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The Cordoning-Off of Nature

Fencing 'people' off from 'nature' is a symptom of a sick society

Resurgence, October 1998

The Snake's-Head Fritillary must be one of Britain's most beautiful wild flowers. Also known by any one of countless regional names - leper's bells, crowcups, shy widows, sulky ladies - it flowers in late April in the water meadows of southern and middle England. A carpet of purple and white fritillaries, their chequered, lily-like cups shifting in the breeze, is one of the most stunning sights of spring.

One of the best places to see these increasingly rare flowers in large numbers is Magdalen College meadow, in Oxford. The sweep of thousands of these magical plants, bounded by the river Cherwell, framed by Magdalen College bell-tower and interwoven with wood anemones, dog-violets and bluebells is a sight everyone should see, but few do. For while Magdalen college will allow visitors, for a fee, to walk its designated riverside paths, and gaze at the flowers at a distance, from behind a locked gate in an iron fence, access to the meadow is, as a rule, denied. I recently attempted to persuade the college authorities to allow me into the meadow to photograph the flowers; they eventually agreed that I could do so, but only if escorted, and closely watched, by the Head Gardener. 'The flowers are extremely rare and delicate', the college bursar told me. 'We don't allow anyone into the meadow unescorted, not even the college dons.'

Perhaps Magdalen College, like so many other private landowners across Britain, should not have the right to deny ordinary people access to such a sight. Or perhaps, in order to protect the flowers from a merciless trampling beneath the Nike-clad feet of hordes of camcorder-wielding tourists, they are quite right to close the meadow off. But surely the real question we should be asking is this: why does the very idea of one field's-worth of flowers among a sea of urban development and intensively-farmed fields not seem strange to us? Why have we allowed the land to be divided into categories: flowers here, crops there; beauty here, necessary ugliness there; nature here, man there? Why have we allowed the cordoning-off of nature?
There was a time, still within living memory, when fritillaries were common across England - the abundance and variety of regional names for these flowers indicates that. Nature writer Richard Mabey has noted that the plant grew in its thousands in many areas across Britain until at least the 1930s. Here in Oxford, the flower was so abundant before the last war that local people used to pick bunches for their windowsills, and sell sprays of them at market. Now, there are so few left that picking fritillaries would be a highly irresponsible act. The same goes for many of our other native flower species; once abundant, now rare. 'Do not pick wild flowers' has become an established tenet of the Country Code, along with 'always shut gates', and 'take your litter home'.

And yet to deny people the simple pleasure of picking flowers, admiring their colours, taking in their scents, weaving them into chains or sticking them in a buttonhole, is to remove us even further from any real connection with nature. Once all people are allowed to do is look at flowers from a distance - appreciate with their eyes and their intellect, but not truly experience with their senses - it merely serves to reinforce a sense of isolation from the natural world; a sense that nature must somehow remain outside our everyday experience, and must be protected, for its own good, in reserves and government-funded sites, fenced off and signposted; somewhere you go with the kids at weekends.

The case of the fritillary is merely an example of the large-scale cordoning-off of nature that Britain has seen this century. The flower's current rarity is largely due to the rapid decline of its habitat. Britain's wildflower meadows have been sprayed, ploughed and developed almost out of existence in just fifty years; it's estimated that we have lost a staggering 95% of them since 1945. The remaining populations of fritillaries must therefore be protected, lest they slip into extinction.

The scandalous decline in Britain's wildlife and its habitats has been well documented and publicised in recent years. The huge change in countryside management practices is largely to blame. The 'Green Revolution' on our farms, the advent of chemical and capital-intensive mechanised agriculture, and the Common Agricultural Policy with its bribes and subsidies have changed the countryside out of all recognition. At the same time, the cities and towns continue to swallow up the countryside; an area of rural land the size of Bristol disappears under asphalt and paving slabs every year.

The result can be seen everywhere. The majority of farms are now little more than open-air factory floors. Poppies and cornflowers no longer grow amongst the corn and wheat; a million ponds have been ploughed up or filled in since 1900; 18,000km of hedgerow are grubbed up every year; over 50% of water meadows have gone since 1945. And almost everything that remains is sprayed with the latest chemical fertiliser or pesticide, to ensure maximum production. Once-common field-dwellers like harvest mice, grass-snakes and butterflies have declined drastically, and birds like the tree sparrow, yellow wagtail, partridge and song thrush have declined by over 50% in just 25 years. This litany of destruction means that much of our farmland, once a repository of wildlife, is now largely bereft of little other than serried ranks of cash crops, chemical drums, rubber tyres and the sound of subsidy cheques thudding onto doormats.

As nature has retreated from the farms, it has made its home in whatever land is left - in the spinneys, wastelands, abandoned fields, suburban gardens, and protected areas. And conservationists, for the last few decades, have been instrumental in overseeing the expansion of Britain's network of Nature Reserves, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and National Parks; areas where, in theory at least, nature can rest in peace, while, outside, man gets on with the real business of living.

These islands of nature in a sea of concrete, chemicals, barren soil and street lights, are sending exactly the wrong message to children growing up today; that 'nature' is something superfluous to real life. Birdsong, flowers, woodlands, fresh air; such things are all very nice, but are little more than optional extras. And you must only look, never touch. Nature has been enclosed, and confined to designated sites, with carparks and painted noticeboards, explaining to the urban, car-confined millions what once would have been common knowledge to all.
None of this is the fault of the conservation movement, without which our remaining natural riches would be considerably less rich. It is the fault of our modern mindset, which continues to see nature and humanity as separate, and to consider anything that happened to be here before we did as a resource, to be either utilised or disposed of. Surely the future for conservation must be to set nature free; to de-intensify our farmland and our countryside, to allow the harvest mice and the poppies, the ponds and the hedges to re-occupy the place they once held in rural life. To allow nature to flourish once again in abundance, in tandem with our own economic activities; for the countryside to live again as well as produce.
Britain has always been a rural nation at heart, even if it ceased to be so in reality more than a century ago. Images of the countryside fill our literature, our music and our arts. The countryside belongs to us all. It is up to us all to repair it.

It can be done; the countryside can pay our wages both economically and spiritually. All across Britain today, a small but growing number of enlightened farmers, rural workers and conservationists are proving it. And if the madness of the Common Agricultural Policy - a system which pays farmers with one hand to leave half their land fallow, while paying them with the other to cover the rest with pesticides - can be effectively reformed, we could see a resurgence of nature. Such a resurgence is desperately needed if we are again to appreciate that man and nature can work profitably together, to the economic, ecological and spiritual benefit of us all.