Britain has always liked to think of itself as a nation of animal lovers, we spend several billion pounds on our pets each year and get outraged when people commit acts of cruelty towards our furry friends. This love of animals drives people who care about wildlife too. It wasn’t until 2013 that we finally voted for our own national animal, the hedgehog, and there are a couple of million people in organisations such as the RSPB and the various wildlife trusts. The National Trust has now reached five million members. Programmes such as Springwatch have made people far more aware of the amazing variety of wildlife in our country, they are more aware of environmental issues, try to put food out for the birds and make their gardens a little more friendly towards wildlife.
Cocker celebrates the achievements of the visionary people who have managed to save a landscape or a species, create some of our national institutions and inspire others to do the same. However, the reality is that our wildlife is suffering; species are going extinct, the whole ecosystem from the bottom up is reaching a critical tipping point that we may never return from. The numbers are pretty horrific, in the past 50 years, we have lost 50% of our biodiversity. That is the past 50 years, not since the industrial revolution. Just in the case of farmland birds, there are 44 million less now than there were in 1970. We only have 1% of our wildflower meadows left now.
So how did we reach the point where green concerns are on the rise just as the creatures people are beginning to care about fall off an actual and metaphorical cliff? In this really radical text, Cocker takes a long hard look at how we have got to this moment, what has caused this and the people and systems to blame, and boy, he does not hold back. He argues that the roots of this reach way back to almost 100 years ago after William invaded with his Norman Army. This feudal system that he imposed on the country has shaped our politics and culture ever since. The landed classes manage to avoid almost all tax on their properties and still get large subsidies from the UK government and EU. They have no interest in preserving the fragile ecosystems unless it suits their narrow interests. He is prepared to criticise other organisations too, the Forestry Commission has a scathing attack on the monoculture of trees that they have imposed on regions that are totally unsuitable for them. Again they are another organisation that the elite has used for tax evasion, I mean efficient investments. The NT fairs a little better, but with its focus on maintaining the properties as the previous owners would have wanted and the continuation of their sporting activities, which mostly involves shooting, rather than making an effort to preserve the wildlife that they have on their extensive properties.
There are many other examples that make this essential reading, but as the subtitle says, is it too late? Whilst this is an intense polemic, he still manages to be lyrical, I was delighted by the writing whilst seething reading about the things that have happened. Part of his enthusiasm is driven by a small part of Norfolk that he has purchased and is slowly restoring to become a wildlife haven. Whilst he is doing his own small thing there are lots of people who aren’t. We are to blame in part too, for example, we have demanded cheaper food, meaning that agri-business has managed to make farms and fields outdoor factories that wildlife does not play a part at all. But can we make a difference? There are around 8 million of us in the RSPB, National Trust and the Wildlife Trusts, but only a handful are prepared to rattle the doors of the politicians and ask them some very difficult questions. Another problem is the small number of people that own vast swathes of the land, they have no desire to change at the moment and will fight all the way to stop this.
Paul Cheney 5*
Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late? by Mark Cocker
Vintage 9781784701024 pbk Apr 2019