- Travel Blog
Chris Parnell talks to top businessman Mark Constantine about his passion for birdsong and his new book on the subject
PEOPLE’S hobbies turn them into obsessives sometimes. I won’t say birdwatchers are the worst, but they can be pretty bad. And you might think one of Dorset’s top businessmen, a man whose company has stores all over the world, wouldn’t have time for a hobby. You would be so wrong. Mark Constantine was one of the founders of Lush, and he’s still the boss today, although I wonder how he finds the time to fit in work. You know Lush, the beautifully smelling cosmetics company, with a worldwide reputation. They’ve now got shops all over the world – Canada, Croatia, Sweden, Australia, Holland, New Zealand, Taiwan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Malta. Soap, shampoo, bath bombs – you might think Mark spends his time wandering the Dorset lanes sniffing the hedgerows for honeysuckle or dog roses. No, when I met him in late May he was trying to attract swifts to come and nest in the roof of his house near Studland. He tells me how he spent the evening. “I was busy broadcasting swift sounds from my upstairs window in the hope of attracting them into the nest boxes. So I’ve been broadcasting for an hour every morning and an hour every night trying to attract them in.” “Is it working?” I ask “I haven’t got any yet,” he says. “But I’m driving my daughter round the bend with the noise. I’ve got five nest boxes. I want to see one being taken up by a swift this year.” Mark is the driving force behind one of the most exciting bird books to be published for, well, ages. The Sound Approach to Birding – A Guide to Understanding Bird Sound is like nothing I’ve ever read before. It’s like the Open University trying to explain why birds sing and how, only that makes it sound stuffy. And the Sound Approach isn’t just a one book wonder. It will, I’m certain, change the way birdwatchers think about bird call and songs. I’m as guilty as the next birder. In a wood full of birds singing their hearts out, I’m ignoring the noise and raising my binoculars to look for a bird. Often as not I don’t see a thing. Well that was then. Now I’ve read the Sound Approach, and my attitude is changing. Maybe not my ability to identify birds by call, but give it time. I ask if trying to teach people what a bird sounds like is like trying to describe a pebble on a beach. It’s impossible isn’t it? He nods, out of politeness.
But he doesn’t really agree with me, and deep down I reckon he’s got an outside chance of teaching birdwatchers how to tell what sort of bird it is they are listening to. “Everyone knows that a great tit has got 102 different sounds, or whatever it is. “We’ve got this huge database (more than 36,000 recorded sounds) with all these sounds on, and we can’t explain them to a birdwatcher, because they don’t understand the basic rules, because nobody’s ever said ‘look, this is what science knows’. This is what birdwatchers haven’t been told. “In every other aspect of birdwatching you might be able to read something about it, but in bird sounds you can’t because there is nothing. “The trouble is, when you’re experiencing nature, nature doesn’t dumb it down for you. If you actually want to know, you’ve got to know. Do you see what I mean?” I nod, and I actually do understand. I understand his passion, at least. I’ve spent hours listening to the two CDs full of sounds that come with the book, and hours reading the words, and hours studying the sonograms that explain what I’m hearing. I should be bored out of my mind, because it sounds like A level homework. But I’m actually buzzing with enthusiasm. I want to be out in the field listening for yellowhammers and chiffchaffs. I want to listen for the robin in the undergrowth. But that doesn’t stop bird calls being hellishly frustrating Mark agrees. “I was on holiday in Lesbos (a Greek island well-known for its great birdwatching) recording bird sounds just recently. And for me, and for most people, robin songs are very common, aren’t they?” he says. “It’s a very common sound all through the winter. I don’t like them. Drives me round the bend. The bloody thing is everlastingly singing and it sounds like something squeaking up and down a window. So it’s not my favourite song. Anyway, I’m busy recording and I want to record the rufous bush robin, which is really exciting, and I’ve only ever seen a couple. They’ve got these great cocked tails. Fabulous birds. “So I’m listening to this bird, and I’m with Anthony Macgeehan (one of the UK’s top birders). I’m saying now is that a woodchat singing? What’s singing there then? Must be the woodchat. We’re both listening in earphones.
And then I start to realise it’s the rufous bush robin. It sings just like a robin. Its song is almost identical to a robin, but you’re so used to a robin screaming it out.” And I can see that Mark’s obsession for recording bird sounds has shaped his attitude to life. “The interesting thing about being into bird sounds is that by nature you have to be a little slower, then you tend to experience more, which is nice. If you take quail, I’ve spent a lot of time sitting around with my stuff; that’s when you tend to see the things. You’re more engaged with the environment than when you’re just spotting stuff.” I suspect he’s been a twitcher in his time – one of those people who leap in a car and drive hundreds of miles to see a rare bird. But a new interest has taken over. “I’m interested in rare birds,” he says. “And I’m interested in finding rare birds, but I’m also interested in getting good views or good experiences of common birds.” And did being the boss of Lush help to get The Sound Approach off the ground? I ask. “Yes,” he says. “I funded the Sound Approach to be able to get out there and do the recording. Wasn’t hugely expensive, but I acted as the sponsor. “If I didn’t do my job and didn’t have the money I couldn’t have acted as the sponsor. For me, it’s a privilege. I can’t believe I’m actually getting to write this. It’s like ‘shouldn’t somebody else be doing this?’ The next one will have a lot of original photos. I am very proud of it.” And the next one – petrels and shearwaters – is certainly one to look forward to for all those poor birdwatchers huddled on clifftops along the Dorset coast hoping for a glimpse of a seabird. Mark describes what it will be about: “All the shearwaters of the Western Palearctic (that’s the area covering Europe, North Africa and parts of the near Middle East), real adventures like being shipwrecked, climbing craggy rocks where no one has been for centuries. That should be out this summer. It’s a little more esoteric and a lot more specialist,” Mark says. And he thinks owls might follow, or something even closer to home. “I’ve got “Birds of Poole Harbour” hidden in the background which I’d quite like to do. I might do that. There’s plenty of scope.”