Let’s Shake On It
(This article first appeared in the February 2015 Edition of Birdwatching)
Popular myth would have it that we used to be a nation of ladies gentlemen… our word was our bond. The great and good had a code of ‘noblesse oblige’ while the hoi polloi knew their place. God was clearly an Englishman and everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Legislation was almost unnecessary except to deter the determinedly evil and a handshake was an unbreakable contract. Voluntary agreements were quite sufficient to regulate commerce and industry, pastime pursuits and internecine un-neighbourliness.
This is, for the most part, rubbish.
Commerce, industry and trade has some gentlemen, just as any other walk of life, but if all controls had remained toothless and voluntary small children would still be cleaning chimneys, drinking water from lead pipes, ingesting loaves cut with arsenic and eating horse offal pies.
Country pursuits are no better. Ladies on horses seem to accidentally kill foxes as often as they used to do it on purpose. Gentlemen fill their Purdeys with lead shot and blast buzzards with impunity and landed gentry are supposedly so incompetent that they are always unaware when their gamekeepers poison peregrines or stomp on Hen Harrier nests.
Farmers chemically scour the land and mechanically trim back hedgerows just when birds are nesting or before they’ve eaten their fill of winter berries while claiming their stewardship subsidies.
Careless anglers discard nylon line that takes years to rot and is a long, slow and painful death sentence to water birds, or fill swims with huge quantities of bait that sours the water.
Even the careful hiker or casual stroller steadily erodes paths and builds unwanted Cairns on hilltops.
In town parks the staff still remove all ground cover and chop out deadwood. It used to be that all ‘parkies’ were professional gardeners filling their grounds with unproductive rhododendrons and blankets of spring bulbs or waves of easily discarded ‘bedding plants’. Despite this dying away through cost savings parks are kept as pet dog toilets not playground let alone the wildlife sanctuaries a little thought could encourage.
Meanwhile homegrown bait-diggers leave their diggings to be back-filled by the tide and crabber’s turn stones over but not back again. Duck hunters stray above the tide lines and delight in potting anything that slips off the reserve that their dogs can surreptitiously recover.
We birders rail against the Mediterraneans for supping on lime-stick caught Ortolans or sportingly blasting anything that flies from a Bee-eater to a Bonelli’s Eagle.
But, like charity, legislation should begin at home. We can no longer scatter stones from our glass-clad domiciles. Its time that the birder’s code of conduct was enshrined in a proper countryside act that tells us ALL how best to behave and sanctions us if we stray.
Voluntary agreements in Fleet Street did nothing to stop trial by the press or phone hacking victims. Self-policing MPs still fiddle their expenses and have wage rises orders of magnitude more than nurses. Voluntary agreements, like verbal contracts they are not worth the paper they are written on.
We need all-encompassing countryside legislation that makes the use of the countryside forever sensitive to the needs of the wild world. Builders, Farmers, Oil Men and Planners cannot be trusted, but nor can casual countryside users. Badgers need saving from Profit Politics, groundwater must come before Fracking and the delicate eco-system has to be protected even from those of us who value it most highly.
If we want to stop hunters and shooters from eliminating predators then we must also agree to culling introduced species. If we stop farmers chemically controlling insects and ploughing in stubble too early, then we need to sanction twitchers who trample crops or invade people’s gardens and over enthusiastic photographers from flushing scarce species. The right to roam is fundamental, but must be coupled with the obligation to do no harm.
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