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. The poem ends:
‘You look as if you wished the place in Hell,’
My friend said, ‘judging from your face.’ ‘Oh well,
I suppose it’s not the place’s fault,’ I said.
‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’
All of which made me reflect on my own childhood, in the hilly countryside on the outskirts of Huddersfield. My memories are of something always happening, and mostly it was good and nearly always outdoors: watching Huddersfield Town on Saturdays with my father, who was the team’s doctor; birds’-nesting in the spring; searching for butterflies; rambling around the cow pastures and woodlands in all weathers.
It’s decades since I’ve been back there, but every now and again I explore my childhood haunts on Google Earth and it doesn’t seem to have changed much, although I suppose the once flower-rich hay meadows will now be heavily fertilised grass leys, and I doubt whether lapwings still nest in the field behind our old house. But I can still see the same farm buildings, the uneven walls of millstone grit, the pond that supplies Sykes & Tunnicliffe mill, and looming over it all Victoria Tower on Castle Hill, from where there are spectacular views over the southern Pennines. This unremarkable, slightly scruffy patch of countryside is where I learned to love nature. And this was what I wrote about when the editor of the Countryside Alliance’s magazine asked me to contribute to the ‘My Countryside’ slot for its autumn issue. For those of you who don’t see the magazine, here it is.
I learned to love the countryside not through books and natural history programmes, but by exploring the fields and woods around my childhood home on the edge of a Yorkshire wool town. In spring my friends and I would scour the hedgerows for birds’ nests. We collected butterflies too, and messed around in streams, searching for sticklebacks and frogspawn. In summer we stayed at farmhouse B&Bs – in the Yorkshire Dales, Sutherland, mid-Wales – and I would watch the farmers calve cows, collect hens’ eggs, round up sheep and work with the harvest.
This was in the late 1950s, and I realise now how lucky I was to learn about the countryside through a process of immersion. I wonder how many children today have parents and friends who teach them the names of farmland birds and wayside flowers; who explain the mysteries of migration and hibernation. Much of what they learn about nature will come from television, tainted by the syrupy anthropomorphism of celebrity presenters.
I recently visited a dairy farmer who had lost 89 cows. They had been slaughtered after testing positive for bovine TB, a disease transmitted by badgers to cows and vice-versa. When he was young, some 30 years ago, there was just one badger sett on his 400-acre farm; now there are a dozen, and there is nothing he can do about it. There may be more badgers in the country than foxes, but they are as untouchable as the sacred cows of India.
As I was leaving the farm, his father asked whether I’d seen the latest edition of BBC Springwatch, set at Minsmere, a nature reserve managed by the RSPB. “There was a badger clearing a whole island of avocet chicks and eggs,” he said with grim satisfaction. This was proof, in his view, that badgers were not only causing immense problems for Britain’s dairy farmers, but devouring some of our rarer wildlife.
When I got home I watched the programme. Just as instructive as the badgers’ predatory habits was a sequence about red deer. There were times, we were told, when certain species become so numerous they damage their habitat. They have to be “managed”. There was much talk about stalking, but the presenters failed to explain in explicit terms that stalking means killing. They didn’t even mention that the RSPB recently culled 250 red deer at Minsmere. Presumably, they didn’t want to upset the viewers.
Many of today’s nature programmes deny, by omission, the reality of life in the countryside with its endless cycle of procreation and death, both on and off the farm. In short, they are frightened of the The Facts of Rural Life – which is the title of the book I’m currently researching.
Based on conversations with scientists, farmers, conservationists, vets, gamekeepers, huntsmen and others involved in country matters, the book will argue that effective management of wildlife means controlling certain species in order that other, often much rarer species can thrive.
There is scarcely an acre of Britain which is truly wild. Farming, forestry, hunting and urbanisation have all had a profound effect on fauna and flora. Our ancestors got rid of apex predators like the lynx and wolf, and it’s now up to us control the species on which they once preyed. Many other animals have been introduced, frequently with disastrous consequences – think of the grey squirrel, American mink and muntjac deer – and we must control them too.
If we want a countryside rich in biodiversity, where farmers can go about their business without their livelihoods being imperilled, we must accept responsibility for managing wildlife. Doing nothing, out of squeamishness or ignorance, is simply not an option.