Emperor’s new clothes?

purple emperor in northants  Photo: Tim Melling

purple emperor in Northants Photo: Tim Melling

I headed off, towards the end of last week, with three chums to look at flowers and butterflies, and to drink beer and wine, and to put the world to rights.

All of us could be described as senior enough to be grumpy old men, although, of course, our aim was to be happy not grumpy.  Sometimes, however, the rest of the world is getting everything so wrong that grumpiness comes through despite one’s intentions to be sunny, sunny, sunny.

Our target was to see purple emperors in Bentley Wood – one of the best places in the country to see them.

However, we visited a secret chalk downland site first – and saw lots of flowers.  I’m really trying with flowers this year and decided I would learn one each day.  I learned meadow cranesbill and then my mind was full for the day as far as flowers are concerned.  I’m really impressed by folk who can remember more than one flower a day – they must be real naturalists.

We did see some other flowers – some were very rare – but if I told you about them I’d have to kill you all, and since readers are flooding back to this blog now I am not telling you about the USA that would be too high a body count and too big a task.

However, I have a lot more vacant slots in my head for butterflies and we saw marbled whites, small heaths, a single common blue and ringlets, meadow browns etc.

I have an almost infinite number of brain receptacles for birds but not too many of them were used – we did see lots of corn buntings though, which is such a rare event in the English countryside these days that I had to have a drink.

We stayed in the Old Mill at Salisbury but Constable had moved his easel – I thought I could see where it had been though.  Salisbury Cathedral looks as wonderful as ever, even though someone has built some houses in front of it and forgotten to grow the 50ft trees first to mask them.

The Old Mill has kingfishers flying past if you sit in the garden at 6am and keep your ears open for their high-pitched cries (they can make those cries even when they have fish in their beaks I notice). They also have a nice pint of Abbot.

Conversation ranged widely through the days over what we thought about the RSPB magazine (mixed), George Monbiot’s book (mixed), the RSPB’s new TV advert (mixed), the Wildlife Trusts (mixed), the Guardian (mixed), this government (not so mixed), this book (mixed) and that book (mixed), and this old friend (we think he is great!) and that old friend (he’s great too!).  You see, it’s a bit difficult to summarise – you should have been there!

The conversation was stimulating even when I was completely sober, and even when they were completely sober.  You should have been there!  I have some very clever and very agreeable friends.

The Old Mill seemed to want to give us Saturday breakfast around Saturday lunchtime – but we negotiated it much earlier (to just before elevenses) so that we could set off to Bentley Wood where the air would be black with purple emperors.

We also made the mistake of eating breakfast when it arrived – that always slows you down, doesn’t it? So we arrived at Bentley Wood at around 10, I think it was, and just bagged the last spot in the car park which was full – this trivial piece of information is actually quite important.

The air was not yet black with purple emperors so we went walking to track them down. Phewww! What a scorcher – it was hot.   Good weather for butterflies – in fact good weather for; meadow browns, ringlets, large skippers, small skippers, white admirals, large whites, green-veined whites, red admirals, speckled woods, silver-washed fritillaries (how amazing are they?), white-letter hairstreaks and anything else I’ve forgotten but not for purple emperors.  And not for peacocks or brimstones for we were in the ‘peacock gap’ and the ‘brimstone gap’.

One or two emperors had been seen but we had been in the wrong place at the right time and so we were emperorless – like most other people.  The car park, remember the car park?, is quite a good spot for them and if we had just stayed there we might have seen one.  T’would have been a terribly dull visit though.

We had to make a move in order to get to the next pub so we left.  It wasn’t quite that easy as hordes of people were having a picnic blocking our exit so we had to lay about us with stout sticks to clear a path.  No, that’s an exaggeration – they were very kind and moved with alacrity (especially when I told them our driver was apt to veer around like a crazed, a crazed? – a crazed driver under these circumstances).

As we edged slowly out of the constricted space (remember we were last in to the car park) we found a horse fly to rival all horseflies and looked at that in awe and then edged out the last few feet to discover that a purple emperor had been performing acrobatics about 20 feet from us in the first part of the tiny car park.

That was enough to make anyone grumpy but we were soon at the pub.  So we didn’t see purple emperors – our quest was a failure apart from all those flowers (tufted vetch was my flower of the day on Saturday), all those butterflies, all that beer, all that wine and all that cheery conversation.  A failure as we did not see purple emperor even though, had we been sensitive to it, we might have felt the faintest whisper from its wings a few feet away.

So how can I have the nerve to display that lovely photo of a purple emperor at the top of this post?  Because on Monday morning, I was watching a purple emperor (about half a dozen of them in fact) half an hour from my home and at the site, Fermyn Woods, where Tim Melling took these images.

I know my chums will be pleased for me and not grumpy at all.



Purple emperor in Northants.  Photo: Tim Melling

Purple emperor in Northants. Photo: Tim Melling







Last chance to vote here

Today will be your last chance to respond to this short poll on what you think about the RSPB’s new TV advert.  The results  will appear on Thursday and some thoughts from me on Friday.

There are over 100 comments from readers of this blog so far – and about 400 responses to the poll.  What do you think?


Ralph Underhill cartoon and CAP nonsense from farmers (just pretend it’s Saturday)

Cartoon: Ralph Underhill

Cartoon: Ralph Underhill


The CAP coalition, led by the NFU, the CLA and the TFA, met at the Great Yorkshire Show on 9 July to reinforce their simple message to Government: Keep sending the cheques! 

The CAP coalition claims to represent the interest of the rural economy but is actually largely a bunch of recipients of taxpayers’ money with a vested selfish interest in keeping the gravy train on the tracks. They are worried that subsidy cheques might be cut a little bit in future, having sailed through the last few years unnoticed and unscathed.

Judging from the composition of this group, the interests of the rural economy don’t, for example, include tourism it seems. Or forestry. Or small petrol stations. Or country pubs. Or post offices.  No, if you are a recipient of large CAP cheques from the taxpayer then that’s what the rural economy is all about.

CLA Deputy President Henry Robinson (who is a very nice man and must be somewhat embarrassed having to say things like this) said: “Government has failed to explain to farmers and land-managers what it intends to use this money for. We believe that it is wrong to start from the premise that the maximum amount of money must be transferred from pillar one to pillar two. What is required is a quantifiable analysis that establishes how any transferred funds will impact on English farmers.

Well, Henry, there you go!  Maybe you should put in an FoI request to Defra asking for their detailed thoughts on the subject – that always works!  Or you could just live in the real world which is in recession.  You hadn’t noticed?  Good for the CLA!  As the government hacks its way through spending on almost every aspect of our lives do you really expect them to stop and tell you their spending plans if they give your members a little bit less of poor people’s money?  It’s not really as though the poor people are going to get their money back is it?  No the money will go into reducing the deficit, or maybe, it is to be hoped, that some of it might go into reducing the decline of public services. 

George Dunn, CEO of the Tenant Farmers’ Association, said: “English farmers are rightly proud of their environmental credentials and their ability to produce world class product for the British public.” which, if true, means that English farmers are a pretty complacent bunch. George – you are sounding just like the NFU – is that what you really want? The NFU didn’t suggest that line to you did they?  Are you really proud of the fact that wildlife is bleeding from the countryside, as documented, yet again, in the recent State of Nature report?  So, you are proud that 60% of farmland species are declining? And that a third of farmland wildlife is declining strongly? And that one in seven farmland plants are on the national Red List because of their parlous state? Would you like to reconsider that remark by any chance?

The NFU, in the shape of Deputy President Meurig Raymond remained true to form and took a more openly anti-environmental approach: “I cannot stress strongly enough the feeling of frustration amongst farmers to hear on the one hand, the Government’s backing for British food production, but its determination to disadvantage and undermine English farmers resilience compared to our European competitors on the other hand. Mr Paterson wants us to focus on making the sector more efficient and productive than its global rivals. I just don’t see how cutting English farmers’ payments and channelling more money to environmental schemes that take land out of production and increase costs will do that.

With such nonsense being spoken it is tempting to think that other quotes might have been excised from the press release.  Surely these members of the ‘CAP coalition’ didn’t say these things?:

Dairy Crest and Dairy UK: ‘The taxpayer should be milked for all she is worth’.

Bernard Matthews farms: ‘All that money – it’s booootiful!’.

British Sugar: ‘It’s so sweet’.

LEAF: ‘Every time we are associated with nonsense like this our environmental credentials take a real kicking but maybe nobody will notice.  We are thinking of changing our name to DEAF because we don’t really listen to the needs of the environment; when the NFU and CLA say ‘Jump!’ we simply ask ‘How high?”.

Yara: ‘You’ve never heard of us? We are the world’s largest producer and marketer of mineral fertilisers. Yabba Dabba Doo!’.

This blog tried to get quotes extolling the value of the current CAP handouts from wildlife species but small skippers, cornflowers and skylarks were unavailable for comment.


Sunday Book Review – Feral by George Monbiot

This is a book that many people ought to read.  I read most of it before I went to the USA and then read all of it, some of it several times, on my return.  I was reading it again at 6am yesterday morning in the back garden of the Old Mill Hotel in Salisbury where a kingfisher, a juvenile robin and a loud wren distracted me.

I agree with the thrust of this book – which I believe is that we need more wild nature in our lives and that we ought to put it there through ‘rewilding’ some of the world around us.  That’s a good message and is almost becoming nature conservation orthodoxy in the UK.  Some of the questions that remain are; how much? how? where? and how quickly?

What is this thing ‘rewilding’? It’s restoring ecosystems that are largely unperturbed by our own species, including restoring some large and locally extinct species such as wolves and white-tailed eagle.

Monbiot suggests that we are all missing the wilder life and discusses people’s keenness to ‘see’ large black cats running around the British countryside.  We need more forest, more wolves, more beavers, fewer sheep, less fishing of the seas and we need the policy makers either to stand aside or to adopt this as a basis for public funding of land managers, but we shouldn’t oppress the landowners if they don’t fancy the prospect of change.

There are some lovely bits of classic Monbiot. He has a go at farming unions for talking rubbish and the CAP for being rubbish.  Monbiot writes, ‘ …the CAP stings every household in the UK for £245 a year.  That is equivalent to five weeks of food for the average household, or slightly less than it lays down in the form of savings and investments every year (£296). Using our money to subsidise private business is a questionable policy at any time. When important public services are being cut for want of cash , it is even harder to justify.‘.  When Monbiot from the left of politics, and Roger Scruton from what looks like the right to me (in Green Philosophy), both criticise the CAP on similar grounds there seems no place for the discredited implementation of a European ideal to hide.

This book has quite a lot of how Monbiot feels about nature, what he enjoys doing in Wales, and anecdotes and instructive stories from his past in a variety of locations outside of Europe.  These didn’t help me very much in following the argument nor did they work that well in keeping me interested – they may work brilliantly for you, of course, as those things are very personal in nature.

It’s not obvious, to me, whether Monbiot thinks that this re-wilding idea is ‘the’ way to do nature conservation or ‘a’ way to do nature conservation.  If the former then he is wrong, if the latter then he is right.  Many species, including declining species, rely on farmed landscapes for their existence and we shouldn’t abandon them and their needs (for example) while we wait for an overgrazed hillside to grow into an ancient woodland.

Monbiot is not over-generous in referencing the steps that many conservation organisations, and indeed individual landowners, are doing  in the fields of species reintroduction, habitat restoration and habitat re-creation – there is quite a lot going on, it’s difficult work and it’s very expensive too.  But if his book brings the message of how much nature we have lost to many more people, and persuades them that we might be better off mentally, physically and even financially, if we brought back more wild nature then it will have done everyone a service.

Monbiot largely leaves it to others to work out how to get from the mess we are in now to his rather unspecified better world.  That’s fine, but it does need doing.

Really wild places will have to be really big to be really useful.  There is no point, or not much at any rate, doing a bit of tinkering. I’d love to see us re-flood The Fens, or some of them anyway, and bring back a living wetland that would store carbon, produce fish and other food and act as a wetland National Park for East Anglia.  I would love to see much of Salisbury Plain return to chalk grassland and low-intensity arable farming with masses of butterflies and chalk grassland flowers (and great bustards of course).  With good rail and road links from London this could become a weekend destination for re-wilding addicts fleeing the big city.  Let’s see large parts of upland Wales return to deciduous woodland with bison in the woods and bison-burgers in the pubs.

I’m up for all of these, certainly after a drink or two, but in the cold light of day you can see that there might be a few sugar beet and carrot farmers in Cambridgeshire who are a bit less enthusiastic about the first; some arable farmers un-keen on the second and the odd Welsh sheep farmer who is concerned about the last one.  And that’s a large part of the reason why they haven’t happened yet – not because nobody thought of them but because we were all too scared to push them as hard as they need to be pushed and for as long as they need to be pushed.  Maybe Monbiot’s book will stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood and we can go back into the breach again.

Any book that the President of the NFU hates must have something going for it and this book really does have a lot going for it.  It didn’t, it seems, open Peter Kendall’s mind to future prospects of exciting wild lands but your mind might swing open more easily.  Read it – it should enthuse you about the possibilities of the future, but it certainly isn’t a road map for getting there.


Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding by George Monbiot  is available on Amazon as is Mark Avery’s book Fighting for Birds.

This blog is going to feature book reviews, mostly of newly published books, on Sundays for the next few weeks.



If this post appears…

…then it means that I am off looking for purple emperors.

Meanwhile, have you voted in my poll and commented on what you think of the RSPB’s new TV advert?

The poll will close fairly soon as the results are pretty clear (to me) already so do have your say.