Guest blog – Winds of Change by Derek Gow

Derek Gow is a farmer – you can see from the image opposite he is a serious farmer. Here he writes about the future he has chosen for his farm.

Winds of change

For those who don’t farm it’s difficult to understand the mentality of those that do.

While James Reebanks in his excellent book The Shepherds Life captures the zeitgeist of the sheep farming community well it’s only one side of a complex miasma. His sheep keepers are the professionals of the north.  Zealots like my great Uncle John whose father bred the first ever black-faced ram to make the unthinkable price of £1000 in Lanark at the turn of the 19th century. For him and his ilk farming was not for defeatists. You never stopped working. You never gave in. You never had holidays – or if you did you went to other farms to see sheep, dogs, cattle or girls. You never missed church.

Truly by the grace of god you were there to farm.

You were a big man in the community as a farm manager or tenant. While you told tall stories to your laughing chums on whiskey-amber nights you still took off your cap to the wife of your employer when she hacked by on her tail-docked hunter. 

Wildlife was barely considered. Wading birds were plentiful. You ate their eggs and the birds themselves if you fancied. You shot white individuals or unusual species such as corncrakes and stuffed their cadavers into dusty glass jars to fade forever in peace. You jugged hares and smiled when the clay kilner jars they settled in belched with putrification on opening. The taste of their contents would be riper than usual! Anything that looked at a sheep in a funny way – including other breeds of sheep that you, personally disliked – was vermin to be eliminated instantly.

The farming culture I have known since I was small – a good day out was going with Uncle John in his great, green Mercedes to view gigantically horned rams in some smelly ruin of a sheep shed where  twisted old men secured expressionless deals – was a settler culture. Like any settler culture you were there to push back the wilderness, drain the swamps, shred the scrub, deep plough, fertilise, poison and generally tidy the landscape up into artificially squared fields. Old buildings were demolished. Neolithic burial cairns ploughed in. Fritillary meadows were unsightly, colourful burdens and centuries-old hedge banks redundant obstacles to progress.

Ravens came from hell. Eagles were the stuff of legend. Foxes were reviled. 

Nothing was sacrosanct. Old equine servants in their faithful millions had been delivered uncomplaining with their foals and spirited teenage offspring to the holocaust yards of the renderers a generation before. Old breeds of livestock were despised as aboriginals. Tough and hardy they might be, but their presence in the landscape had to yield to progress. When you took them into a 1980’s livestock market you were laughed at and despised. 

Self-righteous men with big fists and bellies. Gigantic machines and unlimited amounts of tax payer’s cash. Their generation had known rationing and seen Europe starve but they could not fail in life or prepare for death in peace. Once you had sold your farm what was left ? No market days when you could outwit your pals and cheat strangers. No shows. No animals to care for. No fields to till. Arrogant young sons who sniggered at your inability to understand the computer systems of their telehandlers and who laughed behind your back at your old time tales. They married glamorous, young, career women who left within years taking their bored grandchildren and large bits of your legacy with them.

Nothing much to do. Bowls? Gardening? Dominos? Golf while you still could before stiffening limbs stopped movement? Your retired sheep dog going blind and growing warts. In his clouded canine eyes and rancid breath the refection of your own passing.

You knew your wife would outlive you. A broken, wandered woman making cakes and scones in plenty for a family long dispersed and a husband long gone.

This was my farming past.   

So why return.

I enjoyed it very much. You were part of a hearty tribe. Although they fell out with each other for the most trivial of reasons they generally stood together against all else. Outside the tribe lay the lands of their enemies. Vegans, conservationists, the RPA, the EA, government, other people, other points of view. The hideous boggie of a Monbiot! Within the tribe you were secure. As long as you kept your blinkers on.  

I enjoyed the selection of livestock to identify the best performing sheep and cattle for my land, the satisfaction of hitting consistent grading targets for my produce, pals at market saying that my bullocks that year – big, butter yellow, pied simmentals out of beef shorthorn cows – were the best I had ever produced. I liked to stand at farm gates and watch my calves running races with their buddies as the flaming sun, sank slowly beneath the horizon. I liked to smell the spring warmth in the earth in obscure field corners while catching obdurate ewes at lambing time. Honestly I liked to stand in a commanding position on top of a rise and tell visitors that all those white dots grazing as far as the eye could see to the east for a mile and to the west for three valleys up and down in a rolling triangle of land pointing off to distant Dartmoor were mine.

The subsidies were great. As a farmer you got approximately £40,000 of tax payer’s money through a no-strings system every year – Single Farm Payment. Bonanza! This largesse variably expanded into additionally buying combines, sheep handling facilities, installed beauty rooms on your farm, kept a cow (it did not always have to have a calf), installed farm shops or built roads. Although the direction of the lolly was always variable, hydra-like, sources spontaneously erupted when a few were chopped off. It was a cornucopia which always overflowed. Although in theory some of this stream was supposed to divert into environmental schemes in reality these achieved little. The fact that pretty much every biodiversity focused graph now resembles a ‘thunderbirds’ rocket which has run out of fuel falling to earth bears stark testament to their failure.

Good things happened by accident like escaped beavers breeding or sloppy farmers releasing wild boar. Dedicated, amazing people reintroduced red kites and white tailed eagles. Criminals murdered their offspring. The general trend was and is grim.       

But still we continued. Sheep gatherings were big events where our tide of creamy, shorn sheep and their gigantic, gigoted lambs spilt out onto country roads and blocked them for kilometres. We had quad bikes, ATVs, many dogs and staff. Children throwing each other into cattle troughs, crying, fighting, laughing. Although we smiled amicably at motorists queuing up at either end of our vast ovine flood which in the far distance had begun to pour itself into the handling pens of our farm we did not really care much about their inconvenience in any way.

Why should we? We were farmers!

Until 2006 when with my mother’s death I could contemplate it as a realistic future I had never given farming much thought. If I had, it seemed like an impossible dream. Unaffordable. I did other things. In 1990 I attended a summer school on captive breeding endangered species at Gerald Durrell’s zoo on Jersey. I had read everyone of his books and like many others come away utterly inspired by his concern for the devastating loss of the natural world and its marvellous wildlife and his inspiring vision of how for many species captive breeding could afford an armada of salvationary arks. I met people from countries without photocopiers, plush carpets, PA’s, vast memberships and Biological Action Plans who had committed themselves utterly to the salvation of wild creatures. Commonly they did so to their own significant detriment and sometimes at great risk to their lives. Nature conservation in Britain which I had never before considered to any extent but always imagined to be competent and organised became an issue of great personal interest to me. In the 29 years that followed I have come to believe that although good things have been accomplished, conservation in Britain has largely failed as a movement and that if we are to truly turn round our current hurtling cascade of ecological loss we will have no option other than to uptake critically extreme solutions from third world examples.   

There is no question that intensive, farming systems are largely responsible for a landscape scale collapse in biodiversity. Chemical-based arable in the east. Overgrazing of livestock in the west. Clickzins in the sheep. Rodenticides in the prey. Ivomectins in the cattle. Metaldehydes in the crops. Neonicotinoids in the bees.  Nitrates, phosphates, poisons beyond count. In our land, in our water. in our bodies. BSE, Foot and Mouth, swine fever to come. Farmer’s industrial representatives are big and bluff. There is no problem everything is fine. Tweedy, porky women tell us in their blogs that healthy food and a healthy environment can only be delivered by British Farmers.

It is bullshit which its deliverers are either immoral enough to pedal or too obtuse to recognise the truth.  

I knew full well from my own experience this is so. Sewage fungus turning like languid giant ‘Shitake’ in my lower stream. A present from the next door dairy farmer which ensured that there was no life left. Where our sheep grazed nothing lived. When they died their toxic carcases offered no solace even to blowfly.

Occasionally from neighbours whispered murmurings of memories would illuminate a recent past. Orchids in the upper meadows before silage wiped them out. Barn owls, glow worms, hen harriers, wheatears, hares, water voles, short-eared owls, stonechats and lapwings. The saddest were the curlews. In the time I have farmed here perhaps on three occasions in the mists of an early morning a curlew has risen. Calling, calling, calling its plaintive, whooping lilt. This once common sound of spring is now a lament.

The crying of wraith that remains only in vestigial spirit.  

The long lived birds that come here are the last of the Culm moorland chicks. Born 20 years ago in a landscape that’s now gone. Were they lucky as a last generation to survive the balers of silage or has their life been one of eternal regret? 

No home. No life. No Mates. No food. No future.

I can’t reverse their loss on my 300 acres but for me now this knowledge is simply too much. It haunts me. Its truth has become unbearable. Although my journey has already begun with water voles reintroduced, polecats released, small wetlands recreated, farm woodlands planted, brash retained in field corners, water sheds protected from grazing livestock I clearly understand that it’s not enough. More needs to be done. Gradually in stages as is affordable this farm will cease to operate on a normal basis.

From a chance escape several years ago beavers are now breeding in our stream systems. They are most welcome. An utter delight to behold. They work to restore life. We have assembled a herd of feral cattle whose mighty bulls will produce biodiversity from their behavioural patterns rather than beef. Pigs and ponies will be added shortly to the mix and we will start to re-wild our first 120 acres.

Shepherds huts will welcome visitors, camping will begin. The other things I do in life will have to support this essential change. Please help in time if you can. Follow our progress. I have no intention of looking back but rather forward in an effort to provide a tangible example of how without significant issue a landscape can be reshaped to become one which balances my own interests with the critical needs of wildlife as well.

It will be a journey of wonder.  


41 Replies to “Guest blog – Winds of Change by Derek Gow”

  1. Wow: Writing out of the top draw. If there’s no book on the way, there should be one –asap.

  2. Hi Derek and Mark

    Interesting blog. Thank you for the name check.

    It is indeed more complex than it seemed in my youth, and as I described in my memoir of that time.

    And we do, of course, need major change on farmland to help nature and restore ecosystems.

    Your project sounds great. And I wish you well, hopefully I can come and learn from it in the future.

    Two slight push backs:

    1) I think your view of sheep farmers is selective – it doesn’t reflect many of the people I know now doing it. Twenty of my neighbours this week agreed to form a partnership to plan and deliver projects like river rewiggling, tree planting, and surveying of wildlife so we plan at a landscape or valley scale. The same people have planted tens of thousands of trees in the past five years.
    Suddenly saints?
    No, not at all.
    But neither are they just the 1970s Billy-Elliot’s-dad figures you paint them as. My grandfather was one of a generation that did a lot of damage, but he also had a strong strain of nature loving in him, and was at times a good steward of habitat and species. His hat meaodws are in the 2300 acres of species rich upland hay meadow that survived.

    Sheep farmers are complex and they are changing and learning – and they are capable of doing a great deal of ecological restoration work around their farming. They are suddenly learning very quickly about soil microbiology, or mimicking natural grazing systems, or river rewilding. Our valley has a wild Fell (agreed to by a sheep farmer), a wilding flood plain (where farmers are working towards it being much wilder) and amazing species-rich farmed habitats like cattle meadows where orchids grow and wildflower meadows where 90+ species exist.
    This place isn’t typical of most farmland – much of which horrifies me as much as you – but you are in danger of dismissing compromise and the huge potential for farmers to meet in the middle. Producing food is pretty much held in contempt in the piece, as if it no longer matters (I understand why you think like that but would respectfully suggest others can disagree).

    2) As someone who cares greatly (believe it or not) about wildlife and traditional farming (at its best) – I find your tone frustrating at times. It is an insider’s dialogue – largely playing to non farmers and middle class people in towns who don’t have to earn their living from the land) that raises your virtue relative to that of farmers, but in a way that makes you sound to them like know-it-all tossers.
    Don’t we really need to persuade an awful lot of people who farm land to do different things?
    How effective is this tone at doing that? Don’t we have to leave the door open for people to be several things at once, for doing good in small steps at times, as well as big ones, and to be compromisers for nature? The tone of this debate too often makes enemies of the people needed to bring about change. I think you need to be bigger than this to win, and the asides about ‘porky women’ etc don’t help your cause.

    But there is lot of good in wilding and in this blog.

    Best wishes


    1. Top response JR – as ever thoughtful, open-minded and constructive.
      It takes two to have a conversation.
      Anything else is just shouting in the wind.

    2. “and middle class people in towns who don’t have to earn their living from the land.”

      You talk about the ‘tone’ of this debate, whilst using such ignorant tropes to make your point.

  3. Thank you for this. If you want help, support, succour, look to visit Knepp in Sussex where they have been ‘wilding’ for almost 20 years. The wildlife resurgence is immense.

  4. Thank you for your marvellous, eloquent writing about the realities of most farming methods. You are spot-on about the curlews.

  5. Derek – I wish you luck with the venture. Having recently read Rewilding it’s great to think of other projects springing up that try to achieve similar things. But the incubating? White Stork does worry me a bit. This is not a species that ever bred naturally in England (with perhaps the odd exceptional nest) so releasing them here would be an Introduction rather than a Reintroduction. To my mind that would be more de-wilding than re-wilding. It’s humans picking and choosing high-profile, spectacular species that they would like to see, rather than restoring the wildlife that should be present but has been lost as a result of human activities in the past. A farm with storks and perhaps other ‘escapees’ might start to feel more like a theme park or a visit to Whipsnade than a truly re-wilded landscape. This might seem like nit-picking but I think it will be an increasingly important consideration as rewilding projects become more common.

      1. We are talking about a project in southern England so one 600 year old nest from Edinburgh isn’t sufficient justification. Neither is a few bones that may or may not have been white storks (in some cases) and may or may not have been from breeding populations rather than passage or wintering birds. These birds are being imposed on us as an Introduction (in the absence of good evidence to the contrary) and that makes things less, rather than more, wild. Putting things back because we did bad things to them in (even) less enlightened times is one thing but picking and choosing sexy species to implant into the countryside takes the wild out of wildlife. What next? Flamingos at Flamborough Head perhaps?

        1. If the worst came to the worst and the white stork was not an established breeder in this country in spite of records from St Giles, fossil evidence and place names we’ll have a species here adding to our biodiversity and bringing interest and joy to people. A species that exists with very much the same species we have here on the other side of the English Channel and North Sea absolutely no problem. There’s far more reason to believe it belongs here than it doesn’t and rather strange you’re trying to debase a genuine conservation project by strenuously down playing the points for its return. Plenty of real ‘introductions’ to get wound up about including snowberry, Cherry laurel and Rhododendron superponticum – maybe best to exercise your distaste on them with a bowsaw and a pair of loppers which would have conservation benefit, belittling white stork reintroduction doesn’t. And a tad insulting to imply people can’t distinguish between flamingos at Flamborough Head from white storks at Knepp?

          1. Les – There are lots of species that exist across the Channel and live with some of the same species we have here. I just don’t think we should bred them all up and insert them into southern England. It’s not wildlife conservation, it’s…well I don’t know what it is but it’s not conservation. By your logic we could introduce Crested Larks, Red-crested Pochard, Black Woodpecker (that would pull in the crowds), Hoopoe (they have bred naturally in England), Bee-eaters (they have too), Dalmatian Pelican, and loads of others.

        2. I’m entirely in agreement, Ian. With the plethora of struggling wildlife clinging on in an over-manicured countryside the most important issue is the provision of more habitat mix with light touch management. We don’t need inappropriate introductions. Besides which, the arrival of various egrets and herons following a combination of habitat provision and climate change demonstrates that nature is best left to follow its own path.

      2. Thanks Alex and from that link
        ‘Since the start of the 21st Century there have been three recorded nesting attemptsin Britain. A combined captive breeding population of pinioned and vagrant wild individuals at Harewood House bird gardens in Yorkshire produced wild living offspring for several years and in 2004 a pair of storks, one a rehabilitated bird that was found in Calais in 2002 and the other a free flying escapee from an animal park in Belgium, began to construct a nest on an electricity pylon near Netherton Village in West Yorkshire (Cocker & Mabey, 2005). This attempt failed as a result of the removal of their nest by the electrical company (Glue, 2004). In 2014, a free flying pair of captive bred birds from Thrigby Hall Wildlife Gardens near Great Yarmouth also constructed a nest ontop of on an old industrial chimney, however thispair also failed to breed.’

  6. Farming seems to be splitting into two streams – the NFU intensify to secure our food supplies, CLA going for Natural Capital.

    There has always been a strong tribal pressure within farming not to step out of line – thus the negative reactions to Knepp – but because someone has done something different, it absolutely does not mean everyone has to do it – nor are we going to starve because a tiny percentage isn’t having the life squeezed out of it. Nor, for that matter, does it undermine or devalue the tremendous work fo0r wildlife sympathetic farmers are doing within the envelope of ‘conventional’ farming.

    Whilst farmers defend the way they do things now, in reality – and for obvious reasons – when it comes to the crunch it is farm income that really drives decision making – when have you heard food security issues raised when it comes to a profitable solar farm or house building ?

    I’m unsympathetic to resistance to change – farming has been artificially preserved by the post-war settlement, continued through CAP – but I am deeply concerned about the future of rural communities and whilst opposed to the collateral damage caused by current farming am equally concerned that we do not slump back into the farming depression that lasted from 1870-1940. Beware free trade and cheap food – our temperate competitors – the US & EU will remain massively subsidised after we leave the EU, higher growth rates further south make it hard for temperate farming to compete and may cause collateral damage on a scale that dwarfs the harm done in Europe – especially with a new Brazilian President ready to trash the rainforest to provide the 1st worlds insatiable and ever more deadly greed for meat.

  7. That was simply superb…reflects exactly the common attitude of farmers and farming from my own rural childhood in 1950s renfrewshire up to the present day. There were exceptions to the unthinking kill the vermin/spray the crops/cut down the hedges..but they were exceptions. One memory that does please me though is that there was little doffing of caps to the landowners and lairds around my village – the local hunt was unwelcome on many farms. Hopefully the tide of unthinking “improvements” meaning destruction of wildlife habitat, is turning but for all their rhetoric of being in charge of the land, its the agribusiness and greedy government subsidies to Big Farming that have always been in charge in my lifetime. With precious little fight back against it except by us “sandal wearing, vegan, out of touch conservationists” mocked by “real farmers”.

    1. A wonderful piece of writing, many thanks.

      I lived in Welsh sheep country for some 20 + years, and never heard any member of the farming community speak like this – however, I left Wales in the 90s, so I daresay things will have changed.

  8. Even without the ‘conversion’ for want of a better word, i would have recommended the first part of this piece and sent it to my black-faced farmers.
    More please Derek.
    I thought the comment that his ‘view of sheep farmers is selective’ by James Rebanks was a bit odd. First of all it was obvious that Derek was generalising so how could he be being selective, whilst James certainly was.
    Although i don’t claim any expertise i find it very hard to believe that White Storks were never part of the British Isles avifauna. They used to breed in Denmark when i lived there (not sure there are any left) and medieval England must have been very similar to Denmark although admittedly the climate is not identical.
    According to the introduction projects website
    ‘Historically, white storks are particularly associated with the county of Sussex, with many place names in the area, such as Storwood and Storgelond, referring to the bird. The Saxon name for the village of Storrington, near Worthing, was originally “Estorchestone”, meaning “the village of the storks”. A pair of white storks still features on the village emblem.’
    Surely it is very difficult to really know what birds lived here over 600 years ago. Can we be so sure that ‘This is not a species that ever bred naturally in England (with perhaps the odd exceptional nest)’?

    1. P.S. Actually that use of the prefix stor is a bit suspect in Storwood but i’m no linguist. The modern Danish word for the UK is Storbritannia, so is it Stork Britain? No, Stor in Danish means big or great. The modern Danish word for Stork is the same spelling as us, Stork. Storgelond and Estorchestone seem much better.

  9. A really fascinating and brilliantly written guest blog…and I’m also very interested in James Rebanks astute comments too. We need landscape restoration, we need the wild to come back and yet we need to fit food production into that too.
    I loved reading Isabella Tree’s book Wilding.

    So many questions;
    How do we change our landscape on a larger scale? How much can we change? and how do we change farming methods for the benefit of humans and wildlife? What difference would it make if there were many small areas of patchwork rewilding across larger landscapes. The local 40 acre rewilded patch near where I live is home to barn owls, buzzards, tawny owls, and many berry and seed eating birds, grass snakes, frogs, newts etc etc…I see more wildlife in that 40 acres than across the wide fields and trimmed hedgerows around me.

    My Great Aunt Meg would be dancing a merry jig reading Derek’s and James’ words.

    Meg was born into farming family. Her brother, my grandfather was a dairy farmer. He prided himself on his cattle and their welfare. I have heard he was obsessionally tidy. It was said you could eat your dinner off the milking parlour floor. During the war and post war, food production was vigorously encouraged. Hedgerows were torn down for bigger fields for more production and agrochemicals sprayed with abandon.

    Meg could see the damage this was having to the wildlife. She went around asking farmers not to rip up hedgerows and not to spray the crops. She asked farmers to keep the woodlands. She also made a correlation between the local hunt kennels which accepted infected carcasses for the hounds and the bTB in my grandfather’s closed herd. (My grandfather was a vehement opponent of the hunt)

    As a young , uneducated, yet intelligent woman, Meg didn’t have a voice. Her thoughts were derided. If she’d been born a couple of centuries earlier, she might have been burnt at the stake as a witch.

    If she’d been born now, I like to think she would be changing things. She’d have had an education and a voice and a vision for change. She’d have had the bravery and courage of her convictions.

    I think there are many more Megs now…in farming and in conservation.They now have the education and a voice. But it takes guts to step out and forge a way.

    Maybe there are winds of change.

    So good luck Derek…many will be watching and hopefully have courage to follow.

    My Great Aunt Meg will be cheering you on. I think you’d have got on. She died when I was about eight, but I remember she was passionate about wildlife, could tell a good yarn and made exceptionally strong peppermints creams.

  10. James, excellent news regarding recent initiatives in your area.
    I do think that the greatest opportunity ( in the short term at least) for this type of work, including a
    number of (re) wilding projects, lies in the sheep dominated uplands.
    I was sitting in Morrisons car park the other week, while my partner did a quick shop, listening to R2s
    “Tracks of my years” I particularly appreciated your choice of John Barry’s film score for “ZULU”.
    Both film, and music, made a similar impression on me.
    Have you read “The Washing of the Spears” by Donald.R. Morris ?, if you get to the end without a lump
    in your throat, for the plight of the Zulu nation, there’s something up with you.
    How is that for going off topic ?.

  11. Post-Brexit Labour should commit to nationalising the farming industry, and to break the back of the farmers in the way the Tories broke the Miners.

    It is the only way things will change; purging the industry of the John Bull types and making them proper workers who do what they are told. We’d see the improvements in less than two years if we did. No more generous handouts, just a normal monthly wage. Oh yes indeed. And be grateful if it wasn’t a zero hour contract too. Put the shoe on the other foot, and see how well it fit then.

  12. Hi Ian. Is that so about storks,. I thought they’d given their names to
    many villages, though I may well be just parroting what others have said.

  13. I preferred James Rebanks’ response. Time he had a guest blog I think.
    Totally agree with his point about the need for a reasonable tone of any debate in order to move any discussion on.
    Otherwise we just end up with more noise, and echoes of agreement from those used to similar noises. But no meaningful change.

    1. The ‘tone of debate’ argument is often used as deflection, especially when Derek cuts through so much of the propaganda people take as gospel. I found Derek’s tone perfectly fine.

  14. I know BBC Countryfile can be very frustrating with its safe, establishment-supporting editorial policy, but it does have a large audience who, I think, are mostly genuinely pro wildlife and a bio-diverse countryside. Following that thought, does anyone else think that Derek should be nominated as a CountryFile Farming Hero for 2019? He’s putting his livelihood on the line here, to make a difference and he is doing it voluntarily. We can all be heroes when we have no other path open to us, but choosing the risky option when easier ones are available, that takes real courage.
    Even better would be for Countryfile to follow Derek’s journey – I for one would find that compelling viewing.

  15. There are many long gone species if we go back beyond 1000 AD. Dalmatian Pelican for one. Black terns until the drainage of Whittlesey Mere. So why do you believe white stork was not here?

    1. Sue – It might have been but I think there should be good evidence before a reintroduction is undertaken. And storks are such obvious birds, with such obvious nests, in such obvious places that I would have thought there would be more records of nest sites if they were once regular breeders. If white stork is a viable ‘reintroduction’ project then that opens the door for literally dozens of other birds that would also meet the criteria. And I’m not sure that would be a good use of money or what many people would want to see happen in our countryside. It would all become a bit theme-parky, too much direct human intervention and almost the opposite of what we want from re-wilding. Reintroductions should be a last resort for species that we know were once present but were wiped out by human activities and are unlikely to make it back unaided – so the exception rather than the rule.

      1. “would not be a good use of money” is a nonsense reason; especially if its not your money or that of an organisation you support

        As for “too much direct human intervention” well could be used as a summary for most conservation/restoration. Its our decision to conserve/preserve habitats and species.

  16. Anyone who doubts the devastating impact which farmers and landowners have had on our ecology should read the classic book “Silent Fields” by Roger Lovegrove – former Director of RSPB Wales. He analysed county and parish records going back to the 1600s – which listed the bounties paid for the killing of eagles, ospreys, peregrines, kestrels, kites, harriers, merlins – all birds of prey in fact. All mustelids – from otters to stoats and weasels. Badgers, foxes, martens, polecats. Hedgehogs were killed by the hundreds of thousands. Moles by the millions. Dippers, bullfinches, rooks, ravens, even kingfishers – all killed for cash. The humble sparrow – over 56,000,000 were killed for bounties. Even BATS were regarded as vermin and killed. In the rivers, any birds or fish which might eat fish eggs were regarded as vermin
    it is little wonder that Britain has the most ‘depauperate’ ecology in Europe.

    1. “…it is little wonder that Britain has the most ‘depauperate’ ecology in Europe”.

      I think you are assuming that such killing of “vermin” has not and does not happen elsewhere in Europe. I can assure you that it does – just take a look at the work of CABS in trying to address some of these problems (and not just in the ,Mediterranean region – they also deal with raptor persecution in Germany, for example).

      There is not just one reason why Britain has less biodiversity than other countries in Europe – various factors are involved. Our geographical position is one such factor – islands invariably have fewer species than continents and after the last ice age Britain was soon cut off from the rest of Europe by rising sea levels which limited the number of species that were able to spread back into the country after the ice retreated. Likewise, the size of Great Britain means that compared to, say, France it has a significantly less diverse landscape and climate which again limits the potential for biodiversity.

      These factors mean that we had less to start with but it is also pertinent to bear in mind that the British Isles are amongst the most densely populated (by humans) parts of Europe which inevitably puts more pressure on the natural world. France has a similar human population to the UK occupying a much larger area and so has far more space left for wildlife. Despite this, similar problems for wildlife to those we have experienced in the UK have also occurred in other parts of Europe. Both France and Germany have been the subject of published studies recently that have revealed shocking declines in biodiversity. Take the train from Calais to Paris and you will pass through some intensively farmed landscapes with little sign of rich biodiversity.

      I fully agree that the UK has allowed its wildlife to decline shockingly as a result of decades of agricultural intensification, pollution, urbanisation, persecution, etc and we need to act urgently to try and halt these pressures. However, I think it is unhelpful to pretend that we are somehow uniquely evil when it comes to wildlife protection. The sad fact is that all around the world wildlife is continually coming second best to human needs.

      It is fantastic that people like Derek Gow are taking the intitiative to make the small parts of the landscape they farm/own more amenable to wildlife but many of the birds that will hopefully avail themselves of Derek’s ‘hospitality’ will be migrants that spend a substantial part of their annual cycle elsewhere and whose well-being therefore depends on all of the area they use throughout the year remaining in a state of robust ecological health. To my mind this is one more reason why it is sad we are leaving the EU; no-one can doubt that the CAP needs reforming or that it has been harmful to wildlife but we are turning our backs on our right to play a part in this reform and can only hope that our erstwhile European partners take wise decisions in this regard.

  17. A beautifully written blog, and great responses. To remember what there was and what is lost though modern agricultural methods is timely. The farming community is at a turning point and needs support to make the transitions, but I am concerned that wilding without food growing is the trend in this and other conversations.

    Rewilding; wilding, and Agroecological food growing methods can work together beautifully in varying degrees. It happens in other countries.Consumers aren’t just asking us to restore nature, they are requesting we produce good quality food as well. And for this it would be great to recall memories and methods of local marketing direct to local towns and villages. Cooperative growing and marketing in short food chains – especially vegetables and fruit – also contributes to regenerating nature and communities. It is what we must do to perpetuate rural communities of humans and wildlife.

    New phrases we need to consider: Agroecology, Restoration Agriculture, Carbon Farming, Wilding, Permaculture, – all part of the new conversation.

  18. I don’t think I have enjoyed reading any blog as much as I enjoyed this one. I found myself smiling and nodding at the screen as each new point was made, as if this might communicate my approval back to the author. So many interesting things – I’ll mention just a few.
    Derek’s descriptions of the attitudes of most farmers precisely matches my impressions gained over 30 years living closely surrounded by intensive agriculture without being a ‘proper’ farmer. Nothing nauseates me more than a farmer insisting that his or her activities are entirely consistent with nature conservation, when my eyes tell me exactly the opposite.
    I totally share his misgivings about the achievements of the British conservation movement in recent years – committed, well-meaning, but totally out of kilter with the scale and severity of the problems facing our wildlife. Much more extreme and radical options need to be considered – the time for cautious tinkering is long past.
    The ensuing detailed discussion of reintroduction projects is interesting. My own view is that if British wildlife is to have any long-term future, large numbers of ordinary people have to be able to see eye-catching and awe-inspiring things that they can be inspired by without years of detailed study. Far too much conservation is practised by and for the tiny minority of people with the knowledge and experience to find and appreciate obscure, uncommon items that leave most people nonplussed. I think it was Katherine Bennett in the Guardian who said some years ago that the greatest threat to British wildlife was that it would expire due to total charisma failure, and only one in a thousand people would even notice its passing. I was outraged at the time, but now I think she had a point.
    That’s not to say that conservation of the small and obscure is not important, it’s just that it is not enough. The public have to be given stronger meat, or at least the promise of it, if they are to be motivated to press for the necessary radical change. Beavers, storks, eagles, lynx, pelicans – anything spectacular that stands a chance of survival and doesn’t seem to pose serious threats to existing species should be looked at as possible additions to the fare on offer.

  19. Derek, light in darkness. Can’t wait to see nature in your spot in Devon starting to flourish again.

  20. “a herd of feral cattle whose mighty bulls will produce biodiversity from their behavioural patterns rather than beef”

    Tired old cliche of the proponents of the Dutch concept of nature development

  21. I am afraid that reintroductions can no longer be seen as a last resort. Increasingly rather they will be at the forefront of a proactive wildlife restoration agenda if we seek to achieve much. The wildlife of this island and indeed so many parts of the world is so shattered, so dissipated that there will be no other option. The scale of this task is quite simply vast.

  22. Undoubtedly, as a generalisation, farming is largely to blame for the massive and universal decline in wildlife; in Britain, in Europe, in India, Thailand, the Philippines …. all places where I have travelled extensively and witnessed the declines in obvious groups of taxa such as birds. But, we need farmers in order to produce food for us to eat, and although free-ranging old fashioned cattle, glamping and Land Rover safaris may improve the habitat for wildlife and proviade a viable alternative for a few lucky landowners, they are not a realistic solution for the wider countryside. I am afraid that I can see a situation developing where we will have a goodly number of ‘private’ nature reserves (= ‘wilded’ farms) surrounded by an ever-more desolate farmland. Regarding ‘rewilding’, intorictions and re-introductions, as a naturalists whose primary interest is now botany, I am struck by how much the discussions resemble a brain-storming session as Disney, trying to decide which ‘cute’ and / or ‘scary’ animals should feature in the next movie (thus some of the arguments here in favour of White Stork). All the little plants and their complex, deliacte habitats that cannot be moved around and dumped somewhere else (i.e. cannot be introduced or reintroduced) and the myriad unglamorous but speciliased creatures that make up the overwhelming bulk of what we call ‘biodiversity’ do not get much of a look in. We are asked to take it ‘on trust’ that everything else will benefit from free-ranging cattle, Beavers and the like. The problem is, I aspire to be scientic, and don’t want to take things ‘on trust’!

Comments are closed.