The Compleat Trespasser by John Bainbridge

This time, the review without any distracting rants. Probably.

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Sub-titled Journeys into Forbidden Britain, it immediately sets out its agenda: it is both a potted history of how the land was stolen from the inhabitants of Britain, and the long struggles to regain access to much of it, with numerous anecdotes of the author’s own escapades trespassing.

The story of how the inhabitants of Britain came to lose their access to the majority of the land is a story that has been repeated throughout most of Europe and beyond. Land forcibly taken by invading armies and distributed partly to their soldiers, but mainly their officials or nobility. Land enclosed by lords and kings for hunting purposes, burning villages and evicting their inhabitants from the land. Land taken by acts of Parliament to further enrich the gentry. Land given by kings to the established church, so that peasants might labour only to feed the rich and corrupt clergy.

Land that has been kept private and jealously guarded both by strict and cruel laws, and by equally cruel methods by the landowners themselves. Thus laws that deemed the starving and dispossessed villager might be executed for taking a rabbit from land he once lived on, to feed his family. Thus the mantrap that would cut a mans leg off. Thus countless thousands beaten and sometimes killed by gamekeepers and owners.

When I attempted to review this a week ago, it ended up turning into a full-blown rant against grouse moors (I do rants so well, these days!), but even today it is not just grouse moors that are fenced off just so the idle rich can enjoy slaughtering wildlife – there is plenty of woodland and more open land enclosed around the country and dedicated to pheasant shooting, for example. There are country houses with huge estates. Land taken by the MOD for training purposes, and never returned. There are many landowners determined to block access to legal rights of way. Although the Countryside Rights of Way act of 2000 was supposed to restore access to most of the countryside, there is still much that is off-limits.

Yet there are good landowners, too. The tales of John’s own trespassing include several encounters with sympathetic landowners happy to see walkers on their land, with the obvious proviso that they cause no damage.

The improved access rights we do have today were earned the hard way. Since Victorian times there have been mass trespasses intended to both bring the issue into the public forum, and to try to force change. The Kinder Trespass of 1932 is probably the most famous, yet many preceded that. It is thanks to the countless trespassers and campaigners of those days that we have improved access rights today.

The book finishes, though, with a plea. Firstly to campaign for further land reform, for better access rights – rights that are enjoyed in Scotland, but not England, Wales or Ireland. And secondly with a warning – the current government campaigned at the last election on a promise to criminalise trespass, so that anyone who deliberately or inadvertently strays from a public footpath onto private land might find themselves on a charge in a criminal court.

Anyone who enjoys the countryside in any form, enjoys spending time there, and walking in it, should read this book. It provides a very good, clear, account of where we are, how we got here, and what has been done to get us someplace better.

But also that we still have some way to go.

Rant Inspired by The Compleat Trespasser by John Bainbridge

Ooh, I liked this book.

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My intention was to review it today, but as I was writing the review it gradually turned into a polemic against grouse moors and the people who own them. So I’m going to run with that and write the review (properly) next week instead.

So, why is this about grouse moors? Well, in The Compleat Trespasser, grouse moors are one of the habitats John mentions in relation to trespassing.

There’s so much to detest about grouse moors.

Firstly, the fact that they tend to be very large areas of land owned by one rich person who wants to keep everyone else off that land; land that is, to use the hackneyed but nonetheless accurate phrase, the birthright of everyone in this country. Land that has, like much other land, been stolen from us originally by force and then passed around from one rich and powerful person to another. Land that, at one time, people would have depended upon for their livelihoods in a multitude of forms, whether it was growing food, gathering wood for shelter or for fire, fodder for their livestock, or somewhere to live.

Secondly, that same owner does everything in their power to destroy all wildlife other than the grouse they protect, so those grouse can then be killed either by their rich chums, or by others who can afford to pay for the pleasure of killing other creatures. Foxes, rats, rabbits, badgers, crows, hawks…the list is pretty well endless. Trapped, poisoned, shot…the result being a landscape as devoid of life as any desert. And I hate that arrogance that says ‘all these wild animals are my property.’

Thirdly, the drab uniformity of the landscape. Nothing but heather growing, and that burned in ten year cycles to maintain that barren uniformity. And this in turn contributes to accelerated run off and flooding in periods of heavy rainfall, affecting land lower down – often villages or small towns.

And, I daresay, the lack of cover makes it easier for the gamekeepers to watch for intruders.

But, at last opinions are beginning to slowly, but surely, turn against these dreadful habitats and their dreadful owners. I’m sure it will take a while yet, but I’m hopeful that in my lifetime we will see a ban on commercial grouse moors and the beginning of their re-wilding.

Review of Wilding by Isabella Tree

I wrote this just over a month ago, and never got around to posting it, for some reason.

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I have just finished reading Wilding, and I am almost overwhelmed with several feelings. The first is that I need to come back to this book after a month or two and re-read it, since there is just so much to take in. The second is that this book presents so much information that appears new to us in the twenty first century, yet was common knowledge some fifty to a hundred years ago and was hiding all the while in plain sight, as well as some new conclusions that were also, really, hiding in plain sight. And third, a feeling this might just be one of the most important books I have ever read.

This means I am attempting what appears to be ridiculous, and that is to review a book I don’t think I am yet ready to fully appreciate. But first impressions count for a lot, so here goes, although to keep this brief enough for one blog post, I can hardly even skim the surface.

Knepp is an estate in Sussex, England, which the author and her husband farmed for many years the way most farming is done nowadays – intensively. But as returns gradually diminished and the soil became more and more degraded despite the application of the usual chemical cocktails, they decided in desperation to take a leap of faith and re-wild part of the farm. The reasoning was they were going broke farming traditionally, so something new was needed – perhaps something revolutionary. What had they got to lose?

It was a huge learning curve for them, and many of the steps they took had unforeseen consequences. By allowing the land to revert to the condition it would have been in thousands of years ago, they discovered that many of our birds and insects, for example, actually favour environments and foods different to those we have assumed they do. Interestingly, on reading books written a hundred years or so ago about, for example, birds, they were simply rediscovering what was known then, but overlooked since. Just one example – pigeons do not actually prefer the seeds of cereal crops, but wild grass seed. The fact that they eat so much cereal seed today is due to the destruction of the areas of wild grass they would gave grazed before.

Probably the most important conclusion to take from this book is that a return to a more traditional, environmentally-friendly form of farming is not only better for the environment, but in the long term is even better for farmers who might be initially worried about losing out financially. It’s a win-win situation in that it would enable much wildlife to recover from its precarious, endangered, situation, it would reduce the risk of flooding during periods of heavy rainfall, restore soil fertility without pumping massive loads of chemicals onto the land and, consequently, into the water systems, and reward farmers with not only a better environment but healthier crops and stock which, in turn, would be healthier and more nutritious for the consumer.

Along with most others, I have always understood that back in the Neolithic period, when man was first making his mark upon the landscape in what would become Britain, most of the land was covered in thick, dense, woodland. I also understood that the large wildlife here – the megafauna – consisted of the likes of elk, cattle (aurochs), wild horse, mammoth and the such-like. Basically the kind of large animals that graze and browse the open, lightly wooded, grasslands of the African savanna today. Could we really not see the contradiction in this? This strongly suggests that the natural post-glacial vegetation of the British Isles was an open woodland, rich in undergrowth and grass, maintained by the regular grazing and browsing of this megafauna.

And from that, we understand that much of the habitat association we make today with our native wildlife is just plain wrong – we see birds and animals favouring a particular habitat and assume that is their preference, rather than understanding we have forced them into this by removing their real preferred ones.

There is so much to take in and think about in the this book, as I said at the beginning of this post, that a single review can only begin to hint at the mass of information to take in.

If you have any interest at all in our environment and what we have done to it, this book is an essential read.

How To Solve The Climate Crisis

What we need are machines that remove the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, cost nothing to produce, are made entirely from natural products available worldwide, produce no harmful waste materials, fit into the landscape harmoniously and also provide countless other benefits to us, wildlife and the environment.

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We already have them.

They are called trees.

We need to plant them in their millions and to stop cutting down those we already have.

The Wood Wide Web and a Bill of Rights

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Today, the Guardian’s Review section carries a piece by Robert Macfarlane about a growing movement to grant rights to parts of the landscape, seen by some as one way to protect and preserve them. It opens by describing how in December 2018 the Ohio city of Toledo passed a ‘Bill of Rights’ for Lake Erie, which for years had been heavily polluted and reached a crisis point in 2014 when for three days, during the hottest part of the year, it had been impossible to extract drinkable water from the lake.

The piece goes on to discuss the pros and cons of these laws, especially the potential problems of recognising, say, a river or a forest as a ‘person’ in law, and how that might play out in legal disputes.

At the heart of the Extinction Crisis we are currently suffering, in what is now recognised as the Anthropocene – the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. – is the way that we, as a society, view the world we live in and those we share it with. And this has powerful consequences at a time when we are directly causing the extinction of so many plant and animal species, and thence the wholesale destruction of ecosystems and the consequent changes to the climate this triggers.

I have always thought of the Earth as consisting of two distinct layers; a rocky planet – a core – wrapped in a mantle of life, a mantle whole and made up of countless billions of organisms all influencing and influenced by each other; a true web of life that we are all part of, but no longer seem to recognise. And by the same token when we think of somewhere as a ‘place’, we commonly imagine it in isolation, as though it existed somehow despite its myriad neighbours. For example, if I ask you to imagine ‘London’ you may have an image of Central London with its familiar landmarks, filled with hurrying people and buses and cars. Or it might be the Docklands area, the West End – any one of thousands of parts of the city. But would you have an image of a city connected to the counties around it by roads, by streams and rivers, by areas of woodland and fields, the flight paths of birds, the daily migration of commuters or the dominant weather patterns, and then this greater area connected even further to the rest of the country, and then this country connected by seas filled with life to other countries and continents?

And this same lack of imagination frequently makes us see everything around us with the blinkered eyes of our own vested interests. Some will view a landscape as something to be exploited purely for financial gain, be it to extract oil, perhaps, or to maximise the yield of farmland by destroying woodland and hedgerow, infilling ponds and killing wildlife. Some may feel it imperative to build more and bigger roads, covering dozens more square kilometres with concrete and asphalt, as though it were so necessary that we should always be able to travel faster than we do already.

It is still quite controversial, but botanists are just beginning to understand the extent to which trees communicate with each other and the remarkable way their roots are all connected through networks of fungal threads – the Wood Wide Web, as it is sometimes called. It is supposed that trees communicate to each other through these threads about things such as insect attacks, which may trigger defence mechanisms in individuals before they are actually under attack. In that way alone, it is appropriate to think of a forest as a single living entity.

To return to the laws that might protect the natural world, what we really need are laws that recognise the importance of this mantle, and how every part of it relates to every other. And this includes our own part in this relationship, since we are very much part of it, and in the end we depend upon it for our own lives.

Of Caterpillars And Philosophy

The life cycles of butterflies and moths really are an example of how utterly bizarre life can be.

As a child, I was always outdoors playing in the woods and fields and keenly interested in wildlife. I had an especial interest in butterflies for a long while, and I’m quite confident that as a ten year old I could have named every single British species, and told you a reasonable amount about their life cycles. I knew, for example, that every butterfly or moth started out as an egg, hatched into a caterpillar which ate like there was no tomorrow, and then turned into a chrysalis.

And as that child, I assumed that inside this chrysalis the caterpillar just grew a pair of wings, lengthened its legs, and made a couple of other adjustments too minor for me to worry about and then hatched out into whatever butterfly or moth it happened to be.

It is not quite like that, of course.

When it turns into that chrysalis, the caterpillar essentially ingests itself, so that its insides turn into a kind of organic soup (which makes me think of the so-called ‘Primeval Soup’ of amino acids out of which life supposedly first arose on Earth about two billion years ago, which is actually not a bad analogy). From this soup a completely new creature forms.

So, let me now introduce you all to Trevor.

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Trevor has been living in our back garden for the last few weeks. He is the caterpillar stage of an Elephant Hawk Moth (probably – some of the hawk moth caterpillars not only resemble each other fairly closely, but may also have variations within the species). In that time he has been doing his best to eat a small tree.

You’ll excuse him if he doesn’t say hello, I’m sure, as he is much too busy eating at the moment. It’s what he does. It’s pretty well all he does.

Eventually, he will reach a stage when he stops eating, finds a handy spot to attach himself, and then turn into a chrysalis (or pupa) and will eventually hatch out into a moth – an Elephant hawk Moth, if I’ve identified him correctly, although I’m sure he won’t care in the slightest what I think.

You may be familiar with the Zen koan (essential a riddle that cannot be solved by pure logic) that asks ‘if you light one candle from the flame of another candle, is the new flame the same as the old one, or an entirely new one?’

Which brings me, rather neatly if I might say so, to today’s riddle. Bearing in mind all of the above, is the newly hatched butterfly or moth the same creature as the caterpillar that preceded it, or a new being entirely?

I think we should be told.

The Great Disconnect

There is a huge disconnect between the human race and the natural world. This is nothing new, of course, it is something that has gradually been developing ever since man first discovered farming and began to live in settled communities rather than living a nomadic existence. But it has accelerated rapidly since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, until we passed the point where for the first time there were more people living in urban areas than in rural ones. That may seem an obvious fact to many in the Western World, but that statistic is a worldwide one. 55% of the population today is urban, but the spread is very uneven. In North America, for example, 82% of the population today are urban, whereas across Africa as a whole it is only 43%.

This creeping urbanisation has had many obvious consequences, such as the growth of villages into towns, and thence into cities and finally into super-sized metropolises covering hundreds of square kilometres with hardly a tree or a bird to be found in some parts. Such as whole villages being abandoned as the population move to towns to find work, partly due to the growing mechanisation of farming and the demise of traditional rural industries. Such as a rapidly shrinking amount of land that can be thought of as wilderness. Even those areas that are not now covered with an urban sprawl may well be covered with farmlands or plantations, or large areas devoted to leisure activities such as golf courses which as far as wildlife and plant diversity are concerned, are little better than deserts.

And such as a growing and deepening disconnect between humans and the natural world.

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In small part, this is natural and necessary; it is a process that is inevitable as we evolve from a species indistinguishable from the other great apes in behaviour and purpose, into a species able to pursue activities unrelated to simple survival.

Of course, we have also become a species capable of wiping out our species and all other species, too.

But this trend seems to have accelerated at an alarming rate over the last thirty to fifty years. Of course, urbanisation continues to be a growing trend, the growth of technology continues to feed into areas such as farming, where we now have huge farms that can be operated by a couple of people alone, which might have required a labour force of maybe a hundred once, and we have social media and computers and gaming and thousands of on-demand TV stations.

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This last phenomenon I think is mainly the cause of what appears to be an especially severe disconnect between the natural world and the younger generations.

Now before everyone rushes to tell me of wonderful younger folk who love the natural world and who actively fight to protect it citing, perhaps, the incredible people who make up Extinction Rebellion, obviously there are many exceptions to this. But it is a trend. Before I retired, my job was teaching outdoor activities such as climbing or navigating, and I worked with many children and young adults. The environment in which I worked, of course, was the natural world. And although many of the youngsters who came along lived in towns or cities, there were also many who lived nearby, in a more rural environment. And what shocked me, was that so many of them had no better understanding of that environment than those that lived in inner cities.

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I met country children that couldn’t recognise an oak tree or knew what an acorn was. Country children who couldn’t recognise a kestrel. Country children who had no idea what wild garlic was.

As a kid, I lived on the edge of London. I don’t think I was in any way exceptional, but I would spend as much time as I could playing with friends in the woods and fields I could walk to or get to on my bike. We splashed around in streams and climbed trees, learned what different butterflies looked like, 037bfound stag beetles and slow-worms, caught minnows and sticklebacks, and absorbed a lot of knowledge about trees and birds and insects and mammals from books and TV programs and just being out in the country.

I assumed it was what all kids did.

But this seems to be no longer the case. I have already written about The Lost Words (here), the book written by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris as a response to learning that supposedly common words such as conkerlost words and kingfisher and acorn are words that the majority of children today are unfamiliar with – something that would once have been unthinkable. And this disconnect seems to me the saddest thing. So much of our very rich heritage has a rural background, be it music or literature, architecture, leisure activities, or traditional crafts. And the same is naturally true for most countries and societies.

But to return to the reasons for this, I feel the rise of social media and on-demand electronic entertainment has been the largest single influence on the younger generation, especially, to the point where to the majority of them, pretty well all their leisure time is taken up with these things and there is no desire to explore the natural world at all.

Sometimes I think the electronic world is more real to many of them than the real world is, anyway.

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Sigh. I’m off to check the vegetable garden.

In Praise Of Trees

It has been mind-buggeringly hot and humid for most of the last week, breaking records for mind-buggeringly hot heat here in the UK. But now, with heavy rain and gloom and a delicious green light filling the kitchen from the trees and bushes outside in the garden, it not only feels refreshingly cooler but looks it, too.

During this last week, almost the only way I could bear to be outside at all, was sitting on our lawn in the shade of the gorgeous hazel tree that dominates the garden.

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In so many countries, trees are planted to provide shade whether it be for travellers, or for residents in towns and villages or city squares.

They understand the value of the shade the trees provide in hotter climates, but in the UK we, and by that I mean governments and entrepreneurs and business people, we seem to be obsessed with cutting down trees, almost for the sake of it.

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Yet we can no longer pretend we have no idea how vital trees are; for us, for the ecosystem, for the planet. We need them to remove the carbon from the air and to replenish oxygen. They are habitats for huge numbers of wildlife. Their roots help bind and provide stability to the soil, preventing erosion, landslides, and the spread of deserts. Where they exist in sufficiently large numbers the water vapour they give off helps to bring down local temperatures and increase rainfall.

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They are sources of food for animals and for people, and for thousands of years their wood has been used for building dwellings, making furniture and utensils, fencing, tools, boats and wagons, and as a beautiful raw material for artworks.

And they soothe the soul!

Used intelligently and sustainably, they will continue to perform this role for as long as we wish.

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Yet despite all we now know, we continue to cut down trees at a ridiculous rate. In Brazil, we are losing rainforest now the size of three football fields per minute! The rainforest in Indonesia is also being cut down at a rapid rate. The HS2 rail link planned for the UK will cost a stupid amount of money and destroy massive amounts of woodland, just to take a little time off rail journeys that already happen.

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Yet there are many smaller – petty – instances of trees being cut down that amount to official vandalism, no less. I feel particularly strongly that in many towns in the UK it has long been the policy that when trees planted along streets have become larger than the council thinks appropriate, they cut them down but rarely if ever replace them with new, younger, ones.

The call to re-wild areas of the UK is growing, and I feel we should now be devoting as much land as possible to the creation of new woodland, as well as re-planting hedgerows to replace fences, and individual trees in gardens and parks and along roads.

And stop cutting them down!