I attended a conference titled ‘Re-wilding Dorset’ last week. I stayed overnight with Bevis Trust Trustee Kate Hall, whose husband Tim is Farm Manager on the Cranbourne Estate. This estate formerly had a shoot based on farmed gamebirds but recently Lord Cranbourne has decided to switch solely to wild indigenous Grey Partridges. Whatever one’s views may be on gamebird shooting, managing land for wild game certainly has knock on benefits for other wildlife. The gamekeepers come down hard on foxes and corvids, allowing many species to flourish with reduced predation pressure. Meanwhile the habitat is managed for partridges with beetle banks, wide fallow strips alongside hedges, and wide bare headlands that allow the young partridges to dry out in the sun. A wet spring with sodden vegetation is deadly for chilling young partridges, and they need plenty of high protein insect food in their early days. These conditions also suit lapwings, which we saw, and maybe – who knows – stone curlews will return. Some of these habitat management techniques were pioneered by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, based on systems used in parts of Europe where game-rearing is not allowed.
The whole Dorset area has gone upmarket, with mums in Range Rovers driving kids to school. So I called in at Ashmore, up on the downs, where I had lived as a child in conditions similar to Bevis, in Richard Jefferies’ book. This too has been twee’d up. It looks beautiful, but the school is long closed and many of the houses are holiday cottages, with big money having taken over the manor houses. The old dewpond in the centre of the village now has neatly mown banks. As a five year old I used to bring the cows up the lane and water them in the pond, before bringing them in for hand milking. One of my first jobs was to collect duck and geese eggs and wash them ready for sale. The geese lived in wooden arks by the pond and were almost taller than me. When I peered into the darkness of the ark I was greeted with a terrifying hiss. After one gander chased me up the hill on my tricycle an old gaffer told me that the best thing to do was to get a big stick and hit him on the head. But I could never get close enough! The churchyard too, where my younger brother had got his head stuck in the railings, has been neatly mowed to a perfect lawn. No room any more for the slow-worms that I used to collect. I looked in the glebe field where my pony Sooty used to live, under the eagle eye of the school mistress, Miss Canavan. There used to be two Guernseys in there and sometimes I would help make the butter in the little cottage across the road. The old folk were only too happy for us energetic youngsters to take a turn on the handle until the butter started to go slap-slap.
The conference was a useful forum for meeting people although much of the content was a little woolly, with people struggling to identify what they meant by ‘re-wilding’. The term has got itself a bad name because there is so much focus on wolves and lynx. While there may be scope for an experimental wolf pack up in remote Allladale, the concept of wolves in England and Wales is not realistic. The pressure on land, and the attitudes of people, could not cope with them. I’m reminded of a CITES conference I attended in Nairobi some years ago, where the British contingent were earnestly banging on about elephant conservation, preaching to the locals. After the session, a delegate from one of the African countries said to me: ‘It’s all very well but we have about 10,000 surplus elephants causing immense damage to the habitats and to the impoverished farmers whose crops are wrecked. Could you take them in Britain?’ I had visions of 10,000 elephants being off-loaded from Heathrow and rampaging down Slough High Street before dispersing across southern Britain. The fact is, we want these charismatic animals, as long as someone else puts up with them. Let’s keep them where they belong – on TV.
So one of the questions I asked at the conference was: How many of the delegates were farmers? It turned out there were three of us, and only one was from Dorset. Had the conference been advertised in the wrong sector? Re-wilding can become hopelessly idealistic unless the people who are responsible for the land are fully engaged from the start. National Trust plans for re-instating parts of Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath are great. But as for the private sector, it looks right now as though Lord Cranbourne’s efforts for wild Grey Partridges is the best show in town.