Well cool and wicked wildlife

13 May
Hugh Warwick at the Lower Shaw Family Fun Day, a Swindon Festival of Literature event

Hugh Warwick at the Lower Shaw Family Fun Day, a Swindon Festival of Literature event

I wonder if there’s any point during my life at which I’ll stop thinking ‘cooool’ when someone tells me something, well, cool?

Hugh Warwick’s Swindon Festival of Literature talk about his new book, The Beauty in the Beast, is pitched at an aged 10-plus audience, by which I assume the organisers mean 10, and those whose appreciation of what constitutes cool has failed to mature past the level of, say, your average Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

That’s me, then, I’m not alone in this category. Warwick’s lively talk is full of enraptured adults, and later, I find myself at the poetry event across town discussing the relative merits of gangsta rap, Spiderman comics and classic Doctor Who, so the perpetual sixth formers, it would seem, permeate through every strata of literary appreciation.

When Warwick asks who in the audience has seen the film Alien, you get the feeling he’s not really asking the ten year olds, even though the question is directed at them. The Alien that bursts through John Hurt’s chest was based on the larvae of that most attractive of insects, the dragonfly, he tells us. Who’d’ve thought?

Warwick discovered this fascinating fact when he spoke to the UK’s foremost authority on dragonflies for The Beauty in the Beast, which takes a close-up look at 15 species of British(-ish) wildlife, except it’s more about the eccentrics who have become the authorities on their subjects than the creatures themselves.

So we learn not to be fooled by the smile of a dolphin. They are “murdering thugs who kill for no other reason than getting better at killing.” We learn that you can stroke a male bumble bee. Only the females sting. What we don’t learn, though, is how to tell them apart.

We learn that more often than not, the study of the illusive otter is actually the study of otter sprint – the polite word for their poo. Incredibly it smells lovely, with a hint of jasmine.

And we learn that the toad has been around for 300 million years, and hasn’t changed much in all that time, which must’ve upset Darwin.

We also learn that beavers, which were native to Britain until around 400 years ago, really do that thing they do on cartoons, where they gnaw around a tree trunk until the tree falls over. And the most common cause of death in the beaver population? Crushed by falling trees. That would’ve upset Darwin too – hardly a great argument for natural selection, is it?

Warwick’s favourite creatures are hedgehogs. He’s studied them for 20 years and radio-tracked them around the west country. His first book, A Prickly Affair, is about hedgehogs and our relationship with them.

When attacked or intimidated , he tells us, they curl up in a ball (yeah, I knew that) by frowning (ooh, that I did not know), which yanks the long muscle down their body which pulls them into a ball.

Warwick’s favourite hedgehog was called Nigel. He was eaten by a badger, but despite this the badger also makes it onto the list.

The other day I watched Planet Earth Live on the BBC. I thought it was boring. Someone should give Hugh Warwick a show – he’s engaging, entertaining, knowledgeable and passionate. And he knows lots of cool stuff about animals.

Hugh Warwick was talking at the Lower Shaw Family Fun Day, a Swindon Festival of Literature event.

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