Friday 12 April 2013

Donors of Reptiles to London Zoo 1915: 4. Harold Duncan Foster

The first example of an amateur reptile keeper I have found so far from the list given by Clin Keeling of those individuals who donated specimens to London Zoo around the time of the beginning of the First World War is Harold Duncan Foster. He gave two Slow Worms, a Delande's Gecko†, a Green Lizard, two European Tree-frogs, a Fire-bellied Toad, a Yellow-bellied Toad and two Great Crested Newts.

In the 1911 Census he is shown at the same address, namely, 43 Queen's Grove, St John's Wood — only a short walk from the Zoo. Born in Marylebone, he was a colliery owner, single, and employed a parlourmaid, another servant and a cook.

He married Alice G Anderson at Marylebone in 1913. Was it a coincidence that his reptiles and amphibians went to the Zoo in 1914? Or was it a case of me or those creatures? Alice died in Hampstead in 1934 aged 52.

Harold Duncan Foster died, a widower, in Hampstead in 1955, aged 71.

There is information on his family history at:

†Delaland's Gecko?

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Donors of Reptiles to London Zoo 1915: 3. Guy Aylmer

Following up this series of posts, this is what Clin Keeling wrote in A Short History of British Reptile Keeping:

It's 8th August 1914 and one Guy Aylmer of Risby Manor, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, enriches the 1883 reptile house with two Black-collared Cobras, an African Rock Python, a Green Night Snake, a Burrowing Viper, a Rufescent Snake, an Emerald Tree Snake (Boa?), a Smoky Snake (Tropidonotus fuliginoides), four Tree Frogs (species not stated), and a Senegal Chameleon. Again, we hear no more of him, and once again I suspect here was someone entrusting his stock to good and experienced hands before going off to face the foe; the contest was less than a week old, and this makes me wonder whether he was possibly an officer on the reserve list. Through the helpful offices of Mrs. S. Greening of the Barrow (a nearby village) local History Society, I've discovered he was the son of Colonel Henry Leycester Aylmer, who was living at the Manor in 1912, which rather strengthens this idea. The fact remains, though, that zoology has heard no more of him, so in all probability he was soon to find a far-off grave.
In fact, Guy Aylmer not only survived the war but achieved lasting fame as a falconer, as we shall see.

Guy Aylmer was born on 20 April 1887 at Corsley House, Warminster, Wiltshire. He was educated at Winchester (he was at the school on the day of the 1901 census). He sent many reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates to London Zoo from Sierra Leone. In view of his later career and the fact that references are made to him with respect to the trees of Sierra Leone, I strongly suspect he was working in the Colonial Service in connexion with forestry in the years before the the war.

There is a reference to his having collected Picathartes gymncephalus (White-necked Rockfowl) in Sierra Leone in 1912. He also played a key part in showing that the Servaline Cat was not a separate species but a a colour form of the Serval. He found a litter with both forms present.

Mr. Guy Aylmer, F.Z.S., exhibited some skins of mammals from Sierra Leone, including those of a Serval (Felis capensis) and of a Servaline Cat (F. servalina), and stated that a native had brought him two kittens, almost certainly from the same litter, one being spotted like the Serval, and the other obscurely speckled like the Servaline Cat. This he regarded as proof that the differences between the Servals and Servaline Cats are of no systematic importance.

The many reptiles and amphibians presented to London Zoo at this time proved to be of wider interest. There is no evidence he was other than a temporary keeper of reptiles and amphibians. Edward G. Boulenger, Curator of Reptiles at the Zoo (not to be confused with his father, George Albert Boulenger FRS 1858-1937 of the British Museum (Natural History)), reported in 1915:

Among a collection of Reptiles and Batrachians collected by Mr. Guy Aylmer, F.Z.S., in Sierra Leone last year and presented by him to the Society, I found two frogs of the genus Rappia which have not hitherto been recorded. I propose for one the name of Rappia aylmeri, after its discoverer, for the other Rappia chlorostea, from the green colour of its bones, visible through the skin…

Sadly for Aylmer, R. aylmeri disappeared as a synonym of Hyperolius fusciventris. R. chlorostea, however, survives as Hyperolius chlorosteus.

Guy Aylmer was commissioned as a temporary (i.e. he was not a regular solider) 2nd Lieutenant in September 1914 and served with 12th Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps. He was promoted to Lieutenant virtually immediately. The 12th (Service) Battalion was part of Kitchener’s New Army. It was formed at Winchester on 21 September 1914. It landed at Boulogne on 22 July 1915. Aylmer survived the Somme, Passchendaele and Cambrai. From the 22 battalions in the regiment 12,824 men were killed and more than 123,000 were wounded.

He was promoted to Captain on 10 February 1915. He then moves up and down between Captain and, when employed as second-in-command of his battalion, Acting Major. Then on 27 November 1917, the London Gazette stated that he had resigned his commission to resume employment under the Colonial Office with effect from 1 December 1917 and that he was granted the honorary rank of Major.

During the war, he married Christabel Henrietta Rushbrooke on 12 January 1916. A son was born in 1925.

I have not been able to find anything of his activities in the 1920s, other than that in 1922 he published a paper, The Snakes of Sierra Leone (Sierra Leone Studies 5, 7-37). There are other possible references to a Major G. Aylmer in the Indian Army from 1919 until 1924 but I do not know if it is the same person. Similarly, a Major G Aylmer was chairman of a company that was wound up in 1925.

In the 1930s, there is much more information and this is where he achieved fame amongst the falconers. There are numerous comments on internet fora but this one sums up what he achieved in inventing, with a Bill Ruttledge, the ‘aylmeri’ jess:

Every day since I have flown my hawks and eagles, I have thanked Major Guy Aylmer for the peace of mind his invention has given falconers like myself, who religiously use the aylmeri jess. He came up with the idea whilst he was Conservator of Forests in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. In his spare time he was not only Master of the Khartoum Foot Foxhounds, but flying his eyas and wild-caught Red-Headed Merlins. It was whilst flying, that these merlins, with their jesses trailing, attracted the unwanted attention of piratical birds, thinking the merlins were carrying snakes etc. His idea was to fly his merlins with just the anklets, leaving the field jess behind in the grip of the falconers glove. Little did he realise what a great contribution he would be making to future falconry, and that countless hundreds of hunting hawks and falcons lives would be safer. For this alone his name should live on as long as falconry.
Aylmeri jesses are sold by falconry suppliers.

I then came across a fascinating account, published in 2007, by Mary Keenan of her tracing the steps of her mother’s cousin who was part of an expedition to the Sudan in 1933-34 (Sudan Studies 2007, 35, 3-17)( The sustained efforts she made to do so would put most people to shame.
Her mother’s cousin was James Edgar Dandy (1903-1976) then an Assistant at the Natural History Museum but eventually Keeper of Botany. The original expedition comprised the leader, Cecil Graham Traquair Morison (Agricultural Chemistry, Oxford), Dunstan Skilbeck (Soil Science, Oxford) and Dandy. Descendants provided Mary Keenan with the expedition diary and photographs.

When in Khartoum (arrived 16 December 1933), Dandy stayed with Guy Aylmer and his wife. They showed the nearby zoo and Sunt Forest, as well as the sights of Khartoum, Omdurman and Shambat.

Mary Keenan was shown the house, which was recognised from a photograph, when she was tracing the steps of the expedition in 2007.

Aylmer’s work (including an unpublished checklist of the trees and shrubs) in Sudan is quoted in botanical reviews and floras, for example, Flora of the Sudan-Uganda Border East of the Nile by I Friis and K Vollesen (Kgl. Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, 1998).

In 1935, the following notice appeared in the London Gazette:

Whitehall, January 21, 1935
The KING has been pleased to give and to grant unto Guy Aylmer, Esq., Conservator of Forests, Sudan Government, His Majesty’s Royal licence and authority to wear the Insignia of the Fourth Class of the Order of the Nile, which Decoration has been conferred upon him by his Majesty the King of Egypt, in recognition of valuable services rendered by him.
By 1939 he was back in England. My guess is that he would probably have retired in 1937 at the age of 50, the then usual age for retirement in the Colonial Service.

The Chelmsford Chronicle of 3 February 1939:

Otter Hounds Kill 38
At the annual meeting of the Eastern Counties Otter Hunt, held at Colchester...The Hunt Committee for the 1939 season consists of...Major G Aylmer…The Master reported a successful season, during which hounds were out on 81 days, finding 63 otters and accounting for 38 of them...Prospects for the coming season were excellent, and reports as to otters working the country are most satisfactory.

The Times of 15 September 1947:

Lost Falcon Found
The trained falcon lost by Major Guy Aylmer, of Risby, near Bury St. Edmunds, which is thought might have been shot on Thursday by a gamekeeper who saw a bird attacking partridges on the Denston Hall Estate, Newmarket, has been found in the Kentford district...
There is a report on an internet forum that he also lived in Spain.

Guy Aylmer died in 1954, aged 66. He was clearly a man of his class and of his time: a falconer and a hunter as well as a naturalist. His wife had died in 1951, aged 64. There is a gravestone for Christabel, her father and Guy Aylmer in Rushbrooke, Suffolk. He appears to have married again, to Beryl E Bland, in 1952; there is a matching death for her in 1959.

Aylmer Close in Risby, Suffolk is named after the family.

UPDATE—December 2014

Professor Bryan Tyson read the original post and provided the additional information:

I met Guy Aylmer in 1943, when he was living with his wife and son Michael (who had just started at Cambridge)  in Risby Manor—a large house a little further down the Green than ours (which is today called “Little Manor" but was, in those days, known as “Shepherd Elmer's cottage" where we lived throughout the War.) His house was majestic enough, with its white half-timbered frontage and  large well-cultivated grounds.  He took me on many a trip when I was about ten years old, showing me the nests of garden warblers and blackcaps, whose eggs were a little difficult to distinguish from one another; and upstairs in the rather cold house, where a pair of house martins had actually nested against the glass of his study windows, so that you could see into their nest! I remember he also had the head of a Tiger that he had shot on safari, and a big model Malayan house-boat.His wife used to make a fuss if mud was walked into the house, and we had to take our shoes off, I recall, before we went upstairs. His egg-collection was an absolute dream: all set out in cabinets with glass-topped drawers that slid open at the touch. I remember shyly offering the information I had received from a boy at school that it was impossible to “blow” kingfishers’ eggs, as their shells were too frail. For answer he opened a cabinet drawer to reveal a line of little round kingfishers’ eggs like a row of smiling teeth. He taught me a great deal about birds on our expeditions, and I remember his envy when I showed him my Stone Curlew’s egg (he didn’t have one).

On one occasion, he called over at our house with his son Michael, to see if I would accompany them to play in a scratch team, in a cricket match somewhere. I said yes, and we drove there in his car. The experience was positive, though I do not remember scoring many runs; but I remember observing that Michael—who was about eighteen at the time—breathed through his mouth with a slight panting. He had a heart condition, which had prevented him following his father into the Army, and which threatened to curtail his career in farming (he was reading something to do with Agriculture, I believe.) The irony is that he survived and prospered, while his father, the Major, fell dead one day in 1954,  at age 66, while gardening; and it transpired that he had the same heart defect as his son, but  it had gone undiagnosed all his life. Mrs. Aylmer, whom I recall as a very tanned lady, predeceased him, dying of cancer in 1951 at the age of 64,  shortly after we left the village. You mention his grave in Rushbrooke cemetery; but there is a gravestone for Guy Aylmer in Risby churchyard (where my own parents are buried.) It reads simply “Guy Aylmer. Falconer and Gentleman."

Friday 5 April 2013

Henderson Island Rats: nil desperandum

One of the most disappointing pieces of news this year came from the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). The massive international effort in 2011 to rid the Pacific island, Henderson, a British possession in the Pitcairn group, of rats had not been successful. However, the reports indicate that the population had been greatly reduced and that the colonies of nesting seabirds were recovering as a result.

The Polynesian or Pacific rat (Rattus exulans) was introduced during the expansion of the Polynesians across the Pacific. Henderson was abandoned but the rats, identified as a major predator on nestling sea birds, remained. Quoting from the Henderson Island News (Issue 5):

Rats have had a devastating effect on the island, killing over 25,000 petrel chicks a year and driving the Henderson petrel towards extinction. Seabirds, which would have numbered in the millions before rats arrived, have beenreduced to just 40,000 pairs. Rats have also been limiting the populations of other endemic bird species, altered the forest through seed consumption, and preyed upon marine turtle hatchlings and Henderson’s unique invertebrate populations. 

The job of covering the island 43 square km in area with rodenticide (while capturing, holding (and breeding) Henderson rails in captivity until the exercise had been completed) while operating a long way from everywhere was a very great effort and attracted financial support from around the world, as well as from the UK government.

We visited Henderson on October 2010 on MV Clipper Odyssey during a Noble Caledonia Expedition Cruise from Easter Island to Tahiti. By the time we got to Henderson we had visited Ducie Atoll, also in the Pitcairns, now apparently rat free, with its incredible seabird colonies but no land birds. Henderson has its few land birds and some seabirds but in nothing like the numbers on Ducie. While looking in the undergrowth behind the beach we saw a rat and I managed to get a few seconds of video footage. It clearly had not read the information on this species stating that it is nocturnal.

I hope efforts to remove the rats will continue at this World Heritage Site and that those who provided financial support (including many individual RSPB members and expedition cruise passengers and the travel company Zegrahm Expeditions, as well as government and other charities) will continue to do so. Just seeing the contrast between Ducie and Henderson was enough for me to conclude: ...whatever it takes.