These can be depressing times for wildlife lovers. Many of our wild bird and mammal populations are declining at an alarming rate, our Raptors are being systematically disappeared from parts of the countryside, our politicians don’t seem to care, the statutory bodies (overseen by those politicians) that are supposed to be protecting and enhancing our wildlife, are being taken to court because they are, in the opinion of many, failing to do just that. And behind it all, looming in the background, is the impending British wildlife disaster that is Brexit.
To escape from the gloom I decided to head out into the Devon countryside this morning, to get some much needed wildlife therapy. It didn’t start well. Despite the assurances of the weather forecasters last night, the day did not start dry; it was drizzling and all around was grey. I walked past the jagged, ripped sticks that some call hedgerows, recently flailed again into useless vestiges of what they were supposed to be. Hedgerows on farmland used to be there to keep livestock in their fields, but nowadays, thanks to the careful management of the guardians of the countryside, they all need to have metal stock fences erected alongside of them to do so. I trudged onwards, cursing the stupidity of what we are doing to William Blake’s ‘green and pleasant land’.
But, as the weather lifted, so too did my mood, helped by the wonderful chuckling calls of a flock of Fieldfare passing overhead. I love these migrant Thrushes, I love the fact that their nomadic behaviour takes them to all sorts of places, these birds, the birds in front of me, scouring our land for berries, would have been doing the same thing last winter, they could have been here or they could just have likely been in southern Europe or even Turkey. Fieldfares, and the other 9,999 or so other species of bird, don’t give a stuff about our own selfish concept of belonging to countries and continents.
I entered a tumbledown piece of woodland that clings belligerently to a steep valley side overlooking the tidy managed fields that many call countryside. It took just a squeeze through a fence to enter it, but it was like entering another world. After the boring green close cropped monoculture that is farmland in mid Devon, the brambles that ripped at my waterproof trousers were a welcome relief. This isn’t ancient woodland, it doesn’t contain any majestic old veteran trees, it is just a bit of neglected land that took over its own management when humans gave up trying. Now, it is a jumble of stems, some upright, some collapsed, all tangled in Ivy and Bramble. There are no lottery funded manicured paths to guide you through this woodland, you have to stop and judge for yourself how to fight your way through the tearing tangle of Bramble.
To many people this sort of woodland is a despairing place,to me it is truly magical. It doesn’t need to be tidied up like so much of our countryside already has been, this is as wild as it gets and I love it. As soon as I am in the wood, clambering over one trunk, ducking under another, I feel at home. A Nuthatch loudly whistles me aboard as I start to clamber up the slope, a Wren almost bursts in its explosion of song and all the time a Robin is singing its melancholy tune. This is the first bird song I have heard since I set out and left the gardens of the village behind me. Yes, it is December and yes, there isn’t much bird song at this time of year, but other than the brilliant chuckling of Fieldfares I have heard nothing through miles and miles of ‘countryside’. It is only now in this inverse of managed land that I hear it.
I smell a fox, a magpie rattles at my presence and a Blue Tit scolds me as I climb, slip and climb again up through the tangle of wood. I come to its edge all too soon, islands of wildness are too small in the sea of tameness that is our countryside. But, today, it is this edge that I want, I push myself carefully into the hollow dome created by a Blackthorn, look greedily at the globular sloes that are still bending the branches, decide that I have enough Sloe Gin on the go and settle down to look out over more fields and a piece of steep conifer woodland.
It is ironic that in my quest for some wildlife therapy I end up looking out over more managed countryside, looking at the serried ranks of Douglas Fir, a magnificent tree, but here, in this context, a very managed and alien one. The field immediately below and in front of me is covered in a rash of black Rooks, probing the ground with their distinctive bare bills whilst the smaller Jackdaws strut in between them, alert to any chance of snaffling some disturbed morsel.
I sit still, other than the Rooks and Jackdaws there is not much happening, it is a few weeks early really and the weather is not conducive to what I wish to witness, but if you don’t look you can’t see, so I stay there cocooned in the Blackthorn. After a while I notice a Roe doe on the edge of the field, even though I am motionless she has seen me, an unfamiliar blob in her familiar landscape. She stands stock still for several minutes eyeing me suspiciously, waiting for me to betray myself with a movement.
If she was a Fallow Deer I could fool her into coming towards me, but a Roe doe is not so easily fooled so I don’t even try, I just watch her, watching me. She blinks first, unnerved at the strange object that is me, she melts away from my sight. I decide that I will wait a few more minutes, giving the deer a bit of time to get further away before I move. It looks like I will be going home disappointed, but do you know what, I feel a hell of a lot better now than I did when I set out.
And then it happens, the black rash probing the field suddenly takes to the air in splenetic corvid fury, all of them desperately trying to get height. I don’t see her at first, you never do, but then she gives a brief couple of calls, the gull like sound rings in my ears and I see her. For two seconds she was out in the open, powering her way through the air before being swallowed up by the Douglas. I relive the scene several times whilst scanning about me, hopeful of another view, but she has gone, the Rooks and Jackdaws are still complaining, but they are high up now and safe.
I said at the beginning of this that our Raptors are being systematically disappeared from parts of our countryside, but the Goshawk I have seen today should give us all hope. They were completely systematically disappeared from our countryside, but they are back now and they are back in good numbers. They still get persecuted, I know that, I know it all too well. Only a few years ago and not far from where I have just seen this magnificent predator, I stood watching as the police and RSPB investigations team tagged the corpses of Goshawks that had been the population of a wood that I was the Ranger for.
I remember the anger I felt, the frustration that some pathetic individual could do this and pretty much get away with it, but I also remember the following spring, when the birds were back and breeding successfully again, and now today, proof that the population of Goshawks in Devon is still growing and expanding. Despite that moronic cowardly act there are more Goshawks breeding here than there were when those beautiful birds were poisoned. I know the person who committed that crime won’t be reading this, after all it has big words in it, but I want to tell them that they failed. Because they did.
When you hear about yet another Hen Harrier disappearing it is easy to feel dispirited, but believe me, those that are committing these crimes will also fail. Persecution on our grouse moors is a different ball game to what happened in Devon, but after seeing that beautiful beast of a bird earlier today I feel more confident that we will win that battle too. It was only a few years ago that we would never have heard of a Hen Harrier vanishing, but now, thanks to organisations like Raptor Persecution UK and the many people that write on this website, including of course Mark, everybody knows about it. MSPs in Scotland voice their anger at it, and whilst our MPs continue to try and deny it, they at least have been forced to begrudgingly debate it in the House of Commons. This would not have happened a few years ago. Times are a changing.
As for feeling depressed at the fact that our statutory conservation bodies are being taken to court, I do feel sad, because I remember a time when they were a force for the good, the brilliant Red Kite reintroduction project in England being the obvious example of how a properly funded and properly staffed organisation can really make a difference. Yes, they are not performing as many would want them to now, but actually, the fact that people are prepared to challenge them in court, the fact that people are prepared to put their hands in their pockets and help fund the legal costs, isn’t at all depressing, it is bloody brilliant. A few years ago, us conservationists would have shrugged and muttered at it, now we are doing something about it, directly. We can no longer be ignored, these eco zealots are much more than that.
And as for Brexit, well who knows what is going to happen. As I write this, the government is in more of a jumbled tangle than the brambles I fought my way through earlier today. If it happens, I am confident that we won’t stand by and allow our wildlife legislation to be diluted, there are enough people fighting for our wildlife now, using the system, be it the courts of law or FOI requests, to expose the underhand tactics the powers that be try to use. Who knows, we migh teven get an agricultural policy that rewards decent hedgerows…
So, I sit here now in the warm and dry looking back on my day, reflecting on the gloom of the morning and how some thrushes started to lift it, before it was removed by a combination of brambles and nuthatches and then completely dispersed by a Goshawk. Wildlife is great therapy you know.
Ian Parsons spent twenty years working as a Ranger with the Forestry Commission, where he not only worked with birds of prey and dormice, but where he developed his passion for trees. Now a freelance writer, Ian runs his own specialist bird tour company leading tours to Extremadura. For more details see www.griffonholidays.com
This is Ian’s fourteenth Guest Blog here and you can access all of them through the Guest Blog Archive – click here.
Ian’s book, A Tree Miscellany, was reviewed here.