Tag Archives: Beast book for the pocket

Four rabbits make one felt hat

It’s not all about insects. Occasionally I have to find out something about ‘other’ wildlife. In which case, as well as resorting to the interweb, I scour my bookshelves to see what old reference books I can find. This is one of my favourites:

I use it lots. Its rather tatty cover is a dead giveaway.

When it first appeared (1937), it was quite revolutionary in its style and format. Gone were the wordy descriptions of the Victorian gentlemen from a generation or two before. Here instead was a clipped military staccato prose of precise information delivered in short detailed phrases. Of the badger, for example:

“Sexes alike. Female (‘Sow’) usually slightly smaller than male (‘Boar’). Length 28 in. plus 8 in. tail. Weight very variable; average, boar about 25 lb., sow 22 lb., but recorded up to 40 lb. Thickset, bear-like, round-backed, very powerful. Fur coarse, long, and loose. Foetid gland under tail. 6 teats.”

That would have taken half a page a few years earlier. Sandars also included some of the first distribution maps, rather stylized but very useful, along with drawings of skeleton, dentition, gait and footprints. He relates life histories, daily activities and yearly routines, and he gives all the information you might need about food, calls, habits, enemies and distribution.

His concise text is not at all dry; like many writers he found a sharp clarity, and sometimes a whimsical wit, in being so constrained, and every animal chapter or description contains delightful nuggets, like the title of this blog entry. Just opening the book at random —

Whales and dolphins:

“Except Man, the Killer Whale, and some parasites, the great Whales have no enemies, but whaling must be considered because it has almost exterminated them. The oceans being no-man’s land, it has been found impossible to make effective game laws.”

Suffolk horses (lots of farm animals in the book as well as wild):

“Of fine constitution, long lived, handy, and active, they show unequalled pluck at a dead pull.”

Slow worm:

“Not particularly slow, but rarely in a hurry”.

Bank vole:

“Voice. Short, grunting squeaks. They also grind their teeth in rage.”

Daubenton’s Bat:

“Skim low over water, sometimes zigzagging Swallow-like, and sometimes hovering with quivering wing as a Sandpiper, often dipping to the surface to drink and take ephemerids. Frequently take a fisherman’s fly.”


“More nearly naked than any Mammal except the Whales…The hands (with 5 nailed fingers) are used only for work, play, or combat, rarely for crawling…There is no special mating season…Sleeps lying down…He does not get each meal by his own effort of hunting or browsing. He eats what other Men have garnered or killed. A Man usually produces nothing for his own use, very rarely much…Almost omnivorous, but eat very few raw foods, such as oysters, salads, fruits and nuts. Cannot digest grass, even cooked…The voice of the Males is louder and deeper, of Females higher pitched and, perhaps less usually silent.”

It was the 1930s, mild sexism was de rigueur.