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Bring on the wildlife amateurs

Friday 19 Febuary 2010

Our somewhat bemused countryside commentator John Sheard reports more good news for the third time in a mere five weeks. Should we take the cynical view, he asks, because a general election is a few weeks away – or has Whitehall finally woken up?

ANY regular reader will know that I hold a deep-down cynicism about politicians and civil servants when it comes to countryside issues (or, in fact, pretty much all issues at present). This is not simple town-v-country bigotry but the sad lesson of the past fifty years.

There was a time, back in the 1950s, when many MPs were landed gentry or yeoman farmers, people dismissed for decades now as “back woodsmen.” But they did have one shining merit: they understood how the countryside worked, the eternal rhythms of harvest and village life, the network of non-farming professionals like land agents, auctioneers, lawyers and – yes - even B&B owners who made their living indirectly from agriculture and the landscape farmers husbanded.

Sign of things to come? Image:Woodland Trust

That breed has long gone and, after their cock-handed handling of the foot and mouth crisis at the beginning this century, New Labour even banished the job of Minister of Agriculture in a hissy fit of vindictive revenge, as though farmers were to blame rather than inadequate border controls against the import of infected meat from South America.

Putting food on the nation’s table became a minor issue, pushed onto the back burner (along with defending the realm by keeping our Armed Forces properly equipped!) but with townies in control of Westminster and Whitehall, the inner cities and social engineering became the priority targets.

Yet, suddenly, things have changed. Defra, which replaced the old Min. of Ag., has in the past few weeks pulled off some pretty good strokes for rural life, as we reported in the last two weeks in January. And this week, they added more goodies by inviting countryside volunteers – i.e. people with real hands-on rural experience – to help the Government out with two crucially important projects.

One of these was to enlist the skills of tens of thousands bird watching volunteers whose efforts have allowed the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to compile the world’s biggest data base of a nation’s birds, whether resident or visiting migrants.

These volunteers are being asked to keep detailed records on “biodiversity” matters for the next six years to provide the raw data which will allow Government to enact future legislation to protect the environment (see News). To have paid for such information to be collected by professional consultants would have cost the taxpayer almost £50 million.

Now I am not over-keen on the word “biodiversity” – it is a jargon phrase invented by the environmentalists to keep ordinary members of the public confused – but its meaning is quite simple: a diverse wildlife is a key yardstick to gauging the health of a given habitat. If birds or fish or plants start to die off, there is something going wrong and needs to be investigated.

Also announced this week were two other initiatives which will involve amateur volunteers in schemes which will delight the Government: a nationwide tree planting project launched by the Woodland Trust aimed at storing some of the nation’s carbon emissions and, here in the Yorkshire Dales, plans for the planting of the one millionth tree by the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust (see News).

Whatever! I don’t care about the motives so long as we get more trees...

Now whether or not you agree with the Government’s near-hysteria over global warming – and I am a much criticised sceptic – no-one can possibly object to the nation having more woodland. Here in the Dales, it was once said that a squirrel could travel some 25 miles from Bolton Abbey to Knaresborough without touching the ground: now, most of that 25 miles is windswept moor and bog.

So the Woodland Trust will no doubt delight the Government with its new Woodland Carbon Project, which aims to persuade hundreds of thousands of people to off-set their carbon emissions from cars, central heating, and other energy- guzzling gadgets by planting a tree.

The target is to plant almost 2,500 acres of new woodland every year. Says the trust:”The benefits of the scheme are two-fold: the Woodland Trust’s new Woodland Carbon project will enable individuals, groups and companies to mitigate their residual carbon emissions by planting trees at UK sites.

“At the same time, this will create valuable wildlife habitats, aid flood alleviation, offer wind protection and create native woodland for people to enjoy. Expanding the UK’s native tree cover will play a vital role in helping people and wildlife adapt to future climate change.”

Whatever! I don’t care about the motives so long as we get more trees, for this island of ours was once one single forest from Land’s End to John o’Groats but, recently, a film crew making yet another Robin Hood movie rejected Sherwood Forest as a possible location because what is left of this once iconic landscape no longer “has the right sort of leaves.”

The Woodland Trust is using an acorn as the logo of its new forest plan, symbolically illustrating what it hopes will be great things to come. The greatest revelation to me this week is that, as with the great naturalists of Victorian times, amateurs are once again taking their proper place in the preservation of our countryside. This is a mega step forward, whoever wins the coming election.

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