Nature writer Charlie Elder ventures where the wild things are

Charlie holds a smooth snake

Charlie holds a smooth snake - Credit: Archant

The former Ham & High news editor and UCS schoolboy explains how in his new book, he set out to find Britain’s rarest animals, from the beautiful and breathtaking to the bizarre.

It’s not often one enjoys a refreshing saltwater facial courtesy of an eight-metre long shark – but that’s what happens if you sneak up and try to rub its back.

There are few creatures in our oceans quite as awesome as the basking shark, and a close encounter was one of the highlights of a year spent travelling around Britain in search of our rarest and most endangered animals.

Fed up with watching TV presenters enjoying the best views of British nature, I decided to get off the sofa and embrace a long-held interest in the plight of threatened species by actually seeing them, in some cases before it was too late.

The challenge was to find 25 of our rarest mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and insects, ranging from the surreal spiny seahorse, elusive Scottish wildcat and beautiful Duke of Burgundy butterfly, to the noisy natterjack toad, striking golden oriole and secretive pine marten.

On paper it sounded fairly straightforward. However, I knew from experience how exhausting it was likely to be. My previous book While Flocks Last involved trying to find Britain’s ‘red list’ birds in decline. Broadening my horizons to include groups of animals with which I was less familiar – bats and beetles, for example – was a leap into the unknown that took expert guidance and a dose of luck to narrow the odds in favour of sightings.

My fascination with the natural world began aged seven, inspired by TV documentaries and family holidays to Scotland. There was wildlife closer to home too, in the gardens and open spaces of Muswell Hill (where I grew up), Hampstead (where I went to school) and Highgate (where I later lived when working on the Ham & High). Though north London hedgehogs may be fewer in number now, the local foxes a bit bolder, and the birdlife a touch more exotic, given the spread of ring-necked parakeets…

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A busy working life meant nature watching was put on hold until a move to Dartmoor reawakened my interest. I began dedicating much of my free time to tracking down Britain’s most threatened species and writing about efforts to save them. It might sound a potentially gloomy subject, but there’s plenty to celebrate.

The main worry about my year-long quest to find Britain’s rarest animals was whether those I sought would play along. Target species were scattered across the UK, and I had to squeeze trips into weekends and work holidays, frequently sleeping in my car near nature reserves to save time.

I visited heathlands, woodlands, wetlands and uplands, and enjoyed seeing a number of rarities that very few people get to see including the ice age vendace fish which lives in the depths of a few glacial lakes in Cumbria; London’s streaked bombardier beetle that ejects a boiling mixture of toxic chemicals to deter predators; and black rats living on an uninhabited Hebridean island – the last stable refuge in Britain of this one-time plague-carrier.

My adventures included being bitten by a smooth snake, catching one of our rarest – and possibly ugliest – bats, and chancing across a sperm whale off Scotland.

Some animals, like the cute dormouse, had plenty of ‘ahhh’ appeal, and others a touch of the ‘yikes’ – such as the giant wart-biter cricket whose powerful nip was once used to remove warts. But without doubt the animal with the greatest ‘wow’ factor was the basking shark.

I was fortunate to join licensed researchers from Manx Basking Shark Watch who were collecting DNA samples from feeding sharks that cruise the bays around the Isle of Man. This involves steering a small boat behind them and deftly rubbing the slime-covered dorsal fin with a pad on an extendable pole.

Drawing alongside the world’s second largest fish, and being showered with cold seawater as they headed off with a flick of an immense tail, was an unforgettable experience.

And given the variety of remarkable rarities I was privileged enough to see on my travels, and friendly conservationists met along the way, I would gladly start all over again…

Few And Far Between: On the Trail of Britain’s Rarest Animals, is published by Bloomsbury