Most islands are rich in unique species of animals and plants that are found nowhere else in the world. New Zealand, for example, is home to the kiwi, the kākāpō, and the takahē, along with many other rare flightless birds, while Madagascar is famous for its lemurs, fossas, and tenrecs. The British Isles, by comparison, has very few animals that it can exclusively call its own.
The red grouse is a very British bird. I say that not because it encapsulates anything particularly British (although it is widely known as the logo of The Famous Grouse whisky), but because it is found nowhere else in the world apart from the British Isles. However, although it was once thought to be its own separate species, most experts now believe that the red grouse is actually a distinct race of the willow ptarmigan, which lives elsewhere in northern Europe, Asia and America.
Charismatic and somewhat clownish, with a bizarre multicoloured beak, upright stance, and a waddling gait, the puffin is everyone’s favourite seabird. These irresistibly charming, pint-sized auks are easily identifiable, even to non-birdwatchers. But despite their popularity – and even though there are more than a million puffins breeding around the British Isles – few people have actually seen one.
Directly above me, as I write this at my desk, there is a herring gull nest. I can’t see it, of course, because it’s on the roof created by the bay windows of my flat as they jut out slightly from the building. But I saw the parent birds flying back and forth to the site for several days, bringing nesting material, and from across the street, I can just about see an adult hunkered down on the nest.
During the Victorian Era, there was a botanical equivalent of ‘gold fever’. Wealthy collectors sent explorers to all corners of the world to discover new, exquisite types of orchid. The finest specimens could fetch very high prices indeed, and explorers risked their lives just to find them, travelling through dangerous, unmapped territory in search of these beautiful, delicate flowers.