It certainly wasn’t appropriate for Maxwell Knight to share his spy training during his Sunday afternoon BBC broadcasts, or was it? Surely not? Perish the thought. But, what if his broadcasts and books contained the same basic training (the same ‘tradecraft’) he was giving MI5 recruits? As far as Knight was concerned, the two were inseparable; his spy training was based on his understanding of animals and how they behaved and his natural history training was fine-tuned by his time as a spymaster. 

That’s not as far-fetched as it initially sounds given that Maxwell Knight had been a dedicated Boy Scout under the influence of Baden-Powell’s doctrine that young people should be equipped to react quickly to an emergency and – of course – always be prepared. His boy scout training came courtesy of Kim’s Game (see below) and Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys

With that in mind, let’s take a look at his ‘best advice’ for ‘young nature detectives’ contained within his book entitled Be a Nature Detective (1968). Spotting the transferable skills between spymaster and naturalist isn’t beyond the wit of man. 


The first thing you should know is that Maxwell Knight liked to challenge his young audience as he believed ‘any worthwhile naturalist welcomes a challenge.’ John Cooper was himself taken under Knight’s wing in the 1950s and often shares how his mentor encouraged him during regular woodland walks to carefully lift log piles to see what might be lurking underneath. The transferable skills John learnt from his time with Max Knight were invested in what has become a much-celebrated career that’s seen him teaching his veterinary skills around the globe. 

Knight insisted investigations started ‘in the field’ confirms John Cooper and that’s the first point he made in Chapter One of Be a Nature Detective. Additionally, he encouraged his radio audience to go outdoors and look for ‘signs of the presence of animals.’ 

His second piece of advice entailed the ‘close observation and careful examination of everything that you see.’ For example, let’s say it’s you who’s been listening to Major Knight’s broadcast:

If you were you to come across animal tracks, could you identify them?

Perhaps you could follow its tracks to find out more about it?

Can you tell from ‘inspecting the tracks in which direction the [animal] was travelling?

Let’s follow it…

You might come across its prey or, its tracks may stop where it became another animal’s meal and that might leave physical clues of a struggle. If so, what might have taken it? How big might this creature have been – can you see its tracks? 

Knight’s philosophy was that ‘field naturalists must be good detectives’ and it’s safe to say that if anyone could speak authoritatively about detective work, it’s Britain’s greatest spymaster, ‘M’.

In fact, in Be a Nature Detective‘ Knight writes that naturalists should ‘model themselves on those officers of the law whose duty it is to solve crimes.’ To hammer this point home, he goes on to explain how detective work involves ‘the use of one’s eyes, ears and even one’s nose; it means that observations 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.’

Imagine if you will the memories bouncing around Knight’s mind as he wrote ‘most important of all, avoiding hasty conclusions without being able to prove them.’


Be a Nature Detective (Page 3 – The Nature Detective in the Field)


To reinforce this nature ‘detective’ approach he inserted a sketch on page 3 to compare a ‘Police detective’s clues’ and a ‘Nature detective’s clues.’

Isn’t it fascinating that Britain’s greatest spymaster was passing on his observation skills? And isn’t it incredible to think that he was doing this during his BBC broadcasts?

The thing to remember, though, is this: his observation skills were honed during his early campaigns as young boy naturalist who considered his naturalist scout badge to be one of his greatest honours. He wasn’t born a great spy, but he was born a naturalist and combined his skills to become the original ‘Nature Detective.’

Nature can teach us all we need to know if we will only take the time to listen.


Kim’s game: extracted from Scouting for Boys

Original source can be found in Rudyard Kipling’s story of Kim.

Kim’s Training

Lurgan began by showing Kim a tray full of precious stones of different kinds. He let him look at it for a minute, then covered it with a cloth, and asked him to state how many stones and what sorts were there. At first Kim could remember only a few, and could not describe them very accurately, but with a little practice he soon was able to remember them all quite well. And so, also, with many other kinds of articles which were shown to him in the same way.

At last, after much training, Kim was made a member of the Secret Service, and was given a secret sign – namely, a locket or badge to wear round his neck and a certain sentence, which, if said in a special way, meant he was one of the Service.