Through his observations of the natural world in his country parish, the Reverend Gilbert White transformed the way we look at the natural world and is known as one of the fathers of ecology. In his journals, his painstaking observations provided many important insights into the natural world around him. For example, he was the first person to accurately describe the harvest mouse and noctule bat. He was an inspiration to many other naturalists.
White was born in 1720, in Selborne in Hampshire. He went to Oriel College in Oxford and then followed his grandfather and uncle into the church. In 1763, he inherited the family home in Selborne and decided to stay in the village he had grown up in.
Selborne was a parish of 12.5 square miles and 700 inhabitants. White’s regular travels on horseback around the parish, covering the same routes over many decades, allowed him to make correlations between the appearance of birds and the germination of plants.
It is, I find, in zoology as in botany: all nature is so full, that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined.
Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne, 1789.
White was an enthusiastic gardener, growing a variety of flowers, vegetables and fruit, and was one of the first people in his neighbourhood to grow potatoes. He recorded data concerning his crops and became interested in natural history.
White was a keen observer and systematically recorded the natural phenomena around him, which gave him an insight into the inter-relationships between living things. He believed in studying birds and creatures in the field, which was an unusual approach at the time – most naturalists of the day preferred to examine dead specimens in their study at home.
Gilbert White’s peers believed that swallows inhabited holes and the mud of local ponds in the winter, however White was aware of bird migration, and so debated and discussed this issue with his peers, seeking evidence for the hibernation or migration of swallows. He never reached a firm conclusion.
White used the Naturalists Journal, which was a set of printed forms designed by the naturalist Daines Barrington, to record the movements of birds and other natural occurrences.
After studying the bird song of the willow wren, White was the first to identify that the willow wren was actually three species; chiffchaff, willow warbler and wood warbler.
White’s collection of records was published in 1789 as a series of letters addressed to the Daines Barrington and another naturalist, Thomas Pennant. White called his book The Natural History of Selborne and hoped that it would help people to gain and apply a knowledge of nature. White recorded and discussed his observations and theories about local plants and animals in this compilation of letters. The book has never been out of print, and is one of the most published books in the English language.
White inspired many naturalists including Charles Darwin, and also writers such as William Wordsworth and Virginia Woolf. The Natural History of Selborne made a particular way of studying nature seem obvious, and marked the start of a tradition of expert observations and recordings.
He continued his observations until a few days before his death in 1793.