This programme looks at countryside birds, such as the skylark, pheasant and nightingale - celebrated in poetry, used to forecast the weather and hunted for food.
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The birds of our countryside are amongst the most familiar.
and iconic of all Britain's birds.
For centuries, we've celebrated them in music and poetry,
used them to forecast changes in the weather and the seasons,
and hunted them
for food and sport.
And throughout our long history, these birds have not just shaped
the appearance of the British countryside,
but also defined its very nature.
The countryside birds, in my view, are a constitutive
part of the countryside.
You cannot describe the countryside without describing the birds.
If birds went out of the countryside, it would be
an emblem of a kind of nuclear post-nuclear deadness.
This is the story of the deep, age-old connection between the
birds of the British countryside and the people of these islands.
It tells of how we have used and abused them,
celebrated them and cherished them,
and watched their fortunes rise and fall.
And how, at the eleventh hour, we have finally come to understand
what they, and the countryside, really mean to us.
Wherever you look in the
British countryside, whatever the time of year, you will find birds.
Farmland birds such as the Skylark, the Grey Partridge,
the Lapwing, and the Yellowhammer,
have lived alongside us for more than 10,000 years - ever
since we first cleared the forests to prepare the land for agriculture.
So it's hardly surprising that when our ancestors needed to mark
the changing of the seasons, they turned to these familiar creatures.
Birds are very important seasonal markers in Britain and not just for
birdwatchers but for ordinary people too.
Everybody still thinks of
the first swallow, the first Cuckoo, as a way of marking the season.
You would have to be very dull of
soul indeed not to be moved by the life of the swallow, for instance.
The swallow has a very important part in our sort of national
idea of what it is like to be English, I think.
We time our seasons by its coming and going
in an absolutely primitive and ancient in-our-bones kind of way.
The way swallows come and whistle and sing,
a joyous arrival, a swallow.
And the fact it makes its home in your outshed
in the garage if you leave the door open.
It is very much a family animal and something that you really
seriously look forward to each year.
The coming of spring has also been marked by the annual appearance of
a letter in the Times newspaper,
commenting on the arrival of another visitor to our shores.
"Sir, while gardening this afternoon I heard a faint note which led me to
"say to my under gardener who was working with me,
"'Was that the Cuckoo?'"
We always used to talk
about hearing the first Cuckoo and should we write to the Times.
My parents always said, "Should we write to the Times?
"Oh no, someone got there a week before."
And it was this lovely tradition.
But this very British ritual may be coming to an end.
The Cuckoo is suffering a catastrophic decline because of food
shortages in Britain, and drought in Africa, where it spends the winter.
This decline threatens not just the bird itself,
but its cultural status too.
There is a whole folk culture across
the northern hemisphere about the Cuckoo.
If you have to explain what it was, you have kind have rather lost the
point of the whole of that cultural aspect to birds.
It's the way in which a bird like the Cuckoo
moves from being the birth right of every rural inhabitant of the
British Isles, even though Cuckoos were never hugely numerous.
It is such a distinctive sound, so ubiquitous, they are so adapted
to all sorts of environments, there are now large swathes
where Cuckoos are never heard and may never be heard again.
The fate of the Cuckoo has been mirrored
in the fortunes of many other birds of the British countryside.
In recent years they have suffered major declines,
falling victim to the seemingly unstoppable industrialisation
of our farmed landscape.
All too often, our interests have taken precedence over theirs.
But not so very long ago,
towards the end of the 18th century, the British countryside and its
birds were still living in a state of rural harmony.
We know this through the life and writings of one remarkable man,
the Reverend Gilbert White, author of The Natural History of Selborne.
Since it first appeared, in 1789,
this modest little book has never been out of print.
Gilbert White is an extraordinary phenomenon.
He's said to be the fourth most published author
in the English language. This is quite extraordinary
for a country vicar writing what was in effect a series of nature notes.
"The swift is almost continually on the wing, and, as it never settles
"on the ground, on trees, or roofs, would seldom find opportunity for
"amorous rites was it not enabled to indulge them in the air."
He was remarkable.
After all, without binoculars, that he saw the mating of the swift
up in the sky,
beggars belief really. I'm sure I couldn't possibly have noticed that.
White wasn't just a good observer, he was also an excellent naturalist,
at a time when many things we now take for granted about Britain's
birds had yet to be discovered.
For example, he was the first person to realise that three different
kinds of small, green warbler visit Britain each spring.
Previously it had been assumed there was only one.
"I have now, past dispute, made out three distinct species of
"the Willow Wrens, which constantly and invariably used distinct notes."
White's enduring appeal may be because he concentrates almost
entirely on his own little corner of the English countryside.
He was born and died in the village in which he describes, and
you get the sense that he knows it so intimately that he would know
if a bird arrived or if a leaf fell overnight.
I think another thing that is really quite remarkable about
Gilbert White's work is the sense in which it is a kind of microcosm
of English country life.
It's as if, in a way, you can find the whole of nature within the sort
of manageable confines of just one English village.
He redeemed the word "parochial"
from its sense of narrowness and limitation.
He exalts the parish
as a place where all life exists and we can follow in his footsteps.
It may seem surprising that this diary of natural events
should have become so popular.
Maybe it's because it portrays a very comforting image of the
countryside - a tranquil, unchanging landscape, filled with birdsong.
Just like another writer from our rural past, much of this appeal
is pure nostalgia.
Jane Austen and Gilbert White are more or less contemporary, and why do
we look at all these charming ladies in bonnets on the television set?
It's a picture of rural England, 18th century England,
which we find charming.
Yet for all the undoubted charm of The Natural History of Selborne, its
author may have been hiding his fears about changes afoot
in the wider world.
Gilbert White's in his Parsonage
looking at what's going on in his back garden and in the fields beyond.
Then you say to yourself it was published in 1789, what happened?
The French revolution is happening on the Continent, the Industrial
Revolution is happening in England, massive social change.
No reference to the real world that's going on beside him and
that kind of obsessiveness sometimes worries me that it's wonderful but
there's a slight feeling of stop the world, I'd want to get off.
During Gilbert White's lifetime, some things didn't change.
The birds of Britain's countryside continued to thrive alongside us,
as we farmed the land in the age-old ways.
But in the decades after White's death in 1793, this little world
was turned upside down.
The countryside would be transformed forever, and the birds that lived
there would begin a long decline, from which many have yet to recover.
One bird, more than any other,
symbolises the loss of this traditional landscape.
It's a bizarre, shy and elusive relative of the coot, the Corn Crake.
It looks like some silly little chicken really, let's face it.
I remember the first one I had.
I didn't realise what I was listening to for a while.
HE MAKES GUTTURAL SOUNDS...
It's a Corn Crake!
Then your problems begin because they can throw their voice.
It's just over there and you go just over there
but it isn't and it's still calling.
You go round and round and round this little field.
At the start of the 19th century, the strange, repetitive call of
the Corn Crake could still be heard throughout the British countryside,
from Scilly to Shetland.
For one of Gilbert White's disciples, the poet and naturalist
John Clare, the Corn Crake,
or as he called it, the landrail, was the classic sound of summer.
"How sweet and pleasant grows the way through summer time again,
"when landrails call from day to day amid the grass and grain."
John Clare, the Northamptonshire farm labourer
who found fame as a poet, was also a brilliant self-taught naturalist.
More than any other writer,
before or since, he celebrated the birds of the British countryside.
In the minuteness of his attention
and his faithfulness to things as they actually are,
he's the best writer about birds that there has ever been in the language.
Rather than kind of speaking in grand rhetorical terms as many of
the great romantic poets did, he's really closely attentive
to the details of nature.
What he has to a greater degree than anybody else is an eye for detail
and a relish for the ordinary, which means the ordinary has always
been turned into the miraculous.
When we read the poems,
we really do feel it's like standing in a wood listening to a Nightingale
or walking through a field and seeing a Corn Crake or whatever it might be.
But by the start of the 19th century, this young writer's
whole world, the countryside and its birds, was about to change forever.
The reason for this change? Enclosure.
Enclosure was I think in crude
terms the privatisation of what had been an open and public landscape.
Enclosure transformed the old, traditional landscape of wide,
open fields by adding hedges, creating the familiar pattern of
small fields we know and love today.
The irony is it's a much more recent landscape
than we perhaps tend to realise.
It only dates back about 200, 250
years because before enclosure, we didn't have this checkerboard
pattern, we had a much more open landscape with far fewer hedges.
Enclosure had a devastating effect
on ordinary country people, forcing them off the land and into poverty.
And by concentrating ownership in the hands of a few rich landowners,
enclosure would eventually pave the way towards modern, industrial-scale farming.
During the following 150 years or so, this would prove disastrous for
the British countryside and its birds.
Today, we read Clare's poetry partly as a lament for a lost world,
but also because it's a very modern, environmentally conscious message.
Now, he begins to look more like a prophet of
the kind of environmental movements that call themselves deep ecology.
He seems to anticipate ideas of the kind that are caught up in
the Gaia hypothesis, which thinks of the whole world as one organism
with its own interests and its own self-regulating procedures.
For a warning of our disconnection from the environment,
we need look no further than the plight of the Corn Crake.
Today, this mysterious bird has disappeared from virtually
the whole of our rural landscape.
It can now only be found in remote parts of Scotland, where traditional
farming is still being practised.
Not all countryside birds suffered the fate of the Corn Crake.
By the middle of the 19th century, the fortunes of two other species
were on the rise.
This would change the face of the British landscape forever.
With a collective weight of
more than three million tonnes, the pheasant is, pound for pound,
the commonest bird in the British countryside.
Yet ironically it's not really a British bird at all,
but was brought here from south-west Asia by the Romans.
The native Red Grouse, by contrast, is a shy, retiring bird,
found only in the remotest parts of upland Britain.
But the Grouse and the pheasant
do have one thing in common.
They're both very good to eat.
From the early 19th century, thanks to the invention of
the breech-loading shotgun, Grouse, pheasants, and their
smaller relative the partridge, became top targets for Britain's
Increasingly we see a development of country estates, landed properties
being used for sports shooting based on three quarries, three birds,
Red Grouse, the Grey Partridge and the pheasant.
They would provide a six-month cycle of recreational activity and travel,
where people would move from one country house to another pursuing
the shooting of game birds.
Pheasant shooting became immensely popular in the 19th century.
It became one of those key markers of aristocratic identity.
It was one of the must-have things if you were a landowner.
You had to have a decent pheasant shoot really.
But ordinary rural folk took a very dim view of this aristocratic pursuit.
Actually if you want to pick one bird which brought England
closer to revolution than anything else, it would be
the pheasant because it also caused bitter social controversy,
partly because it had become a symbol of aristocratic identity.
Shooting pheasants is difficult in many ways and demands quite a level
of skill but that isn't obvious, so it seemed a clear instance of
decadence and also fundamental idleness of the aristocracy.
They didn't have anything better to do with their time other than go out and shoot these birds
which are only there because the aristocracy have bred them.
The boom in pheasant shooting was a direct result of the landscape
changes brought about by enclosure.
This allowed pheasants to be reared
on an industrial scale, and then released in
their thousands to replenish birds shot by the sportsmen.
Once enclosure had privatised the landscape, then landowners were able
to a much greater extent, to develop the landscape as they wanted to.
With things like small little copses which would be very suitable
for pheasants to roost in or be bred in.
You have a kind of landscape which was suitable for and then became
developed for pheasant breeding, pheasant rearing.
And then of course pheasant shooting.
This new, more wooded landscape didn't just benefit pheasants,
it also provided a haven for other woodland wildlife, including birds,
butterflies and deer.
Meanwhile, far to the north, on the windswept moors of
northern England and Scotland, another game bird was also playing
its part in changing history.
It may look like a domestic chicken, but the Red Grouse has had a greater
influence on the landscape and economy of upland Britain
than any other bird.
Although most of us will never set eyes on one,
its image and reputation have spread far and wide.
# The sun shines on the mountaintop The Grouse go from the moor
# The guineas are waiting at the door... #
For two groups of people in Britain,
aristocrats and the idle rich, the Glorious 12th of August has
long been the most eagerly awaited date in the calendar.
It marks the opening day of the Grouse shooting season,
an industry worth at least £30 million a year
to the Scottish economy alone.
But without the invention of one man, George Stephenson,
and the passion of one woman, Queen Victoria,
the Red Grouse might have remained nothing more than an unremarkable moorland bird.
Previously, the Scottish estates were
hundreds of miles and a week's journey from London, but by the 1870s
landowners who had posh houses in Chelsea could
also own a Scottish landed estate and be there overnight, and that's
exactly what happened in the run-up to the Glorious 12th of August.
There were special trains laid on to channel people to the most remote
parts of our landscape
so that this kind of sport shooting could take place on Scottish moorland
and northern English moorlands.
Grouse shooting received the royal seal of approval, through Queen
Victoria's regular visits to her Scottish country estate at Balmoral.
So by the end of the queen's long reign, Grouse shooting was as much
a part of the social calendar as society balls and Royal Ascot,
although rather more brutal.
In some glorious autumns in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as many as
a million-and-a-half Grouse would be shot through the season.
Today there might be fewer than 250,000 pairs of
Red Grouse in total in Britain.
This influx of people and money enabled huge tracts of northern
Britain to be opened up for Grouse shooting.
And because the moors had to be carefully managed
to stop them becoming overgrown with scrub and trees,
the face of our uplands was changed forever.
One of our most cherished landscape types remains heather moorland,
and these moors really have been, to a very
large extent, maintained for Grouse.
The fact that these moors have been cyclically burnt in order to
maintain the young growing shoots for Grouse to feed on
has been really very important in preserving one of Britain's crucial landscape types.
But while Grouse and pheasant shooting may have helped create
new habitats for birds and other wildlife,
it sounded the death-knell for Britain's birds of prey.
Anything that naturally included Red Grouse
or pheasants or partridge in their diet
became enemy in chief,
and so the other side of this sophisticated
gun technology used to kill Grouse was it was also used to knock off
every single bird red in tooth and claw.
And even species that posed
absolutely no threat to the hunters' quarry were ruthlessly persecuted.
WH Hudson, a wonderful writer at the
beginning of the 20th century, described estates in southern
England where the gamekeeper would shoot the Nightingales
because he didn't want the sound of the birds disturbing his pheasants.
There are stories of
gamekeepers shooting any small bird that was in the woodland because they
would be competitors for the grain laid out for the game birds.
Just as the fate of our countryside birds was looking bleak,
history intervened with the coming of the Great War.
# Keep the home fires burning... #
Ironically, the shooting skills of both
the gamekeepers and their masters would prove to be their downfall,
for they were among the first to join up
and to be sent to the front line.
Most of these young men had never been abroad.
Indeed, some had hardly travelled beyond the borders
of their own parish.
So any reminders of home,
such as the familiar sights and sounds of the British countryside,
became powerful totems of the land they had left behind.
One of the most potent of these was the song of the Skylark.
To pour this amazingly loud, clear, beautiful noise down on us, sometimes
from a height and from a body so small that you can't actually see
what the source is, that's what makes it like the voice of God, isn't it?
It is this... valiant quality that the Skylark has,
suddenly zooming up in the air,
and then when it's right up there, I mean
singing with such vigour and such...
You'd think it's got enough problems remaining up there,
flapping the wings, but he's got the energy as well to sing!
This unique habit of singing high in the sky
for such long periods of time meant that the Skylark was often the
only bird soldiers in the trenches could actually see.
Imagine you are in a trench in Flanders.
You've been stuck in the ground for three months.
you're bogged down, and then this creature
appears in the sky with its song.
I mean, it must have had a huge impact on people.
This little creature is everything you want to be.
"Every morning when I was in the frontline trenches,
"I used to hear the lark singing soon after we stood to, about dawn.
"But those wretched larks made me more sad
"than anything else out here.
"Their songs are so closely associated in my mind with
"peaceful summer days and gardens or pleasant landscapes in Blighty."
Skylarks also appeared in many poems written amidst the horror of war.
Well, I suppose the Skylark is the sort of default bird
in First World War poetry
because it rises above,
because it sees things from the air.
There is that sense of escape, but also of going on singing
when all reasons around you are saying weep,
is presumably something that would cheer you
if you thought you were going to get your head blown off any moment.
One serving soldier who was also a poet, John William Streets,
wrote of the ironic contrast
between his own situation and that of the soaring bird.
Hushed is the shriek of hurtling shells:
And hark! Somewhere within that bit of soft blue sky -
Grand in his loneliness, his ecstasy,
His lyric wild and free-carols a lark.
I in the trench, He lost in heaven afar.
Along with 20,000 of his fellow soldiers, John William Streets
died on July 1st 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
His body lies in a war cemetery close to where he fell,
where Skylarks still sing today.
During the four long years of the First World War, Britain's
Foreign Secretary was Edward Grey.
Grey had a lifelong interest in birds,
a passion he shared with another great world statesman,
the US President, Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt.
Back in June 1910, when Roosevelt was on a state visit to Britain,
these two great men had gone for a quiet country walk in the New Forest
in Grey's home county of Hampshire.
Putting aside global diplomacy
and talk of military and industrial might, they simply talked birds,
and President Roosevelt later said that it was the highlight of his entire
European tour in the summer of 1910.
They saw and heard no fewer than 40 different species,
many of which they identified by listening to their song.
And one element of the story that I
particularly like is the fact that they did this walk alone.
These two great men walking through the New Forest, quietly discussing
nature and wildlife and the countryside.
Looking back, it is hard to imagine modern political leaders engaging in
such an innocent pastime.
Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had a very strong relationship,
but that was based around shared political ideals.
The friendship between Roosevelt
and Edward Grey
was based a passion, a love for birds
and an appreciation of the British countryside.
After the war, when he had left high office, Grey returned to his
first love - birds.
During this period, birdwatching was fast becoming a popular recreational
activity, with a flood of bird
books aimed not at experts, but at the general public.
One of the best-known of these was written by Grey himself,
"The Charm of Birds".
Like The Natural History of Selborne, The Charm of Birds
was aimed squarely at a mass audience.
"This book will have no scientific value.
"My observations have been made for recreation, in search of pleasure,
By the time he wrote this best-selling book,
Grey's eyesight was failing fast.
So it's not surprising that his writing focuses strongly on birdsong.
One of his particular favourites was the Nightingale.
"The Nightingale's song has compass, variety and astonishing power.
"It arrests attention and compels admiration.
"It has onset and impact, but it is fitful, broken and restless.
"It is a song to listen to, but not to live with."
The Nightingale had of course been celebrated by writers and poets
from the Greeks and Romans to Keats and Clare, despite its rather
You don't want to see a Nightingale, because if you do, you'll be disappointed.
It is just a little brown bird.
And maybe that helps with the mystique of them as well.
That you don't see it, it's just a song.
And it is the Nightingale's
extraordinary song which has been the key to its fame.
It's not the only bird to sing by night, but
it's certainly the most persistent.
It's fame is all the more remarkable
given that it has always been a relatively scarce bird in Britain.
Everybody thinks they know what a Nightingale is and is like, but very
few people have actually heard one, and even fewer have seen one,
because the Nightingale is a very mysterious bird.
The most extraordinary thing is its volume.
It's extraordinarily loud.
It's also very rich in its range of notes.
The idea of something singing at night, a lone voice in the darkness
is going to set your poetic juices running, I imagine.
Is it lonely?
Is it singing to its love that will not reply?
And the sound fills the night.
During the years between the two world wars,
one particular Nightingale achieved unexpected fame.
This totally wild bird performed
a spontaneous duet with the cellist Beatrice Harrison, in one of
the very first live radio outside broadcasts anywhere in the world.
The day was 19th May, 1924.
It was a perfect evening for Nightingales.
There was a full moon, it was a warm, summer evening,
and Beatrice Harrison put on her best frock and played the cello.
And played to an estimated audience of over a million people.
Beatrice Harrison and the bird had created a broadcasting sensation.
Thousands of listeners wrote to the BBC to praise the programme,
and the event was restaged every year.
The story of the final broadcast,
during the Second World War, is just as enigmatic as the very first one.
When the time came, the BBC engineer who
was in charge of the sound equipment, as the Nightingale started up, heard
the sound of approaching aircraft, and very wisely he stopped the
broadcast because he thought this might be some kind of security risk,
but he kept recording it, so we do have the recording, and what you hear
is this fleet of bombers, English bombers heading for Germany
gradually getting closer, and as the crescendo of noise builds
up from the bombers, so the crescendo of noise builds up from the Nightingales.
It's the most dramatic combination of sounds.
DRONE OF AIRCRAFT/NIGHTINGALE SONG
WIRELESS: I have to tell you now that this country is at war with Germany.
# They'll be bluebirds over
# The White Cliffs of Dover... #
Once war with Germany had been declared,
life for millions of Britons changed overnight.
Families were separated as men went off to fight,
and children were evacuated to the countryside.
And just as during the First World War, Britain's birds would provide
comfort, support, and hope at this time of national crisis.
# And a Nightingale sang
# In Berkeley Square. #
One young man, James Fisher, did more than anyone else to promote
the importance of watching birds as part of what it meant to be British.
Fisher was the David Attenborough of his day - a scientist, writer
and broadcaster who frequently appeared on radio and television.
Educated at Eton and Oxford, he was an unlikely man of the people.
Yet his life's mission was to convert as many
of his fellow Britons as possible to the pleasures of birdwatching.
James was a superior person in every real sense.
He was highly educated,
good looking and he ticked all the right boxes, James.
James himself was erudite.
He was encyclopaedic in his knowledge of birds,
in fact he wrote bird encyclopaedias.
He could tell you every postage stamp that had a bird on it in
the world, and as such, he left a legacy of books.
The most successful of Fisher's many bird books,
was also one of his simplest.
Published in 1941, during the darkest days of the war,
Watching Birds was a Pelican paperback, priced at just six old pence.
The book would go on to sell more than three million copies.
It was the first serious bird book I'd read, and I found it a wonderful
book, I think mainly because it was such an inclusive book.
Here was this eminent scientist
writing for people like me, telling me that this was a
legitimate interest, that the sort of records and observations I might make
were worth making and were part of some larger picture.
But for Fisher, Watching Birds had an even more important purpose,
as he made clear in the book's preface.
"Some people might consider an apology necessary for the
"appearance of a book about birds at a time when Britain is fighting
"for its own and many other lives.
"I make no such apology.
"Birds are part of the heritage we are fighting for."
Fisher was not alone in his views.
A survey carried out in the very same year
confirmed the British people's passion for their rural heritage.
The vast majority said, England is a village green,
is an old inn sign, is the birds and the creatures of the countryside,
the water mill, the winding lane.
That is the image of England
at a time when urban England is being flattened.
Observing birds and watching them became this really strong way of
tying the observer and the nation together very strongly. By watching
birds you become a trustworthy member of your own culture.
Birds stood for a kind of rural British identity that was really
under threat in this wartime arena.
This new enthusiasm for watching birds
took hold in some unlikely places.
It even became a popular
activity amongst prisoners of war, despite the obvious limitations.
COLONEL BOGEY MARCH
The main problem with being in a prisoner-of-war camp was boredom.
You had hours, days, weeks, months to fill, nothing to do and
it was described as being an endless Sunday afternoon with no prospect of
Monday, by one prisoner of war.
To combat this, they devised all sorts of diversions from
football tournaments to music hall shows, and, of course, nature study.
There's some wonderful letters where they talk about how they chose the organism to study.
At one point they tried studying snails, but apparently this was too
boring, even for prisoners of war.
But birds were the obvious choice, being both ubiquitous and abundant.
One prisoner decided to study one of the most beautiful creatures of all,
Of course, the thing about these birds that they watched is that
they could leave the camp at any time.
And John Buxton, who wrote an extraordinary monograph on
the Redstart using his prison camp notes made a lot of this.
He said that the birds could leave at any time.
"but one of the chief joys
"of watching them in prison was that they inhabited another world than I.
"They lived wholly and enviably to themselves,
"unconcerned in our fatuous politics."
He also talked about how
they didn't just represent freedom, but also these invisible barriers. They had their territory.
So he identified with them in that way as well.
Buxton and his fellow POWs didn't simply watch birds -
they studied them more closely than anyone had, ever before.
If you look at the notebooks, and some of these notebooks do survive,
they're page after page after page of observations that detail
what each bird is doing each second of each day.
They're extraordinary documents, and what they show is a kind of
massive translation of the kinds of things that go on in a prison camp
put onto birds, so here you have men who are obsessively watched,
all day, all night by guards.
And they are watching birds, all day and all night.
I think bird-watching in prison camps is partly, obviously, freedom.
Here is a creature that can hop over the wire.
But also the slightly obsessional quality, it passes
the time, it enables you to focus on something and do it well.
It's the classic
retreat into collecting mania, retreat into classification.
You're in this situation which you absolutely can't control,
here is something you can control.
Back on the Home Front, the cinema was one way of escaping the horrors
of war, if only for an hour or two.
And in one long-forgotten wartime film, the arrival of a pair of rare
birds in a sleepy English village
symbolised the defence of the British countryside and its values.
Let's have another look.
That's what it is, you know? The Tawny Pipit.
It does look awfully like the picture.
Are you sure it's the only one without spots? Let's have a look.
It can't be. It says it's only nested here once before.
I'm absolutely certain.
Let's go and ring Uncle Arthur.
-We've justified his choice in books, anyway.
-Yes, haven't we?!
The Tawny Pipit is a wonderfully eccentric piece of British film-making.
It tells the story of a little village in England that discovers
that a pair of Tawny Pipits are nesting next to the village.
There are many characters that are very familiar from
this kind of film, the eccentric bumbling Colonel, the recovering
soldier, the airman who is charged with protecting them.
And it's really an allegory about
looking after refugees, protecting them, involving
them in village life and basically preserving the kind of status quo.
You see, we've got two very rare birds nesting just over here.
Birds? But what's that to do with me?
Well, they're right in the middle of a field, and all this, I mean...
Who are you?
My name's Hazel Broom.
Well Miss Broom, we shan't disturb your birds.
But it's a ground-nesting bird.
It's one of the most wonderful things that's ever happened in England.
It's rather touching, actually.
And not just because of the birds, but because of the rural socialism
of the idea, that all... the elderly colonel, the young corporal,
who's an ornithologist, the army, the nurse, the recuperating RAF man,
they're all in this together to support these two creatures
being able to breed.
This young lady says they have a rare bird breeding
in a field here called the Tawny Pipit.
Anthus campestris? My hat, is this true?
-Is there such a bird?
-Oh, my hat, yes, sir. If this is true, it's absolutely terrific.
Thank you, corporal. Very well, Miss, I shall proceed by road.
Oh, you darling!
Tawny Pipit may not seem like a very revolutionary film - yet its deeper
message closely reflects the social and political climate of the time.
Very briefly - '41, '42, '43 - Britain
almost became a socialist republic.
That's what happened in the war, everyone helping each other.
And you get a strong sense of that.
It's a bit Ealing comedy, there is a corner of the English
mind that is forever Ambridge.
The film's plot relies on the fact that the Tawny Pipit
is a very rare visitor to Britain.
For the man commissioned to film the birds this was a major problem.
It was filmed by the wonderful bird
photographer Eric Hosking who had serious problems, of course,
because there aren't any Tawny Pipits in Britain.
So what he had to try and do was to film similar birds
and pretend they were Tawny Pipits.
So he filmed Meadow Pipits, but from behind, because from in
front they would show their very characteristic streaked breast.
So he really tore his hair out over this movie, and it's quite
fun watching it as a bird watcher, because you raise one eyebrow and
think to yourself, that's not a Tawny Pipit, it's a Meadow Pipit.
But like all great British
propaganda films, it all turns out fine in the end.
Tawny Pipit portrays an idealised vision of the English countryside,
unchanging, and steeped in old-fashioned values.
In reality, things were rather different.
A short while ago this was the 6,000-acre wilderness of Feltwell
fen in south-west Norfolk, where nothing grew, save reeds and weeds.
Scrubland of peat and bog, where floods, more frequently than not,
turned it into a vast morass.
But it has taken a war to turn that
same wasteland into an agricultural gold mine.
The Ministry of Agriculture has sent to work an army of men reclaiming the idle acres.
As the war dragged on, with national food shortages and the
prospect of widespread starvation, desperate measures had to be taken.
So huge swathes of our countryside were ploughed up for agriculture.
The entire emphasis was on maximising production.
And you can only do that by taking out what you call, the waste land,
and the waste land included half of all our ancient woodlands,
70% of our heath lands.
I think we've now lost 99% of our flower-rich meadows.
Any habitat that wasn't yielding agricultural produce was converted to
arable or to farming in some way.
The irony was that the more we planned
and organised and structured the future of the British countryside,
the more we lost sight of some of these
ascetic and romantic impulses that
people had for the landscape and for the birds that live within it.
During the post-war years, the juggernaut of the agricultural
revolution was unstoppable, fuelled by subsidies and new technology.
It was goodbye to the old-fashioned values of Tawny Pipit,
and welcome to the brave new world of men in white coats.
And the boffins came up with what appeared to be the perfect solution
to improving productivity.
There was a bright new future for Britain, not only for industry,
but also for the countryside,
and so in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, we sought to get rid of
inefficient farming methods and systems and replace them
with cutting-edge new technologies of the time.
And one of those technologies was the application of pesticides,
and the birth of what we now know as chemical farming.
So you suddenly have this interesting combination of a bunch of chemicals
that could kill pests
and a need to increase food production.
And, at face value, it must have seemed very straightforward.
You know, you get more of a crop
if you remove the weeds, because the crop gets all the food from the soil.
But these revolutionary new farming methods were having terrible effects
on our countryside birds. The two main problems
were the destruction of habitat and the widespread use of pesticides.
One, it was degrading the whole landscape.
A lot of the wild life depended on the wild plants,
the rough bits of the countryside, the wet bits and so on and so forth.
And if you've spent lots of time and effort wiping out
the so-called pests, when you kill the moths,
you kill the butterflies, and caterpillars,
then you remove that element of the food chain.
As a result, the populations of many farmland birds went into freefall.
Eventually, environmentalists woke up to what was happening,
and began to warn against the catastrophe of a silent spring.
But when it came to a choice between farming and birds,
there could only be one winner.
There was a kind of
illusion, I think, in government and actually in society more widely,
that what was good for agriculture was good for the countryside.
People believed that the countryside
was safe in the hands of farmers, but I think no one really had grasped
the fact that actually there was a difficult choice to be made between
maximising agricultural production and attempting to maintain
a kind of rich, diverse wildlife in the countryside.
One man who witnessed the calamity in the countryside at first hand was
the author Henry Williamson, whose books, including Tarka the Otter,
had made him a household name.
"After the Hitlerian war when I had sold my farm
"and returned to North Devon and my writing,
the general use of other sprays on arable and grasslands caused the deaths of great numbers of
birds including such predators as sparrowhawks, owls and buzzards.
Williamson, a farmer himself, recalled finding
a family of Grey Partridges, all poisoned by chemicals.
I came across the two birds crouched side-by-side in death
with their chicks slightly larger than humble bees
cold between the protecting feathers.
Even the largest and most powerful birds weren't immune to the effects
of what turned out to be a chemical time-bomb.
Birds of prey that struggled through the 19th century surviving
the persecution from gamekeepers to protect landowning interests,
had bounced back a little during both the World Wars when many of
the gamekeepers were posted overseas, were hit
tremendously hard by the chemical farming revolution of the 1960s.
The poison that we put onto the crops was concentrated up the food
chain in the bodies of smaller birds which were then taken as prey items
by birds of prey and they were producing infertile eggs or indeed
eggshells that were so thin they cracked under the incubating bird.
One species, the kestrel, did manage to escape the worst
effects of the chemical revolution.
But ironically, it did so by taking advantage
of a new habitat created by us.
So we went through a period where
the only place you saw kestrels, for instance,
was along the motorway verges.
Because they were long corridors that were
excused agricultural improvement, nobody was spraying the road verges.
So you hadn't got that kind of damage and the birds of prey that
survived were the ones that learned to feed along the roads
and you didn't see them over the fields.
But for some species, it was almost the end.
DDT, the main culprit amongst these agricultural chemicals, was finally
banned in 1984, more than 40 years after the destruction of our countryside and its birds had begun.
Since then, different groups of birds have experienced very different fortunes.
Birds of prey have been the fastest to make a comeback, not only because
of the banning of DDT, but also because in many parts of the country
they are no longer persecuted as ruthlessly as they were in the past.
Golden eagles, buzzards and red kites are now
a far more regular sight in our skies.
But the fate of many of our rural birds
could hardly be more different.
The continuing drive to make agriculture more productive
has been a disaster for birds that depend on farmland.
Many species continue to decline, and have vanished from their former haunts.
These dramatic changes have happened not over centuries,
but during our own brief lifetimes.
I can remember as a kid, as a teenager, you know, in the
'50s certainly, walking across what I wouldn't regard as anything
except just normal farmland and Lapwings coming up,
Skylarks were nesting there.
In winter there would be a wintering flock of maybe 100, 200 Yellowhammers
and a few other finches with them and Buntings and that sort of thing.
In other words, more birds.
There was absolutely no question about that whatsoever.
And I remember riding around the headlines of fields
and clouds of lapwings. I mean,
pretty much blacking out the sky rising up out of the newly-ploughed ground.
Add masses and masses of Skylarks, and masses and masses of Finches.
And that was only 45 years ago.
And when I see a Lapwing now, I take my hat off to it, you know, it feels like a rarity.
Although they are waders,
Lapwings spend much of their lives on farmland, wintering in large
flocks on open fields, and nesting on rough grassland.
Since 1960 their numbers have fallen by 80%.
For me, the fate of the Lapwing is a kind of personal tragedy.
It's almost autobiographical.
they sound fantastic, they remind me of my childhood, they remind me of
the landscape, they are somehow synonymous with a diverse landscape.
The loss of these familiar birds is a timely warning about the state
of the British countryside.
But its significance goes far deeper than that.
Their fate, and the fate of all our wildlife,
is inextricably linked with our own emotional and spiritual well-being.
Human beings have suddenly, in my lifetime, begun to understand
that the presence of a healthy community of animals and mammals
and birds and reptiles and insects
is absolutely of huge importance to the health of the human spirit.
And the landscape with diversity in it is central
to being a human being and I think
as we destroy other species, we destroy something about ourselves.
The loss of these birds matters because it is, in the end,
It happens quite gradually
so you don't notice it, like you don't notice your hair
going grey but it happens and when it's happened, you then notice it.
And if these birds were to vanish
altogether, our very concept of countryside would be under threat.
If birds went out of the countryside,
the sedges withered from the lake and no birds sing,
to bring John Keats back into this,
it would be
an emblem of a kind of nuclear, post-nuclear deadness.
If birds disappeared from the countryside,
it wouldn't mean the same, to call it the countryside.
It would be the non-urban spaces.
To live in a silent world would be...
a really dreadful thing, dreadful thing.
The story of our nation's relationship with birds
has been a long and eventful one,
a journey from exploitation, through appreciation, to delight.
For centuries, we regarded birds purely as objects
to be used for our benefit, for food and fuel, sport and recreation.
But gradually, over time, we came to value them, cherish them,
and finally to understand what they truly mean to us.
MUSIC: Variation IX (Adagio) "Nimrod" from Enigma Variations by Elgar
MUSIC INTERSPERSED WITH BIRDSONG
Subtitles by Red Bee Media
E-mail [email protected]
Countryside birds like the skylark, pheasant and nightingale are amongst the most iconic of all Britain's birds. For centuries, they have been celebrated in music and poetry, used to forecast the weather and hunted for food. They have not just shaped the British countryside, but also defined its nature.