It has been a difficult few days: silence in the hedgerows where there should be song, followed by the publication of a profoundly depressing survey into the decline of migrating birds. But today has brought relief. The cuckoo is back, calling from his normal spot across the field from where I write.
In the context of a 59 per cent decline in species numbers over the past 40 years, its return seems miraculous and heroic. Like a soldier crossing enemy lines, the cuckoo has made it back for another year, in spite of global warming, habitat change, war zones in Africa, not to mention those mad idiots in Malta who shoot birds as they migrate over the island.
The way we watch and listen to the natural world has changed recently. A fearful, edgy pessimism has set in. By a cruel paradox, the time of the year which once brought a sense of renewal is now the season most fraught with worry. It is spring and the sun is shining, but is it shining too much, not enough, too soon? That late frost, that heavy rain (or lack of it): are they what they seem or do they presage catastrophe?
There are few more effective reminders of the fragility of the planet than the behaviour of birds. Such is our gloom that moments which used to be joyful – the sound of the first skylark singing, the first glimpse of a swallow, housemartin or swift – are now merely cause for relief. They have made it through to another year.
This species anxiety is certainly justified by the statistics. In the same week as the migratory bird figures were published (10 per cent fewer spotted flycatchers between 1995 and 2005, 16 per cent fewer willow warblers and so on), there was bad news about the decline in certain types of butterfly after last year’s wet summer and in dragonfly species. Numbers of honey bees and bumblebees are plummeting, with huge implications for the crops, trees and flowers which they pollinate and, in the longer term, for food production and the landscape. The problem with these trends, and the self-lacerating tone in which they are recounted, is that they inculcate a sort of exhausted defeatism. We have taken to watching nature like a doctor looking for symptoms in a terminally ill patient. Only bad news is reported. Environmental policy becomes panicky and invasive.
The accidental benefits to wildlife caused by the subsidies for set-aside land are now being cast aside in the rush for food production (precisely where the environmental problems started in the 1960s and 1970s, incidentally). Ministers become anxiously pro-active, invoking eco-arguments at every turn. Only the other day, Caroline Flint was arguing that building new towns was actually beneficial for the natural environment.
More generally, there is a danger that a sense of impotence becomes established. What, in the end, can one do to halt the disappearance of butterflies, the non-arrival of cuckoos, swallows or willow warblers?
For those with a garden, there is an answer to that question and it lies in planned untidiness – allowing nature to be natural in certain places. Politicians and farmers should also be encouraged to overcome their natural tendency to tidy up, to cultivate and control.
The idea that the countryside is an aesthetic luxury enjoyed by the over-privileged should rebutted at every turn. Above all, we should remember how to enjoy and appreciate the natural world rather than watching it with helpless anxiety
Another blow for elitism
When authors and academics arrive at the British Library at the start of their working day, 11am, they are likely to get a shock. All the seats have been taken by students.
Lady Antonia Fraser queued for 20 minutes in the cold for her books. Tristram Hunt has complained of noise and that students were meeting for a frappuccino. And Christopher Hawtree had to perch on a window sill.
The British Library, one of the world’s leading research libraries, has decided that access is the thing. Encouraged by a performance bonus based on the number of visits, its directors have opened its doors to undergraduates.
Yet another great blow against scholarship and elitism has been struck.
* It is sometimes difficult to work out this Government’s attitude towards personal morality. Cheerfully in favour of gambling, it seems to take a more severe line where sexual matters are concerned. Not long ago, Harriet Harman argued the case for making prostitution illegal.
Yet, weirdly, it seems that job centres are helping clients to enter what the Department of Work and Pensions calls “the adult entertainment industry”. A student looking for a job in Anglesey, Wales, was startled by an advertisement which required the applicant to be over 18 and to have a computer with a webcam. Oh, and one other thing: “Duties require the successful applicant to be nude/semi-nude”.
Jobcentres, a departmental spokesperson has said, are obliged to include in their listings all legal work but “have a range of measures in place to safeguard jobseekers wishing to work in the adult entertainment industry”.
So porn sites can be staffed with the help of government agencies. Very odd.