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Thomas Garnett

A Lancashire Naturalist: Thomas Garnett

A memorial volume of the late Mr. Thomas Garnett, of Low Moor, Clitheroe, was printed for private circulation, and some notice of it will be of interest to many outside the narrow circle for whom it was originally prepared. Mr. Thomas Garnett was one of three brothers. Mr. Richard Garnett distinguished himself as a philologist, and became an assistant-keeper in the British Museum; Mr. Jeremiah Garnett was for many years the editor of the Manchester Guardian , and Mr. Thomas Garnett settled at Clitheroe, where he passed an active life as a manufacturer, but instead of allowing business to absorb all his attention, he found pleasant and healthful recreation in agricultural and scientific observation. The results are now gathered in this volume—“Essays in Natural History and Agriculture, by the late Thomas Garnett, of Low Moor, Clitheroe. London: printed at the Chiswick Press, 1883.” Only 250 copies were printed. The editing has been the work of the author's nephew, that accomplished scholar and friend of all students, Dr. Richard Garnett, of the British Museum. The first paper contains a number of facts and observations relating to the salmon, chiefly based on Mr. Garnett's experience in Lancashire. Written as long ago as 1834, it contains a plea in favour of a wise and not vexatious measure for the protection of the salmon fisheries. He believed that the salmon enters and ascends rivers for other purposes than propagation. In support of this view he cites what in Lancashire is called “streaming.” Thus in winter the fish not engaged in spawning, trout, grayling, chub, dace, etc., leave the streams and go into deep water. Another reason is their impatience of heat, which leads the grayling, if the weather is unusually hot at the end of May or beginning of June, to ascend the mill-streams in the Wharfe, by hundreds, and to go up the mill-races as far as they can get. The “salmon” par he holds to be neither a hybrid, nor a distinct species, but a state of the common salmon. In 1851 he wrote some papers describing his own experiments in the artificial breeding of salmon. His interest in the fish is shown by the following quotation:—“I have had fish sent from two different gentlemen living on the banks of thereservoirs belonging to the Liverpool Waterworks: these were beautiful fish, three in number, more like the sea trout than the salmon, and the largest of them weighing two pounds. I had put them into the brooks running into the reservoirs three years before. I also learn that a beautiful specimen of the Ombre chevalier  (French char) was taken out of Rivington reservoir. About a thousand had been put in by me two years before.”

It should be mentioned that Mr. Garnett's experiments on the artificial impregnation of fish ova were made without any knowledge of previous attempts of the same kind. In answer to a suggestion made by Mr. Garnett, the late Sir G. C. Lewis observed:—“You might as well propose to shoot partridges only three days a week as to restrict the netting of salmon to only three days.” In 1859, Mr. Garnett wrote some papers on the possibility of introducing salmon into Australia, and addressed a communication to the authorities of Tasmania and New Zealand on the subject. He had some doubts as to success, but thought that the experiment should be made, and that New Zealand was the likeliest place for the experiment. In 1843, 1844, 1845, and 1848, he made experiments in the cultivation of wheat on the same land in successive years, and the results were communicated to the Manchester Guardian . He also advocated the growing of a short-strawed wheat as peculiarly suitable to the conditions of farming in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The gravelling of his clay soils elicited some amusing comments from his neighbours, one of whom remarked that he had seen land tilled (manured) in various ways, but had never before seen a field tilled with cobble-stones! The cultivation of cotton in India and in Peru was another project in which he took a warm interest.

Mr. Garnett was a keen observer of natural history. Some excellent authorities had asserted that the common wren never lined its nest with feathers, but he showed conclusively that this was a mistake. The nest in which eggs are laid is profusely lined with feathers, but during the period of incubation the male frequently constructs several nests in the vicinity of the first, none of which are lined. The existence of these “cock-nests,” as they are called by schoolboys, was doubted, but Mr. Garnett fully made out his case. The grey wagtail (Motacilla sulphurea ) sometimes looks at its own image in a window, and attacks it with great vivacity. A superstitious neighbour was alarmed by this conduct in a “barley-bird” (Motacilla flava ), and thought it a portent of evil. Her alarm was cured by the young naturalist, who secured the bird of evil omen. Having caught a colony of the long-tailed titmouse, Mr. Garnett and his brother attempted to rear the half-fledged young ones, but of the six old birds, five died in confinement. The survivor was allowed to escape in the hope that it would come back to rear the young ones. This it did, and by the most unwearied exertions supplied the whole brood, sometimes feeding them ten times in a minute. Mr. Garnett took some pains to establish the identity of the green with the wood-sandpiper. The courage of the stoat, and the pertinacious manner in which the marsh-titmouse for a time resisted attempts to drive her from her nest, are amongst his curious observations. The creeper, he noticed, associated with the titmouse in winter. The language of birds has not yet been mastered, either by philologists or ornithologists, but it appears that the alarm note of one is readily understood by those of other species. Mr. Garnett desired to make some young throstles leave a nest which was in danger of visitation from mischievous lads. He took one from the nest and made it cry out. Its brethren quickly disappeared, the old bird set up a shriek of alarm, and blackbird, chaffinch, robin, oxeye, blue titmouse, wren, and marsh-titmouse, and even the golden-crested wren, which usually appears to care for nothing; in fact all the birds in the wood, except the creeper, came to see what was the matter. Mr. Garnett did not share the prejudice felt by some farmers against the rook, which he held to be serviceable to man. He reckoned that one rookery in Wharfedale destroyed 209 tons of worms, insects and their larvæ. The rook also, he notes, relieves the farmers from the apprehension caused by a flight of locusts in Craven. Contrary to Waterton's opinion, Mr. Garnett describes the process by which birds dress their feathers with oil from a gland. The sedge-warbler owes its local name of “mocking-bird” to its imitative powers in copying the notes of the swallow, the martin, the house-sparrow, spring-wagtail, whinchat, starling, chaffinch, white-throat, greenfinch, little redpole, whin-linnet, and other birds. Of the water-ouzel he says:—“A pair had built for forty years, according to tradition, in a wheel-race near to where I was born, and had never been molested by anybody, until a gentleman in the neighbourhood, who was a great ornithologist, employed his gamekeeper to shoot this pair. I think the natives of Calcutta were not more indignant when an unlucky Englishman got one of their sacred bulls into his compound, and baited him, than was our little community at what we considered so great an outrage. The gamekeeper narrowly escaped being stoned by myself and some more lads, any one of whom would have shot fifty blackbirds or fieldfares without any misgiving.” Mr. Garnett once shot what he afterwards believed to have been a Sabine's snipe.

His interest in the river was not confined to the salmon, and he made some interesting observations on the propagation of lampreys, the spawning of minnows, and the breeding of eels. A short note on the last-named topic, by Mr. Jeremiah Garnett, is also printed. On the formation of ice at the bottom of rivers, there are two papers, one by Mr. Thomas Garnett, and the other by his brother, the Rev. Richard Garnett. A shower of gossamer, the thread produced by the aëronautic spider, is recorded as seen on the hills near Blackburn. One of Mr. Garnett's friends was the unfortunate Mr. Joseph Ritchie, of Otley, who accompanied Captain Lyon's expedition to Fezzan, and died there in 1819. To this there is an allusion in the following passage:—“In conclusion, allow me to say that the leisure hours which a somewhat busy life has enabled me to spend in these pursuits, have been some of the happiest of my existence, and have awakened and cherished such an admiration of nature, and such a love of the country and its scenes, as I think can never be appreciated by the inhabitants of large towns, and which I cannot describe so well as in the words of one of my friends, in a beautiful apostrophe to England, when leaving it, never to return:—

‘To thee
Whose fields first fed my childish fantasy;
Whose mountains were my boyhood's wild delight,
Whose rocks, and woods, and torrents were to me
The food of my soul's youthful appetite;
Were music to my ear—a blessing to my sight.'”

Why do not more of the dwellers in rural districts employ their often abundant leisure in natural history studies?