Organised Fern Hunt


I was much taken with this illustration of a Victorian organised fern hunt, reproduced at the excellent Victorian Era blog. It reminded me that Dobson was a great one for fern hunts. Although he was a pamphleteer decisively of the twentieth century, he had about him something of the Victorian, especially at certain periods of his life, such as the two decades or so he spent blasted out of his brain on laudanum, as were most Victorians most of the time, if some accounts are to be believed. Gladstone, to give but one example, regularly made speeches in the House of Commons with his head swimming in an opiate fog. It makes one wonder if we would  be better governed today were the illiterate thickos in Parliament to have their brains ravaged and jangled a tad.

In spite of his boundless ignorance of the natural world, or perhaps because of it, Dobson developed quite a taste for fern hunting. In a memorable pamphlet, he described the attraction:

Hunting animals is the sport of fools. Nearly all animals run away when pursued. Ferns, on the other hand, stay right where they are, so you can go crashing through thickets with much gusto, a determined jut to the jaw, every so often emitting cries of panic or revelation, or both, all the while safe in the knowledge that your quarry is not dashing away over the fields, vanishing over the horizon, leaving you and your band of fellow adventurers exhausted and stupid and empty-handed.

Dobson did not always grasp the point of an organised fern hunt, however, and would arrive at the appointed gathering-place armed with a net, or a blunderbuss, or sometimes with a geological hammer. It had to be patiently, and repeatedly, explained to him what a fern was, information he had singular difficulty lodging in his skull, whether or not it was doused with laudanum. In another pamphlet, at another time, for example, he wrote this:

What better sport is there than chasing a wild fern across the countryside, watching it dash away over the fields, vanishing over the horizon, leaving you and your band of fellow adventurers exhausted and happy and empty-handed, but refreshed by bucolic air, panting, drugged up to the eyeballs and ready to go home and write dozens of pages of De Quinceyan babble?

To his credit, Dobson never made any attempt to suppress the pamphlet in which he wrote this drivel, but in any case, like all his works it was soon out of print, and forgotten, just as we have forgotten the delights of organised fern hunts.

5 thoughts on “Organised Fern Hunt

  1. Dear Mr. Key

    I am reluctantly moved to correct a statement I have just read in one of your capitivating broadsides, in this case of the topic of fern hunts. Firstly, let me say how charming the illustration of Victorian lady pteridologists was; looking rather like a herd of hungry Diplodocus {not sure about the correct plural} crashing through a Jurassic forest naturally looking for ferns upon which to munch.

    Anyway, you suggest that organised fern hunts are a thing of the past. I very much doubted that this was the case, as I regularly attend organised fungus forays, dormouse round-ups, nocturnal stag beetle stalking and the like; and suspected that the fern people were still up to the same sort of thing. If you look at the website of the British Pteridological Society you will that such activities are going on all over the country in 2009 (see more fern fun here –

  2. Sorry, that link doesn’t seem to work now – but you if copy it into google it does work…Somehow, I expect all those Victorian fern hunters to have peg-like teeth with which to strip off the succulent fern leaves.

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