductions, the grey squirrel, would perhaps be too controversial a candidate.

The red squirrel, on the other hand, would naturally be the patriotic choice of many, and indeed ‘Squirrel Nutkin’ has been picked by none other than Prince Charles as his preferred wildlife emblem.

Plenty of other mammals would attract the popular vote: the hedgehog, which we cosset with cat food and places to hibernate while bewailing its disappearance from the countryside; the water vole, a species closely associated with lazy days by the riverbank thanks to Ratty from The Wind in the Willows, one of the best-loved characters in British literature; and the otter, which BBC Wildlife readers voted as their favourite British mammal in 2008.

Setts and castles

Rock star Brian May, one of the most prominent campaigners against a badger cull in Britain, favours Brock for our national emblem.

“It’s a tough call,” he tells me. “At first I was tempted to suggest the fox. But our badgers are unique in the world. It’s only here that they live in tight, self-sustaining groups – in which they interact much as we do in a family home, sharing cleaning duties.”

The badger is written into our place names, from Brockley to Pateley Bridge (‘pate’ is another old name for it), and inscribed in our literature, from an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem to the steampunk graphic novels of Bryan Talbot.

It is courageous, sociable and something of a curmudgeon, and its sett is most definitely its castle. These are all qualities that we, in Britain, like to think we share.

But is the badger too divisive to be a positive symbol of Britain? Many farmers blame it for the spread of bovine TB, their understandable suspicion forming part of a long tradition of ambivalence towards the animal.

We don’t know what we think of the badger – unlike the fox, which we all agree is a cunning predator.

Reflecting tensions

Ward points out that any national wildlife icon will always have the potential to be divisive. “Animal symbols should reflect some of the tensions that exist in society, rather than represent some pale imitation of unity,” he says.

There is an alternative: we could use an invented animal – a beast from the Harry Potter books, perhaps.

Or what about the Britosaurus – a nocturnal creature with the face of a seal, the song of a nightingale, the fur of a mole, the wisdom of a tawny owl and the grace of a swift, which nests in bluebell woods.

 

We asked 10 charities to nominate the species they think should be the UK's national wildlife icon.

The public voted for their first choice in our online poll (closed on 16 June 2013). 

Find out the winner of Britain's national species poll. 

 

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