Caught by the River

Radio On

Sue Brooks | 2nd May 2015

The Living World

Sue Brooks tunes in:

If you feel in need of something to gladden the heart, tune into the current series of “The Living World,” Sunday mornings on Radio 4. In celebration of a programme which has been running for almost five decades, 2015 will feature a selection from the archives of the last twenty years.

Beginning with 1997, and a much younger Lionel Kelleway – one of my favourite radio voices – more of an older brother this time, than the usual kindly uncle, but just as enthusiastic, just as likely to draw in his breath and let it out with the words “wonder of wonders”. He is taking a walk with Oliver Rackham in Bradfield Woods in Suffolk. Woods which Oliver knew intimately as a link to the wildwood which covered lowland Britain 7,500 years ago. Lionel listens as the story unfolds. Or, as I had read the previous day in “Landmarks,” the trees spoke and someone listened. Not Oliver Rackham and Lionel Kelleway, but John Muir and President Roosevelt in Bridalveil Meadow in 1903. Listening to Oliver Rackham’s voice from beyond the grave struck me in the same way – he read the history of the trees as if it were a book written by the trees themselves.

The second shifts to the early spring of 1995. Lionel is in Norfolk with Chris Skinner. They are driving along a track lined with old oaks and a decrepit hedge. Did I really hear that word? I had to listen again to find it was true. A successful farmer in East Anglia was proud of his decrepit hedge. And why? Because it supported 10 Little Owls. Hedges are important. He cannot recompense the twelve miles of hedges removed from the farm in the 1970s, but he can look after the ones that are left – a sign of a well-managed hedge….. is an “A” shape with a wide bottom and a good mix of plants – and the reward could be the nest of a Long-tailed Tit. He loves these birds. It spills out of his voice when he is talking about their plumage, their nests, their eyes, the way they fly.

Chris Skinner was born on High Ash Farm. He knows it as intimately as Oliver Rackham knew Bradfield Woods, and under his hands it has been transformed. He farms the land as a way of saying thank you. It has been a labour of love and a mission. He received no grants.

As a postscript at the end of the programme, Chris Packham tells us in a reverential tone, that there are now 30 breeding pairs of Little Owls on High Ash Farm, and that last year 600 Yellowhammers were recorded and 17,000 Linnets.

Let your heart sing for Chris Skinner the farmer.

Bradfield Woods and Skinner’s Farm on the iPlayer.