The stark truth about the state our natural environment and how we ended up here
- Credit: James Wilson
A new book by Mark Cocker is a major event and his latest is a work of sweeping ambition - a sobering tale of the conservation movement’s development in the face of huge wildlife declines. Ross Bentley spoke to the Norfolk-based writer about the themes he has raised.
If you are remotely interested in wildlife and the environment (and if you are not, you really should be) and you are pulling together a list of summer reading, I strongly suggest you include Mark Cocker’s new book, published last month, at the top of your tally.
In fact, don’t wait until your holidays - open it as soon as you can. It’s a must-read and its message is urgent.
Called ‘Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late?’ this sobering but brilliant work offers a comprehensive view on the current state of nature in the UK and how we got to this point.
Along the way, we learn about the history of environmentalism on these shores and the origins of key organisations such as the National Trust and RSPB, while also finding out how institutions - the planning system, farming subsidies and forestry policies - have combined to bring about disastrous declines in our natural world.
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At the heart of Cocker’s new book is a quest to unravel a paradox: how can it be that the UK boasts one of the highest levels of membership to environmental organisations but be among the most nature-depleted countries in the world?
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He calculates that around 5.5million people are currently members of the likes of the National Trust, RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts or similar organisations - a significantly higher proportion than many of our European neighbours - while at the same time, according to the Biological Intactness Index, which calculates how complete a country’s biodiversity is, the UK is placed 28th from the bottom on a list of 218 countries.
There are two facts he keeps returning to: in the UK in past century, 99% of 4million acres of flower-rich meadow has been destroyed and 44million breeding birds have vanished from the countryside.
When I speak to him on the phone, Cocker makes no apologies for the downbeat nature of his message.
“I’ve presented things in a stark way - I wanted to adopt a more politicised stance on the issues connected with the natural environment,” he said.
“I haven’t offered a positive message - it’s important we look at the truth of the matter, England is in trouble. We can’t just fiddle while Rome burns – we can’t turn a blind eye.”
One aspect that makes the book so impressive, is the sheer amount of information contained within it, and Cocker says with a subject of this kind there can be no half measures
He added: “I tried a do it properly – I did spend a year simply reading and digesting information, and then it took 2½ years to write it.”
This detailed and startling history is interspersed with personal encounters as Cocker visits locations significant for what they say about our attitude to nature.
There are trips to Kinder Scout in Derbyshire, the birthplace of ‘freedom to roam’ and the site of a mass trespass in 1932 as factory workers from Manchester faced off against game keepers; to Cow Green in the Northern Pennines where in the early 1970s conservationists unsuccessfully fought a high-profile campaign to stop areas of nationally important flower meadow from being lost to a new reservoir to service a local industrial plant; to the Flow Country in Scotland, northern Europe’s largest peatland bog and a valuable habitat for many bird species, which was damaged in the 1980s through the planting of non-native conifer forests and land drainage schemes made possible by the tax relief available to wealthy investors.
The books also spends a lot of time looking at the crippling effects farming intensification has had on nature and when I ask Cocker what single measure does he feel would help improve the current situation for wildlife, it’s the farming sector he looks to
“I think area payments have to end,” he continued.
“But it not really just the farmers - we have hammered farmers through supermarkets and they are now trapped in a system that gives them nothing for their product and means they have to rely on subsidies to make up the shortfall.
“We need to get to a situation where people are prepared to pay more for their food, where supermarkets restrain from screwing farmers to the table, so subsidies can end and payments be redirected for environmental projects.”
Two sides to farming
In his book, Cocker shows us two sides of what farming can do for nature. On the downside, a visit to Lincolnshire sees him look out with desperate awe at a large field of daffodils - acre upon acre of monoculture where the only sign of vertebrate life is a single crow.
On the flipside, he describes with delight a visit to an estate in Norfolk where manager Jake Fiennes, brother to his famous acting siblings Ralph and Joseph, is a diligent agriculturalist who is as passionate about wildlife as he is about his crops.
Cocker added: “ We need to understand properly that nature isn’t one thing in isolation – it’s a source of well-being, it gives us our sense of beauty and our sense of abundance - it nourishes us.
“The truth is as a society, as a government, as individuals - we aren’t doing enough. Nature is not a priority – we undervalue it and it’s importance, and we need to do more.”
‘Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late?’ by Mark Cocker is published by Jonathan Cape.
Mark is holding a number of speaking events to talk about the subject raised in his latest books. These include events at Holt Bookshop on Wednesday June 13 at 6.30pm and Diss Cornhall on Saturday June 23 at 7pm. Visit www.markcocker.com for details.