skylarks

…. and a post script to the last piece, which could go on and on but here’s just one interesting picture. By early May the snow on the ski runs on Parnassos has melted and the stony base of one of them was bright with tufts of Draba parnassica. This seemed to be their special place; elsewhere they were much less common.

and here’s a close up:

So skiing and ski runs are not necessarily ‘ecologically bad’. Different worlds in one space. (In my aunt’s outhouse near the Giant’s Causeway sparrows would move into the nests of the swallows for the winter and then make way for them again in the spring.) For skiers the mountains only come alive when snow falls, for me, when it melts.

Skylarks. We saw how well loved they are at Tempelhof, and how they excite our admiration by sharing their nesting habitat with crowds of Berliners. They are celebrities. There’s something about the way they seem to disappear into the earth – we have no idea that they’re there – and then soar up into the sky, their song still ringing out when they are almost invisible tiny specks – is there another bird like that? Not that they do it all the time of course, it’s a mating thing. Nesting on the ground seems such a daring, dangerous thing. I’ve never come across a skylark’s nest, but I’ve seen speckled seagulls’ eggs nestling in the grass on clifftops, and almost trodden on them.

Consider this:

‘There are four kinds of loss. There is the loss of beauty, especially that exquisite beauty of the small and complex and unexpected, of frog orchids or sundews or dragonflies. There is the loss of freedom, of highways and open spaces, which results from the English attitude to land ownership; the Englishman enjoys more freedom in Austria, Ireland or Greece than in his own country. There is the loss of historic vegetation and wildlife, most of which once lost is gone forever: to re-create an ancient woodland is beyond human knowledge, though we might re-create a historic grassland if we were to live to the age of 200. In this book I am especially concerned with the loss of meaning.’ Oliver Rackham, the History of the Countryside, 1986, p25-6.

a) At Tempelhof we can celebrate a gain in freedom.

b) He reminds me that in Greece and in the Alps I have enjoyed the freedom to walk more or less anywhere I please. I’ve hardly ever seen a sign saying Private Keep Out.

c) The grassland at Tempelhof may not be historic but it seems to suit the skylarks.

d) ‘the small, complex and unexpected’ is good.

Rackham goes on to say:

‘Almost every rural change since 1945 has extended what is already commonplace at the expense of what is wonderful or rare or has meaning. Skylarks are not a substitute for bitterns, nor pines or oaks for the native lime tree: there are plenty or skylarks and oaks already.’ ibid. p27. So things have indeed got a lot worse since the 1980’s. The RSPB Handbook of British Birds, 2006, says that there has been a 50% reduction in the number of skylarks in the last 25 years, but also that the largest decline was from the mid 1970’s to the mid 1980’s, so then since the 1970’s there has been a decline of much more than 50%? Whatever the exact figures, this once commonplace bird moves towards the wonderful and rare, although Rackham took it for granted. And judging by the number of times I’ve heard Vaughan Williams the Lark Ascending on Radio 3 recently it grows in meaning as it declines in numbers. But ironically recent conservation measures have led to an increase in the numbers of bitterns in the last twenty years. Things wonderful and rare, like the long tailed sea eagle or the osprey, attract our attention, make good television and boost local tourism. I wish I could reintroduce once commonplace sparrows to my garden. They were considered indomitable.

Oliver Rackham then gives us this, from C.C. Babington’s Flora of Cambridgeshire, 1860:

‘Until recently (within sixty years) most of the chalk district was open and covered with a beautiful coating of turf, profusely decorated with Anemone pulsatilla, (pasque flower) Astragalus hypoglottis (purple milk vetch) and other plants. It is now converted into arable land, and its peculiar plants mostly confined to small waste spots by road sides, pits, and the very few banks which are too steep for the plough. Thus many species which were formerly abundant have become rare; so rare as to have caused an unjust suspicion of their not really being natives to have arisen in the minds of some modern botanists. Even the tumuli, entrenchments and other interesting works of the ancient inhabitants have seldom escaped the rapacity of the modern agriculturalist, who too frequently looks upon the native plants of the country as weeds, and its antiquities as deformities.’

‘Small waste spots by roadsides’ have indeed become precious – we saw some of them in that last post.

The RSPB Handbook of British Birds gives a summary of the reasons for the skylark’s decline: ‘the move to autumn-sown cereals results in spring growth that is too dense for nesting, fewer winter stubble fields, an increase in pesticide use, increased grazing pressures and cutting of grass early (often for silage).’ And offers remedies: ‘incentives for farmers for planting spring-sewn crops, special grant aid and small bare ‘skylark’ patches left in cereal fields.’ They are all interventions in market driven agri-business. Is the modern agriculturalist rapacious, as Babington claims? Some of them are happy to be rescued from the demands of the market. Maybe now we’ll be paying farmers to take care of the skylarks while importing more cheap wheat from north America.

Then I was reminded of something I read many years ago in E.P. Thompson’s the Making of the English Working Class. An anonymous letter sent by a Norfolk labourer to the ‘Gentlemen’ of his parish in 1816 illustrates with one astonishing image how radical were the changes to the landscape and to society brought about by the enclosures of the 18th and early 19th centuries, and how the livelihood of the poor depended upon apparent trifles:

‘You do as you like, you rob the poor of their Commons right, plough the grass up that God sends to grow, that a poor man may feed a Cow, Pig, Horse, nor Ass; lay muck and stones on the road to prevent the grass growing…’

Here are small waste spots again – by the roads and on the roads themselves, before they were surfaced with stone. After the enclosures of the commons some sought to feed an animal or two on the public highway but even that was forbidden. You can see why: animals had to be kept away from the newly planted hedges. Thompson also quotes from the Act of Enclosure for Helpston, on the borders of Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire, which was the parish where John Clare lived, who has left in his poetry a moving and bitter account of the effects of the revolutionary changes in land use brought about by enclosure.

‘And be it further enacted, that no Horses, Beasts, Asses, Sheep, Lambs or other Cattle, shall at any time within the first Ten Years after the said Allotments shall be directed to be entered upon by the respective Proprietors thereof, be kept in any of the public Carriage Roads or Ways to be set out and fenced off on both sides… ‘

So it was off to Birmingham or to the Nottinghamshire coal mines or the Lancashire cotton mills or the new railways or the docks and workshops of London with the redundant, landless labourers and their families. The pasque flower and purple milk vetch whose loss Babington lamented not many years later were victims of the same process. And as to ‘rapacity’, the Norfolk labourer and the professor of botany at Cambridge University are in agreement.

Are modern farmers ‘rapacious’?

This entry was posted in history, politics, mountains, flowers, landscapes and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to skylarks

  1. Judy says:

    What is the ‘loss of meaning’ Rackham says he is most concerned with in his book?

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