Chauvinism – the British do it better!
This article appeared in the September 2011 edition of Birdwatch
When a quarter of the world map was pink and God was an Englishman we assumed that we were, by and large, getting it right. Whether it was the Queensbury Rules in boxing or the Imperial system of weights and measures we imposed on are dominions, and by default the world, the ‘proper’ way to do things.
In a world where more people use the Metric system of measurement and the art of pugilism has been replaced by cage fighting and kick boxing its much harder to be so sure of ourselves. Obviously Metric is better, but barbarism triumphing over order is not. The British self-confidence is getting shakier by the hour. Former colonies produce faster runners (Kenya), fairer policies (Canada), cleverer software (India) and wealthier cities (Australia). Yet we seem to retain our unshakeable belief that, by and large, the British way is the best way. There maybe people out there who have outpaced their former masters, but only, we assume, because we gave them the traditions and mores to take it to the next level.
The good old RSPB has been saving birds for over a century and our farmers, bless ‘em, have rejected GM in favour of traditional farming… or have they?
You don’t need a microscope to see that ‘traditional’ means chucking as much fertilizer, insecticide and herbicide at the fields as is most cost effective. Crop rotation, which worked for centuries, can be avoided by scouring the land with acid. Now cabbage crops can be planted in the same field twice a year for 5 years without a second thought. Very little dare grow through the chemical haze and still less can invertebrates survive a mouthful of the crop.
You may wonder where this rant was born. Well, early this summer I drove away from the field of Thanet cabbages, past the wheat fields and stunted orchards of the Garden of England and under La Manche, passed the Field of the Cloth of Gold and the rose fields of Picardie to the dunes and pine forests of Aquitaine. What I saw as I drove was the gradual lessening of modern agri-business until I arrived in a land of wetlands and oakwoods, pine forest and sand dunes, sunflowers and vineyards.
I am no natural Francophile. Like most of my fellow countrymen I have borne a prejudice of Gallic culture from my youth, as unfounded as it is unfair. It is our heritage perhaps to look across a border and see a rival rather than a friend. However, as most of you will also know, its very easy to fall in love with France as soon as you see is empty countryside. Moreover, that romance is strengthened when you start to see the birds, not just in variety but sheer numbers!
France has a similar number of people as the UK but four times the land area. This means that some places are still virtually purely agricultural like Limousin. Much of this agriculture does not rely on the chemical industry to keep it in good heart because fields are small and crops rotated, and, away from the wine growing areas it is very mixed. Bio-diversity can flourish. We condemn the French for hunting and shooting small birds but their oakwoods are retained for hunting making them more extensive and more bird-friendly than ours.
Of course its terrific to see birds that you do not see everyday from the Short-toed Eagles and numerous Black Kites, to ubiquitous Melodious Warblers and healthy populations of Red-backed Shrike and Zitting Cisticola. But what struck me most was the quantity – beneath all those Black Kites were lots and lots of large flocks of House Sparrows. Every country corner had Turtle Doves and you were subject to the serenade of Song Thrushes; Corn Buntings were positively legion.
My visit had many high points like finding no less than four Bee-eater colonies within a five-mile radius or watching a Water Rail chase a Spotted Crake! But what kept my ire rising was that we Brits could have, and certainly should have the numbers of farmland birds as in my 1950s childhood – our neighbour does!
We have to go back to looking after our land much better than we do today. We simply cannot go on priding ourselves on our National Health Service (RSPB) whilst encouraging an unhealthy lifestyle (Chemical Farming).
A recent TV programme on mega-cities revealed that it takes the entire agricultural output of Britain just to feed London. The solution is NOT to try and squeeze ever more from the land but to reduce the need by encouraging people to produce less children. This particular elephant in the room has been here for so long that we think it needs feeding not confronting!