Spies and Snakes – A Charming Story

Maxwell Knight was an adventurous and insatiably curious field naturalist (and MI5 agent-runner). “Naturalists, to be any use at all, must be curious above almost anything else,” he’d say. “They must ever be asking: Why? How? When? Where?”

His curiosity would often lead him to conduct experiments to look at some of the unsolved myths and mysteries of Natural History and on one particular occasion, his attention focused on snake charmers.

Lured by the unknown he gathered together the “thousands of words and hundreds of accounts” written about the work of the mysterious snake charmers. He already knew that the “vitally important part of the so-called “charming” seems to be played by the traditional pipe which is said to call forth the snake, to quieten it, and even make it dance.” However, he knew that it was far more complicated than that as “snakes are deaf and have no organs of hearing as we understand them.”

Not wanting to simply dismiss the stories of snake charmers’ efforts as “mere rubbish” he pondered the possibilities…

My best guess is that he sat back in his armchair and took a moment to reflect and strike a match to light his pipe. Perhaps the thought of the snake being charmed amused him and he may have gently swayed his lit pipe before his eyes and found himself swaying his head to mimic its movements. Whatever happened, he came to this conclusion:

“So far as the dancing goes, I believe that the truth lies in the slow rhythmic movement made by the charmer as he plays his pipe. It’s the movements of the man and his instrument.”

This wasn’t really a great leap for Knight as he’d been fascinated by this subject for quite a while, and he’d managed to get snakes to “follow the movement of a hand or a stick with absolutely no musical inducement whatever.”

He’d experimented with whistles, and even played his best jazz clarinet to snakes, “but without the slightest success in the way of body movement on the part of the serpent so long as I remained absolutely still.”

What he had found, though, was that a “particularly high piercing note” would encourage the snake’s tongue to protrude and flicker, which suggested to him that “vibrations are certainly perceived”.

It was already well-known that snakes are very susceptible to ordinary vibrations on the ground or against a cage – clearly, thought Knight, they may well be equally sensitive to air-borne vibrations. “This would explain even their being called forth from holes, for they are very curious creatures and, if not frightened they like very much to ascertain the cause of anything that has aroused their interest.”

Quotes from Myths and Mysteries (Maxwell Knight, OBE, FLS).

Myths and Mysteries by Maxwell Knight M

Simon H King

Wondering How To Learn Maxwell Knight’s (Nature) Detection Skills? Read This!

  1. Not all ‘clues’ will at once tell you what you want to know
  2. At times, several clues will have to be put together – be patient
  3. Take notes – make it a habit – what did you see or hear?
  4. Don’t rely on your memory as it will let you down
  5. When in doubt, consult books
  6. Build up your own library of reference books
  7. There is no substitute for reading
  8. Avoid doing damage when in the field, and obey the “Country Code
  9. Carry a field lens
  10. Join a local natural history society

“I may not be able to draw, but I can sew!”

As a boy scout, Maxwell Knight was influenced by Robert Baden-Powell’s teachings, which insisted that the study of living things was one of the single most important features of everyday scout life. He was trained to be highly observant and the foundations of a great amateur-naturalist were firmly established.

He learned with varying degrees of success how to combine his childhood nature detection “hobby” with woodcraft, carpentry, drawing and painting.

“How often have I myself wished that I could sketch and paint,” he wrote in Scouts as Naturalists (undated), “and how much more good I would get out of my researches into animal life if only I could draw even a rough picture of the many things I observe in a year’s work.”

One of his proudest scouting achievements was the moment he received his naturalist badge, when he was just twelve years old. “I can still remember how thrilled I was, ” he lamented in the 1960’s, “when I sewed it on to my shirt – yes, I said “sewed”. I may not be able to draw,  but I can sew!”


“Intelligence is MI5’s currency,” according to mi5.gov.uk – “Collecting and analysing covert intelligence is at the centre of what MI5 does, and roles in these areas are critical to our mission of keeping the country safe.”

Much has changed since Maxwell Knight’s (M’s) time; however, if he was still with us today, I’m sure he’d agree that this is (and was in his time) the job of the Security Services.

What has changed, though, is how that’s all achieved.

Today, we sleep safely at night thanks largely to our intelligence services. We don’t see them, and that’s fine with me. Does their SEO friendly website make them transparent and accountable? No. (It does make them easy to find online, though). The world away from the egotistical establishment portrayed in, say, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – less of ‘the circus’ and more like a FTSE 100 corporate reporting to its shareholders: us.

They (MI5) operate in a world we wouldn’t recognise; we get served the newspaper headline when the plot’s foiled; we see the edited version – the family-friendly highlights – the good news. They get to see, hear, taste, and feel the sides of human nature that most of us would rather not know about because it terrifies us; because we would lose faith in human nature.

However, to lighten the mood a little, let’s take a brief look at Maxwell Knight’s (the BBC naturalist) advice for gathering intelligence in the field of natural history: there is plenty to be gleaned from his advice to nature detectives – we can’t know for sure if these are his definitive thoughts on spying as there’s nothing in the cabinet that’s secret – there’s no journal or A to Z of spying; however, let’s see if his philosophy for gathering intelligence remains relevant in today’s high-speed connected economy…

“Detective work combines the use of one’s eyes, ears and even one’s nose; it means that observation must be accurate; it means having a great deal of patience and, most important of all, avoiding hasty conclusions without being able to prove them.” – Maxwell Knight (Be a Nature Detective – Warne – 1968).

According to BBC News – “Prof Anthony Glees, who studies the world of intelligence and teaches at the University of Buckingham, says the key qualities needed [to be a spy today] are “clarity, firmness, toughness and the ability to read and understand a file without jumping to conclusions”. 

I’m sure ‘M’s’ words  – or at least their sentiments – are in the mind of every MI5 Intelligence Officer.

I hope so because our safety is largely in their hands.

Simon King




Keep nature on the Agenda – post Brexit

“We can only hope that any future government will be continually alert and that the warnings of many top scientists about the necessity for full and extensive tests on any form of pesticide, or spray, for dealing with plants will be heeded.” – Maxwell Knight (The Frightened Face of Nature – 1964).

Post Brexit, we must all be extra vigilant over the coming years and ensure that the earth’s natural capital remains on the Agenda and isn’t lost during trade negotiations. Of course, it’s important for Britain’s GDP that we bridge the gap and mitigate potential trading losses – but some things remain priceless; nature and biodiversity are not for sale – our only goal is to halt biodiversity loss and protect the globe’s natural capital.

We squirmed yesterday as the pound plunged after the Leave vote – the business world reacted harshly and sent sterling to its lowest point in thirty years; however, are city traders kept awake at night when news breaks that we have lost more than half the globe’s wildlife in less than forty years? (source ZSL/WWF Living Planet Report 2014).

The pound will recover – our wildlife and biodiversity may not.

Natural capital is essential to everything we do; it’s essential to our health and – even though the city traders wouldn’t consider this between sips of Bollinger – it’s essential to our economy too.

“The fight starts now,” according to Friends of the Earth “to make sure that the UK doesn’t water-down environmental safeguards we’ve inherited from the European Union.” Discover more about their campaign here

Or read more about The Birds and Habitats Directives (as we will not be subject to directives such as these as a non-EU country).

Simon King




What makes a good Field Naturalist? 

“A good naturalist must be healthy, alert and tough,” writes Maxwell Knight in The Frightened Face of Nature (unpublished). “Think of some of our own naturalists today (1964): Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, Eric Hosking and Peter Scott. Remember that those who are inclined to make fun of naturalists are usually those who by jeering are trying to hide their own ignorance of wildlife.”

“A field naturalist is always encountering problems to which the solutions are either absent entirely; are the subject of much discussion and argument; or which are skilfully avoided by all except the adventurous and the insatiably curious.” – (Myths and Mysteries – Maxwell Knight – undated).

“Give some thought about this absorbing subject and if it appeals to you – take it up.”

The faint-hearted need not apply!

True conservation is as impossible as…

…trying to produce a “balance of nature”. 

The best we can hope for, therefore, is our best attempt at nature conservation – to help the maximum number of desirable species reproduce and thrive in any given region.

“Be a Nature Detective”

I  have  in  front  of   me  a  “withdrawn”  library  book  written  by  Maxwell  Knight entitled “Be a Nature Detective” (Frederick Warne & Co 1968). On 24 June 1968 – some five months after the author of the book died – the book was borrowed from Derbyshire County Library for the very first time. I wonder if  that reader ever realised that he/she had once read the works of  one of  Britain’s most accomplished spy handlers and whether they had gone  on  to  become  a  nature  detective?

I  hope  so.


Feeding our animals in 2066 – a perspective on future challenges for Zoos & Aquariums

John Cooper, Simon King and Andy Beer (nutritionist – RZSS) were guest speakers at the BIAZA Conference and 50th Anniversary celebrations 6th – 8th June Marwell Wildlife

BIAZA Marwell



The presentation gives a wide-ranging review of the issues and challenges that are emerging or could emerge as considerations impacting upon how and where the constituents of diets are sourced. The development of ‘seed intelligence’ at Haith’s exemplifies how the adaptation to and application of technology has produced ‘superclean’ diets for birds, which has reduced their exposure to pathogenic organisms over the past 50 years. The prospect for the next 50 years identifies environmental and quality constraints (amongst others) that will have to be addressed (if not solved completely) and will result in refinements and greater precision to diets across the different animal species conserved and managed in the captive environment. These factors are not unique to Zoos and Aquariums but will also affect domesticated and production species as well.


Andy Beer joined RZSS in September 2009 to co-ordinate the nutritional aspects of the collections. Before this, he had been employed since 1982 at Sparsholt College Hampshire where responsibilities included teaching the theory of nutrition and analysis of feedstuffs to HE Animal Management students and setting up an exotic animal collection requiring a Zoo licence. The teaching also included delivering nutritional workshops to keepers in a number of zoos and safari parks as a means of developing understanding in the appropriate feeding of different species within animal collections. Other positions: Director of Zoo Management Studies at Sparsholt College Hampshire which involves running the successful distance learning course for the UK and Irish zoo community the Diploma in the Management of Zoos and Aquariums for the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA). This is now being delivered in overseas centres. Nutritional Advisor to the BIAZA Mammal Working Group & European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) Hippo and Tapir Taxon Advisory Group (TAG). Professor John E Cooper (DTVM, FRCPath, FSB CBiol, FRCVS) John Cooper started life as a keen naturalist, trained as a veterinary surgeon and is now a specialist pathologist with particular interests in wildlife and exotic species, tropical diseases and comparative medicine. He is an Honorary Member of BIAZA and, amongst other appointments, serves as

Professor John E Cooper (DTVM, FRCPath, FSB CBiol, FRCVS) John Cooper started life as a keen naturalist, trained as a veterinary surgeon and is now a specialist pathologist with particular interests in wildlife and exotic species, tropical diseases and comparative medicine. He is an Honorary Member of BIAZA and, amongst other appointments, serves as veterinary advisor to Haith’s, the bird food specialists. With his wife (Margaret Cooper, a non-practising solicitor with special interests in animal and conservation law), he holds several visiting academic appointments. The Coopers have spent nearly twenty years living overseas, especially in Africa, including a period in Rwanda working with the mountain gorillas. In 2009, they returned from nearly seven years at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago where they combined their medical and legal backgrounds in the promotion of an interdisciplinary approach to veterinary and biological education, wildlife conservation and forensic science.

Simon King joined Haith’s in 2011 and has over 15 years’ knowledge of the bird food industry in the UK and overseas markets and – in that time – has managed successful relationships with ASDA, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Pets at Home. He is responsible for research and development at Haith’s PRO and a BIAZA award-winning quality control programme. He has been the guest speaker at UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) export events and seen Haith’s nominated for an HSBC International Award. Haith’s research has been shared with veterinary students at Cambridge University, the BIAZA Bird Working Group and the World Pheasant Association. Simon instigated the ‘synchrony through science’ collaboration with Andy Beer and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland as the first step to extended ‘seed intelligence’ in 2014.

Maxwell Knight had close ties with zoos and ZSL and during ‘What’s New at the Zoo‘ (1954) he introduced members of the London Zoo staff to talk about the new animals there.

BIAZA is the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums; the professional body representing the best zoos and aquariums in Britain and Ireland. They have over 100 zoo and aquarium members who pride themselves on their excellent animal welfare, education and conservation work.

BIAZA members make significant contributions to field conservation. Together they support over 700 field conservation projects contributing over £10 million per year. Members supply skills, staff and equipment for wildlife conservation, and essential materials for education and awareness programmes in developing countries. They also play an important role in conservation awareness-raising in the UK, support conservation campaigns and facilitate career development of young conservationists.

A new generation of Nature Detectives

John Cooper first heard Maxwell Knight’s iconic broadcasts as a child because his family listened to Nature Parliament in the afternoons, at ten past one on the Home Service. After the News, it would either be Country Questions or The Naturalist, which was introduced by three curlew calls.


After attending several of Knight’s talks, in 1959, he finally met the broadcaster and his wife at their home in Camberley and started paying regular visits to him and doing natural history expeditions.

What was different about this broadcaster was that he encouraged his listeners to actually get outside and do things… Other broadcasters would just recount things; however, Maxwell Knight had (once again) set out to recruit his field agents, his “nature detectives”, and his broadcasts resonated with a generation. He’d urge his young listeners to go out after the programme had finished and look for creatures.

Knight’s natural history books, of which there is legion, including the rather alarming How to Keep a Gorilla (Off Beat Pets) (1968), emphasised the need for youngsters to get out into the field. The ‘field’ was obtainable to youngsters – it wasn’t Kenya or the Americas, it was wherever their local patch was.

“As a listener, you felt that you could go out and do it, you could catch a beetle or a caterpillar,” recalls John Cooper. And the words Knight chose to educate his audience were gripping enough to raise a new generation of young naturalists and nature detectives.