Chapter IV – goodbye to wildlife?

In this heartfelt chapter of The Frightened Face of Nature, Maxwell Knight drops his guard and invites the reader to consider the unthinkable – “the virtual disappearance of nature”.

“Does such a question as that heading this chapter stem from the neurotic imaginings of a fanatic,” he asks, “or is it one that can reasonably be put forward at the present (1964) time?”

This is a chapter of reflection – he questions how readers will see him, but his vulnerability is shelved for a higher purpose, for his love of all things nature. “It is always said that no person can truly see himself as he truly is to others, so one must be careful when producing an idea which might lead to the conclusion that no one in his right senses could even begin to think of anything so terrible and fantastic as the virtual disappearance of living things from the face of the earth or the ocean deeps.” He wrote this two years after Rachel Carson published Silent Spring (1962). 

Could it be that “Miss Carson” awakened something within him that he couldn’t ignore? He acknowledges her “excellent book” and draws attention to her efforts to ban the indiscriminate use of pesticides like DDT. Was The Frightened Face of Nature his homage to Silent Spring? Or was this the treatise of an amateur naturalist, who’d spent his entire life interacting with nature, and who spotted something that many either ignored or turned a blind eye to?

He sets us up nicely and tucks us in to hear the “facts” that have encouraged him to draw our attention to his findings: “Take a deep breath, count up to ten or even twenty, and then consider some of the facts not fantasies – which face every human being today…”

The essence of this chapter is this: “in nature, all living things depend on something else.”

Simon King




Maxwell Knight – the spy-runner who loved nature

Maxwell Knight was the original “M”, a spy-runner who, with the help of young case officers, was responsible for counter-subversion and managed successfully to penetrate the British fascist movement. He was undeniably MI5’s most gifted agent-runner, and his sixth sense for enlisting would-be talented agents lead to him recruiting Joan Miller from within MI5 to his own department, B5(b), which consisted of a team of handpicked agents known as “Knight’s Black Agents” – an amalgam of the surname “Knight”, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the dark, counter-subversion world and the predatory figures they encountered:

MACBETH: Act 3, Scene 2.
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse;
While night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.

He championed the recruitment of female spies; Joan Gray (Miss X) was to break the Woolwich Arsenal spy case in 1938; a different Joan, Joan Miller, helped him make his name within MI5 by uncovering a plot to prevent the entry of America into the World War II. (This was to become one of his greatest coups, earning him his reputation for getting the job done).

The National Archives released (2014) information that Knight’s B5(b) was engaged during the Second World War in what was to become known as the “Jack King” case. The significance of this case is that it for the first time revealed that Britain had a virulent growth of fifth column sympathisers during the Second World War who were prepared to pave the way for Nazi occupation of Britain. Thankfully, Maxwell Knight had the foresight to recruit the right person for the job; this time, it was Eric Arthur Roberts, a Bank Clerk employed by Westminster Bank. Whatever Knight could see in Roberts, his employer, Westminster Bank, could not, as they wrote to the Security Service asking that they explain what particular talent Roberts possessed, because they hadn’t seen any for themselves!

It’s fascinating to think that during these key events he remained a committed amateur naturalist and became an early environmentalist. What made him a talented spy-runner and prepared him for the challenges he faced as ‘M’ were the observational skills and ability to look deep into nature and these talents were honed as a child – inspired by his father – and sharpened by the scout movement, which is where he was awarded his naturalist badge when he was just twelve years old.


Knight the pioneer:

How did ‘bird gardening’ become established in British life? Simon King reveals its origins in the ideas and writing of the famous WW2 spy catcher – none other than Maxwell Knight.

The practice of putting out food for birds in gardens is more popular now than ever before, with more than half the UK population feeding birds on a regular basis. Bird food companies have responded to the public interest by producing a range of diets and accessories; from bird tables to squirrel-proof feeders. In short, “bird gardening” has become big business.

But how did this all start?  For how long have British people been enjoying the company of birds in their gardens by attracting them with (rather than for) food? Individuals, probably naturalists and eccentrics have most likely fed wild birds for centuries; however, the (bird) table has literally and figuratively turned – birds are now seen as our garden guests.

At what point in popular culture, though, did feeding the birds become a more informed pastime? When did feeding the birds for “tuppence a bag” leap from stale bread and leftover table-top offerings to “best practice” and metamorphose into the more formal bird gardening approach we practice today?

It is difficult to be sure but a good starting point to wild bird feeding as we know it today is the book “Bird Gardening. How to Attract Birds” written by Maxwell Knight in 1954. Older readers will remember Knight as one of the radio personalities who appeared on such programmes as “Nature Parliament” and “The Naturalist” in the 1950s.  He was an enigmatic character; as documents are now revealing, he played an important part in MI5 in the Second World War and (as a friend and colleague of Ian Fleming, whom he recruited to MI5) was probably the inspiration for “M” in what has become one of Hollywood’s most successful film franchises, James Bond.

On the flysheet of “Bird Gardening …” the publishers wrote: “Most people like having birds in their gardens, but few know the best way of supplying their needs as to food and nesting.  In this book advice is given as to how and when to erect nesting boxes and the subject of bird tables and feeding birds at all seasons is examined thoroughly.  The problem of improving gardens so as to make them more attractive to birds is dealt with, and even the difficulties of protecting birds from cats, squirrels, and other predators is considered.  The book is illustrated with pencil sketches by Jean Armitage, who also contributed to the wealth of advice contained in this essential book for all bird lovers.”

It’s likely to be  a revelation to many  readers  that, one of the modern-day, founding fathers of bird gardening (Maxwell Knight) was once a World War II spy catcher who, inter alia, foiled a plot to stop the Americans entering the war and whose MI5 department, B5(b) immobilised Britain’s “fifth column” of Nazi sympathisers, and yet Knight’s unique observational field work skills were put to work in service of natural history too; organising and presenting best practice for would be bird gardeners and nature enthusiasts.

“Stale cake – particularly plain cake – is better than bread if it can be spared”, wrote Knight – reflecting the period (post war). Today’s garden birds are presented with a plethora of bird diets and treats that have moved on dramatically (and scientifically) since Knight’s time, even Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake” cries have been surpassed by the best and most progressive bird food specialists. High-energy peanuts and sunflower hearts bursting with calories, high-fat suet offerings of all shapes and sizes – even no-mess bird seed mixes, where all the seeds and husks have been carefully removed to leave the goodness intact for the convenience of garden birders so that they no longer have to sweep up waste husks. Paradoxically, however, there are garden birds that get enrichment from the rolling action of cracking open seed husks – birds like the Greenfinch for example. These and other observational feeding challenges are all in a day’s work for today’s dedicated bird gardeners.

In “Bird gardening…” Knight pays tribute to the Americans as bird feeding pioneers; however, the British, with their long history of creating and tending gardens, played a significant part in promoting the concept and were probably responsible for the introduction of the term “bird gardening”. Haith’s – one of Britain’s most knowledgeable bird food specialists – says that their records show how food has been provided for wild bird feeding since the late 30s. However, at some point around the 50s, bird gardening stepped forward and announced this is how to do it well and do it safely.

In Knight’s “Feeding Birds in Winter” (1957) he remarks that this congenial task is a pleasure for much of the year, “but a duty in hard weather.” What Knight couldn’t possibly know in the 50s and 60s was that bird gardening would become increasingly popular as a year-round pastime, with more and more enthusiasts electing to feed throughout the summer months. What he did spot, though, was that there was a right and wrong way to go about bird gardening, and the wrong way would inevitably affect birds’ welfare.

Welfare is never too far away in Knight’s written work – indeed, one hitherto unpublished work recently discovered inside his personal filing cabinet – owned by John and Margaret Cooper – documents his concerns for wildlife population declines on a global stage; it’s about the depredations of humans and industry on the world of nature, which is why the manuscript was entitled The Frightened Face of Nature.

Welfare and what to feed went hand in hand for Knight; in terms of bird gardening, his focus was on food selection and how to best present it as safe offerings to the birds. In this respect, he was ahead of his time. For example, Knight encouraged bird gardeners to bring food in every night to prevent mice or even rats from feasting on the food. In terms of food selection, he championed food safety and was unafraid to neither stand up and be counted nor admit when he was wrong… One such published example documents that in Knight’s time, the use of coconut as a food source for garden birds was controversial. Coconut returned to the market after the war, and bird gardeners saw it as an ideal food source. Initially, Knight agreed – but was met with opposition from his readers and listeners, so soon gave the advice to “never give any kind of shredded or desiccated coconut” to the birds (Knight, 1957; Knight, undated). Further, he suggested a use for coconuts that is still in service today:  “Saw the complete coconut into two halves and hang up – open end downwards. When empty, the shells can be filled with fat and used in this way as containers.”

Today, bird food companies like Haith’s (see are joined by leading wildlife charities (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Wildlife Trusts, British Trust for Ornithology) in stating that bird gardening is good for humans and good for birds. Knight would be pleased to hear how feeding Niger seed has helped swell Goldfinch populations so much that they are now a common sight on bird feeders across the UK.

There remains little doubt that Britain’s birds are the beneficiaries of people power. However, with power comes great responsibility – one such responsibility is bird garden hygiene.

Attracting large numbers or groups of birds and encouraging them to gather in one place to feed requires good animal husbandry to reduce the hazards of cross contamination. Thankfully many forward thinking bird food companies like Haith’s have sensibly mitigated the risk by educating the bird gardener to take some sensible precautions to reduce the potential for spreading pathogens. This is best achieved by 1) regular cleaning of bird-tables and other feeding areas, 2) providing high-quality bird food. Companies are increasingly aware of the need to produce such diets if the health of garden birds is not to be compromised (Cooper, 2012), (3) not overfeeding birds (they need to look for food in the garden and hedgerows, not to depend solely on human intervention), and 4) hand-washing and, if possible, wearing gloves if handling sick or dead birds.

Our gardens have become a haven for wild birds that have been displaced from our countryside. Wherever the term bird gardening appeared from and whoever was first responsible for using it, one thing is incontrovertible: Maxwell Knight – the real-life “M” and BBC Natural History broadcaster – helped open our hearts to birds and wildlife detection and – as long as we continue to remain a nation of nature lovers – bird gardening seems likely to be here to stay. It gives much pleasure to those involved and arguably both helps to augment the nutritional status and promote survival of many wild birds.


Simon King gratefully acknowledges the contribution of Prof John E. Cooper and Margaret Cooper in preparing this article.

This article was published in Cage & Aviary Birds, Feb 17, 2016 and is used here with the kind permission of Rob Innes – Editor, Cage & Aviary Birds

Maxwell Knight story in CAB

Knight the pioneer


Cooper, JE (2012). The Case for Greater Quality Control. Lecture given to the British

Veterinary Zoological Society at its Spring Meeting, April 21 2012, Slimbridge,

Gloucestershire. Cage & Aviary Birds June 13 2012, p.6.

Knight, M. (1954).  Bird Gardening.  How to Attract Birds.  Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Republished (1975) by Ian Henry Publications, Hornchurch, Essex.

Knight, M (1957). Feeding Birds in Winter. Leaflet produced by the RSPB, Sandy, Bedfordshire.

Knight, M (undated). The Coconut Controversy and other Bird Feeding Matters. Bird Notes XXVI, No 3, pp.71-73, Sandy, Bedfordshire.

How did ‘bird gardening’ become established in British life?

Simon King and Margaret Cooper reveal its origins in the ideas and writing of the famous WW2 spy catcher – none other than Maxwell Knight. Available in this week’s Cage & Aviary Birds Magazine

MK Cage & Aviary Website 17 Feb 2016

Maxwell Knight and The Frightened Face of Nature

M’s (Maxwell Knight) Spectre: The Frightened Face of Nature

M’s (Maxwell Knight) Spectre: The Frightened Face of Nature

Copyright: See acknowledgements

During the 1960’s Maxwell Knight “M” was working on a manuscript entitled The Frightened Face of Nature, snatching brief moments to record his thoughts on how man had treated nature so unfairly for the first fifty years of the twentieth century. The manuscript documented Knight’s greatest fears that, time was running out for nature and that its greatest threat was man’s destructive revolution and the reverse of evolution.

The manuscript was kept under lock and key and it remained a secret until 2015 when the (hitherto unpublished) manuscript was discovered inside M’s personal filing cabinet, which had been bequeathed to a family friend. The manuscript will be updated and released as a book to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Maxwell Knight’s death in 1968 and it is hoped that it will shine a spotlight on the unacceptable way man treats nature.

Maxwell Knight's filing cabinet
Maxwell Knight’s filing cabinet

Why this book matters more after fifty years:

This was a man who had helped defeat the Nazis and their fifth column British sympathisers, sniffed out a Communist rat in MI5 and to any herpetologist who was alive in the 1950s or 1960s the name of Maxwell Knight needs no introduction, but for all others: he was founder member of The British Herpetological Society, he was a well-known BBC broadcaster and writer who appeared in and hosted Nature Parliament, Country Questions and Naturalist. He had a special penchant for reptiles and amphibians. Many of today’s leading naturalists owe much to the influence of Maxwell Knight and the sound and practical advice which he so skilfully conveyed.

Copyright: See acknowledgements

Copyright: Simon H King

Previous books and articles on Maxwell Knight have focused on another, undeniably more headline grabbing, side of his life and character; revealing that Knight played a vital role in MI5 in the Second World War and was also one of Ian Fleming’s inspirations for James Bond’s unflappable “M”, so skilfully played initially by the great Bernard Lee.

Something (or someone) stopped him, however, from driving his manuscript to be published… Was it the negative attention Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring received? Were Knight’s publishers afraid to publish – or did they just feel these were the rantings of an “amateur” naturalist?

Whatever the reason was behind “M” not publishing The Frightened Face of Nature it was written for such a time as this; when there are more and more of us ready to stare down the barrel of the truth that, we are literally frightening the life out of nature.

Today, many of his fears have sadly become our reality:

In just forty years between 1970 and 2010 the global Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures more than 10,000 vertebrate populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, has declined by 52 per cent. The World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) and Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) LPI report state that “Habitat loss and degradation, and exploitation through hunting and fishing (intentionally for food or sport, or accidentally, for example as by-catch) are the primary causes of decline.”

Maxwell Knight’s hope was that the progress “at any cost” approach would change – and that, industrialised nations would stop playing the short-term nature unfriendly game of habitat destruction so often carried out in the name of progress. 

Did you know Maxwell Knight? 

We are planning a book about Maxwell Knight, with particular reference to his contributions to natural history in the late 1940s and 1950s until his death in 1968.

In the early 1960s Maxwell Knight began to think about a new, for him rather different, book. He was becoming aware of the marked environmental and social changes that had taken place in Britain and overseas since 1900 (the year of his birth) and felt that there was a need to draw these to the attention of the public. 

We would like to hear from people who might have known Maxwell Knight (MK) or been influenced by him and wonder if you would be willing to contact us – using the form below – and confirm that you are willing, in due course, to give us more details. We will then contact you again later this year or early in 2017.

Thank you in advance

Your information will not appear on this blog (or in the book) without your approval.

Living Planet Index – courtesy of WWF/ZSL/GFN

In reproducing portraits of the late Major Maxwell Knight, we pay tribute to his family, not only for giving us the pictures but also for their encouragement and hospitality in years gone by…