Monday, 8 December 2014


 Lord Heseltine - lifelong bird enthusiast 

DURING a spectacular career in politics, Michael Heseltine occupied several of the most important positions in government - at various times holding the portfolios for Trade, for Environment and for Defence as well as serving as deputy prime minister.

Since stepping out of the national spotlight, the former MP for Henley has returned to the business world and oversees the fortunes  of a company which he was instrumental in founding in the early 1960s.

This is  the Haymarket Media Group which spans the world with its publishing and exhibition  interests in  music, healthcare, technology, football (it produces the Manchester United matchday programme) and much else.

Although he will be 83 on his next birthday in March, Lord Heseltine of Thenford - he was elevated to the peerage in  2001 -  is still active and enjoys contributing to  political debate,

Yet he has also  always found time to pursue a lifelong passion for birds -  both domesticated and wild.

His extensive library of bird books and  the paintings that hang on the walls of the family's grand home  on the Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire  border bear witness to all things avian.

This  enthusiasm  for all things feathered dates back to his early life in South Wales and his time as a pupil, first at the former Broughton Hall prep school, near Eccleshall in  Staffordshire, then  at  his public school, Shrewsbury.

The question-and-answer feature article below originally appeared in the birdkeepers'  publication. Cage and Aviary Birds.

What  do you think sparked your  boyhood interest in  birds and wildlife?

Growing up in Swansea, we lived in a house with a spacious well-planted garden that was full of birds all through the year. From an early age I enjoyed both watching them and listening to their  calls and songs. I have no doubt I also took inspiration from the  rugged beauty and sandy bays of the nearby Gower peninsula where I spent many happy times.

What about keeping  birds - how did that start?
I was fascinated by   a  public collection  at Brynmill Park near our family's home. It  contained monkeys, rabbits, guinea pigs and pheasants. It was managed by a friendly man called Charlie Moore who recognised my interest and let me have a pair of budgerigars from his own private collection.  I must have been about eight or nine at the time.

Did you keep the birds in a cage in the house?
No, there were some redundant potting sheds in the garden and I set about converting one of them to a flight.   
Did you have any breeding success?
Not until I had a second pair - then there was no stopping them, They bred like rabbits. At its peak, my flight contained up to 40 birds - greens, blues, lutinos and opalines.

Were you ever tempted to try your hand with other varieties?
For a time, I  had  canaries - mostly Borders but also one or two Norwich. I also kept a range of British species - for instance, bullfinches, goldfinches and greenfinches. For a while, when I was at school at Shrewsbury, I  also was allowed to keep birds in an old farm  shed in the grounds. Among them was a  jackdaw which I coaxed into becoming finger-tame

Did you encounter any management difficulties with the stock in your home flight?
I did have an infestation of a pest familiar to many birdkeepers, but I managed to eradicate it.  I wiped out the red mite!

 Did you ever exhibit any of your birds at  shows?
No, I never went down that route - I derived enough satisfaction just from watching and breeding them. 

Do you have a favourite bird - either domesticated or wild?
The bullfinch. The plumage of both sexes is superb, and it is a species with great personality.

Presumably when you were pursuing a career in business and politics,  birdkeeping would   have had to be put to one side?
Yes, but I returned to it when we bought our house in Thenford. One of the first things I did was to build an aviary along an outside  wall of the kitchen garden. For some years, we kept a collection of exotic waterfowl including mandarin and Carolina wood duck, plus red-breasted and Hawaiian ne-ne geese. We also had various pheasants such as  brown and white-eared.

Any problems with foxes or other predators?

No, but the  pheasants tended to attack one another. There was a  Reeves's pheasant which proved particularly aggressive - it singled me out as its main target. I swear it used to lie in wait for me!

Do you still have them?

No,  although i still have an aviary containing  parrakeets of various types, I have relinquished the pheasants and waterfowl. They were my last fling as an aviculturalist.

Why the parting of the ways?
My other passion, gardening, always  included an ambition, now fulfilled, to establish an arboretum.  It  has some 3,500 different varieties of trees and shrubs. Their wellbeing is not really compatible with the relentless waddlings  of scored  of webbed feet.

Did you ever find your interest in birds overlapping with your political career?
I was instrumental in framing and pushing through Parliament through the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act which has proved a major piece of legislation. The RSPB was one of the main consultees. I remember telling the society how much it was to their benefit  to have a Secretary of State fort the Environment who had a keen interest in birds. It was as if all their Christmases had come at once! One of the less welcome consequences of the Act was that it unleashed a population explosion of magpies.

And you think that's a bad thing?

I do really - I fear they have almost cleaned out many migrant songbirds that were once much more widespread than they are today.

Finally, as a minister, you travelled widely - did you get the chance for much overseas birdwatching?
One of my most unforgettable memories is of a visit to one of the Falklands Islands. It was carpeted with rockhopper penguins and black-browed albatross. One of the joys of birdwatching is that it is a hobby than can be enjoyed anywhere in the world. I have met  many like-minded bird enthusiasts at foreign embassies and the foreign commands of our armed services.

What more magnificent sight - a black-browed albatross skims the ocean wave


Lord Heseltine: Wikimedia Commons uploaded by January
Albatross: JJ Harrison, Wikimedia Commons

No comments:

Post a Comment