Book Review – Our Place by Mark Cocker

Mark Cocker’s second visit to the Buxton International Literary Festival coincided with the publication of his latest book ‘Our Place’.

The book is a beautifully crafted and researched warning about the dire state of our wildlife and an analysis of how we have got into this sorry state.

Just a few of statistics illustrate the speed and the extent of the decline.

  • Wildflower meadows have declined by 97% in the past forty years
  • Our bird species are in decline, some 44 million have been lost since the sixties.
  • Half our ancient woodland has gone
  • Three-quarters of our ponds have been lost.

One could go on, but the point is made. And yet as Cocker points out in his book there is an inherent contradiction, a paradox with these figures.

We pride ourselves to be a nation of animal lovers. We join conservation and wildlife charities in record numbers. There are over 5m members in the National Trust, over 1m in the RSPB and almost a million in the local Wildlife Trusts.

And yet our countryside is degraded and damaged to such an extent that we come towards the bottom of the pile of nations in looking after our environment.

Why is this so?

Part of the problem lies in the factional nature of the conservation bodies. There is no overall plan, no agreed set of goals, no set of solutions that will deliver a landscape scale solution to the problem of loss of species and habitat.

The desire to put economic growth to the front of the decision-making progress undermines and devalues the little protection that habitats have, and the industrialisation and intensification of farming play a crucial role in the continuing decline.

Cocker uses six landscapes, ranging from the Peak District to the Flow country of Scotland, to illustrate how a combination of inequalities in land ownership, economic self-interest and government policy has resulted in the destruction of the environment on a landscape scale.

In the final pages, Cocker lists ten ‘interlocking Truths that are fundamental to the story of British Nature in the twentieth century.  Among these are the failure of the ‘green lobby’ to agree amongst themselves, the confusing multiplicity of landscape designations and the key issue that lies behind it. Do we value and cherish nature for some arbitrary aesthetic code? Or do we value and protect wildlife diversity? The National Parks were set up in part to answer the first while the SSSI’s and national nature reserves were intended to deal with the second.

We need to change the way we think about natural beauty and allow landscapes that are for nature and more nature and not because they satisfy some aesthetic concept of beauty. The outstanding success of the Knepp estate at wilding large parts of what was once an intensive farm shows what can be achieved.

Cocker ends with a question.

“If the British – with all the privileges of our technology and our historical wealth, with our traditions of democratic government, but also our long intricate attachments to nature and our self-proclaimed love for a green and pleasant land – if we cannot sustain a country equal to the love that we bear it then who on Earth can?”

Time is fast running out. But as Knepp and other projects like it has shown, nature can provide the answer, we just need to give her the time and space. Mark Cocker’s book has shone a little light into the darkness.

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