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  • rshill1973

New shoots

Updated: Apr 13, 2022


Hello and welcome to my new blog! Spoiler alert – it’s going to mostly be about wildlife, the environment, and the countryside. That’s where my heart lies, ever since I picked up a pair of binoculars at the tender age of 10.


Although there seems to be a never-ending appetite for digital content, I feel like an extremely latecomer to this blogging business. I’ve been itching to start a blog for a long while, but recent events have triggered a train of thoughts and provided the decisive spur.


Why start blogging now?


The clue is in this blog’s title – A Temporary Green Blur. This is a phrase used in Mark Cocker’s book Our Place (https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Mark-Cocker/Our-Place--Can-We-Save-Britains-Wildlife-Before-It-Is-Too-Late/23350725). If you haven’t read this book, I heartily recommend it. Written in 2018, it’s a precise dissection of who owns the UK countryside, how that countryside has been used over the years, and how wildlife must fight to thrive in what few suitable habitats are left. To me, it was a revelatory read.


To provide context, here’s the particular quote which resonated with me:

“For the vast majority, nature barely registers. And it does not do so for perfectly acceptable reasons….There is no room for the fate of the fly orchid or the pine hoverfly….the countryside is no more than the incidental background to their lives. It is a temporary green blur which counts for little, and to which they pay scant attention.”


I agree with every single word of that quote and have done for years. It’s a profoundly dispiriting notion - loving wildlife and seeing it marginalised. Despite the encouraging rise of ‘nature writing’ recently, and the proliferation of high-profile campaigns and campaigners, I still can’t avoid the impression that there isn’t any kind of passionate concern for nature amongst much of the UK population.


But there is hope. Our Place is often a melancholy read, but it does finish on a note of hope. And as Cocker is such an accomplished writer, he also knows how to celebrate the glory of certain areas of our landscape and the ecosystems they host.


The evidence in front of my eyes


The stark realities described in Our Place have recently been brought home to me first hand. I’ve been out doing some winter bird surveying on farmland in southern England. Because it’s a commissioned survey with full access permission I’ve been able to walk the edges of fields which lay distant from the nearest PROW (Public Right of Way).


The habitat is sadly typical of the arable land which forms most of the “temporary green blur” we see from our cars, buses, and trains.



Spindly, skeletal hedges which are barely waist high, still bearing the scars from having been severely clipped back during the autumn. Lines of newly planted winter cereal run metronomically across huge fields right up to these hedges, leaving thin, muddy margins barely two feet wide.


No little scruffy corners left to grasses, brambles, and wildflowers. Very few mature trees. No ponds, no boggy areas.


Obviously, the farmers and landowners are managing the land to maximise their profits, with the considerable aid of subsidies. It’s easy to rage at them but how many of us would do any different? However as a landscape to sustain a rich and varied biodiversity, it’s pretty bleak.


I started surveying in October 2021 and for most of the winter, the birdlife didn’t change. A few Skylarks would fly overhead, or spring up from the crop, trilling as they did so. Dunnocks were common, given away by their rather insistent contact call. Red Kites drifted aimlessly over the fields, ironically a reminder of a true conservation success story. And of course, crows, pigeons, and Pheasants were ubiquitous.


But there were no flocks of finches and buntings. Many of the species that have been well documented as suffering catastrophic declines, such as Yellowhammer, Tree Sparrow, and Bullfinch, were either absent or rarely encountered. And the absence of these prey items guaranteed the absence of magnificent predators such as Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, and Merlin.


It has mostly been a dispiriting experience, but not a revelatory one. The decline of so many of our bird species is well known by now (https://www.bto.org/our-science/publications/birds-conservation-concern).


Our much-touted “green and pleasant land” is nothing of the sort. It’s a monotonous, over-manicured, chemical-filled desert, which is bereft of wildlife.


When I’m out birding I only have access to a relatively small part of the countryside. I often think “well there might be xxx species hidden away somewhere else”. But if surveying these dreary fields is any guide, they’re not. The emptiness is palpable.


A wonderful surprise


But.


Thankfully there is a “but”. I did discover a lovely glimmer of hope. One of my routes took me to the edge of a very different farm. An information notice nailed to a signpost proudly proclaimed that their farming practices actively and intentionally encouraged wildlife. And from my vantage point, looking across a small section of the farm, the evidence certainly backed up that claim.


The most obvious contrast was the hedges and the field margins. In my survey area, nothing. Just over the border, thick mature hedges of hawthorn and blackthorn were bordered by wide margins of stubbly grass and creeping bramble. Mature oaks stood guard over these thick hedges. In the distance I could see substantial thickets of mixed deciduous woodland.



The fields were planted with what I presume was an autumn-flowering oilseed rape, their bright yellow glow all the more arresting in the lush winter sunshine. Skylarks bounced above the crop, chasing one another. A flock – yes, a flock! – of Yellowhammers ticked from the margins, tails flicking nervously as they scurried between the bushes. Linnets flew over my head, and Song Thrushes, disturbed by my footsteps, erupted from the undergrowth like tiny brown missiles.


So this was the other side of the coin.


It was as heart-warming as it was unexpected, and it was such a shame that this farm didn’t lie on my survey route. But its very existence provided a much needed boost. Farms like this do exist across our countryside, but they’re undoubtedly in the minority. To restore the populations of Tree Sparrows and Reed Buntings we need more - so many more - of these farms.


An impossible dream? I really hope not. In the wake of Brexit, UK farmers will soon no longer rely on the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for subsidy payments. A new payment scheme, administered by our government, will replace it. It’s difficult to be optimistic that farmers will soon be well paid for using methods that encourage wildlife.


But without widespread support from farmers, Corn Buntings, Greenfinches and Grey Partridges will soon only exist in the memories of previous generations who walked their local fields. And lovely as Red Kites are, they’re simply not an adequate replacement.

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