Sunday book review – Land Healer by Jake Fiennes

 

This is a very fine book which will, deservedly, be in many lists of ‘books of the year’ for 2022, including in my own. For it deals with important issues and it is very well written. Also, it is in many ways based on three legs, appropriately enough for an ex-gamekeeper, of knowing much about wildlife, understanding land use, and being well-informed of the policy environment in which land use sits.   That combination is very unusual and very welcome.

The first chapter, entitled Hedge Porn, may be a disappointment to some who misunderstand the title but was a delight to this reader. It is a very well-crafted opening to a book, and from then on I was hooked. Hedges are important for wildlife, have some agricultural and definite carbon benefits and really aren’t much of a pain for most farms, even the arable farms of East Anglia. A quick change of hedgerow management is simple and effective, and the author tells of such a renaissance on one farm when a tenant left and the long-term management was changed.

There are other such examples in this book but let’s just stick with hedgerows. None of this is new, but it sounds new coming from the pen of a conservation manager and former gamekeeper who works for a large Norfolk estate. This stuff has been in plain sight for many years but one hopes that coming from this author, from this background, the message may reach many more ears and lead to many more brilliant hedges and much more wildlife in our countryside.

But my fear is that it won’t – because farming is entrenched in old ways.  The subtitle to this book is ‘How farming can save Britain’s countryside’, but that could have been the subtitle to lots of books, even more reports and myriad conversations over the last four decades. What farming has done in that time is rid Britain’s countryside of wildlife very effectively through being blind, and often actively antipathetic, to the things that Jake Fiennes describes so well in this book. Our countryside hasn’t been trashed by townies and nor, though it is sometimes said, gas it been trashed by ‘the system’, it has been trashed by those ‘real country people who have made the decisions on the ground.  This book may influence more land managers to do more, but it is to be hoped that Defra ministers and officials read this book too for there is a massive failure of government to require the farming industry to behave more like Jake Fiennes and his boss on the Holkham estate.  The damage done to wildlife on farmland is so massive, and in many ways so easily reversed, that the people who distribute my taxes to farmers should look at themselves and see whether a bit more stick and rather less carrot is needed, particularly because the stick won’t hurt very much (read this book) and the carrots are my taxes and they aren’t being very well spent at the moment.

Rant over.

Fiennes tells some good stories and some striking ones.  Finding many poisoned Brown Hares (many years ago) in a field which had recently sprayed is a story which hits home strongly, particularly because Fiennes points to the spray operator cut off from nature in his (or her) cab listening to music on headphones as being (but these are my words) as cut off from the consequences of his actions as the townie 50 miles away in a busy street.

The author has interesting things to say  on gamebird shooting, particularly that relying on large releases of non-native gamebirds and seems quite convinced by the much-denied link between gamebird releases and the high densities of carrion eaters and predators in that same countryside.

He really does know his wildlife, particularly, it seemed to me, birds and plants. I smiled a bit though when he described the great eye of gamekeepers when they can identify a bird in silhouette not by its colour but by its stance and its movement – by what birders would call its jizz – a commonplace skill to so many.

This book is beautifully written, from the coke in London clubs to the Cokes in Holkham Hall, and from the bodies of dead Pheasants after a shoot to the observations of living wildlife in the fields and hedgerows, marshes and on the coast.

Many, many readers of this blog will enjoy and appreciate this book.

I would have liked an index and some references, but you can’t have everything in a book and this book delivers a great deal.

The cover? Very attractive but a slightly odd choice of species – beautiful though the Avocet clearly is.  I’d give it 8/10.

Land Healer: how farming can save Britain’s countryside by Jake Fiennes is published by Witness Books

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12 Replies to “Sunday book review – Land Healer by Jake Fiennes”

  1. I’m no fan of what most of the UK’s current farming practices have done to nature. But don’t you think townies (which I suppose I am), have contributed to trashing the countryside by using their economic power to demand cheap food?

    1. m parry – no, I don’t. When was the cheap food campaign? You’re swallowing the myth put out by intensive farming that a) food is cheap and b) that you have to have a devastated countryside in order for it to be cheap.

    2. How dreadful that people think they should be able to afford to eat, what a horror that is. If you really want people to be able to splurge on farm raised food, then you better start demanding massive, and I mean absolutely humongous, wage and benefit rises across all sectors of British society, because “townie” poverty is what is driving the need for the cheapest food out there, not massive economic wealth.

  2. Rant over?
    I think the rant about the disgraceful state of hedgerows in much of this country is one that should never be over until the message gets through to the bone heads at DEFRA or to the industrialist farmers themselves.
    Walking the paths in our countryside, the difference between the few farmers that care and the many agricultural vandals is ever more stark.
    When allowing a hedge to grow a few feet taller and a few feet wider is cheaper than constant cutting back you really do have to question the motives. The only one I can see is that if you prevent wildlife from being there in the first place, nobody can then complain when you rip it out completely.
    Unless of course somebody can give me an alternate reason why ‘poor’ farmers can find the money to pay contractors to trash good habitat.
    And don’t get me started on verges.
    Book on order.

  3. Jake has the benefit of the National Nature Reserve as part of his work. I would have liked more on the mass arable under regenerative farming that Holkham manages. May be that is the next book! Like the lockdown wildlife books written due to this virus, books are pouring out on this type of farming and Sarah Langford’s ‘Rooted’ is one you should review.

  4. Good rant Mark we need far more of them – just allowing the likes of the NFU to make public statements along the lines that ‘all farmers are conservationists’ and not challenge them won’t stop the widespread apathy and even antipathy towards conservation in the rural community. I certainly noticed it when I worked on a farm, and Mark Cocker highlighted it in his wonderful ‘Our Place’ (and Jake Fiennes was interviewed in that), just as with our towns and cities there are plenty of spots that could become wildlife habitat if attitudes towards them changed. Unfortunately the appetite for sterility is at least as bad in the country as in the city – look how many hedges are flail mowed to near death to become truncated squared off versions of what should be glorious hedgerows. Suburbia unleashed.

    I remember the day on the farm (complete with rusting old tractors, piles of fragmenting polythene from the polytunnels, knackered old trailers, piles of bricks etc) when the manager came up to the planting team and proudly announced how he’d been mowing the orchard and it looked so much nicer with short grass. The place looked like a bomb site, but it was longish grass that was an eyesore. That’s pretty much the attitude. I remember Chris Packham stating that he’d personally spoken to farmers in the area where he lived to ask if they could make a few changes to help wildlife. According to Chris 97% refused saying they would just continue as they’d always done.

    This is a good opportunity for an update on the little anecdote I tell to underline why I scoff when I hear claims about how the whole farming community loves wildlife. It’s the one about ‘my’ farm where the farmer did indeed plant hedgerows, but it was because a) he really fancied the young lady who dealt with the grant applications b) the aforementioned grant meant it wouldn’t cost him anything and c) planting hedges would provide screening which would make it easier for him to sell farmland to developers – we were just outside Ipswich. When I posted this on the Rewilding Scotland face book page I got a very interesting response from someone whose ex wife had once worked in the relevant govt department dealing with those grants. There had been a deliberate policy of using attractive young women to front the grant scheme to act as bait to get interest from farmers (it seems to have worked in one case at least). That really is shocking when it’s the govt involved rather than say a new gym touting for membership, although morally dubious in both cases.

    That was the one box that needed ticking, getting initial interest from farmers. Once done then money could be handed over and whatever work was carried out there was apparently very little if any subsequent scrutiny to see if the money was well spent and had benefitted wildlife. The hedges on our farm were comprised of what was cheap and available – this included Indian Bean tree. I’m not in the least surprised at this, but given the vast sums of public money given to farmers to supposedly help conservation it disgusts me this might be a particularly underhand way for money to be siphoned off into the pockets of some of the farming community. My experience with crofters since my time in Suffolk has just reaffirmed my view too much is being accepted at face value, and the incessant crying of victimhood is deterring even the first step of examining and debating what’s true and what’s not about farming and wildlife.

    1. “There had been a deliberate policy of using attractive young women to front the grant scheme to act as bait to get interest from farmers”

      In over twenty years of working on the frontline of agri-environment schemes I must admit I’ve rarely read such fallacious tripe.

      And for the record none of the hedge planting grants in England covered more than 75% of the costs of planting (if that) until the introduction of CS in 2015.

      1. Only reporting what was passed on to me Ernest from a couple of sources. If the farmer did have to chip in 25% of the hedging costs after all (I was told he didn’t pay anything – so my source may have been incorrect), a 75% reduction is still bloody good and as I said cheap crap was bought against the potential for selling off land for development which would be worth an absolute fortune. One local farmer here did so and bought himself a helicopter with the cash. The urban forestry unit has produced notes that tree planting can be used to provide screening that will make it easier to get planning permission for new development, and that principle was used to help get car parking put in on greenbelt land near me. Great stuff, using trees to help concrete the countryside over.

        Originally I only reported the observation the farmer’s initial interest was piqued due to the young lady involved being attractive. It was someone else – a professional conservationist – who remarked their ex wife had told him it was (unofficial/informal) policy to try and use attractive young women to entice the farming community. I was only passing that on, it did seem to fit in with my original remark. I think you’re a wee bit naive Ernest if you think neither dodgy bureaucrats or farmers are above either end of that ploy. I noticed you didn’t take issue with the point that assessments to check if money for conservation was well spent are utter crap. That’s because it’s true isn’t it? Amongst the most fallacious tripe I have to contend with is from the NFU telling us 100% of farmers are dedicated to saving wildlife and maintaining food security, and Crofting organisations telling us how hard done by ‘poor’ crofters are.

  5. I’m very much looking forward to reading Jake’s book – but I have to say that my reaction to the title was “how farming can save the countryside……from farming”.

    Of course, it’s all very complicated – or is it ? My reading is that if you want to reverse the trend in arable areas there is no alternative to the sort of in-field options like beatle banks and wildflower margins and this, I’d suggest, will be the test of where Defra payments end up. And I bet there won’t be many takers for a bet as to whether in field will be compulsory or not.

  6. Hallelujah, Thankyou Mark for confirming what I have always maintained that country people are the cause of the destruction and decline of our biodiversity and landscape. Until these people with their entrenched views are brought into line then everything else is a waste of time.

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