Were John Ruskin alive, you would hear him cheering at the Court of Session decision in March against Dr Reiner Brach, a steel trader, who wanted to keep his Highland estate off bounds to the public. To that end he had erected high gates and warning signs to prevent their access. As Ruskin wrote, ‘of all the small, mean and wicked things a landlord can do, shutting up his footpath is the nastiest’.
He may have been right. As the facts in Mark Cocker’s impassioned account of our stewardship of the natural world accumulate, however, to that accusation could be added the criminal disregard, from the days of the enclosures to our own, of landowners who cared far more for their bank balances than for the wildlife that roamed their parish. No doubt to them there was little difference between the peasantry and the marauding creatures, be they caterpillars or deer, that threatened their livelihoods. All were vermin of a sort.
Our Place is the renowned bird specialist and naturalist’s latest attempt to wake the slumbering citizenry of these isles and make them smell the stench of nitrate fertilisers and the greed of the rich elite’s self-interest. As Cocker writes, ‘The people of this country, subjects rather than citizens, have an inbuilt deferential reflex to the landed, and have allowed the same powerful minority to continue to enjoy massive unequal fiscal benefits and political privileges for 70 years. We may all have the vote, but those who own land have more votes than others.’ It is as true of Scotland, which wrongly prides itself on being clear-sighted in regards to privilege, as it is of the other nations, all of us in thrall to social and economic prestige.
There is plenty of material in Our Place to send the populace to the barricades in fury at the ruling classes, be they fortressed in ancestral homes or occupying the benches at Westminster and the House of Lords. In the end, certainly as regards their treatment of environmental issues, they amount to much the same group. It took near popular revolt in the 1930s, over the issue of the right to roam, and the end of the Second World War, when people decided things had to change, before Parliament gave any thought to the rights of the natural world. Until then, it was the landowners who mattered, not what they blasted, poisoned, or wiped off the face of the earth in order to maintain their fields, forests and heaths. Closer to our own times, Cocker points out that: ‘For almost two generations forestry became an exercise not truly about growing trees, but of strategic tax avoidance and substantial profits underwritten by government grant…’ It is, he suggests, a form of modern feudalism. Whereas in Europe tree-ownership crosses the classes, in Scotland, ‘forestry is the preserve of the state, landed estates and wealthy investors’. Witness recent outrage at attempts to replace sheep grazing on hill farms with forestry. Subsidies for afforestation are being promoted by governments keen to improve air quality and meet their eco-obligations. Fair enough, but in so doing, the humbler hill-farmer is left behind, these modern-day, small-scale clearances echoing historic wrongs.
But the ways in which forestry has been managed until relatively recently, has been astonishingly inimical to the environment. In one instance, various landowners in the south, including the National Trust, were encouraged by the Forestry Commission to fell old woodlands and plant conifers instead. It was, writes Cocker, whose imaginative and lucid style sets him apart from many green campaigners, ‘an act of desecration comparable with dismantling an ancient library to supply oneself with kindling’. Add to this the fact that government and European subsidy has encouraged harmful agricultural practices, whose impact has been in places catastrophic, and the scene is set for ever-declining species of birds, insects and plants.
In the past century there has been a catalogue of egregious and destructive acts – political and individual, for as Cocker reminds us, we all – ‘even David Attenborough’ – play our deleterious part. Decisions on a state level, but also at the kitchen sink, have brought Britain to a point where our habitat might never be the same again. Our Place is somewhat misleadingly subtitled ‘Can We Save British Nature Before It Is Too Late?’ I say misleading only because rather than directly address that question in any depth, the book instead shows the current situation, how we got here, and those organisations which, though established to protect nature, have made relatively little headway. But the question that underpins it all, and the one which every chapter is designed to answer is, ‘How could a people who appear to love nature almost more than nationality have still destroyed so much of their richest countryside in so short a time?’ To judge by the number of us who are members of wildlife and conservationist agencies, we should almost literally be living in clover. The truth, of course, is very different.
Cocker takes as his starting point the dismal and daunting facts contained in the document, State of Nature Report, in 2013. Examining 3148 species, including birds, fungi, reptiles, plants and mammals, ‘it concluded that of these, 60 per cent had declined in the last half century, and 31 per cent had declined badly. More than 600 species were considered to be threatened with extinction’. These are staggering figures, and render that subtitle redundant from the outset, because quite obviously, some of what we have lost can simply never be replaced. Take the disastrous political decisions around the Flow Country in Caithness and Sutherland, an expanse of peatlands and wetlands likened in natural importance to the Serengeti and the South American rainforest. Forestry won that ‘Battle of the Bogs’, thanks in no small part to the aid of Malcolm Rifkind as Secretary of State for Scotland, who vetoed any halt to afforestation. Then there was the creation of the Cow Green reservoir, in Teesdale, another landmark failure for the environmental cause, and too many others to name. The numbers of lost causes are such you might weep.
Cocker is neither a pessimist, nor a doom-merchant, but you would have to be on hallucinogens not to feel your stomach sink at his conclusion on our spiralling destruction. We – at state and individual level – might not have intended to wreak irreparable harm, but this is what we have done. As Cocker writes, ‘At every turn of the road we chose ourselves.’ In an exasperated throwaway, he expresses surprise that plastic grass has not yet taken hold here. He should visit Carpetright, where it is sold by the metre like Axminster, or a tenement in Leith, where I saw it rolled out in a front garden, presumably to take the weeding out of weekends.
The stark reality, of which those who live in the country are most acutely aware, is that ‘the central engine of modern life and of the British economy is urban and industrial in character’. Our Place, however, is more than a political rant, or a crammer’s notes on the history of environmentalism. While it is rooted entirely in facts that explain the dismal state of our wildlife, it adds a personal dimension to the issues raised, as Cocker recalls his own life, and the landscapes he loves. Now living on a five-acre property called Blackwater, in Norfolk, where he wields his chainsaw as knights once brandished swords, he is attempting to create different habitats to encourage wildlife. ‘In any other age,’ he writes, ‘had man laboured simply to create a future living space for an arachnid called Dolomedes, he would either be canonised or carted off to Bedlam.’ The arachnid in question is the fen raft spider, and there is something decidedly spiritual about Cocker’s determination to improve the odds of a single, almost unheard of creature.
This awareness of the meaning of living organisms beyond ourselves is the idea around which Our Place revolves. It gives the title half of its double meaning, placing us in perspective, and comes from historian Keith Thomas’s view that: ‘The explicit acceptance of the view that the world does not exist for man alone can fairly be regarded as one of the greatest revolutions in modern Western thought.’ We have, says Cocker, undergone a significant ethical enlargement – yet to look around, you’d barely know it. Despite the huge numbers of us who are members of organisations like the National Trust – which he kicks hard in the shins for its wishy-washiness, or the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the RSPB (praised for speaking out) and countless bodies attempting to hold back the tide, we are nevertheless allowing loss to escalate.
Roving back through the past century and more, Our Place is a pacy, intense and always readable beginner’s guide to the origins of green awareness, from the middle-class women of Didsbury in 1889, who brought an end to the slaughter of millions of birds for hats and boas by hounding and shaming those who wore feathers, to the origins of the National Trust – and later the NTS – and the RSPB, Forestry Commission and Nature Conservancy, to name only the largest bodies.
At every turn it is a story of high politics, some of it naive, some actively obstructionist. For each heroic campaigner it seems there is an MP in cahoots with the landed interest, or wilfully blind to the needs of nature; for each far-sighted idea, an easy way of staying in a rut. Few writers are better at synthesising a morass of complex and potentially tedious material into such a digestible form. Cocker should be advising government ministers, he is so good at distilling the facts and getting to the nub. To leaven the fact-heavy pages, he occasionally lifts his eyes and refreshes the text – and his reader – by contemplation of the places where he is most at home: knee-deep in brash water in his beloved Norfolk, or climbing a bare Scottish mountain, to find a ‘Lilliputian forest’ in the inch-high montane flowers and shrubs. It is his ceaseless wonder at the natural world that keeps the flame of this book alight. Here he writes of pink-footed geese on his home patch: ‘They drop into the dusk’s pink afterglow over Warham, and steadily, towards the horizon, one by one, they plump down into the shadowy vegetation, their wings flickering in the last light, the barking-dog notes fading and the white crescents at their tail bases marking the spot where each bird berths finally on the dark ground. The night sky and the marsh are one.’
By its end, Our Place has, for this reader at least, only confirmed the reasons to be gloomy. The answer to ‘can we save Britain’s wildlife before it’s too late?’ is, by this reckoning, an obvious no, or – for those who prefer a smidgen of optimism – an equivocal: only some of it. Yet Cocker’s informed activism is infectious. It is also a reminder of what is being fought for, and dreamt of. His take on those who try to stem the tide of concrete and chemicals and find a better way, is heartening. Campaigners, since they appear to be harking back to less industrialised times, are inevitably viewed as conservative, as curmudgeons who wish to turn back the clock, and impede progress. He has a much more invigorating perspective: ‘environmentalism is a fundamentally positive ethic, a wish to shepherd into the future as abundant a range of life as possible’. Those who agitate for nature to be given its rightful place are not just forward-thinking but right out there on the cutting edge. No wonder it’s sometimes painful.