30 Apr 2013

This sceptic isle?

I was born in the English countryside. I grew up in it and even now a week, without some infusion of it, is a lesser week than one in which I can sleep at least one night there. Yet I doubt I could live there again long-term.

This last weekend, I got my two days and a night. They were spent in valley in the west Berkshire downs. Hills rich in chalk with sheep grazing on the evergreen grass, and a winding single track road keeping the rest of the world at bay.

The place I slept is in a hamlet in the midst of a 2,000 acre estate. On Sunday the local gamekeeper, whose job it is to breed pheasants and partridges to be shot, took a couple of dozen people who live around the area on a “conservation” ramble across the acres above which his winged charges are expensively dispatched.

I had always regarded game shooting as next to fox hunting – essentially destructive and counter-conservationist. But as the gamekeeper, James, described what was going on around us, I began to think again. For James surprised us all by stating that the policy here is to shoot nothing beyond the reared pheasants and partridges.

No rabbit, hare, squirrel, pigeon or rat is ever shot. For as James explained: “You violate the food chain at nature’s peril.” Break the food chain and a whole species can disappear.  Rabbits, stoats and weasels need to be left for hawks to kill and red kites to eat. Indeed some of the reared pheasants augment the food chain.

When we wandered into woodland on a sharp escarpment we found the topography upheaved by badger diggings. Vast piles of chalk stone stood at the myriad entrances to a maze of badger setts. Some of the tunnels ran 150 yards into the hill only to emerge again higher up.

James described hearing the thumping under ground as 30 or 40 badgers in one sett were expanding their tunnels. In fact in this particular sett the old badger “king” had been deposed and driven out by a younger male pretender. Later on our walk we came across the lone sett of the old badger in a flat field of wheat.

Three holes defined it, sitting about 500 yards from his old empire. It had the feel of Napoleon about it. On the escarpment on the other side were foxes’ faeces and their own small empire. The flint-covered top of the down had been freshly ploughed for the stone curlews to nest in the ruts. We found three pairs. High above our heads lapwing wheeled.

When James moved here 25 years ago there were no songbirds. His predecessor had shot everything that moved. Today the dawn chorus chatters into action with enormous verve from April to October.

But as we shall be reporting next week, what I experienced in west Berkshire is far from Britain’s rural norm. On 8 and 9 May, Channel 4 News will devote a serious portion of the programme to the rapid decline of  the UK countryside and wildlife.

The figures I have already seen are both shocking and terrifying. We have had an exclusive sighting of a report by 40 prominent scientists charting all this. I want the strand to be entitled “This Sceptic Isle?” Tune to see what we end up calling it.

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31 reader comments

  1. Eileen (@allovus) says:

    too sad too too sad yet hope, hope to God, not too late..

  2. Philip Edwards says:


    “…the rapid decline of the UK countryside and wildlife…”?

    I don’t see what your problem is. House builders and property developers “entrepreneurs” will solve everything, restore a fair society, empathise with natural environment, and “create wealth” – all at the same time; that’s what the tories, “New” Labour and the LibDems have peddled for the last thirty-odd years. So it must be true musn’t it?

    The fact is we have exactly the kind of nation and society we deserve. If decency doesn’t reassert itself and boot out the disgusting Yankified spiv economy we presently endure then you can guarantee what’s going to happen, especially in the polluted, bribed and corrupt south east of England.

    We once had a reasonably fair country. Not ideal, not Utopian, not even particularly caring – just reasonably fair. Now we are owned and run by out-and-out tenth rate liars, hypocrites and scoundrels, nearly all of them based in London and the south east. Now we have a rat-eat-rat full blown capitalist society. So what else did you expect?

    At this rate we won’t have a “sceptic isle,” we will have a septic isle.

    And that being the case, give me one good reason why 99% of the country should give a bright shiny toss about Berkshire and its insufferable smugness.

    1. Alan cree says:

      Quite like your post – but be aware that the behaviour and attitudes although centred in London, long ago spread much further afeild. There are pirates everywhere, their mantra being “take what you can – give nothing back”

  3. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    Our Isle the sanctuary, is rapidly losing its in/out of the country flavour. That peaceful haven where once all we could hear was “the murmering of innumerable bees” has been replaced by overhead jets. When I moved into my new very modest house 30 years ago on the edge of the moors I looked up and occasionally saw a plane . Not long ago in one hour I counted 30.

    The only badgers I see now are dead lying on the roads . The houses are squashed back to back without a decent sized garden to attract wildlife and the councils refuse to look after their diseased ,straggly overgrown mature trees which have reseeded to the point where they strangle all other vegetation and make happy hunting ground for rats only.
    The respect for the country is disappearing.

  4. Nigel Cheffers-Heard says:

    Here in Topsham in Devon, the Environment Agency and partners the RSPB are pushing a scheme to flood our beloved River Clyst Valley. This is in the name of “habitat creation”, which is of course Newspeak for habitat destruction. This is ostensibly to satisfy Europen Habitat legislation. In fact, the Exe Estuary nearby has more mud than the birds can ever occupy, yet the RSPB have seized an opportunity to expand their fiefdom. The scheme threatens productive farmland and an important road. Our valley has developed over generations, where all interests are catered for in balance. The Eco fascists of the EA and RSPB want to flood it for the benefit of one special interest group, and to hell with the people who actually own and care for it.
    And the real sadness? They are offering large sums of money to hard pressed farmers to ruin their own land forever. This not only at a time of increasing concern about home food production, but for the first time ever, they are fomenting conflict between families who have cared for the land for generations. Shame on them.

    Save the Cyst
    (find and support us on Facebook)

    1. Britt_W says:

      It’s called ‘Making space for water’… and I’m not saying I agree with it. In some cases I’m sure it’s a good solution, in others, it’s not the best way out. I fear some of these new policies are down to cuts in the DEFRA flood defence budget. I know the area you describe well, as – part from the last 2.5 years, I have lived in Topsham, too – since 1998. Lovely part of the world, I used to walk around the Goat Walk and Bowling Green just about every day.

  5. Robert Taggart says:

    Guess the song birds have migrated to places where they be appreciated / fed ? – Towns !
    Blackbirds are particularly appreciated…
    One summers evening last year – nothing worth watching on the ‘box’ – what to do ?
    Answer – switch it off !, open the windows, lie down on the sofa and enjoy the ‘free to air’ entertainment ! For the hour and a half in question one did.

    1. margaret brandreth-jones says:

      That is exactly how Classic fm started. For weeks prior to broadcasting , the station continually played birdsong recorded in one of the broadcasters garden.

  6. Susan - Common Decency says:

    Good morning Jon,

    “No rabbit, hare, squirrel, pigeon or rat is ever shot.” nor trapped, poisoned or snared – did anyone ask?

    Your description makes shooting sound benign. It is not. If you would like someone to explain a different perspective, in situ, I live in the middle of a pheasant shoot.

    Without question, planting trees etc extends habitat diversity and the shooting fraternity understandably market their sport in a good light, they are trying to protect an activity they enjoy from critical challenges.

    One challenge is about the consequences on human beings living in the countryside, not just animals, which may not be within the remit of your programmes on 8-9 May. It questions the deference, which some people who shoot, expect from individuals and us as a nation. It is an emotive aspect less frequently considered, the imposition of ‘killing for fun’ on other peoples’ lives.

    The way we – all of us – use, protect and enjoy our countryside does indeed need discussing and the claims of a tiny percentage of the population who have control over an enormous percentage of this ‘isle’ needs sceptical scrutiny.

  7. Philip says:

    Though I agree with much of the above, it’s worth reminding ourselves that man has been altering the rural environment virtually ever since he set foot on this island. Previous generations largely deforested the country, dug it up for coal & minerals leaving grim industrial wastelands, burnt fossil fuels, polluted rivers, killed native beasts sometimes to extinction & introduced alien species of animals and plants. Farmers have tilled lands, changing the fieldscape..etc..etc. Our countryside has been subject to continual change – sometimes at a faster rate & in more challenging ways. But by and large we have clean rivers, clean air (certainly compared to when I was a child) and the grinding rural poverty and subsistence agriculture for a feudal lord is a thing of the past. When we mobilise to stop harmful change, often we the people succeed. But if we sit on our hands & tap away at our keyboards, but do nothing – the rich & powerful will do what they want, while disguising it as inevitable or for the common good via their friends in the media.

  8. Aidan Turner says:

    The great majority of the population want to protect what remains of our Countryside and wildlife. The powers that be have other ideas. The forthcoming Badger Cull will be a litmus test
    of which way we are going as a Society. If we allow our beloved,top mammal to be effectively exterminated throughout most of England, then the writing will be on the wall, the battle will be lost. This is a crunch time.

  9. m.john says:

    Why can’t they vaccinate the badgers with a dart gun perhaps instead of culling them!
    Common sense & well being for these wildlife it appears is not to be found in Westminster.
    All God’s creatures!!
    Another detrimental issue facing the countryside is this ‘HS2’ rail road PROJECT which will plough through the picturesque Cotswolds & Chilterns desecrating the wildlife as it unfolds!
    The reason; To service the needs of a few Birmingham business people who will save a mere twenty minutes on the journey time to London. The expense to the public £££££sixty billion & rising! There will be few other benefactors since there are NO OTHER STOPS EN ROUTE!

  10. Carissa says:

    Anyone who looks into the sky on a regular basis will like me notice multiple chem trail planes out criss crossing our skies with chemical deposit.
    Rest assured that if we see and enjoy rare blue skies, the chem trailers are out intensively spraying and seeding clouds to put us all back into the gray dome.
    We are not supposed to question this weather manipulation which is referred to as geo engineering.
    I have driven through metallic fog hanging and hovering over the countryside and tasting disgusting as it enters the car.
    Why are they spraying us? Animals wildlife and humans are becoming ill.
    Is this a population control agenda? What is morgellons disease? Look it up.
    Soon the trees will be dead as the ph of the soil is altered by aluminium content of the spray. What else is in the spray? It’s very bad news and soon if we allow these crimes to continue we will be doomed. Anyone feeling angry?

  11. Carissa says:

    Jon Snow…please report on the very visible and real issue of Chemtrails and the shocking consequences of this secretive and undemocratic practice.

  12. BF says:

    This should be a documentary and not the lead item on the news. There is cause for concern but many of the points are unsubstantiated and I feel a well paid PR company is orchestrating this initiative. Also, I found Rachel Seifert’s section grating; if a footballer should be able to kick a ball, a journalist should be able to pronounce r. A core competence surely.

  13. Edward Bancroft says:

    I rarely saw magpies in my youth and only at a distance; that was in an age of abundant songbirds. However when the RSPB fixated on protecting raptors the garden songbird population declined. I first experienced the ascent of the magpie when I found a whole family of blackbird chicks on the ground, beheaded. The culprits were a pair of recenty arrived magpies, and since then the population of songbirds has remained low. Magpies are now common, perhaps RSPB see that as a success, but they should not try to blame songbird decline on other problems.

    The programme tonight, Thursday 9-5-13, was embarrasingly alarmist. No doubt the various groups were ramping up the hype on ‘climate change’ as a convenient villain of the piece in order to get funding, but anyone who stops to consider the many other factors will see that this is the wrong target.

  14. Sun says:

    I haven’t read the report that today’s news programme (09/05/2013) is based upon but surely Channel 4 news’ interpretation is just non-scientific hysteria, the kind of hysteria that this news programme seems to be indulging in over other recent news items too. Jon Snow in today’s programme (09/05/2013) is ‘saying’ that the massive decline in wildlife over the last century in Britain is mainly down to climate change. Whilst I accept climate change is happening (hasn’t it always?) surely the reason for this massive decline is almost solely down to habitat destruction by man, yet this was only briefly mentioned in Jon Snow’s news report. Cataclysmic adjectives stating that climate change is predominantly to blame has created a totally misleading and false news story about a critical issue about the survival of wildlife on this planet. Please report the facts and not your prejudiced and misleading interpretation of them. Yes, climate change appears to be having an effect on this country’s wildlife, but ignoring the main reason for the decline (habitat destruction by man) to sell the global warming message will very likely result in people not taking action to curb further habitat destruction. You are in effect letting off those who want to continue to concrete over what little wildlife habitat is left. Please report the facts and not your distorted opinions of it.

  15. Joyce Bragg says:

    Where can I read the report Jon referred to in this evening’s channel 4 news?

  16. PhilipW says:


    Those of us well over 50 (and I am) recall a much richer countryside and wildlife. Memory, however, is unreliable so I fall back on 84 notebooks dating from 1958, and they reveal the same. Over here in Northern Ireland and in Ireland in general we have fewer species
    than in Britain and a lot less than in mainland Europe. We all need to get this situation much
    higher on politicians’ agendas.

    Easier said than done!

  17. Speedy says:

    It’s a simple equation and I’ll give you it in a sound-bite: expanding human population equals habitat loss …65 million people (and rising) all crammed on to this tiny island laying down concrete everywhere.
    We humans are the problem! Because we do 3 things really well that are destructive: procreation, consumerism and occupying space.
    If you think thing are bad now wait till next year when more human will flood this country doing those 3 destructive things.

  18. Bob Graham says:

    Hi Jon,

    I ranted at last night’s news when you spoke from Beauly where some idiots are breeding beaver and hope to re-introduce them to the UK. A little research will show you that beaver are nothing more than destructive vermin. All of your guests mentioned the effect that climate change was having on our wildlife. There is this ‘Canute-like’ belief that man can actually stop the climate from changing by fiddling with a few politically correct variables AND we are squandering £billions in the process, it beggars belief. Your guests included a SNH scientist and a gamekeeper, ironic really when you consider that SNH (Scottish National Heritage) actively support the wanton destruction of Scotland’s Countryside with these giant wind farms. Many of them built on peatland, in the case of the Whitelee wind farm (near Glasgow) thousands of tons of peat(a natural carbon sink) were destroyed, in places it was 20 feet deep. It was then replaced by hundreds of thousands of tons of concrete, the manufacture of cement by the way produces between 5 & 10 % of man-made carbon dioxide. Our game keeping friend didn’t mention that his colleagues were being prosecuted almost on a monthly basis for poisoning raptures. What I am alluding to is the sheer hypocrisy of blaming climate change for all of our environmental problems. Take the planning system which is nothing more than a developer’s charter. Hundreds of thousands of houses planned for the countryside, many destined for areas that are prone to flooding. A high speed rail link, new airports etc etc. Huge areas of natural environment being destroyed mostly for commercial reasons.

    Exposing the plight of the sea birds was fine but why not discuss the EU’s quota for sand eel fishing given to the Danes. Up until recently they were hauling, annually, over a million tons out of the North Sea. This little eel is the staple diet for just about everything that swims or flies around the North Sea!! Apparently because of the current shortage of sand eels the Danes are only managing to slaughter 330,000 tons per annum. The catch ironically is turned into oil and fish meal some of the latter is used to feed the fish farms which themselves are causing serious pollution and are endangering the natural salmon stocks. Jesus, what a sick world we live in, environmentally as well as morally.

    Your reader who is concerned about the vapour trails emitting from aeroplanes shouldn’t be, they are just water vapour.

    Jon please be more selective in who you have on as guests, particularly if they have a vested interest.


    Bob Graham

  19. ray seymour says:

    It is disappointing, to say the least, that your report was one-sided, poorly researched and was a clear attempt to perpetuate the myth that climate change is responsible for the perception that the environment is suffering irreversible damage.
    The fact is that the 40 so-called scientists referred to in your report is a gaggle of lobbyists whose funding and vested interests rely upon the mistaklen belief that climate is a static and never-changing phenomenon and, far more ludicrously, that man can somehow control such global phenomena.
    I suppose it would be too much to expect a balanced and properly researched report–after all, it is your duty to do this in a news programme. Instead, it was shrill and alarmist and merely insulted the intelligence of your viewers.

  20. Carissa says:

    In reply to Bob Graham. I wish the trails were simply vapour trails. If only!
    If you are not familiar with the subject and observation of Chemtrails do check out the facts. Most people are not aware of the ongoing spraying programmes in UK, USA and In a total of 16 countries. Disbelief is a first and typical response and entirely understandable. However, I regularly see up to five planes at a time pumping out wide dense white spray which go on for miles. The skies become criss crossed, then cloud is seeded and the gray dome we live in covers us once more. There is deposit on cars and windows. On a fine day, metallic fog can hang in the air. It smells foul. There is an associated disease arising from Chemtrailing, called Morgellons disease. The symptoms are described in articles posted on the web.
    The metallic spraying in great quantities has resulted in metals permeating the seas and causing methane gasses to form, which in turn is killing sea life.
    This is fact.
    It is recorded that in some areas of America the ph of the soil has altered which threatens the sustainability of plant life. Dying off of trees in heavily sprayed areas is a fact.
    Weather manipulation is a fact. The militarisation ofour weather is a fact. Check out Haarp, which works with emp and Chemtrails to greater effect. This I am regretfully asserting is our present reality.

  21. Anita Berglund says:

    Al Gore gave us a warning many years ago and no one heard..
    Point is chemicals are ditched into
    waters all over the world – remember Long Island in 1953 – people are still getting cancer there. I know personally with cousins living in that area and those
    who are not. Dr. John Lee also said
    HRT & the Pill have contaminated
    our drinking water because oestrogens cannot be taken out. I
    am talking Cancer here.
    They are there for good! Read
    What Doctors May Not Tell You
    About Menopause. All the above is
    not only affecting us but wildlife also – not to mention the Chemtrails
    that some are in denial about.
    The big businesses are only interested in money not the well being of the plant. I heard last night
    that it is now possible to control the
    weather – at least in some countries.?????
    I think we need to take a good,hard
    look at Pesticides – so let us go back to the time when wild life and
    nature were healthy – What changed???

  22. Anita Berglund says:

    I only forgot to say that I admire
    and have great respect for Jon Snow. I only watch the news on
    Channel 4.
    The above is o.k. with me.

  23. Dee T says:

    When I moved here (east Wales) 40 years ago there were lapwings, curlews, butterflies and big fat bottomed bumblebees, as well as a few hares. Buzzards were here, foxes, badgers, crows, magpies and the lovely raven croak could be heard too.
    Now all there are is badgers, buzzards, foxes, crows and magpies – and red kites Have also moved in recently. In other words the predators have been given preference owing to recent daft protection policies.
    Gone are the ground nesting birds, completely, as well as the hares. The bumble bee nests have been dug up by badgers in my local wood.
    There is very little human settlement expansion, so the devastation, and it is devastation, has been the Unintended consequence of our ill managed countryside, by people who don’t understand it.
    You will never get it back, and until you understand that the countryside, which was managed for years by people who understood it, still needs management, which sometimes means necessary control, our vulnerable species will continue to decline – and that is without the added challenge of climate change.

  24. Reece says:

    Gamekeepers are some of the best conservationists this country has, whether they do predator control or not. Game shooting depends on good quality habitat, and a number of estates have won the RSPB’s nature of farming award for their work, although the RSPB do not mention on their website that shooting takes place. The last winner runs a shooting estate and organic farm, several runners up had shooting estates as well. This has been the case in many previous years. Gamekeepers must be doing something right if they are winning RSPB awards.

    Predator control does not involve wiping out whole populations. That is not what gamekeepers do, it is what some non shooters (including Jon Snow) wrongly assume gamekeepers do. Predator control is about tipping the balance of nature slightly, and it does not have any impact on the conservation status of any native predators. It is perfectly sustainable and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. If it did cause problems, foxes, stoats, crows, magpies, jays, etc would become endangered. The fact that all species legally controlled by gamekeepers are thriving disproves the arguments made against predator control.

    Predator control benefits some vulnerable species, particularly rare ground nesting birds, from the grey partridge to the capercaillie. Conservation groups like the RSPB do it on their reserves, it’s not just gamekeepers.

    And if this estate does not cull squirrels, that itself is a crime against nature. Grey squirrels, that is, the only squirrels which can be killed. Grey squirrels are alien invasive species and destroy native wildlife including red squirrels and songbirds.

  25. Reece says:

    Bob Graham,

    “Our game keeping friend didn’t mention that his colleagues were being prosecuted almost on a monthly basis for poisoning raptures.”

    Of course he didn’t say that, because contrary to your rant, most gamekeepers do not kill raptors at all. According to the RSPB, there were 202 incidents of raptor persecution in 2011. Out of 5000-6000 gamekeepers that’s around 4%. Yes, 4%. And that’s assuming that each incident was down to a different gamekeeper, and that all incidents were down to gamekeepers, neither of which is likely to be true.
    Not all those 202 incidents are confirmed, and if you only include the confirmed incidents, the figure would be less than 1%.
    The fact that only a tiny number of gamekeepers kill raptors is blatantly obvious for those who bother to look. It may be less obvious to those who don’t look at the evidence, and instead choose to present their own prejudices and generalisations as fact, which you seem to have done.

    This broad brush denigration of gamekeepers is disgraceful and it needs to stop now. It is not supported by any evidence and there is no excuse for it. Focus on the 4% that actually kill raptors, not the huge majority who are completely innocent.

  26. Nikki says:

    The absence of songbirds is partly due to the illegal trapping of millions of small, migrating birds in many parts of rural Europe. Limesticks and nets destroy indiscriminately, thus killing rare birds too. EU ruling is disregarded and there is little follow up to prosecute. Please read Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Ugly Mediterranean” in his book “Farther Away,” which gives his first hand observations of this practice in Cyprus.
    Many factors combine to create wildlife depletion, to our collective sorrow.

    May I add that former dramatic changes in climate were not man induced, but were part of the constantly changing nature of our planet. Most likely the planet will repair itself, but might not be able to include humans in its next era of evolution. Some new life form may breathe a sigh of relief about that.

  27. Meg Howarth says:

    Tangential link to countryside – here’s this week’s report on UK’s species decline


    See heartfelt comment @SteB1 and moving response to same by @Charrums30: ‘Children often see the insanity in grown up thinking. They’re much smarter than adults, they have a finer tuned sense of right and wrong. The other week my 5 year old niece said it was stupid to have factories making guns that hurt and kill people. She wanted rainbow factories instead’ – out of the mouths of babes and sucklings! Beautiful thought to start the day

  28. Stephen Munslow says:

    “I was born in the English countryside. I grew up in it”.
    So did I, and when I was born the population was under 50 million. I have seen a colossal, terrifying diminution in our flora and fauna.
    Reason, of course is population – England had too large a population in 1950, and is now horribly overpopulated. In 2008 it overtook the Netherlands in being, for the first time ever, the most densely populated major country in Europe. And now we have the highest birth rate for over 40 years, and still the migrants come. But we can do nothing about it, because the powers that be consider economic growth to be the be all and end all of existence, and in addition, for the liberal left, people like John Snow, it is an article of faith that immigration is a GOOD THING – full stop.
    Compare the state of Oregon – slightly larger than the Uk – population 3.8 million, UK 63 million. Take Louisiana – slightly larger than England – population 5.5 million, England – 56 million. Of the states of America, only tiny New Jersey is as crowded as the UK.
    As for pesticides – with 63 million people, then I’m afraid production has to be maximised, unless you are happy to import yet more of our food using oil-powered transport. As far as our nature is concerned, the future is grim. A sensible species would have had a population policy long ago. The laissez-faire approach is madness. But, for some reason, this idea is taboo, particularly among the chattering classes.

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