ANYONE who has read this column in the past will know that my opinion of politicians in general puts them pretty close to the bottom of the barrel. When it comes to those who pontificate on rural affairs from their desks in Westminster or their seats in some leafy suburb or grimy inner city, the bottom of that barrel has been well and truly scraped.
Yet this week, surprise, surprise, I received an email from an MP – and a Labour MP at that – which warmed the very cockles. For not only does Martin Salter seem to know what he is talking about but is also willing to speak up against the countryside dreamers of Defra and some of the wilder romantics of Natural England, both New Labour creations.
Beaver - too eager?
Salter is the MP for Reading West, not one of the prettiest towns in England but surrounded by some lush countryside, and – unknown to me until now – he is also Labour’s parliamentary angling spokesman.
The mere fact that Labour has such a post came as a shock – many of his party would prefer to see angling and shooting criminalised alongside hunting – but what he said next could have come straight from some of these columns in the Daelnet archive. Plans to re-introduce beavers to British rivers, he declared, were “ludicrous.”
I have written about this several; times, the last being at the beginning of August this year, but Martin Salter was even more outspoken than me when he stood up in the House of Commons to thunder:
“If we really have to introduce endangered species, why do we not take the DNA of Tyrannosaurus Rex or the wolf and bring them back to Britain? There must come a point at which reality impinges on what Natural England seeks to do.”
In fact, there are already people in Scotland talking about re-introducing the wolf. Wild boar have escaped from specialist farms and are now breeding happily in wooded areas of southern England and there are wallabies enjoying a healthy outdoor life in Derbyshire (not to mention the many stories of a black panther on the loose on Dartmoor).
there are too many right hands which do not know what the left hands are doing...
But the problem with beavers is that they damn rivers and streams, which here would cause large areas of productive farmland to revert to the bogs common in the Middle Ages before the beaver was eradicated (mainly for its fur). It would also stop the upstream migration of salmon and sea trout – with salmon already near to extinction in many rivers – and could also add to the country’s ever growing flooding problems.
The reason why Martin Salter launched his House of Commons attack on Natural England is that, at this very minute, new regulations are going through parliament which will force water authorities to build fish passes on all rivers which support a run of migratory fish – or could do so in the future.
This is important news here in the Yorkshire Dales. Although our west flowing rivers like the Ribble do hold salmon and sea trout, those flowing east towards the North Sea are just beginning to offer a glimmer of hope that we may once again see Salar the Jumper (as the Romans called him) in the Wharfe and the Aire, where they were once common until the pollution of the Industrial Revolution poisoned their entry via the River Humber.
Dam built by a beaver
It was this dichotomy which caused the MP to say in Parliament: “The current situation is ludicrous. On the one hand, we are seeking to ensure that migratory fish can run the rivers and reach the spawning grounds. On the other, Natural England talks of reintroducing the beaver, the one creature which, by creating dams, will ensure that all our legislation on fish passes becomes absolutely worthless.”
Now I know little about Martin Salter and even less about his constituency. But that does lie in the Thames Valley and in recent years, salmon have been found in the Thames, which was once so polluted as to be known as “The great stink.” The return of the salmon there was one of the few environmental triumphs of the 20th Century.
It seems to me that there is a far from unusual governance problem in Yorkshire-based Natural England: there are too many right hands which do not know what the left hands are doing. From its base in Sheffield, the agency has done some very good work. Only this week, it sent officials on a “meet-the-farmer” tour of the Lake District so that they could grasp some of the many problems facing agriculture in upland areas (see News, Tuesday).
These are what I call the countryside pragmatists, the NE workers who are getting out and about and making a sincere effort to co-operate with other rural bodies who know what is what, as I reported in this space a month ago (see Can the Turnip Taliban save the countryside?).
But there are also the dreamers – mostly, I suspect townies – who look upon the countryside as some sort of huge theme park whose main job is to act as a leisure centre for urban folk. To them, beavers, wolves and even bears could be exhibits in a very large zoo. If we are to save our rivers, and welcome back the salmon, Natural England’s right and left hands should get acquainted!