Blogs

Book launch: The Facts of Rural Life

London, 29 June 2015

The Facts of Rural Life was launched last week at the Farmers Club in London. Among those attending were Members of Parliament and Peers, including five former ministers, as well as scientists, journalists, country vets and representatives of a range of organisations involved in nature conservation, land management, animal welfare and field sports. [read full article]

Is this the future of conservation?

London, 22 May 2015

In the harsh environment of northern Kenya, communities struggle with frequent droughts, poor health care, sparse or irregular government services and the threats posed by cattle rustling and ivory poaching. Ethnic rivalries dating back many centuries continue to disturb peace and undermine development. However, all this is beginning to change, thanks to a new movement based on community conservation. [read full article]

On field sports, death and moderation

Rutundu, Mt Kenya, 18 February 2015

We had come to Rutundu, some 10,200 ft above sea level on the northern flanks of Mt Kenya, to enjoy the mountain scenery and the pleasure of staying in log cabins where wood fires and hurricane lamps were the sole source of heat and light. We had also come to fish, and as soon as dawn broke on our first morning Jo Harrison – a serious fisherwoman with a trout stream of her own in Hampshire – and I clambered down a steep gorge in the company of Cosmas, one of the Rutundu staff. [read full article]

Lessons from Brazil

London, 24 December 2014

I frequently visit projects which are transforming the lives of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people – by increasing crop yields, reducing malnutrition, restoring degraded lands, providing better access to education and healthcare. However, all too often these projects are confined to small areas and the question remains: how can they be scaled up to benefit hundreds of thousands or even millions of people? [read full article]

Bested by bats

Hoby, Leicestershire, 12 November 2014

The authors of the Book of Leviticus were under the impression that bats were birds, and listed them alongside hawks, owls, ravens and herons as being unclean, or an “abomination” in the words of the King James Bible: as such, they were not to be eaten (11: 13–19). Modern churchgoers know that bats are mammals, not birds, but many would agree that they belong among the unclean. [read full article]

A conservation conundrum on the Marlborough Downs

Marlborough Downs, 27 October 2014

“When I came here as an assistant shepherd 32 years ago, this was a vast arable prairie, totally devoid of wildlife,” says Chris Musgrave, indicating with a sweep of his arm a great swathe of rolling countryside at the heart of the Marlborough Downs. “But just look how it’s changed!” [read full article]

Transforming rural livelihoods in Nigeria

Nigeria, 21 October 2014

When they think of foreign aid, or development assistance, I imagine most people think of money flowing from the wealthy North to the poorer South; from countries like the United Kingdom, the United States, Norway and France to the least developed countries in Africa and the Far East. But there is another story that deserves to be told, about the growing importance of South-South cooperation. [read full article]

I remember, I remember

Almondbury, Huddersfield, 5 October 2014

If you listened to the Today programme on Radio 4 last Thursday, which was National Poetry Day, you might have heard Alan Bennett talking about Philip Larkin. Larkin’s childhood, he said, was characterised as ‘a forgotten boredom’. To illustrate the point, Bennett read the poem I Remember, I Remember, in which Larkin describes his thoughts as his train passes through Coventry, the town where he was brought up. [read full article]

A tale of invasive species

London, 5 September 2014

This time last year I wrote a blog about a fungal disease which is killing plane trees along the Canal du Midi in the South of France. Some 4000 dead or dying trees, most planted in the mid-19th century, had already been felled. Since then, many more trees have been taken down and lengthy stretches of the canal are now treeless. [read full article]

Paradise regained: the return of the grey partridge

The Norfolk Estate, Arundel, 26 July 2014

In 2002, Dick Potts, one of the world’s leading authorities on grey partridge and farmland ecology, visited the Duke of Norfolk at the estate office in Arundel. “Dick told me that if we didn’t act now, the grey partridge would soon become extinct on the South Downs,” recalls the Duke. “I thought: as a shooting man, and as the owner of part of this area, if I can’t do something, then nobody can.” [read full article]

What’s good for the grouse is good for the curlew….

Coverdale, Yorkshire, 24 June 2014

“When we arrived in Coverdale in 1983, the in-bye land was like a billiard table and the heather on the moors was rank and scraggy,” explained Stephen Mawle as we watched a pair of grouse and their chicks feeding among the young heather and bilberry. In those days there were over 3000 breeding ewes here and Coverhead Farm was heavily overgrazed. [read full article]

Exmoor’s red deer – why good management matters

Somerset, 12 May 2014

When we had finished breakfast Tom Yandle suggested we head up the hills behind his farmhouse to see if there were any red deer about. After a short, steep drive through woods smelling of wild garlic we surprised 15 or so hinds. A couple of fields later we came across a herd of over 100 deer. As we approached they streamed gracefully into the thick woods beyond. [read full article]

So what’s the problem?

London, 17 April 2014

There is scarcely an acre of Britain which is truly wild. Farming, forestry, hunting, water extraction and urbanisation have all had a profound effect on our flora and fauna. Some of our top predators, such as lynx, wolf and brown bear, have been lost; many other species have been introduced, frequently with disastrous consequences for livestock, crops and indigenous wildlife. [read full article]

Waiting for the migrants

Capestang, France, 18 March 2014

The dawn chorus in Capestang has been a disappointment this week, even though the weather has been unseasonably warm and almost summer-like. At daybreak, little yellow serins twitter feverishly in the upper branches of the ancient black poplar in the ravine at the foot of the garden. [read full article]

If I were a pig…

London, 24 February 2014

Last week, the Danish government introduced a ban on the religious slaughter of animals. “Animal rights come before religion,” said the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Dan Jørgensen. The ban has upset Jews and Muslims as it proscribes their traditional methods of killing animals. Instead of having their throats slit while fully conscious, Danish livestock must now be stunned before they are killed. [read full article]

Moving with the tide

London, 24 January 2014

On Wednesday, during a hearing of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on the winter floods, Paul Leinster of the Environment Agency told MPs that vulnerable stretches of coast could be abandoned to the sea. The process, which goes under the dreary name of managed realignment, would change the shape of Britain – with thrilling consequences. [read full article]

Kites and cleanliness

Kigali, Rwanda, 11 November 2013

Late one afternoon, some 35 years ago, Richard North and I walked through the gates of St Anthony’s monastery in Egypt’s Eastern Desert. Among the cowled monks we eventually found one who spoke English. Richard explained that he was writing a book about monastic life, Fools for God. I was retracing a journey I had made in the mid-1970s, a story told in the The Other Nile. [read full article]

On the naming of crops

Accra, Ghana, 6 October 2013

“How many wives do you have?” This, loosely translated, is what Apagbaala means. This is the name that farmers belonging to the Dagomba tribe in northern Ghana have given to a variety of cowpea that produces tremendous crops.  It’s their way of saying that they need many hands – if not many wives – to harvest their cowpeas. [read full article]

What’s happened to our flycatchers?

Wa, Ghana, 3 October 2013

We spent this morning at a farmers’ meeting in a village in Upper West Region, then had a late lunch in Wa – cane-rat stew for my two companions, palm-nut soup for myself – before heading back to Tamale. It was a long journey, much of it on a rough dirt road that’s being upgraded by Chinese contractors. At this time of year the countryside is lush green, the ripening maize head high, the cowpeas and groundnuts ready for harvest. [read full article]

Tearing the heart out of the Midi

Capestang, France, 17 August 2013

I have talked to half-Amerindian peasants in Brazil whose forests were being felled, mostly against their will, for high-value timber. I have wandered among the smoking ruins of forests in Sumatra, set alight by companies who wanted to plant lucrative oil palm. I have spent time in Cameroon interviewing Baka pygmies about the impact of illegal logging, which was leading not just to the loss of trees and wildlife but the hunter-gatherer way of life. [read full article]

Miraa, Meru and Mrs May

Meru, Kenya, 13 July 2013

“We are very angry with you British,” said the man I’d come to see at the Ministry of Agriculture in Nairobi. “We’re trying to work out how we can retaliate.” [read full article]

Crime in the Caribbean: no laughing matter?

Kingstown, St Vincent and the Grenadines, 25 May 2013

‘SCARFACE’ SHOT DEAD was the front-page headline in last weekend’s edition of Searchlight, a twice-weekly newspaper serving St Vincent and the Grenadines. Anthony ‘Scarface’ Hamilton had been shot dead by police near the washrooms in the courthouse in Kingstown. According to the police, he had been attempting to escape. [read full article]

Trinidad’s multicoloured ancestry

Port of Spain, Trinidad, 24 May 2013

If you arrive in Trinidad after spending time on other Caribbean islands – or, at least, the ones I have been to – the first thing that astonishes is the number of people of Indian origin. The explanation is simple enough: when slavery was outlawed plantation owners had to import a new labour force, the freed blacks being disinclined to work the sort of hours and regimes required by their erstwhile owners. Hence, indentured labour and a vast influx of Indians, whose descendents now make up around 40% of the population. Another 40% are of African descent; most of the rest are mixed, though there is a remnant population of whites. [read full article]

What’s in a name?

Kingstown, St Vincent and the Grenadines, 22 May 2013

It’s so long since I have read Anthony Trollope that I would be hard pressed to tell you what Barchester Towers or any of his other novels are about. But I do remember the names: the obnoxious Obadiah Slope; the proud and vulgar bishop’s wife, Mrs Proudie; Mr Quiverful, impoverished vicar and father of 14 children. Thomas Hardy was another writer who used names as a proxy for character: you know, as soon as you come across Gabriel Oak in the first pages of Far from the Madding Crowd, that he possesses all the solid virtues of the best sort of country folk. [read full article]

Import-export: the dream shattered

Iquitos, Peru, and London, 1 April 2013

I used to think I’d like to have another occupation besides writing. Ideally, it would be farming, perhaps rearing sheep or pigs. But that wouldn’t work, not least because I live in London and spend much of my time travelling. Another possibility would be to find some exotic plant of great potential – for example, as a health food or aphrodisiac – import it to London, and make some serious money. In short: import-export. [read full article]

I need a drink

Lima, Peru, 17 March 2013

We were in some out of the way places during the past few days, and we ate surprisingly well. I hadn’t been expecting much in the way of classy food in Pucallpa, a sprawling town in the Peruvian Amazon largely devoted to logging and other forms of resource exploitation on a tributary of the Amazon. But dinner was a revelation: [read full article]

Wild food, uncivil society

Cameroon, 22 January 2010

The menu at the Christina Hotel, an unpretentious establishment on the outskirts of Bertoua, was reasonably extensive by the standards of provincial Cameroon. There was a choice of steak au poivre, poulet basque, singe, vipère or porc-épic – steak, chicken, monkey, snake or porcupine – but there was nothing to say how the bushmeat was cooked or what it was served with. [read full article]