Notes from the countryside

I’ve explored the local countryside this year as never before. Not only discovered plants and flowers I never knew existed, but also put names to flowers, and corrected the names I’d got wrong. I’ve also noted how plants come into flower in our local Cotswold area at the same time – it seems on the same day. There is a deep pattern to this floral madness!

The presenters of the BBC’s Springwatch series have found the same. Locked down they’ve taken the opportunity to explore their immediate localities, again as never before. The series has now come to an end, after three weeks. I came to it late this year, but the programmes I’ve seen have been a delight. Badgers in Cornwall, storks in Sussex, goshawks in Montgomeryshire – with a focus on nests and fledglings. It’s easy to be sentimental about small birds, but the spectacle of goshawks feeding fledglings and squabs to their young goes without comment. Which is as it should be.

Dung beetles were a highlight. They are coprophages – dung-eaters. What impressed me is the way they are adapted, with hard shells and burrowing capabilities, and sensory apparatus to pick up smells, to their task. The result of evolution over hundreds of millions of years. It is the precision of their adaptation that struck home. Evolution tends to perfection.

The beavers damming a small stream in a copse on a Cornish farm were another highlight. The way they both hold back the flow of water, to create ponds, and release it, to avoid it swamping their lodges. With benefits to the local ecology downstream.

What also struck me was the aerial view of the ponds. Such a small areas, so vast the fields around. The farmer, naturalist and author, John Lewis-Stempel, raised eyebrows several years ago for criticising Springwatch. It can convey a false reality – the areas in which wildlife survives or, better, prospers, are vanishingly small.

The government’s Agriculture bill has passed its first reading in parliament. The big controversy has been around the government’s voting down a widely-supported amendment that would have guaranteed that imports meet the UK’s current high standards of environment, animal welfare and food safety. The argument being that all restrictions on free trade are by definition bad. It is a sad example of free-market dogma overriding common sense.

It doesn’t give me any confidence that the Agriculture Bill will come to grips with the big issues facing the countryside. It phases out the direct payments to farmers that lie at the heart of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, and replaces them with a system that rewards farmers for the provision of ‘public goods’, which include ‘better quality air and water, improved soil health, public access to the countryside, animal welfare, and flood-risk reduction’.

The focus on Covid 19 has meant that the bill has had little press coverage, and the bill’s ability seriously to address conservation – and restoration – has hardly been discussed.

Can we have any confidence that issues of conservation, and indeed of ownership, will be seriously addressed? Lewis-Stempel highlights how disastrous pesticides and herbicides and the practice of ploughing fields to their margins have been for wildlife and wild flowers. ‘I have had a gutful of chemical farming.’

Springwatch, I appreciate, cannot be political. The BBC’s Countryfile also skates round political issues. Farming is usually conveyed in a positive light. They are both, Springwatch especially, fine programmes. But we cannot allow ourselves to be shielded from realities. As with climate issues we need to break out from within our comfort-zone carapace, and pick up a few cudgels.

The way ahead for the countryside is, and will not be, an easy one.

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