I’ve been telling people that they should write to their MPs as I travel around the country giving talks. Politics is at the heart of almost all solutions to environmental problems.
So, I wouldn’t ask you to do it if I wouldn’t do it myself, so here is the first of monthly letters that I will send to my MP, Andy Sawford (Lab, Corby) between now and the general election on 7 May 2015 (when he will almost certainly get my vote).
You can find your MP here. And you can email them any time you like!
It’s just over a year since you were elected to parliament – I hope you are enjoying your time there. Congratulations on becoming a junior Shadow Minister.
And thank you for the weekly email updates on your activities in Westminster.
I am writing to you as a constituent, and I shall be posting this letter on my blog (which I know you occasionally read). When you reply, as I’m sure you will, please let me know whether you are happy for me to post your reply on my blog too. And I should warn you that I plan to write to you every month between now and the General Election on environmental issues.
The subject of this letter is the decline in common birds of the countryside – birds like Grey Partridges, Corn Buntings, Turtle Doves etc. These all used to be much commoner in the Northamptonshire countryside than they are now. Although I didn’t grow up here in Northamptonshire I can remember these birds being much commoner in my youth in Somerset than they are now. But I do know that they used to be commoner here too because last week I attended the launch of a very authoritative book (by the British Trust for Ornithology and others) on changes in bird distributions over the past 40 years.
I’m a birdwatcher and I helped to collect some of the data that went into this work of science by doing bird counts in the countryside around Raunds, Hargrave, Chelveston, Ringstead etc.
I don’t expect you ever to pick up the Bird Atlas 2007-11 but let me give you a few indications, Since 1968 Corn Buntings (the name gives away their preferred habitat) have been lost from over half of their UK range. Northamptonshire is one of the areas where they are disappearing fast. I used to see them on the fence wires between Raunds and Hargrave but I’ve not seen them there for several years.
Turtle Doves, as recently as the early 2000s, were familiar birds on my regular walks at Stanwick Lakes, but I haven’t seen them there for some years. They have been lost from more than half of their sites over the last 40 years – and Northamptonshire is now hardly within their range which is shrinking towards the southeast all the time. This bird is the one whose purring song is referred to in the Bible, in the Song of Solomon, as the ‘song of the turtle is heard in the land’. It’s not heard in the land of your constituency much these days.
My view is that my governments over the years, many of them Labour governments, should have done a much better job to protect the plants and insects and birds and mammals in the countryside, It doesn’t feel like progress to me when wildlife is bleeding from the countryside that produces some of our food.
We spend £3.3bn as subsidies and grants to farmers in the UK every year. Ask a few of your less well-off Corby town constituents whether they would like their money back and they’ll probably say yes, please. I’d say that I am happy for farmers to get handouts from the taxpayer but only if they deliver public goods with that money – and the song of the Skylark, and the song of the ‘turtle’ is a public ‘good’ which I’d like more of, please.
So, I’d like to ask you to do two things please:
1. Write to Owen Paterson at Defra and ask whether he can assure you and me that Turtle Doves and Corn Buntings will be seen in the Northamptonshire countryside in increasing numbers before the next general election. What level would he want the Farmland bird index to reach by 2020 if, God forbid, a Conservative government rretained power through that period?
2. Ask your Shadow ministerial colleagues who hold the Defra brief to ensure that they include measures on improving the public value of CAP spending in the next Labour manifesto. There are many rural Labour supporters, some in marginal seats like yours, who feel that Labour should have a much stronger rural and countryside agenda.
Dr Mark Avery