After 30 early mornings, 58 site visits, and 281 bird spot counts, part one of my surveying blitz in the Hampshire countryside is over. Six weeks of the dawn chorus – peaceful mist covered fields and ancient woods, cool in the morning air and damp with dew, rich in birdsong breaking out into the stillness of the morning. For the first few hours of each day the only other mammal life I’d see, before the dogs with their owners ventured out for the first walk of the day, would be deer, rabbits or hares, bounding away at the surprising site of the only wakeful person for miles around. In short, it’s been absolutely magical. Putting aside getting out of bed almost as soon as I’d got in (try 3:30am!), I wouldn’t have changed this experience for anything, and having got this practice in I’ll be sure to get up for dawn at least once every spring from now onwards.
I’d like to be able to say that with such a wealth of wildlife sightings to report, and the countless scenes of natural beauty that unfolded before me as the sun rose each morning, that the countryside is in excellent health, the doubters and pessimists are wrong, our rarest birds are once more flourishing, wildflowers abound, all is completely well. But I’m rather afraid that what I have seen has been wonderful not so much in that it remains totally vibrant, but in what it reflects of a past much more abundant in life.
Let me explain that a little. In one or two spots the dawn chorus was magnificent but rarely as stirring as you might imagine, nor as loud. Song thrushes can be deafening at first light if you stand right underneath them, but it sure feels like the countryside could hold more of them. Most areas of open farmland will harbour skylarks but at such low densities that two, let alone three, four or five birds calling at once is not so common. Same with yellowhammers in the hedgerows, or any woodland specialist you care to mention. And rarer birds, like the woodlark with its heartbreakingly lovely song, whilst perhaps now stable or increasing in numbers, are nonetheless still a special, once or twice yearly treat, unless you are specifically searching for them at a well-known site. Even for the dedicated researcher who is up and about every morning!
But I don’t think this is all about looking to the past. Those who accuse us environmentalists of unrealistically hankering after a rose-tinted vision of a past that was never really so glorious anyway, and can never come back, are probably right. We can’t manage the countryside as ‘Theme park England’, as we might have imagined it to be in 1920, or 1820, or, well – there is one of the key problems with looking to the past. When do you stop the clock? What is our perfect baseline for a countryside that has never stopped developing, growing, and changing?
Somehow all those who have a stake in the countryside need to come together and decide what we think it is actually for. Is it just a food production factory, or a nature reserve, a mere green buffer to keep bulging towns apart? Can those goals be met together, or are they mutually exclusive? How does anybody decide? What is the baseline we’re aiming for, or do we come up with a completely new one?
Perhaps informed by the riches of the past, but not in thrall to it, there is a way to imagine a future countryside that is familiar in that ‘green and pleasant land’ way we all love, but also new, satisfying more of our needs and yet once more brimming with life. It’s time for people like me who love wildlife to come up with a vision, and more than that, a workable plan with real world solutions, backed up by hard science, hard cash, and hard work. Many people are already working on it, I’m sure. Consider some of the newer environmental stewardship options – conservation can and should be about innovation, and not just standstill protection. But most of our conservation work in the countryside seems to be about tinkering with how things already work, with larger questions, as I see it, often unaddressed.
The problem I have is that I’ve never felt in a position, personally, to pronounce on the countryside in that way. I grew up in a suburban sleeper village, not really rural by any stretch of the imagination; I don’t and never have known any farmers; I wouldn’t have the first idea how to manage a farm. However, I’m hoping that the sheer amount of time I’m spending in the countryside this summer will give me two things: firstly, a deeper understanding of what actually does happen there; and secondly, the beginnings of a right to say something about it that will really mean something. Though, of course, maybe you and I have had the right all along. If you are politically inclined in a certain direction, you might consider the countryside to belong to everyone – that the large part of the estates I’ve had to seek special permission to enter were stolen from our ancestors, our great-great-great-great-grandfathers and -grandmothers turned out from the fields, denied their rights of common use, and forced into squalid lives of urban industrial servitude. I have to admit to the occasional twinge of old-fashioned class-driven anger at unwelcoming barbed wire and ‘Private – Keep Out’ signs. On the other hand, maybe you think that the land is best in the capable hands of a few experienced owners, who can extract the maximum possible food and economic productivity for everyone else whilst we work safely inside, far from the perils and shortfalls of country life.
Whatever your political opinion (and the history of all this is certainly more complicated than I understand), most people probably should have a say because we all do have a stake in the countryside. Even if we don’t live and work in it, we probably walk in it from time to time, and if we don’t do that, we certainly all eat food that is grown in it. Our farmed landscapes cover such a vast portion of Britain that our wildlife populations would be decimated without it being at least somewhat habitable. I don’t think it’s possible for anybody to step back and claim zero responsibility for what happens in the countryside. It’s clear to me then that what happens there matters to all of us, and all of us who care about it need to have a hand in shaping its future. And from what I’ve seen, the potential is still there for it to be a quite glorious future.