Do Bears Sit in the Woods?
(This article first appeared in the July 2014 edition of ‘Birdwatching’)
If, like me, you grew up in 1950s England you will probably have a love/hate relationship with the French. The French have been our allies for generations, yet many of our former enemies stand in higher esteem. Perhaps it is like sibling rivalry – simply a matter of proximity. Supposed to love our neighbours we find it easy to fall out with them.
The enmity does not preclude our love of French wine and cheese, nor stop us raving about French cuisine and we admire their prowess in matters of the heart. We may get annoyed in a French traffic jam caused by noisy, ‘work-shy’ protestors, but we envy the wages and pensions such protests win. Despite all our misgivings we are more likely to holiday in France than anywhere else in the world. Even the worst of Francophobes will concede that ‘la belle France’ is indeed a very beautiful country.
Enjoying the freedom of their half-empty toll roads we head south in our millions for the fine weather, or head inland to the quaint villages, chateaus, lush oak woodlands and majestic mountains. If we get really lucky we might spend a weekend in Paris with a lover.
It seems that, after all, we find a great deal to admire once we get passed a Gallic shrug, a few sneers and their chauvinistic distain of the English language. So much in fact that France is our first choice for an overseas second home.
But wait a minute! Don’t they shoot everything that moves and delight in feasting on larks and buntings? Well, no doubt some still do, but nowhere near as many as once did. Moreover, there are far more wild places than over here because France is twice the size of the UK with a roughly similar population… so they have twice the space that we do.
While we have been paving over the southeast, turning our fields into chemically farmed wildlife no-go zones, and cladding the hills with Lodge Pole Pine the French have been becoming increasingly ecologically aware.
Conservation is not just a subject for conversation, it is ever more real with large national parks and wildlife reserves now well established.
The European Common Agricultural Policy was actually invented by the French to ensure that their small dairy farms and family vineyards would survive to fuel our cheese and wine desires. By contrast in the UK it has been an excuse to rip out hedges, fill in ponds and cynically set aside fields in the short term rather than let some areas permanently revert to the wild. What could have been used to help wildlife and preserve the environment has put fuel into some large landowners Range Rovers and lined the pockets of city investors with land banks.
These same large landowners have prevented the modest reintroductions proposed in Scotland. Some forestry owners rant about the destructiveness of beavers. Rich city folk fuel the unfounded fear of wolves despite all the evidence. A landowner with a couple of Elk is castigated by the same people that encourage the overpopulation of red deer; an imbalance that only serves the stalkers’ guns.
But almost unheralded the ‘chauvinistic, self-preserving, song-bird eating, wild critter shooting’ French have bought back lynx, wild boar, wolves and bears to the Alps and Pyrenees and re-introduced Marmot, Beaver, and Otter. They have even expanded their eagle and vulture populations.
Meanwhile some of us humour loving and courageous British; we denizens of a proud land unconquered for a thousand years are famous for our love of animals and our million RSPB members. Yet some noble Englishmen still stomp on Hen Harrier nests, some notoriously inventive Scotsmen use their ingenuity to hide their poisoning of eagles and kites while some Welshmen still steal Peregrine eggs.
Damn it, we can’t even leave our foxes and badgers alone!
Vive la France!
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