Our Place: Can we save Britain’s wildlife before it is too late? by Mark Cocker

Reviewed by Peter Reason

When I was a small boy, back in the 1950s, we were taken on Sunday School outings to the seaside. I remember seeing great flocks of lapwing from the windows of our coach; the black and white pattern made by their wings as they tumbled through the air is etched into that part of my mind that is still seven years old. My grandchildren will rarely see this, for today, I only see lapwing on trips to northern uplands. I remember too the thrill of hearing the first cuckoo calling on Wandsworth Common in south London where we lived. I am pretty sure no cuckoos call there today; we used to have cuckoos where I live in Bath, but no more. And in the last few years I have realised that for the there have been very few swifts shrieking overhead hunting insects over the city. I notice how the world around me is impoverished.

These are just my lay person’s experience, for I am not formally a naturalist. For the past few years I have been attending the annual meeting of New Networks for Nature (1), an association drawing together scientists and artists, naturalists and poets, concerned to celebrate and appreciate the more-than-human in Britain. These are people who know what they are talking about, having spent a lifetime as scientists, birders and naturalists, some generalists, some with detailed knowledge of one species or ecosystem. I have heard, time and again, immensely well-informed women and men speak with alarm about the accelerating decline of wildlife in Britain and our collective failure to respond to catastrophic loss. As they speak of it, and of our collective failure to acknowledge or address the crisis, it is as if a shadow passes across their faces. They live close up and personal to astonishing loss; as a result, many experience what Mark Cocker describes as a ‘persistent low-level heartache, a background melancholia’.

Cocker’s book starts with the State of Nature report (2013), a collaboration of twenty-five environmental organisations (2). It chronicles the health and prospects for British wildlife, a total of 3,148 species, and concludes 60% have declined in the last in the last half century, 31% have declined badly, and more than 600 species are threatened with extinction. And, it is important to note, the decline is not bottoming out: it continues and often accelerates. But there is a paradox here, writes Cocker, because a huge number of people in Britain are members of conservation organisations, far more than in most other European countries; there are apparently more ‘nature obsessed’ people than any other nation, yet we still face this catastrophic decline. So what is going on?

Cocker describes his book as a piece of ‘natural-historical research… an autobiographical narrative of place and a historical exploration of how and why the British countryside has come to look as it does’. This means that detailed and well-researched historical accounts of environmental organisations are grounded in evocative accounts of Cocker’s experience of places that, for better or worse, have been central to the story. This arrangement works well: the historical accounts are grounded in place, and the detailed historical accounts set off by evocative description of place.

There is so much that is of outstanding quality in this book: the way Cocker draws the reader into understanding the extent, range and significance of the issues; the exquisite pieces of classical ‘nature writing’, gems of intimate description; the quality of in-depth historical research; the intellectual sensemaking that draws on wider ecological theory; the sheer elegance of the writing sustained over 300 pages. Maybe most refreshing is Cocker’s willingness to ‘speak truth to power’, to name names, to point to stupidities in policy and in action. As Lord Debden—as John Gummer, Secretary of State of Environment under Margaret Thatcher—remarks in his review in Country Life, ‘However much Mr Cocker’s stance might annoy, it works.’

The first chapters of the book take the reader through the history of conservation organisations. It tells the story of the founding and development of the big three—the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the Wildlife Trusts in considerable historical detail; showing how their strengths and weaknesses arise from their origins.

From a conservation point of view, the great success story of the National Trust is Enterprise Neptune, the visionary project to purchase and preserve the coastline of the Britain. But generally, the National Trust’s prime concern has been preserving landscape and built heritage, and this is what the membership has come to expect from it. He has far more time for the RSPB, which he sees as more strongly based in its enthusiastic membership and describes as the de facto voice of nature. The Wildlife Trusts have the great advantage of being organised primarily on a local, county, basis. Cocker notes a further twelve organisations with substantial support.

Later chapters tell the parallel story of the development of governmental organisations that were established in the 1940s and 1950s from the impetus that ‘Things are going to be different after the War’. The establishment of National Parks on the one hand and Nature Conservancy on the other were great steps forward, but their creation as separate organisations reinforced what many environmentalists call the Great Divide: ‘Do we cherish nature’s manifest beauties measured by some arbitrary aesthetic code? Or do we value and protect wildlife diversity for its own sake?’ This division is intellectually flawed and often gets in the way of effective action. For, as Cocker emphasises both here and later in the book when he discusses the impact of farming, British countryside is not ‘wild’ in the sense of parks in Africa: rather ‘this island has been shaped and made beautiful by a perpetual collaboration between its human inhabitants and the ground on which they dwelt’, as is exemplified in Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and in Shakespeare’s ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows’. The peak of biodiversity was probably not in time of the hunter gatherers but the middle of the eighteenth century after several millennia of continuous farming.

So what has gone wrong? In part it is the multiplicity of non-governmental organisations that so often fail to collaborate. ‘There is no green movement except in name; there are just overlapping, sometimes competing, organisations… Time and again these fissiparous tendencies have led to lack of clarity and absence of cohesion’. And the governmental organisations were over the years undermined, to eventually be dismembered by Nicholas Ridley, ‘the Minster against the Environment’, in the later 1980s. Cocker chronicles some of the great losses of ecologically complex places that resulted from these failings: the construction of a reservoir on the rare sugar limestone at Cow Green in Teesdale; the ploughing of Waddington Common; the draining of the Fens, the forestry on the Flow country Scotland.

While these failures make alarming stories of short sightedness and vested interest, in many ways the cause of ecological loss is less visible. Cocker is quite clear that the prime culprits are modern farming, and forestry that have stripped meadows of diversity and planted ryegrass, ploughed heathlands, drained bogs and fens, dug up hedges, cut down ancient woodlands and created the industrialised landscape we see today. Most farmers have not benefited from this: the relatively small, mixed farm of the middle years of the twentieth century have been taken over by vast landowning interests, driven by perverse subsidies and tax evasion. We should not lay the blame for subsidies solely on the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy, for they started way back in the 1930s. Size and specialisation in agriculture has has ‘stripped away environmental intricacy’ and ‘the most sustained loss of biodiversity since large swathes of the country were unlocked from a smothering carapace of ice at the beginning of the Holocene’.

Subsidies have moved on, however, since they crudely paid farmers to produce more. There has been an, albeit modest, move to support environmentally sensitive agriculture. Cocker describes his visit to a profitable farming estate and describes how these new subsidies are used creatively to make a significant difference. It not just a ‘set aside’ for nature, but an integration of the conventional parts of the farm with its wildlife component. ‘I was on a farm’ Cocker writes, ‘but it looked and felt like a nature reserve’; and he notes the professionalism and sense of obligation brought to both the conventional farm and its wildlife component. There are hundreds of farms across the country working to similar high standards, and clearly the integration of profitable agriculture with ecological richness is entirely possible.

All these stories of loss make for pretty grim reading, enough to evoke the kind of melancholia I refer to above. But interleaving these historical accounts and analyses are Cocker’s accounts of his personal experiences of places that have been significant in this history; closely observed, informed nature writing in its evocative best. We start in his own place, Blackwater—two fields, five acres—where he is working to recreate ecologically rich habitats. We join him, almost physically, as he heaves roots out of his dykes, an effort he makes not for money, but for love of emperor moths and hawker dragonflies, for dreams of making a habitat that might attract the fen raft spider. We accompany him down the north Norfolk coast, visiting key places in the development of environmentalism—Holme Dunes, Blakeney Spit, the salt marsh at Burnham Overy, the reserve at Cley. He takes us with him to see the gentians at Cow Green in Teesdale as an introduction to his discussion of the controversial construction a reservoir on the unique habitats there; and to the Flow country as a prelude to the discussion of the destructive impact of forestry. These accounts reinforce the importance of ecological complexity and invite us to join him in profound love for what we are losing.

But do most of us know what we are losing? The last chapter is sardonically titled, ‘Our Green and Pleasant Land’, a phrase which he sees as sustaining the pernicious myth that all is well in the countryside. He points out that most of us in Britain, as city dwellers, are understandably too busy running our lives to worry about much of this; so long as we can be comforted by the twittering of sparrows in our suburban hedge, we are probably not too worried. (Of course, the situation in Britain reflects the wider reality that we are living in the sixth great extinction of beings on the planet, this time caused by human activity).

To counter the myth that all is well, Cocker ends with ‘ten interlocking Truths that are fundamental to the story of British nature’ which draw together the arguments and illustrations of the complex story he has told in the book. Practically, we need to understand the depth of the unfolding loss, draw together the diverse interests groups and build a single environmental movement that speaks with one voice and integrates the ‘Great Divide’ between beauty and biodiversity. Along with this we need to simplify the confusing alphabet soup of designations—SSSIs, NNRs, LNRs, AONBs and so on—that fail to inform the public or effectively guide policy. We also need to change our habits of thought, ‘to acquire something that might be called ‘ecological thinking’, the ability to approximate, through our imaginations, the processes of a real ecosystem’; we need to see ourselves as ‘within nature’, that everything we do has ecological consequences.

Finally, as Cocker argues that ‘Change happens when individuals have the courage to do something independently’—big things like changing farming practices, little things like thinking about our everyday choices of food and transport from an ecological perspective.

Mark Cocker’s book is a huge achievement. It will without doubt ruffle some feathers. But he has done all of life on these islands, human and more-than-human, a great service in having the skill and courage to speak out so eloquently.

(1) New Networks for Nature http://www.newnetworksfornature.org.uk/
(2) State of Nature Reports https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/stateofnature16

Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. His book In Search of Grace: An ecological pilgrimage was published in 2017 by Earth Books. His previous book Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea is published by Jessica Kingsley. Find Peter at www.peterreason.eu, and on Twitter @peterreason

Mark Cocker, Our Place: Can we save Britain’s wildlife before it is too late? (Jonathan Cape, 2018). 978-0224102292, 336pp., hardback.

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