As much as the media wishes us to believe that it is Christmas, and therefore Winter, it is Autumn here until the solstice on December 21st, which conveniently gives me time for a few further pieces in which I draw further inspiration from the Ladybird book ‘What to look for in Autumn’, written by E. L. Grant Watson and with illustrations by C. F. Tunnicliffe (copyright acknowledged).
My explicit aim is to explore changes in British countryside over the last fifty years. Implicitly though, I sense a political and psychological purpose unfolding, which I hope will become more transparent as I write. You can find the other articles in this series in the archive. This particular post was originally intended to hold six more spreads from the book, but I have only included two. When I arrived at the painting of pheasants a more important need arose, as I hope will be clear further down.
The decline of the common starling
The starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is such a beautiful bird seen close to, the feathers irridescent, shimmering, so it’s perhaps no surprise that incredible wheeling flocks of starlings, murmurations, should attract such interest. But the population of this long-lived characterful bird has crashed by around 70% over the last fifty years. Their food is principally worms and leatherjackets, and these in turn have declined as a consequence of the chemicals used on farms and hot, dry summers attributable to climate change. A proportion of starlings migrate to the UK in the autumn/winter and it’s wonderful to witness their excitement upon arrival, their hungry pecking at the soil and eager whistling.
The acquisitive ‘robber’ magpie (Pica pica) is often thought of as a problem because it takes the eggs of songbirds, so I was interested to read that according to research carried out by the British Trust for Ornithology, there is no impact on songbird population in areas with a high penetration of magpies. This is born out logically, since songbird population is in sharp decline, but the magpie population is stable.
I can find no further information on what a hat made from a Common Puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum) might have looked like, but I wonder if the expression, “… I’ll eat my hat” might be related to this forgotten practice, for this is another edible fungus, despite the sense of alarm in the text.
The wood of the Spindle tree (Euonymus europaeus) was actually used to make spindles for spinning wool and now for producing artists’ charcoal; the poisonous fruit were ground to treat head lice and also mange in cattle. The Spindle may not be in much demand for its economic uses now, and it is mostly planted for ornament, but it supports a wide variety of insects, many moths and aphids, and birds who prey on the insects. I can’t identify the fungus.
The beauty of the pheasant
The Common Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus): the very sight of this bird conjures any number of rural associations, and the sounds, the distinctive whirr of the wings of a startled bird, its ‘kok, kok‘ call (isn’t that recording just sublime?). Here are Alexander Pope’s famous verses:
See! from the brake the whirring pheasant springs,
And mounts exulting on triumphant wings:
Short is his joy; he feels the fiery wound,
Flutters in blood, and panting beats the ground.
Ah! what avail his glossy, varying dyes,
His purple crest, and scarlet-circled eyes,
The vivid green his shining plumes unfold,
His painted wings, and breast that flames with gold?
Alexander Pope, Windsor Forest, 1713
And a Victorian poet:
There is a sense in both poems of the exotic beauty of the pheasant, and I wonder to what extent the attraction we feel to it has led to it becoming a game bird, battery raised in dreadful conditions to be shot out of the sky in the hundreds and thousands. King George V once personally shot a thousand pheasants out of a total of 3,937 during a shoot in 1913, remarking later, “Perhaps we overdid it today.” Perhaps this unrestrained blood-lust was prescient, and the King’s understated regret an ironic commentary on the millions of humans (and the untold millions of the other than human) slaughtered during the following four years.
This is what we do with beauty
A huge industry revolves around the shooting of pheasants (including other game birds and deer) that according to the British Association of Shooting and Conservation is worth £2 billion. The BASC invests much time and money in conservation and claims that the management of land for the purpose of shooting has benefits for all wildlife. This, the BASC claims, is because hedgerows, coverts and other features of rural Britain are kept intact, rather than being grubbed up for large scale farming. According to the BASC, ‘shooters have access to two-thirds of the rural land area of the UK, much of it effectively inaccessible to wildlife agencies.’ The BASC provides a system for landowners to make records of ‘quarry species’ and ‘other species… among the Government’s farmland bird indicator species which are used for gauging the health of the countryside’. Landowners are encouraged to submit data because ‘every piece of land entered and wildlife species recorded creates more information that BASC can use to protect and promote the sport.’
It soon becomes clear that the BASC’s idea of conservation is about protecting the entertainment of its members and defending itself against those who would see shooting banned or curtailed, and that it represents a powerful lobby of wealthy landowners responsible for ‘two-thirds of the rural land of the UK’. Here is the journalist and author George Monbiot:
“According to Kevin Cahill, the author of Who Owns Britain, 69 percent of the land here is owned by 0.6 per cent of the population. It is profoundly wrong, I believe, that people struggling to support their families should be forced to extend alms to dukes, sheikhs and sharks: the absentee landlords, speculators, and assorted millionaires who own much of the farmland of Britain and other parts of Europe.”
George Monbiot, Feral, Allen Lane 2013
Pheasants, and other game birds, are kept at unnaturally high densities. A detailed report, prepared by consultant ornithologist Peter Robinson, suggests that the annual release figure of 20 million pheasants is wildly conservative, indeed Animal Aid say that is is now a staggering 42 million. The report goes on to say that the pheasant as a truly wild bird is becoming extinct, as captive-reared birds fail to breed successfully and are more prone to attack by predators. The increase in predation of these weak birds leads in turn to attacks on the predators themselves by estate managers, and the true extent of this remains hidden.
I recommend reading Peter Robinson’s report in its entirety: it carefully examines (at least, as carefully as possible given the difficulty in collecting data) the effects of stress on the birds, including the consequences of de-beaking and the fitting of anti-peck bits, the extent of predator control, crippling of birds through shooting, lead-shot deposition and lead poisoning as well as the economics of the shoot. This Animal Aid video, shot this year, is highly distressing:
The consequences of Enclosure
Though these days my diet is mostly vegetarian, I acknowledge that I have eaten many pheasants in my life. I am not against the licensed and controlled shooting of wild game birds for human consumption. What I contest, with mounting anger, is the ‘industry’ of shooting huge numbers of birds in the name of ‘sport’. That landowners use ‘conservation’ as a weapon to preserve this anachronistic behaviour is risible. It is high time that the land was restored to the people who once enjoyed it in common ownership. Oh, but surely the Acts of Enclosure put an end to the poverty of subsistence farming? That is what we are told. George Monbiot again:
“These changes in the ownership of land lie at the heart of our environmental crisis. Traditional rural communities use their commons to supply most of their needs: food, fuel, fabrics, medicine and housing. To keep themselves alive they have to maintain a diversity of habitats: woods, grazing lands, fields, ponds, marshes and scrub. Within these habitats they need to protect a wide range of species: different types of grazing, a mixture of crops, trees for fruit, fibres, medicine or building.
The land is all they possess, so they have to look after it well. But when the commons are privatized, they pass into the hands of people whose priority is to make money. The most efficient means of making it is to select the most profitable product and concentrate on producing that.”
George Monbiot, http://www.monbiot.com/1994/01/01/the-tragedy-of-enclosure/
It is apparent that the dispossessed are growing in numbers, not just those dispossessed of a home, of a garden to grow a few vegetables, but also of a connection to the land and a sense of community, and in another piece I will suggest that much of our modern behavioural problems are consequent upon this dispossession.