Read my review on Life at Walnut Tree Farm in Resurgence Magazine
Read my review on Life at Walnut Tree Farm in Resurgence Magazine
Patrick Barkham sets out on a journey to some of the small islands of Britain, drawn by the story of the, near forgotten writer, Compton Mackenzie, who owned and lived on a series of small islands from the 1890’s.
Each island conjures up a different story which Barkham tackles with sensitivity. From island as tax haven, to island as religious retreat, to island as hedonist party zone he travels with a light touch and captures something true about each destination.
On the Island of Eigg, where I spent several weeks working last year, he navigates the choppy waters between the idealists who go there drawn by its environmental credentials and the determined drinkers who congregate at the pier and snub drink driving regulations. He understands instinctively, as maybe I didn’t, that small island life requires people to rub along together and forgive a multitude of personality quirks.
The book raises interesting questions as to the benefits island communities bring to the mainlanders who often heavily subsidise them and suggests that islands provide a pointer to the future as they champion sustainability, community and local heritage which provides a healthy counter balance to fast paced cities with their excessive consumption and social isolation.
Less successful, I felt, was the rendering of the story of Compton Mackenzie. Barkham chooses to visit islands which Mackenzie had no relationship with and ultimately doesn’t illuminate the artists draw to island life. The book I felt would have stood up just as well without this thread.
For me, the strength of this book is its excellent travel writing about little known places and its insight into the lives of the quirky British characters who choose to live in remote places. I loved the tale of the sisters guarding the Tomb of the Eagles on South Ronaldsay and the nun in waders living a hermits life on Bardsey. I immediately added both these to my wish list of places to visit.
Barkham sketches the people of these islands magnificently but touches something deeper when he comes to rest on a strip of saltmarsh off the Essex coast. Here he recounts how the island lingers after he has left, etching into his skin like a tree ring to tell a story of one moment in his life.
As a wildlife lover I cannot conceive of every wishing to kill a living creature for fun and yet all year I talk to farmers about ‘predator control,’ two sanitised words which equate to killing foxes.
Foxes are beautiful creatures but there is no getting away from the fact that they cause major problems to beleaguered ground nesting birds such as lapwing and, unless you can afford to erect a big fence around your land, shooting foxes is the only way that waders can currently survive on the small pieces of habitat suitable for their needs.
After reading Mark Avery’s book I am also convinced that there is also no getting away from the fact that hen harriers cause major problems for red grouse .The difference is that, unlike foxes, hen harriers are protected and threatened with extinction as a breeding species in England due to the activities of game keepers on grouse moors. While red grouse are living at such densities on shooting estates that they are developing such gruesome sounding illnesses as bulgy eye!
Mark Avery feels that hen harriers and grouse shooting cannot survive together and numerous scientific reports support this. One has to go and in his book Inglorious, Conflict in the Uplands, Mark persuasively argues for the banning of driven grouse shooting.
Far from being full of dry facts and tub thumping rhetoric this book is very readable due to Mark’s conversational style and, while the man seems well able to hold his own in debate, he actually comes across as reasonable and balanced. This is not a vendetta against land owners or a call to end all sport shooting in this country rather a laying out of the argument against once form of shooting.
Like many other people in this country I thought about sport shooting as a rather quaint, antiquated activity practiced by toffs that probably doesn’t do that much harm to the countryside as a whole and provides a source of free range meat possibly preferable to the lives and deaths of factory farmed animals. However after reading Inglorious I feel much better informed and much less likely to eat grouse.
Grouse shooting relies on big ‘bags’ of grouse to be killed by wealthy punters. Many of whom nowadays are as likely to be city bankers with more money than sense than country squires. In order to create this mass population of grouse the shooting estates burn off tracts of moorland in order to encourage the growth of young heather, which the grouse eat. The burning of moorland destroys blanket bogs, a rare habitat, which the UK is especially blessed with, having 13% of the world’s total. The burning also destroys peatland which in England alone sends the same amount of carbon into the air annually as 140,000 cars! It also contributes to downstream flooding which has devastated livelihoods in places like Hebden Bridge. If all of that wasn’t bad enough we are paying for this environmental damage twice over as the grouse moors receive government money to manage the land for wildlife.
It is farcical and could only be supported by a government whose ministers often went to the same schools and probably are involved in the same funny handshake societies as the grouse moor owners.
The evidence also stacks up that gamekeepers are killing hen harriers. The shootings industry would have you believe that illegal persecution is down to the activities of just a ‘few bad apples.’ But the industry seems to have done little to remove those bad apples as hen harrier numbers are still pitifully low.
Mark Avery suggests that there should be around 2000 more pairs of hen harrier in the UK than there currently is. This year only 9 nests in England fledged chicks. The government feels this is a remarkable success.
Given the option I would rather have hen harriers than grouse shooters in my country and if the two can’t live with each other then I am quite happy to live with the latter’s extinction.
Mark doesn’t want you to just read his book and walk away he wants you to take up arms for his cause and the book ends with a variety of suggestions for action you could take to help. Good for him. It is hard to close the book and do nothing. For my part I donated to an anti wildlife crime campaign, made a note in my diary to attend a Hen Harrier Day event (11-12th August) and set off to the coast to witness one of these beautiful birds while I still can.
Mark Avery and I swapped books at the recent Kent Ornithological Society conference where we were both speaking and has kindly put a review by Ian Carter on his blog. Mark’s book, Inglorious, is next on my reading list and no doubt I will return the favour.
Read the view here
Another interesting review of my book, On the Marshes. I love the fact that it’s inspiring people to want to visit the area and interesting to see which parts of the book they choose to talk about. This reviewer enjoys the scene in which I get trapped on an island in October with a rising tide and have to be rescued by a lifeboat. I was a little preoccupied to take a picture at that moment so here is a shot of the river from Darnet Island on a quieter day.
After a 14 hour stint of bird surveying on Sheppey it was nice to come home this evening and read this great review of my book by the fabulous Caught by the River. It is interesting how my walk and encounters are seen by someone else and I am delighted the reviewer wants to trace my footsteps.
Many thanks to Shaun Spiers, Chief Executive of CPRE for this great review of my book.
Read the review here.