Sun, Jun 03, 2018 - Page 7 News List

The British countryside is being killed by herbicides and insecticides

From orchids and moths to hedgehogs and toads, Britain’s wildflowers and wildlife are dying out. Making the meadows safe again is a huge challenge — but there are glimmers of hope

By Kevin Rushby  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Constance Chou

In June 2011, I took a long drive up the A1, the Great North Road. At Scotch Corner I turned for Barnard Castle. The villages were well kept, the countryside was green and the fields were dotted with sheep. Everything was normal, or so I thought.

Beyond Barnard Castle I took a narrow lane into part of Upper Teesdale and suddenly colors exploded along the roadside. I stopped the car and jumped out. There was a bed of orchids, hundreds of them, and behind that, billowing banks of violet, scarlet, white, yellow and cornflower blue. I had seen Alpine meadows, but this took my breath away.

Further into the dale I found a footpath that led me down beside a shady brook. There were more orchids of a different species and a grass snake hunting frogs in a pool. Out in the open again, there was the haunting cry of curlews overhead, then redshanks, plovers and snipe.

I spent two days up there, talking to environmentalists and farmers involved in the upland hay meadow project for the North Pennines area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB). The landowners were being paid to restrict the use of fertilizer, not employ herbicides, and stop grazing after the middle of May. Together with some seeding programs and careful monitoring, the meadows had become magnificent.

When I drove back home, I came down to a countryside where the only flowers were dandelions, watched over by crows. The monotonous green of the rye grass was unbroken. Compared with what I had just experienced, it felt like a desert. I felt cheated. My entire adult life had been spent admiring a shoddy and simplified reproduction, a poor impersonation of a much-loved friend.

That evening I sat up late reading. I had recently discovered the American farmer and poet Wendell Berry, who wrote: “The face of the country is everywhere marked by the agony of our enterprise of self-destruction.”

I found myself staring at the lamp. All evening, despite the windows and doors being wide open, there had been nothing flying around the light. In my city, in midsummer, and close to a large riverside park, there were no moths at all.

Seven years on, the statistics for the British countryside are heartbreaking. Over a quarter of all British birds are under threat, eight species are almost extinct. Three-quarters of all flying insects have disappeared since 1945, including a staggering 60 different moths.

Orchid ranges have shrunk by half. Two species are gone. The State of Nature 2016 report described Britain as being “among the most nature-depleted countries in the world.”

Back in June last year, journalists waiting for news of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Cabinet reshuffle were surprised to see Michael Gove enter No. 10. His failed leadership bid and public falling out with British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson appeared to have hamstrung his political career. By 7pm he was back, replacing Andrea Leadsom as British secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs.

The news was greeted with alarm by environmentalists. After all, this was a politician who had voted against action on climate change, against incentives for low-carbon electricity generation and against requirements for environmental permits to frack, but had favored selling state forests, culling badgers and introducing high-speed railways. It seemed that at least one British fox was alive, and now in charge of the hen house.

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