Sunday, 18 November 2012

The missing lynx?

I love my job: it’s the variety. Some of today was spent with a heavy cleaver in one hand and a bloody carcass in the other. We wanted to see the blade splitting the haunch of venison but in an acceptable way for BBC1 Sunday evening viewers who don’t want their appetite for bare flesh on ‘Strictly…’ to be spoiled by blood on Countryfile.  This meant manoeuvring the meat around to avoid pipes, fur and dribbly bits, more like the butcher and less like the abattoir.

This decorum may be lost on the diners but they still like their food presented with a bit of theatre. Their current favourite is pheasant hanging from a branch by its neck with a piece of string. They have to jump for it. No, Heston Blumenthal hasn’t hijacked the serving suggestions on ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ this is dinner time for four European Lynx at the Cairngorm Wildlife Park.  Very groovy cats which, if some conservationists get their way, could soon be roaming wild in Scotland.

Lynx were once native in Britain but disappeared between the Dark and Middle ages – more than five hundred years ago. The idea now is to bring them back for their own sake but also to keep down deer numbers which are so high they’re holding back forest regeneration by nibbling the saplings. Species re-introduction has been popular of late - sea eagles, beavers and red kites - but a formidable predator…that’s a tough one. I remember doing a story on Radio Scotland nearly 20 years ago about plans to allow wolves to prowl the glens once again. Like a true stirring hack I went straight to the pages of Bram Stoker’s Dracula to find the passage describing the wolf pack attacking the horse-drawn carriage. When it comes to hunters, it’s easy to fan the flames of fear. Yet in truth there is not a single record throughout the world of a lynx killing a human. In the wild they are far more afraid of us.   

Farm animals though could be hunted and many stockmen fear lamb and veal would be on the menu. Why chase a fit and wary roe deer when a field of dozy sheep graze nearby? A convincing argument, but here’s another one. We encourage conservation of endangered species in other countries and frequently say their farmers shouldn’t shoot the elephant that tramples their crop or hunt the tiger that killed their brother. How can we lecture them if we won’t accommodate our own ambush predators?

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Village Greens

I am no good at cricket. I didn’t play at school and since then have only donned whites a few times with friends, mainly as an excuse to lounge on the boundary and eat cake. But TV is a harsh task-mistress and when she calls you up to the wicket there can be no skulking behind the pavilion. So today I swung a bat and the world (well the bit that matters ie the CountryFile audience) will witness my ineptitude. I was at least inspired by my surroundings: Great Massingham village green. The kind of communal turf shared by mallards and Morris-men, ringed by flint walled cottages, that encourages grown men to unleash their inner poet.

Official Town and Village Green status makes a space almost hallowed ground and any development rightly impossible. But village greens are not just historic, last year there were 103 new applications seeking this ultimate preservation order and some of them are a bit fishy. Lakes, beaches and fields of crops are all under consideration and there’s a growing suspicion that the claim is being used as a kneejerk block to development: the NIMBY’s weapon of choice. The government shares this belief and is about to tighten up the law – exactly how should be revealed when we meet Owen Patterson, the relatively fresh Secretary of State for Environment.

Village Greens emerged in the Medieval times for communal grazing, often complete with a pond so the animals could get a drink. Though they’ve probably long given space for occasional fun and games, their importance at the heart of many villages seems to have been entrenched in the Victorian era when industrialisation and overcrowding resulted in rural idylls being both romanticised and cherished.

The starting point for declaring new town or village greens is unchallenged access to an area for at least 20 years. That was claimed for a field where we started the day but all I could see was thirty acres of stubble where this year’s crop of wheat once stood and not a soul came wandering by.

But I can see the point of designating new areas for random recreation. Public health bodies talk of `vitamin G` - where the G stands for green - and the provable fact that access to vegetated space improves mental and physical wellbeing. Back on Great Massingham’s green the after-school kids were definitely getting their outdoor fix. I joined them for a few rounds of sponge Frisbee: now that is my kind of game.