The Killing Fields

Today (Saturday 12 February 2000) is National Pest Control Day in Great Britain. This means that gamekeepers will shoot thousands of pigeons as well as large numbers of magpies and jays in many parts of the country. Their steely professional indifference to the trauma those defenceless creatures will have to endure before dying is chilling.

I find this sort of cull horrific and my feelings of dismay are matched only by my sense of helplessness in the face of the increasingly militant countryside lobby – farmers, hunters, landowners etc. – who claim that town dwellers simply do not understand. I believe that we understand quite well that this green and pleasant land is being stained by the blood of birds and animals while at the same time being turned into an environmental desert in which the nightmare of the 'Silent Spring' predicted by Rachel Carson more than 30 years ago is becoming a bleakly familiar part of life.

As a child I lived in Ireland where the pleasure of hearing the corncrake in the meadows was set off against the still-remembered horror of holding down the lid of a large water-filled kettle to prevent drowning kittens from struggling free, of watching an eel writhe to death in the smoking fat of a frying pan, of seeing the broken bodies of rabbits being extracted from traps, of walking home with my father carrying the bloody corpse of a shotgunned crow, of hearing the snap as my mother wrung the neck of a hen or duck, of holding a bucket to catch the gore gushing from a pig as my father cut its throat and probed until his knife penetrated to the heart.

At that time (the late 1940s) I took all these things in my stride and felt no compassion whatever for my tormented fellow creatures. Once, when I was about seven, I caught a neighbour's hen and hammered a nail into its back and watched with quiet satisfaction as it crawled into some bushes to die. Many months later I found the skeleton with the now rusted nail spiked into its spine. When I was ten I was given my own airgun as a Christmas present with which I used to shoot small birds as often as I could. By the time I was twelve I could wring the neck of any hen as swiftly as my mother. Moreover, I took a fiendish delight in collecting caterpillars, slugs, snails and worms so that I could light a fire in which I would roast them all alive. How ashamed and disgusted I now feel when I remember the little country savage I once was – I was to continue with that sadistic behaviour pattern until I was sixteen years old.

All through this time my decent and unsuspecting schoolteachers were introducing me to the delights of poetryand other literature. Despite my barbaric pastimes I actually did respond to those gentler influences and I have not yet forgotten the thrill with which, while still in primary school, I read Richard Jefferies 'Field and Hedgerow', surely one of the great celebrations – alongside much of the poetry of John Clare – of the lost wonders of our now debased countryside.

The desertification of fields and hedgerows, which began with the agricultural revolution introduced after WW2, went ballistic when we joined the Common Market in the early seventies. The Common Market's 'Common Agricultural Policy' encouraged the destruction of tens of thousands of miles of hedgerows and other habitats resulting in the death from exposure and starvation of countless birds and small animals. I was one of those who supported the then EEC and I voted 'Yes' in the referendum. If I had known then what I know now I would have been an implacable opponent of 'Europe'.

I am now thoroughly disillusioned with the environmentally disastrous policies of the European Union (the successor of the European Common Market – the 'EEC') for agriculture and with the ‘business is business’ approach to what is left of England's green and pleasant land. It seems to me that the ruthless philosophy of the 'market'(yes, I admit it, city folk invented that destructive mindset) is now part and parcel of what the Countryside Alliance tries to present as a warmly traditional 'way of life'. Sadly, however, the pitilessly unfeeling cull that took place today shows that it is now much more correctly described as a way of death.

Posted 12 February, 2000.

'Birds of Britain'