(This article first appeared in the March 2016 edition of ‘Birdwatching’ magazine)
Regular readers will know how genuine my affection is for undisciplined dog walkers. They will also know how I believe that our over-romanticised idea of the countryside coupled with the idea that nature should be tamed, is leading to habitat loss and eviction of wildlife.
Capability Brown looked at the farm fields and forest of aristocratic estates and, in the words of the film industry ‘re-imagined’ them. Not content with nature or agricultural patterns he, and subsequently, we, wanted an idealised picaresque landscape. Like an artist ignoring a tree if it spoils their composition, Mr Brown removed anything that interfered with his idea of how nature should be, and added in anything that nature had forgotten. And so, dear readers, the concept of the ‘park’ was born.
It was not, of course, meant for the hoi polloi. The highborn and high-handed demolished villages, turfed tilth toilers from their tenant farms and ripped up trees in the wrong place to add them in the ‘right’ place. Dry valleys were dammed and streams re-routed for their own viewing pleasure and to show off to other highborn environmental hooligans! This was good news for roe deer, game birds and fountain makers. It was not so good for nature. Unfortunately, we have retained this ideal ever since.
Upper middle-class Victorian ladies sublimated their passions by creating more ‘natural’ borders and turned the cottage garden from a veg patch to a profusion of delightful colours made possible by introducing plants from around the world. Colour caught on and the Himalayas were plundered for Rhododendrons, which now form vast wildlife-free swathes across Albion’s hillsides.
When the stench of horse manure and inadequate sewers offended the noses of the city dwelling nouveau riche, green ‘lungs’ were created. Those who need not toil could promenade these city ‘parks’ knowing that hemlines need not be raised to avoid the ordure, nor their peace shattered by working men and women. For their viewing pleasure flowerbeds were created with planting in neat rows and shade afforded by exotic foliage.
If you’ve not nodded off you may be wondering where all this is going… well, its going down the high road to my local park. When I moved here the park was a well-known Autumn hotspot for firecrests and yellow-browed warblers, Pallas’s warblers and even collared flycatchers. For three year’s running I found firecrests in the same bush on the same day of the year! Being one of the few areas of trees and shrubs on an almost island it was a natural migrant magnet. An almost hidden garden was surrounded be a fence covered in ivy. The playing fields were surrounded by shrubby borders and copses of trees, through which winter flocks fiddled in the foliage with maybe an overwintering chiffchaff and a blackcap or two.
A fenced and wardened ‘safe’ garden had been created so that kids could enjoy the fresh air without constant parental oversight. While I, and other town bound nature appreciators could see redstarts and flycatchers on their way to Africa or redwings and fieldfares avoiding the frigid north. Admittedly, every now and again a person walking by holding their dog’s lead would interrupt our tranquil birding.
But then Capability Brown’s descendants decided that the hidden garden should be viewable from a path that no one uses and the ivy was stripped from its perimeter. Offended by cow parsley and elderberries, ground ivy and dogwood every nook and cranny was cleared of ground cover. NOTHING is now allowed to live under the trees except clipped grass. So, now the off-lead dogs can run through every sheltered corner, and the passing motorists have unobstructed views of stark trunks and bare fences.
Thanks Mr Park-keeper for tidying up the rampant ‘weeds’ and unnecessary under-storey so favoured by skulking warblers and for raking up all that leaf litter that the winter thrushes loved to scratch through!
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