Taken from the riverbank – Millais’ missing vole

Photo: Andrew Dore
JO CARTMELL longs for the resurgence of one of Britain’s most charming mammals

A shy water vole (Arvicola amphibius, also known as A. terrestris) sits nearby on the bank, peering tentatively between garlic mustard stems which he is rapidly consuming, having finished dining on nettles with ease. Ever alert to the sounds of potential predators, or on this occasion, human voices (his hearing is sharp, his eyesight not so good), he dives into the brook with a resounding ‘Plop!’ to enter an underwater burrow, kicking up mud as he does so to prevent becoming prey. Water voles rarely stay around for long; although some become habituated to humans, any sudden movement or sound will alarm them. Motionless, they are difficult to spot as their brown fur blends into bare earth banks, or they are hidden amidst tall plants by mid-May, so are often missed by people.
Before vanishing, my chubby-faced, charismatic companion’s black, bright eyes momentarily met mine. My gaze and heart have been spellbound by them since my first encounter at the age of six, whilst standing on a bridge over the Letcombe Brook in Oxfordshire. I had excitedly asked my mother for the name of the small animal which had just swum across the crystal clear water, nipped a piece of water crowfoot and was sitting on the bank with it. ‘Oh, that’s just a water rat!’ she said. They were commonly seen in 1959, so it was an unremarkable encounter for her, yet life-changing for me. I loved to wander by my local brook in the hope of seeing a water rat to light up my heart and my life – especially as in the following year, I had mistaken my dear ‘Ratty’ for Hammy the Hamster, star of the children’s TV series Tales of the Riverbank. Their name was later changed to water vole to avoid confusion with brown rats (Rattus norvegicus), who were regarded as vermin and trapped.

It was a revelation in recent years to learn that John Everett Millais spent up to eleven hours a day, quietly studying and sketching on the banks of the Hogsmill River in Surrey for his painting of Ophelia (the tragic noblewoman of Hamlet). If you are going to see a water vole, sitting or standing in solitude for hours in a quiet spot besides a river, or stream, is the way to do it. Millais, having seen a water rat, included one swimming next to the floating noblewoman for the unveiling of the painting. For Pre-Raphaelites, the realistic depiction of nature was paramount, so Millais’ inclusion of the water rat was in keeping with their aims. To be absolutely sure he had a true representation of this small mammal, his assistant took a live specimen from the Hogsmill for his reference.

But now Millais’ story takes an interesting turn, when he notes a conversation with fellow Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt’s relatives in his diary:

Hunt’s uncle and aunt came, both of whom understood most gratifyingly every object except my water rat… The male relation, when invited to guess at it, eagerly pronounced it to be a hare. Perceiving by our smiles that he had made a mistake, a rabbit was next hazarded. After which I have a faint recollection of a dog or a cat being mentioned.

It was 1851 and Millais was showing his painting for the first time. As no one seemed to realise what the small rodent was, he decided to paint out the hapless water rat!
This is an important indication that even in 1851, water voles were not as widely known as we tend to think they were during that period. This is partly because many people were forced to leave the countryside to live and work in towns and cities after the Enclosure Acts of 1700-1801, mainly due to the abolition of the open field system of agriculture, and also the growing appeal of better-paying work in the nascent new industries. Although Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, published in 1908, evocatively helped to bring water rats back into the limelight as the beloved Ratty, some people must have assumed he was a brown rat, which can also swim excellently:

‘As he sat on the grass and looked across the river, a dark hole in the bank opposite, just above the water’s edge, caught his eye, and dreamily he fell to considering what a nice snug dwelling-place it would make for an animal with few wants and fond of a bijou riverside residence, above flood level and remote from noise and dust. As he gazed, something bright and small seemed to twinkle down in the heart of it, vanished, then twinkled once more like a tiny star. But it could hardly be a star in such an unlikely situation; and it was too glittering and small for a glow-worm. Then, as he looked, it winked at him, and so declared itself to be an eye; and a small face began gradually to grow up round it, like a frame round a picture. A brown little face with whiskers. A grave round face, with the same twinkle in its eye that had first attracted his notice. Small neat ears and thick silky hair. It was the Water Rat!

I have watched a water vole nimbly climbing along a willow branch to gnaw through branchlets, clutched in those dexterous hands, and have had to stifle a giggle as he loses balance and falls in, with an undignified splash. It felt like watching a scene from the book.
Even now water voles are still mistaken for the similarly sized rat. In Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights (2020), there is a story about a group of strangers clustered in a bird hide, and the embarrassment that fills the place when one of the men there confidently identifies an obvious rat as a water vole, and everybody else is too polite to correct him. There are easy ways to avoid this confusion: a water vole’s ears are almost hidden, not upright like a brown rat’s, and the muzzle is blunt, whereas a rat’s face is pointed.

A brown rat (Rattus norvegicus) for comparison

I have spoken to people of my generation, aged sixty or older, who look at me in astonishment, saying they have never heard of a water vole, or a water rat. I have also met people in their twenties and thirties, who have heard of water voles being at threat of extinction, but don’t know what they look like. Occasionally I have been given a quizzical look when I say ‘I’m looking for a water vole’, in response to a query, and they respond with: “A waterfall?” For a long time, I thought that it was my tendency to be softly spoken until Tom Moorhouse mentioned similar conversations in his brilliant 2021 book, Elegy for a River. All this inspired the creation of our website www.watervole.org.uk,  to help raise their profile nationally, along with a quick guide film.
In Glasgow, there is a population of land-dwelling (fossorial) water voles, some of which have black fur. They were discovered in 2008 by people living in nearby flats, who inevitably initially mistook them for rats. To have grassland water voles (they are not a separate species, or even subspecies) that are living a considerable distance away from water, and furthermore adjoining a busy motorway, is very unusual and rarely recorded anywhere else in the UK – although in some parts of mainland Europe they are so well known they are regarded as an agricultural pest because of their burrowing of farmland.
I feel privileged to still have water vole kin in some local villages. The latest population estimate for water voles, published in the Mammal Society’s Red List of British Mammals (2020) was 132,000 in Great Britain. This can be broken down as 77,200 estimated in England, 50,000 in Scotland, and 4,500 in Wales. They were formerly widespread and common across England, Scotland and Wales, ranging from Cornwall to the extreme north-east of Scotland, with an estimated population in 1900 of around eight million. But between 1970 and 2000, they underwent one of the most serious and catastrophic declines of any species in the UK. They are still widespread, but patchy. In the UK, sadly, the water vole is on the IUCN’s Red List as a threatened species, along with the hedgehog.
Taking Cornwall (where they became extinct in the 1990s) as a snapshot of the pattern of water vole decline across the UK, the major factors were habitat loss due to intensification of farming practices during the Second World War, such as drainage of wetlands, habitat degradation and fragmentation. Residential developments were and are often built too close to water courses; there is an increasing awareness of the harm caused by cat and dog disturbance, which although often non-lethal can lead voles to abandon an area.
Another primary cause is the introduced American mink; a breeding female is small enough to enter a vole’s burrow and will wipe out an entire colony in one breeding season. In contrast, native predators with whom voles have evolved, such as fox, otter, stoat, weasel, brown rat, owls, herons and pike, prey on them without causing serious decline. In the Scottish Highlands, even golden eagles will eat water voles.
But since 2001, Devon-based rewilder Derek Gow, who is noted for his work in reintroducing the beaver to Britain, has also been rearing captive bred water voles for release projects – up to 30,000 to date. Impressive, vital work! Beaver reintroductions help water voles to thrive, as they are crucial wetland ecosystem engineers who create ponds with interconnecting channels that voles can inhabit. In 2013, water voles were reintroduced to Bude in Cornwall (where the last 1990s sightings were made), and are slowly expanding their range, with some recent sightings near Maer Lake. Recently, Kernow Conservation’s water vole project raised enough funds to reintroduce more of them to Cornwall, which makes their future bright. They have also been reintroduced to Millais’ Hogsmill.

All water voles ask us to do is to provide habitat that will give them plenty of food and cover from their many predators, to enable them to populate territories and strengthen the gene pool. They need extensive wetland reed-beds where they weave rugby ball-sized nests made of reeds, or lakes and waterways with slow flowing water and steep earthen banks to make their burrows. If we provide wide buffer zones with lush riparian bankside vegetation, fringed with emergent rushes, sedges or reeds, they can return to these habitats and thrive. Water voles are not fussy eaters, and are known to eat 207 species of plant – but they do need a lot. They need to eat around 80% of their body weight in food each day, and a breeding female needs double that amount.
Water vole reintroduction projects are hugely important, because, as research by Rosalind L Bryce at the University of Aberdeen revealed, water voles are vital ecosystem engineers. Waterways with species-rich plant communities were found to have higher numbers of water voles. Their network of excavated tunnels helps move nutrients around, bringing some to the surface needed for specific plants to grow, including dormant seed. Their latrines are nutrient-rich, too. The burrows, lawn-making around them and felling of tall plants along runs, beneficially shape the ecosystem where they live.

Wetlands without water voles (and beavers) are bereft of biodiversity – and of beauty, and charm. They cannot come back soon enough, to help reverse the UK’s shameful position as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. I hope soon to see them busily engaged in ecosystem engineering – and lifting spirits in this exquisite web of life – along everyones waterways.

Nature cure

HELEN C. NEAVE recalls how she swapped scalpels for spades

Ten years ago, I put down my scalpel and took off my scrubs, hat and mask for the last time. After eight years as a consultant surgeon I was turning a corner I hadn’t really seen coming. Now at work, I’m more likely to be dressed in wellies and waterproofs and clutching a spade.

My surgical training was arduous and longer for me than for many colleagues, as I had completed it part time to allow me to look after my three children. I had also studied for a Masters in Postgraduate Education, and it was into the realms of quality management of postgraduate education that my first ‘redirection’ took me. My career took me to a senior leadership role in the NHS, overseeing education and training at a time when all parts of the NHS were undergoing restructure after restructure. After four years, it became impossible for me to do my job to the standard I wished to do it, so I took a deep breath, and left.

At around the time I saw my last patient, my husband and I had been getting increasingly concerned about the destruction we were witnessing in the natural world. So we decided to take action! We bought 26 acres of rough grazing land in Yorkshire with the intention of giving it back to Nature. Bounded on three sides by the river Nidd, it was prone to flooding, so wasn’t attractive to the arable farming neighbours – but it was perfect for us.

We left our land for a year or so to get to know it a little better – but in honesty, it was not much more than grass. So we planted 20,000 trees, with support from the Woodland Trust- and the trees brought magic! As soon as the trees had their first flowers, fruits and seeds, they attracted insects and birds, and then mammals and birds of prey arrived. We suddenly had a full ecosystem. When the young woodland reached six or seven years old, we were so thrilled that we decided to do it again, but bigger.

We decided to buy some more land, and continue giving space back to nature, but this time make it a business. When we saw Bank Woods, near Summerbridge in the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, we knew we had found the perfect piece of land. It is 110 acres, with ancient woodland, unimproved upland, swift-flowing brooks and hay meadows. Once again, the first job was to get to know the land better, and we discovered that the land had been ‘benignly’ farmed. Seen on Google maps, it was much yellower than the chemically-induced bright green of neighbouring farms. This was ideal for our intentions. The ancient woodlands were wonderful, but with signs of over-browsing by deer, and fragmented into four blocks separated by fields. They contained an amazing abundance of wild flowers, including many ancient woodland indicator species. 

We thought carefully, and sought advice about the best way to manage the land for biodiversity.  We knew we wanted to plant more trees – but where should they go? We discovered that ‘red-listed’ ground nesting birds, lapwing and curlew were nesting in our upland grassy areas. We knew they would leave if there were too many trees from which predators could swoop on their eggs and chicks. We also appreciated that linking the ancient woodlands back together would provide more cover for the many woodland birds, foxes and hares we had seen. So, we created a much bigger continuous area for woodland wildlife. We had to invest in a deer fence to keep those cute but destructive animals out of our new woodland planting, and the ancient woodlands. The upper parts of the land, about 50 acres, we have left for (relatively small-scale) rewilding. We have a small herd of Belted Galloway cattle, and a recent addition of six Exmoor ponies – who, all together, are our conservation grazing team. Their style of grazing and disturbance of the soil has already allowed the return of many wildflowers not seen on that area while it was heavily grazed by sheep. Earlier this year, much to our delight, Bank Woods was designated as a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation.

We are painfully aware that not only is our planet facing a climate crisis, caused by human action, but we are also living through the sixth mass extinction, with 60% of wildlife lost since 1970. We therefore see it as a moral imperative to do everything in our power to address these two linked and devastating planetary emergencies. We have taken many smaller actions to create habitat and increase biodiversity. We have dug ponds, made leaky dams, put up bird boxes, and restored wildflower hay meadows.

All these actions cost money, and so we have established various income streams, all deeply connected to nature. We have an eco-friendly holiday cottage within our nature reserve, and allow guests exclusive access to our woodlands and meadows. We sell eco-friendly, plastic-free products. We offer tree dedications, and dedications of ponds and wildflower meadows. We also offer carbon offsetting through tree planting for individuals and businesses, including a popular subscription schemes. We have many business partners for whom we plant trees, and this has proved a wonderful way for them to attract new business, by sharing their ‘green’ credentials. Recently, we have formed a partnership with a company which has developed a method to combine the ashes from a cremation with growing compost, in which a tree can be planted. (Cremation ashes can otherwise be toxic.) The memorial tree can then be planted in our new memorial woodland.

In parallel to this rewilding of the land, I have experienced a personal rewilding! As a surgeon, my world was one of precision, urgent timescales, accurate planning, and predictable, managed outcomes. I gave one patient at a time my undivided attention. As a senior NHS clinical manager, I discovered that managing whole departments was much less precise than dealing with one patient at a time; timescales were slower, and outcomes more difficult to define. I now often have wind-swept hair with twigs in it, unlike the theatre cap or neat haircut demanded by my previous two careers. My work attire is wellies and waterproofs, instead of heels and a neat suit.

I have become accustomed to very long timescales. During my career as a surgeon, we sometimes had to rush a patient to theatre within minutes; in complete contrast, the timescales for my work now might be measured in years. If for some reason we don’t manage to visit one of our new woodlands for a few weeks, we know that no harm will come to it; nature will just get on with doing its thing; no theatre list, spread sheets or project plans required. We have had to let go of the feeling of needing to be in control; ultimately, Nature is in charge. The most obvious signs of this come with the weather – storms can easily fell the mature trees within our ancient woodlands, and this is something we embrace! A little bit of chaos and destruction brings about new life – a fallen tree will become a new home for countless invertebrates, and light newly let through to the woodland floor will encourage wildflowers.  

I have never lost the urge to help people, and I know our ancient woodlands and meadows can do wonders for wellbeing. I have completed training to become a ‘Natural Mindfulness Guide’, and we will soon be starting a programme of workshops in which people come together in a group facilitated by a mental health counsellor to learn conservation and rural craft activities, for the benefit of their mental health.

The trajectory of my career reveals a steady growth in spheres of influence. As a consultant surgeon, I could obviously operate on only one patient at a time. As a senior NHS manager, my influence was much greater – by improving the training across my region I could improve the quality of care for thousands of patients. And now my work has an even bigger aim – trying to save the planet! I feel hugely fortunate to be able to help nature in this way. It feels like a homecoming – and the most important operation I have ever done.

Return of a native

DEREK GOW welcomes the ‘New Nature’ revolution

The word ‘rewilding’ is in the wind, provoking elation and scorn in equal measure. It may yet spark a revolution.

Although those who make the rules are doing all they can to brush its disruptive brand of hope under the carpets of their palatial offices in Nobel House (London lair of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), they know the metaphorical beaver has long since gnawed out of the bag and bolted. Shutting the reinforced stable door is pointless as real beavers are now swimming in the Tay and the Forth, the Tamar and the Otter.

The static world these bureaucrats worship is slipping steadily away.

And that is good.

I was born in Dundee but brought up in the Scottish borders, in a landscape where blackcock lekked by the sides of the road, and peewits whirled high in the cloud-mottled sky beyond Coulter Fell. I can still see the sprite-like reds of the squirrels running the drystane of the cottage wall that surrounded my father’s cottage in the Tweed Valley village of Broughton. I found a peregrine once whose broken wing and bloody breast testified to the gamekeeper’s art. Though still alive, with the talons on one golden leg capable of piercing my grandmother’s gardening glove with ease, nothing could be done to save its shattered life. With my mother I buried it gently in the garden. Its carcase at least did not degenerate and swing on the stinking gibbets suspended around its killer’s troll-like lair.

Nature was everywhere – in abandoned complexes of tomato houses – in wet fields where attempted drainage had proved futile in its time. In the winter the skies filled with northern geese as pinkfeet in their tens of thousands flanked down in honking cacophony into the stubble corn. I remember my grandmother telling me that the last wolf in Scotland had been killed at Wolf Clyde, a stone’s throw from our house. It had been finished off by a doughty wife when it attacked her children, and she in turn hit it over the head with a pancake griddle – a song-line and story ill-informed to silence an enquiring child. The tale was generic, and the name in the sheep lands of the Fleming family who once ruled from their fortress at Boghall was old long before the death of the last wolf in its deep, dark, den, high in the juniper-swaddled flanks of the northern hills.

I read the books of Gerald Durrell. There were marvels of colour in his Drunken Forest, and so much to consider in his Overloaded Ark. He talked of a world where life was failing. Joy and George Adamson of Born Free fame, Gavin Maxwell (author of Ring of Bright Water), Peter Scott, Guy Mountfort (author of 1954’s A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, and a co-creator of the World Wide Fund for Nature in 1961), Bernhard Grzimek (author of the 1959 bestseller Serengeti Shall Not Die) and David Attenborough all said the same. Poachers in Africa. DDTs in Europe. Acid rains.

Biber in der Küche by Ernst Zehle (1876-1940)

Looking back, these were the good times – before the great destructions of agricultural intensification, international forest loss and industrial pollution really began – when there were many, many fewer of us.

In my lifetime, I, like many others, have witnessed nature haemorrhaging away. Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring is near reality now.

Rewilding is no threat, although I do not care for the term. The Dutch who coined its initial use now refer to rewilding as “New Nature”, and that description is more fitting by far. Those who claim it to be a blight generally come from a cadre seeking to preserve the privileges they owe to the Common Agricultural Policy. They are afraid of change and do not relish examples of different ways. If these prosper, their failings will be spot-lit on the stage of life and they have no wish to dance.

New Nature is for me about many things. It’s about accepting that much of what we once knew and cherished has passed irrevocably. We are bereaved, and only words of comfort can be spoken at the wakes for species such as the complicated corncrakes whose short lifespans, tricky migratory routes and great fondness for old insect rich hay meadows renders recollections of their presence mere sepia now. It’s about what we can do to heal, and that involves farming. Played-out and exhausted soils, pesticides in rivers, toxic silts, antibiotics applied with merry abandon, slurries full of disease, and contaminants of all hues do not make for a prosperous or long-term future. We need to farm to produce top-end food sustainably in a rich natural environment. Perhaps we need to explore new technologies such as clean meats, cell-cloned on dark shelves, and other foods derived from soil-produced proteins if we are to ensure a future supply of nutrition for without destroying the earth completely. Given our species’ natural tendencies for greed, narrow-mindedness and shortness of thought this is going to be something of a mission.

New Nature is about large areas of land being enabled to become free-willed, where large, semi-domesticated and wild ungulates can create landscapes that give opportunities for smaller creatures – where purple emperors can flit to find sallow, here colonial bees excavate their burrows in bull-exposed soil, where burring squadrons of dung beetles pour down from the sky into piles of still-steaming shit.

The exhilaration that is Knepp Castle (1) demonstrates clearly that systems of this sort can enable fresh life to reform on a simply staggering scale of diversity and bio-abundance – and that this can be accomplished in even impoverished environments. More projects of this type are needed urgently in Britain, and everywhere else.

Beaver by Aert Schouman (1710-1792)

New Nature is about corridors – about linking landscapes around these dynamos of natural productivity as they cough and splutter into life and start to create a steady stream of creatures which spill out from them into the surrounding landscape. It’s not all about rewilding. It’s about reserves owned by the worthy, and their good deeds – the preservers of species and the environments they occupy, which would otherwise have been lost – the trusts and charities who have been toiling for years to save, innovate and replace. They understand full well that their efforts are not enough and that the widely dispersed nature of their holdings will not in itself prevent calamitous decline. Dwindling godwit, collapsing curlew or large blue populations in scattered pockets have no future on their own. It’s about making space in a farmed environment – not using all up to the edges of hedges, streams, and woodlands. It’s about relaxing and letting the wild creep back – just a bit.

I am converting my modest Devon farm into a corridor too. I no longer wish to follow a conventional model to produce sheep and cattle which are worth very little in the southwest of England, while driving near all other life from my land. I do not want to smell the rankness of ovine waste which cannot decay, because the insecticides we spray on our flock allow no insects to approach. I don’t want to witness pastures which could contain flowers reduced to a psoriatic leaching of their top soils in the depths of the wind-whipped winter when they are gouged by a myriad of hooves. I want to forge a new partnership with nature which gives us both satisfaction, which is easy and content.

Beavers are the bringers of life. Their impoundments and tree felling provide the twin life essentials of water and light. Without them, there can be no wetlands brimming with life. No darting kingfishers. No purring demoiselles. No broods of peeping ducklings following their hard-harassed mums. They do so much more. My journey with beavers, although I hope not yet complete, has been long. They have taken much of my time and I of theirs. I am content with that. I love them for the wonder they are – for their creative abilities, humility and sociality – and for their care for each other. When my journey is over theirs will have barely begun. I hope in the end they will bring wonder to at least a few of the human lives that follow mine.

My farm is not on the scale of Knepp. I will have to cultivate change to protect the valuable assets and to promote and enhance the impoverished. To restore the drained fields of rush and ryegrass back to flower-rich meadows, excavate infilled ponds, fence out valley mires, readjust the course of streams, destock to the point where trees can grow again in fields, to plant the fritillaries and the southern marsh orchids where I consider they would do well. I feel sure already that nature will come. Every indication is that this is so. Within a year, we have had nesting reed buntings and grasshopper warblers, and this August our first marbled white butterflies.

But we need to reintroduce the lost. I intend to farm life – to produce English wildcats and release their kittens, protect my breeding beavers and nurture water voles, graze with much smaller groups of ungulates which will produce high end beef, mutton, pork and cheval on a scale that is more than adequate to feed to my customers. Their money will pay for more alteration – for monitoring the returning stonechats, assessing the distribution of the armoured tadpole shrimps colonising the welcomingly variable wallows wrought by pigs, for the creation of a market garden to grow good food, for tents, huts and gypsy caravans to encourage more folk to follow.

Beaver by Derek Gow

While this is not a model for all, farming is after all a business. It is not a hobby which deserves to be subsidised by society. It’s not a martyrdom essential, a combined cross and crown which one must carry alone. If it hurts, just leave; find another life-way and allow those who would come to change what you cannot or do not want to alter. It’s not difficult to understand. Farm well on the good land. Produce products that markets want, and let the rest produce a different kind of life. Hold water and grow trees.

New Nature is about people. It’s about individuals saying ‘I can’, and acquiring the skills they need. It’s about guerrilla gardening, and cultivating sedge and frogs. It’s about permaculture, and forest schools – restoring soils, and multiplying and repeating the good things already done. People small and large are beginning to do. Small gardens can join up. Hedgehogs can move through created gaps under fences. Not every tiny lawn or roadside verge must forever be shorn. Some of the great estates in England held in hand since Norman times are beginning to act well. They can rise to the challenge. With their landholdings and influence, their ability to accomplish is immense. They employ good minds and have a vision used to looking well beyond next month’s milk cheque towards a time that might yet come. Small organisations are releasing bison. Good-hearted souls have achieved much with pine martens and cranes. The legend that is Roy Dennis is returning the white-tailed eagles of the past to where they should be, on the sea cliffs of the Solent. Vultures have come and remarkably stayed, for the first known time in our island’s history. Is their presence an omen of hope or are they assembling to circle in more sinister anticipation? While the fate of the young lammergeier perched on the edge of the great grouse death lands is by no means certain, other problems remain.

Great issues hang in the balance. Farming will fight hard for business as usual. If they lose their subsidies for doing nothing much, it will never come again. Their influence will wither and their political power remit. They seek to imagineer a false vision of progress while remaining hermit crab-secure in their tight clasped shells. The ghouls of the timber-industry will try to grasp the gold in the casket being transported to fund future forests. They want chip and pellet; there is no room in their spreadsheets for carunculate giants, or vibrant scrub which resounds to the melodies of warblers. They don’t care, and laugh at those who do in closed court. If they can, they will swing down from the low limbs of their sitka plantations dressed in green mantle to get their hands on the loot.

The proposed system of government payments for Environmental Land Management (ELMs) is the mantra and myth of the moment. While it should be a system to reshape landscapes to give true coexistence with the wild, to subsidise carbon capture, store water and produce good for all, its acolytes attempt to form a belief with little faith of their own. Their hearts are torpid and contain no zeal. As they issue commandments from on high, their transparent commitments are of little current worth.

Official nature conservation bodies are mired in a do-nothing, say-nothing culture. They meekly print the death dues for badgers, and seek to explain why no killers of raptors – even those reared and recorded by them – can ever be found. They stall support for bustards and revile the joy of storks. They are out of touch with reality, so completely lost in a self-created maze that they can lead no more. The pace of change must be forced and forged by others. In the quarter century I have worked with beavers I have heard many pleas for delay from some of the most prominent people in conservation – to give time to ‘adjust’, to ‘get it right’, to stop or at least slow projects until more lumbering others can find their feet. Sometimes they made me wonder if my course was right; I am now utterly convinced it was.

Other life on this planet more than ever needs more of us to act in its (and our) interests now, without concern for fortune or favour – to do what’s both ecologically necessary and morally right. If we wait too long to aid, we will all suffer and perish together. There is no need for this. We are clever and must not let this happen.

There is never a perfect time, or an ideal place. There is only the here and now, with the good people you live alongside to help, with whatever knowledge and resources are at hand. As individuals we should not seek to pass with regret and remorse, but rather to help New Nature happen when we can.

Editor’s Note

  1. Knepp in Sussex is the best known English example of a rewilded landscape, its creation/recreation described in Isabella Tree’s 2019 book Wilding
  2. My Spectator review of Derek Gow’s book may be found here – https://www.derek-turner.com/2020/10/28/eager-for-beavers/