Letter from the Chair, February 2019

Dear Members

In my previous Letter from the Chair, I mentioned that there would be a change in the make-up of the Society’s Executive Committee after the forthcoming Annual General Meeting; there are candidates for the vacant posts on the Committee but, as noted in my previous Letter, other members are free to stand. As yet, I have not received any proposals, but there is still time before the meeting (on 22 March, at the Gala Club, Gloucester) to put your name forward. I can now announce that the principal speaker at the AGM will be a very long-standing member (indeed an Honorary Member of the Society, and author of the Society’s recent publication “The Beetles of Gloucestershire”), Dr Keith Alexander, on the subject of “Gloucestershire’s Best Beetles”. Do come along to hear him!

This will be my last Letter from the Chair, as I am standing down as Chairman on 22 March. I have been Chairman since 2003, but I originally joined the Society as a schoolboy in 1952: there was a “Hobbies Exhibition” at the Town Hall in Cheltenham, where I signed up as a member of what was then the “Cheltenham and District Naturalists’ Society”; (it later evolved, after a period as the “North Gloucestershire Naturalists’ Society”, into its present form). The Society was blessed by the involvement of a whole range of legendary volunteer naturalists (I really don’t like to call them ‘amateurs’; they were genuine experts in their own fields); people like the botanists Miss De Vesian and Miss Park, or RJM Skarratt (both botanist and ornithologist), or keen bird watchers like Terry James and Frank Whittingham, both of whom have died only recently. The Society at that time was (apart from Peter Scott’s then ’Severn Wildfowl Trust’ – which I also joined) the only naturalists-cum-conservation body in the county. It organized indoor meetings in the old Cheltenham Grammar School building on the High Street (right next to the Cheltenham Brewery, when it was a real brewery rather than a shopping mall); best of all it organized a range of field meetings every weekend, with midweek evening meetings in summer; and most of the field meetings were based on travel by public transport, going all over the county from Royal Well bus station. For me, and several other junior members at the time, being a member was a life-changing experience; my whole life has been influenced by it, since I became forever a keen bird-watcher, and in the end a professional conservationist.

So, when I was elected as Chairman in 2003, I felt a debt of gratitude, and a wish to support the Society’s traditional role as a body that encouraged volunteers to enjoy and study natural history. Since the 1950s of course a variety of other conservation bodies, both professional and voluntary, have developed in the county: Natural England, Environment Agency, Wildlife Trust, Butterfly Conservation, local bird clubs in Dursley and Cheltenham, to mention just a few. So the GNS role was not hands-on conservation management; and with the creation of the Gloucestershire Centre for Environmental Records, it was not even to collect and store records. I have always felt that the Society’s role was recording and publishing: helping GCER to verify their records through the network of County Recorders (their range and variety is illustrated in the ‘Wildlife Recording Information Sheet’ section of the present issue); encouraging volunteers to submit their records from a variety of taxa; and to encourage publications on all aspects of the county’s natural history. In the old days, there was a monthly roneo-typed “Journal” (delivered largely by hand!). I believe that GNS members greatly value the now quarterly GNS News, which reports on the latest natural history news and represents a regular link between members in an attractive illustrated format. And of course we should not forget the annual volume of ‘The Gloucestershire Naturalist”: number 32 has just appeared, edited by the indefatigable David Scott-Langley.

During my time as Chairman, the Society has thankfully, owing to generous legacies from many of those former CDNS members, been free of financial worries, allowing it to provide financial support for all these publications and also to provide grants for worthwhile conservation projects carried out by members. The Executive Committee welcomes applications from members who might need equipment or support to carry out projects: this has been an increasing activity in the last few years and is likely to develop. The highest priority for such grants is given to volunteer naturalists; the Society has no professional staff, and its Committee Members give freely and generously of their time, so in most cases the Committee are very reluctant to use the Society’s funds to pay for researchers’ time.

One of the Society’s aims has always been to arouse an interest in natural history, especially among young people. Over the last decade the Committee has spent a long time discussing ways and means of achieving this. I have to confess that we have not made as much progress in this field as I would have liked; perhaps, given the extent of regulations (notably Health and Safety) that surround these issues nowadays, this is something that can best be done by professionals. But we have taken some initiatives, notably with students at the University of Gloucestershire, so let us hope that this brings fruit.

On re-reading this note, I see that I have very frequently used the term ‘natural history’, and I think that this reflects the atmosphere that has always prevailed in the Society: serious, but not too scientific; enjoyable, but requiring thought and study. Long may we continue along this road. I wish my successor every success, and shall be continuing as an ordinary member of the Executive Committee, so shall remain involved in the Society’s activities, and in particular with fieldwork, on subjects such as …. Curlews perhaps?

With very best wishes

Mike Smart
Hon Chairman

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