Friday, October 26, 2007

Roger Lovegrove's talk on SILENT FIELDS at the Chester Literature Festival

It has been a busy week (well for me, anyway). After seeing the Turner exhibition on Tuesday I went to another Chester Literature Festival talk. This was by Roger Lovegrove on the research for his book called SILENT FIELDS which was about the decline of the British wildlife. It was a very interesting talk and the author obviously has a great enthusiasm for his subject.

In the last 400-500 years the diversity of British wildlife has declined. Where there used to be wolves, boar, beavers and lynx and a huge number of different sorts of birds there are much fewer different species. The decline has happened in three phases.

The first phase was due to legislation passed during the reigns of Henry VIIII and Elizabeth I (1532 and 1566 respectively). 'Acts for the Preservation of Grain' encouraged every parish to raise a levy to produce a kitty run by the church wardens to pay people to kill 'vermin' that were eating the crop. Nets were laid to trap rooks, and small mammals such as weasels were presumably trapped near their dens. 2d (two old pennies) was paid for the head of a weasel, and 1d for most of the birds. It must have been a lucrative business for some and a grisly occupation for the church warden.

This legislation, which was only repealed in 1863, ensured that pole cats were wiped out and species such as red kites, bull finches and ravens showed a sharp decline. Even hedgehogs were unsafe; it was thought that they suckled of recumbent cows at night, stealing their milk. As Roger pointed out, this is unlikely given the relative sizes of teat and mouth.

However this cull was relatively unsuccessful overall since different parishes followed the royal edits with varying enthusiasm and the times of the killing were haphazard and not targeting the breeding season which would have been far more effective.

The second phase in this story of the destruction of British wildlife was much more lethal. In the mid-eighteenth century the character of British countryside changed from the medieval system of rotation farming in open fields to the enclosure of farmland by the wealthy landowners after a a series of 'Enclosure Acts'. The landowners hired gamekeepers, with guns, to look after their land and get rid of vermin and until the first world war they were extremely effective and exterminated several species including pine martins, ospreys and wild cats.

It is strange to think of anything good coming out of the horror of the two world wars but apparently they proved to be the salvation of British wildlife. The end of the second world war also heralded a change in attitudes with nature and wild-life starting to become appreciated and this was Roger Lovegrove's third phase. The RSPB, the conservancy council and the various wildlife trusts were established and legislation, this time to protect wildlife, was passed by parliament. Although it is still legal to kill rats, stoats and gulls, much of the rest of British wildlfe is protected. However the illegal killing of some species of rare birds of prey in places like the Peak District continues.

There are more details about this history in SILENT FIELDS - a fascinating present for all those interested in British Wildlife.


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