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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