This article first appeared in the November 2021 edition of Birdwatching Magazine
A couple of decades ago I was involved with a project which provided camps on a ‘farm attraction’ for inner city kids. It wasn’t in the least surprising to find that ignorance of the countryside was legion amongst them – some genuinely believed carrots grew in bunches, others were really surprised to find where milk came from and totally disgusted when they found out the origin of their breakfast eggs! Not only was this easily forgiven, but it was quickly dispelled as we explored the local woods and streams and hiked across fields. Kids terrified of the pitch-black nights filled with weird noises from hooting owls to barking foxes soon adapted and relaxed into new knowledge and the fantastic freedom of being immersed in nature.
What was not only surprising and disappointing but profoundly disturbing, were the attitudes and misconceptions of one of the people behind the project. Maybe he was unique, but I suspect his arogance and ignorance were a bi-product of his Eton education. I’ve no idea if he ‘felt’ nature; his immersion seemed more fuelled by a picaresque image garnered from classical painting and romantic Victorian novels than from any real connection with the blood, tooth and claw of real eco-systems.
He once hit upon the idea of getting the kids to paint leaves different colours while still on the trees as they would look ‘funky’ – I kid you not! He was outraged when I told the local hunt they could no longer cross our land. Their response said it all; they said: ‘but we pay for any damage?’ as if that was the only consideration. Meanwhile, he couldn’t see how inner-city kids and the ‘unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable’ clashed. He took no issue with a haulier continuing to dump hardcore on the farm as it created an income stream. Nor had he hesitated to cut down trees in a shore of ancient woodland to make way for a static caravan, which turned out to be the three-bedroomed farm cottage promised as part of my wages.
Knowing Swiss ski-slopes better than downland and Saville Row suites better than dungarees his care for the countryside was only pocket deep.
Given this experience, I should be more than prepared for how some politicians, landowners and captains of industry can reconcile their mansions in the countryside with projects and businesses that plunder anywhere but their own backyards.
‘Building back better’, has to be just that. But right now, it seems still fuelled by profit not our collective environment.
Why did we sell off our water companies? The politically promulgated myth is that private hands are more efficient than governmental ones. But left out of the formula is that profit drives good practice out of the window. If you can make more profit by pumping raw sewage on the beaches and paying multi-million-pound fines, than building more capacity, that is what you do, over and over again. Not by accident but by design.
We pride ourselves on having ‘cleaned up’ the industrial sludge runs that used to be our rivers, and yet we pump millions of gallons of untreated sewage into them almost daily. The sea is still treated as a cess pit, despite growing evidence that we are killing life-giving flora and fauna by doing so.
I have spouted a lot of words about water lately because it really is our life blood. Making rivers, lakes and seas fit for wildlife and our leisure and pleasure is not something we can treat as secondary to piling up cash or paying out monetary dividends.