Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Saving the Countryside



I came across a report from 1933 of the opening of the gateway at Hawksmoor nature reserve( near Cheadle) by the Poet Laureate to a kinsman John Richard Beech Masefield, a naturalist of Cheadle who had died the year before and who had created the area.

Masefield had become Poet Laureate 3 years before, he used his speech to attack modernity and its conflict with the countryside. He turned his fire initially on egg collectors- “a multitude of distorted mind”- and the destruction of species among the bird population. He then extended his attack to question the poor layout of zoos and their management of birds in captivity. “We see great and beautiful birds shut in forever, unable to use their wings, and damned never again to lift a 1,000 feet in the air”. He favoured a protection of birds’ legislation as several species were under attack and the main culprits, he believed, were the city dwellers who did not understand rural ways.  Actually, some of the perpetrators of the decline in wild bird numbers may have been in the audience in October 1933.

The 19th century with its managed upland estates and changes to agricultural practices in lowland areas did much damage to the wild bird population. Moorland estate holders- the preserve for aristocratic shooting parties- sought to eliminate any threat to the game birds. Game keepers were often under instruction to destroy nests and the result was a near or actual extinction of some of the raptors such as Harriers, Red Kites, Goshawks and in Scotland, Golden and White Tailed Eagles. The Red Kite, a large hawk, often seen scavenging among rubbish tips in the 17th century, suffered sustained persecution into the 20th century by land owners until its recovery in the last 50 years. Less fortunate was one of the largest British birds the Great Bustard a dweller of the fenland which was hunted to extinction by the 1840s.

Masefield’s desire to see that the wildlife of Britain receive statutory protection was realised after the Second World War when Governments passed laws such as the Protection of Wild Birds in 1954, as well as one of the jewels in the crown of the Attlee Government, and the creation of National Parks, of which the Peak National Park was the first.

Years before Masefield posted a warning to the countryside believing the arrival of the motorcar, and urban day trippers would cause the destruction of the countryside.

It is an argument that is made now by the Countryside Alliance that the city dweller does not understand the countryman. The proportion of urban residents far out numbers the rural community, in fact 1851 census revealed, for the first time more British people living in cities than in the country. It should be said that urban dwellers willingly pay their taxes to help maintain areas of outstanding beauty as well as joining organisations such as the National Trust.


To conclude on a controversial note the Countryside Alliance’s single minded obsession that fox hunting should be restored is not shared by most of the people who live in the country whose major concerns such as jobs, housing and living standards are shared by the rest of the country. In my view, as a former member of the Peak National Park Authority, the preoccupations of the people of Longnor differ little from those of the people of Longton.