Among my favourite sounds in the world, competing for top place with a Handel aria and a smoothly functioning beer engine, is the distinctive call of the curlew.
Symbol of the Northumberland National Park, I used to hear its cry most times I took a walk from my house on the Park’s fringes. But I haven’t seen or heard one for years. What I do see now are rather a lot of wheeling buzzards. I have a hunch that there may be a connection between these developments.
I have always found it paradoxical that bird fans, who seem among the gentlest of people, are such massive enthusiasts for the reintroduction and conservation of raptors. When I witnessed a kestrel swoop down to devour a blue tit on my neighbour’s bird table a few years ago, my sympathies were entirely with the tit.
But then nature lovers seem to have a soft spot for predators in general. Badgers, for example. Their population explosion seems to be largely responsible for the near disappearance of the endearing hedgehog, yet apparently these black and white bruisers must be protected at all costs from the Government-sanctioned efforts to control their numbers to reduce the incidence of bovine TB.
Or foxes, which we all know are lovely and cuddly and most certainly don’t deserve to be torn to shreds by hounds. Though oddly enough the self-same people who take that view seem to be all in favour of reintroducing to the UK vanished predators such as the lynx and wolf, which will survive only by tearing other animals to pieces.
I heard George Monbiot on the radio the other day defending the wolf project with the scoffing claim that, in the USA, more people are killed by toppling vending machines than by wolves. And that wolves are shy and retiring creatures which rarely attack human beings – unlike those proven threats to life and limb, domesticated dogs and cows. All of which may well be true.
But if I were the suddenly incontinent individual trying to outrun a ravening wolf in the Scottish Highlands, I’m pretty sure I’d consider my designation as minor collateral damage more than a little galling.
Wolves are a good thing, apparently, because they are a natural way of controlling burgeoning deer numbers. Unlike the hateful unnatural methods of hunting them with hounds or stalking them with guns. Both of which also provide employment and enjoyment for those who like that sort of thing.
The buzzword for putting the countryside to rights these days is “rewilding”. The National Trust, as you might expect, is a big fan. There were strong local rumours that their controversial recent purchase of a farm in Borrowdale, minus its farmhouse, was the harbinger of a plan to “rewild” the fells by ridding them of those peskily human-introduced Herdwick sheep.
They seem to have backed down on this for the time being, but around the country their various attempts to recreate vanished landscapes are producing wastelands. I know this well because I have one in my Cheshire doorstep in Bickerton Hill, where the Trust has been enthusiastically felling trees to recreate a heathland which, despite liberal applications of strong weedkiller and the introduction of various grazing animals to try to control the growth of young birch trees, is irritatingly failing to appear.
The views of local people who know and love the Hill are ignored with the arrogance which is the Trust’s hallmark. But perhaps that can be the subject of another heartfelt column – oh, I forgot: it already has.
I don’t hunt, shoot or fish myself, but I feel more sympathy with the people who do than with their quarries. In my working life I hear a lot from “animal activists” on various fronts, including the wrongness of shooting, selling and eating grouse, mainly because of the alleged threat to red kites (another of those beloved raptors) from gamekeepers.
Clearly any illegal action against red kites is to be deplored, but the reality is that grouse only exist in any numbers because moors are managed. While not quite in the giant panda league of evolutionary perversity (insisting on eating only bamboo when its gut is not designed to digest the stuff), the grouse’s delicate eating habits make regular heather burning to stimulate the growth of fresh shoots a lifeline.
But we are all meant to hate gamekeepers, and toffs who enjoy shooting or hunting with hounds, and country people in general. Why should anyone care if the poor old farmer loses some lambs to reintroduced wolves or lynx? He wouldn’t need to be breeding sheep in the first place if only we had the good sense to advance together onto the broad, sunlit uplands of universal veganism.
I am writing this piece on a train to London, where the only practical result of activating my thought processes is to remind me how delicious grouse is, and to hope it is on the menu at the restaurant where I shall be having lunch.
But it has also reminded me that the British countryside that nearly everyone claims to love is a human creation, and that the only way to retain its beauty is to ensure that farmers remain suitably incentivised to keep it tilled and grazed.
“Rewilding” the uplands surely won’t create the majestic forests that once covered ancient Britain, but a wilderness of scrub and bracken, populated by starving animals.
Reintroducing vanished predators won’t create exciting new tourist attractions, as I have heard claimed, but bring back needless terror to the countryside – for the animals that will be their prey, if only for the very occasional human.
Every intervention to make things better for animals risks the law of perverse unintended consequences swinging into operation. The “liberation” of American mink from fur farms has all but wiped out the native water vole.
Animal activists breaking into free range egg farms in the middle of the night to “expose” conditions have caused fatalities among panic-stricken hens.
I could never become a vegan because I am already one of the most boring people in Britain, and if I had to bang on about my vegan principles at the start of every conversation, as seems to be the accepted social norm, I would be simply unbearable.
So let us accept Nature as we have it, refined by our forebears over the centuries, rather than trying to improve upon it in ways that will almost certainly make things worse. And let us also reflect upon all the past evidence, whether in the actions of some hunt saboteurs or of those thugs who terrorised the employees of Huntingdon Life Sciences, which suggests that loving animals often has rather more to do with hating our fellow humans.