NFU Viewpoint: There are some painful truths in nature, says Matt Swain

ONE of the films that influenced me a child was Born Free. It fired an interest in the countryside that eventually led to farming.

If you don’t know the film it’s a heart-warming tale of Joy and George Adamson, who raised and re-introduced a lioness, Elsa, back into the wild.

Unfortunately, being a “townie” it failed to prepare me for the realities of the natural world, which doesn’t know the word “humane”.

Seeing my discomfort at having to dispatch a diseased rabbit, my first farmer boss kindly cautioned me: “No wild animal dies of natural causes.” That was 36 years ago and, to be frank, it it’s never got any easier. From the town to working in the country has given me an interesting viewpoint on the rural/urban divide and I think much of it centres on the animal issue. I don’t know when it happened, probably early post war, but “care” for animals got mixed up with “sentiment” and it took me some time to recognise the difference.

We no longer put things “out of their misery”, we just take them to the vet who, to alleviate us from guilt, gives us an invoice. Specialist pest controllers deal with rodents and we have forgotten that cinemas were called “flea pits” for a reason.


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Only two generations on and townies rarely have to give the process a second thought, unlike the country, where pest control is a daily chore. It’s not surprising that there is little understanding on either side.

TV chefs have of late done much in re-connecting us to our food and the painful truth that in order for us to eat, animals must die. (My vegan friends may protest this latter point but producing vegetables still means the control of rabbits and pigeons in their millions and invertebrates by the billion).

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It’s all a far cry from what I took from a film all those years ago with its stirring music by John Barry and great African sets. Then, reading Sir David Attenborough’s memoirs, I came across a passage which struck me with irony – that the Adamson’s story was not one of man in harmony with nature at all.

Shortly after the book was published he had flown to Africa to see for himself and found a very different tale. He writes that Elsa died before the filming and her replacement was shot after killing a film hand, that Elsa’s own cubs became man eaters and were shot and that the Adamsons were both murdered: Joy by her staff and George by bandits.

There were other unpleasant consequences of Adamson’s intervention in nature and Sir David speculates that one could follow the trail of death right back to when a seemingly caring act turned out to be nothing more than a sentimental one.

The lesson I think is that we do our children no favours in selling nature as a romantic idyll and that there are consequences to all our actions. The debate of responsibility in the environment is much broader than this missive but take it from someone at the coal face, none of us is “born free” (cue music).

: : Matt Swain is an National Farmers’ Union member from north-east Essex and a Nuffield farming scholar.

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