Katharine Norbury reviews Mark Cocker’s Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late?, newly published by Jonathan Cape.
As well as identifying him as the author of several books including Crow Country and Birds and People, Mark Cocker’s Twitter handle has him down as ‘tutor, father, landowner… OK, five acres by River Yare’. It was these five acres that I originally presumed would be the subject of Our Place, much in the manner of Tim Dee’s Four Fields. Indeed, the book does begin in Blackwater, Cocker’s two East Anglian fields in which he hopes to create four distinct wildlife habitats, between the muddy ditches, soon to be clear water, striating his land. I was wrong. Cocker’s vision encompasses considerably more than this mere five acres. By Our Place, Cocker means the entirety of the UK, a place that is simultaneously fascinated by and yet curiously blind to the health of British wildlife.
One in thirteen of us – that is, one in ten of all voters – belong either to the National Trust or the National Trust for Scotland. But despite this apparent preoccupation with the idea of conservation, the 2013 State of Nature Report revealed that from a pool of 3,148 species examined, 60 percent were found to have declined over the previous 50 years and, of those affected, 31% had declined badly. ‘More than 600 species were’, shockingly, ‘considered to be threatened with extinction’. The question driving Our Place , therefore, is how did this seemingly paradoxical state of affairs come into being? The second question, posed in the sub-title, is not necessarily one that Cocker can answer: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late?
There follows a whistle-stop history of and fascinating insight into the countless parallel, sometimes interlocking, and seemingly endless bodies, organisations and their respective acronyms that constitute conservation in the UK. Cocker tells us that he is ‘constitutionally incapable of polemic’. In spite of this he has made a very good fist of it, openly acknowledging that ‘the biases, like the errors, are mine’. He deftly notes the origins and high ideals of the National Trust but also notes the speed with which the conservation dreams of its founders came, in just a few years, to be associated primarily with the conservation of buildings and gardens, rather than wildlife habitats, a policy from which the aristocracy did particularly well. Today the NT and National Trust for Scotland are, when taken together, Britain’s second largest landowner after the Forestry Commission, owning 815,000 acres. It is interesting to reflect what effect turning over a fraction of that land for wildflower hay meadows, for example, might achieve.
Cocker moves on to the origins of the RSPB, another major landowner with 323,000 acres. In 1889, a group of middle class women from Didsbury declared war on the already established penchant for feathers in female millinery. This global craze was so entrenched that ‘every tea-girl or housemaid in her Sunday best felt dowdy without at least a spray of bright bird’s plumage in her costume’. Indeed, by the 1860s there were only 32 pairs of great crested grebe left in Britain. The Didsbury women took notebooks to church and wrote down the names of every woman wearing feathers, posting their names publicly the following day.
One of the ways in which the non-landowning public’s engagement with landscape has come about has been through the medium of walking, and yet our right to roam, or our right to roam within reason, has also been a hard-won battle. Cocker reminds us of William Hazlitt’s observation: ‘The motto of the English nation is exclusion,’ while John Ruskin wrote that ‘Of all the small, mean and wicked things a landlord can do, shutting up a footpath is the nastiest.’ Cocker leads us to the Great Trespass of 1932, when several hundred walkers (between 200 and 800 depending on which account you read) climbed Kinder Scout outside Manchester, and six of them were imprisoned for it, in an action that is still celebrated in song today. ‘In retrospect,’ Cocker writes, ‘the court case looks exactly what it was: an orchestrated piece of establishment revenge and an overly harsh punishment intended to act as a deterrent to others.’
A picture starts to emerge of the haves rewarding themselves at the expense of the have-nots, an endeavour undertaken in the name of conservation, and paid for by the public purse. Farm subsidies have got to be one of the most contentious examples of this, wherein landowners are rewarded for the acreage they own using tax payers’ money. I watched in amazement at the ‘New Networks for Nature’ event in Cambridge in 2016 when Sussex landowner Charlie Burrell, standing next to George Monbiot, explained how much more profitable his estate had become since he had re-wilded it. The subsidies still rolled in, because he still owned the land, but he had been able to let the majority of his workers go and turn their cottages into profitable lets. I remember looking around the Babbage Theatre in the newly opened David Attenborough Building and thinking one word: Clearances. A balance had been redressed. The non-landowning humans had been replaced by a much-needed influx of abundant wildlife, but I felt as though I was staring at the other face of Janus. And no, Cocker doesn’t forget the Common Agricultural Policy.
To return to Cocker’s five acres in East Anglia, the waters run far from clear. A number of books in recent years have explored the territory of habitat and species loss – Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm, Philip Lymbery’s The Dead Zone and, most recently, Lisa Samson’s Epitaph for the Ash being among them. Each writer in their own way has attempted to explain how this state of affairs, of natural paucity or paucity of nature, has come about and what, if anything, can be done to remedy it. In Our Place Cocker places the blame for the denuding of our countryside squarely at the feet of the organisations and people that appear to have been charged with its care, which includes its farmers. But what all of these books have in common is the absence of a happy ending. I am left with the hollow feeling that, rather than being a call-to-arms, we are dealing rather with the apportionment of blame. ‘It is the slow, inexorable, incremental subtractions that modern humanity makes, which explains how we lost 44 million birds from our avifauna between 1966 and 2008. It is precisely how you lose 99 percent of all flower-rich meadows. At every turn in the road we chose ourselves.’ Cocker ends by listing a collection of “truths” out of which, perhaps, we might change the way we live so that the balance between the human and non-human inhabitants of Britain has some chance of shifting – and even the words “non-human” are anthropocentric!
I have only unpacked a fraction of the organisations and examples with which Cocker builds his thesis. Our Place is a brave book, and a contentious one. It will undoubtedly ruffle what few figurative feathers we have left. Cocker upbraids every one of us, without exception, for our failure to live within our means, to keep to our own place, to respect our other-than-human neighbours, and he does it with the authority and conviction of an Old Testament prophet. Whether we can all survive the coming storm, or perhaps the coming drought, seems less certain.
Our Place (Jonathan Cape, hardback, 336 pages) is out now and available here, priced £18.99.
Katharine Norbury is currently compiling and crowdfunding an anthology of women’s nature writing, which you can support here. Caught by the River readers get a 10% discount using code caught10.