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The man who brought nature into our homes; As former Daily Post columnist Eric Hardy is celebrated with the opening of a nature reserve named after him, Angie Sammons talks to Britain's most enduring naturalist whose words, for 70 years, brought the countryside to the people.

SNAPSHOTS of fine, bonny babies are perched precariously on a shelf, directly facing Eric Hardy's armchair, filling his field of vision.

It is a scope which was once as limitless as the sky, his sky, where a thousand starlings would whirl, where a solitary red kite would occasionally circle, and from which Arctic skuas and dunlin would swoop to earth during exhausting migratory trips.

These days Britain's most enduring naturalist has, himself, come in from the cold. It may be a sunny, spring day but a two-bar electric fire is permanently on, keeping cosy the south Liverpool semi where, now aged 90, Eric Hardy spends his time.

It is, of course, a reluctant residence - if arthritis, two thromboses, leukaemia and a series of heart attacks couldn't slow him down, Parkinson's Disease has finally clipped the wings of the indefatigable former Daily Post columnist.

His frame may have lost its imposing, army-officer bearing; the weather-beaten face, with its always immaculately-trimmed moustache, looks fatigued. But the eyes are not dulled. They are almost as bright as those of the great-grandchildren laughing in the pictures on the shelf.

"Old age is such a nuisance, " he sighs, matter-of-factly, as is his way with so many things. He feels let down by his body and concedes that being confined to the house is "monotonous, boring and frustrating".

"I'm exhausted all the while, " he frowns. "And I can't think quickly nowadays, that's the trouble with this illness."

Eric Hardy's nature notes spanned 70 years in the Daily Post and Echo and once earned him a place in the Guinness Book of Records for journalistic longevity. However the distinction was to be a temporary one - another columnist at another newspaper knew differently.

Thus relegated to World's Second Most Enduring Newspaper Contributor, Eric was undaunted. He has never made much of accolades and his career has had plenty of upsides.

Generations of families, just like his, have grown up with a love of the natural world which germinated from his own passion.

"People would send me news of sightings of birds and animals and plants, just because their fathers had done so before them, it was a tradition, " he recalls.

However passion is a word he doesn't like to use in this context.

"Love is a misused word too, " he reproaches. "There is no such thing as a bird lover or a flower lover, only people with an interest. It is nonsense to suggest otherwise."

And they are still hugely interested. Today, Lverpool City Council will dedicate a tract of Clarke Gardens, Allerton, to the birdman, calling it the Eric Hardy Nature reserve.

A sign is to be unveiled by the Lord Mayor "in recognition of his environmental works over the last 80 years".

"Eric has dedicated his life to the flora and fauna of the region and brought great joy to many of our citizens, " says the city's head ranger, Derrick Jones.

Eric takes the whole thing in his stride. He prefers to avoid a fuss and would rather we weren't having this conversation today because "I don't want people to think I'm vain".

"Vanity is rather widespread, " he believes. "It's based on jealousy."

Rather he is self-effacing almost to a fault and of the council's tribute to him, his only comment is, "That's very nice of them".

But Eric can be justly proud of pioneering a style in reporting on the natural world that is the norm today.

"Before my time, everything in papers about nature was flowery and poetic, " he says. "But nothing went in my column that wasn't original, " he adds somewhat coyly. "I reported facts, sightings, and would spend most of my time outdoors, on the Great Orme, in Snowdonia, or on Lord Derby's estate."

It was a pattern of working which continued until Eric's last Countryside column, in the Daily Post's Weekender section, in July, 2000, when the Parkinson's Disease meant typing had become a major chore.

I remind him of how, every Thursday, he would emerge in the office with his copy; how he would be supported by two sticks and swathed in several jumpers and jackets. There he would regale us with tales of how he had been seeking rare Alpine plants high in the Vale of Llangollen the weekend before. We office-bound specimens could only gape in wonder.

Eric's curiosity in all things natural began when he was a schoolboy in Liverpool. At the age of eight he went with his sister to visit their uncle, a naturalist, in the Midlands.

Eric got the butterfly bug and from there developed a fascination with botany. As a teenager, who attended Holt Grammar, he won eight shillings and sixpence for an essay on the flight of birds.

The headmaster, keen to nurture the nature student, suggested that he might become a parkie at the city's Sefton Park. But with a second-hand "tripewriter" bought for thirty bob - "Remingtons were the best, " Eric entered journalism, a profession which merely provided the financial means to an end - his real occupation of naturalist.

He managed to find time to be a Workers Educational Association tutor in biology for 60 years and he founded the Liverpool Naturalists Association.

HIS first wife, Jean, died in childbirth, aged just 20, leaving the young widower with a baby daughter on his hands as World War II loomed.

"I was determined that my daughter was not going to be a war orphan, " he says, and so, ever practical, married a second time before leaving for the Middle East.

Even there ornithology, of a sort, won the day and Captain Hardy was billeted to train pigeons to fly into enemy territory where spies would furnish them with maps and plans of raids. He also founded the Jerusalem Naturalists Club, collected specimens for the British Museum and even brought back a vulture which ended its days in London Zoo.

Recently Eric disposed of his huge collection of rare nature books and thew away most of this 1,000-plus collection of photographs and slides dating back to the beginning of his career.

A bit of a shame?

"No, " he says, ever pragmatic, "I have no use for them any more and they would only be a burden to my executor."

Eric's priceless legacy then is one of inspiration to the urban dweller, itself a much-changed species.

"In the 1920s, when I started writing, there wasn't the same kind of interest in nature, " he says. "There were no young men, no twitchers.

They had all been killed in the first war.

"For years people couldn't get to the countryside to go birdspotting, there were no cars. They had to rely on the written word."

Liverpool Lord Mayor Gerry Scott is happy to talk up Eric's achievements, even if the naturalist himself does his level best to play them down.

"Eric Hardy is a legendary figure.

I doubt if anybody, anywhere else in the country has contributed so much through the popular media on ecological issues, " he said.

"To think that he has been telling people about the flora and fauna of the region since the 1920s is a staggering thought.

"It's a fitting tribute to name this nature reserve after him."

CAPTION(S):

REFLECTIVE: Eric Hardy has time, now, to look back on a varied career that has taught several generations to enjoy the wonders of nature Picture: FRANK LOUGHLIN
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Apr 17, 2002
Words:1226
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