What is the correct expression to wear, I wonder, when you’ve just caught a squirrel in your squirrel trap? Guilt? Pain? Sorrow? Fear at the possibility of a 3 a.m. knock at the door from the boot boys of the RSPCA?
The expression you definitely shouldn’t wear, apparently, is one suggestive that you might have taken any pleasure in poor, sweet, bushy-tailed Mr Nutkin’s death. This was the mistake made by Defra secretary of state Owen ‘Butcher’ Paterson, who was revealed over the weekend to have upset visiting Tory colleagues by showing pictures of himself cheerfully posing with the decapitated victims of his Kania 2000 squirrel traps.
‘I’m not sure what was more shocking — the dead squirrels or the smile on Owen’s face,’ a ‘Conservative who has seen the picture’ was quoted as saying.
A Conservative? Really? Things are even worse than I thought. Tories are traditionally supposed to be the party of the shires, of bloody roast beef, of nature red in tooth and claw. If it’s no longer acceptable even among this constituency to take righteous pleasure in the death of the verminous foreign invader which has been buggering up your trees, then truly the ravens have flown the Tower, Helm’s Deep has fallen and we might as well down the hemlock now.
Since moving to the country six months ago, I’ve got a lot more hardline on this issue. You can’t live in close proximity to nature without realising very quickly how callous it is, how utterly remote from the anthropo-morphised parody thereof we get served up by BBC wildlife show presenters and RSPCA campaigners.
Take the lambs now frolicking and gambolling in the fields all around me. I love them: every day, on my morning walks with Daisy the spaniel, they gladden my heart. Sometimes you see ones which have just been born, still trailing their umbilical cord (‘Daisy: Leave!’) and clinging desperately to their mothers. But the older ones — veteran survivors of Sheep Stalingrad a few weeks back — are now starting to gain in confidence and hang out in packs, like teenagers in an urban mall.
This is the sanitised version of country life you see if you’ve only come for the weekend. Linger a little longer, though, and you start to glimpse the skull beneath the skin. For example, those darling little lambies you sometimes see, bleating on one side of the fence because they’ve somehow been separated from their mother baa-ing to them on the other: they’re probably going to be dead within a few hours.
I learned this the other day when Daisy found something under the tree in our garden — a very sick and weak-looking lamb. Naturally I did what townie incomers do in these situations: I tenderly picked it up, murmuring words of comfort, and carried it to the warmth of the kitchen, from where I would ring up the farmer to come and collect it.
Almost as soon as I’d lifted it, the lamb started shitting on me. Liquid shit that stank more than lamb shit has any right to stink. It saturated my coat (which I’d only just had dry-cleaned after a previous lamb-rescuing incident, this time involving one which had had its ear half torn off by a fox as it bleated pitifully by the bodies of its dead mother and its half-eaten sibling) and penetrated my skin. But still I felt good about the enterprise: ‘Lucky’, the fox-gnawed orphan we’d rescued, had survived, and as a reward, nice Judy, the wise farmer down the road, had given us a lovely leg of lamb for Easter.
Anyway, hours later, the farmer came and told me what the problem was. A lamb needs its mother’s milk at least once every four hours. This one had grown so ravenous it had tried eating hay, with disastrous consequences for its digestive system. The farmer was very friendly, and apparently grateful for the call, but the way he was holding the ailing lamb as he told me all this suggested his heart wasn’t really in it. ‘Um, you’re, er, letting his head flop a bit,’ I pointed out. ‘Oh yes, sorry,’ he said, making a show of cradling the lamb’s neck.
Of course the lamb died not long afterwards, as the farmer must have guessed it would. It wasn’t that he didn’t ‘care’. More that, as they say in the country, ‘Livestock means deadstock’. A young lamb is worth around a fiver, less than the cost of the antibiotics and the milk and heating you need to bring it back from the dead. So you can see why, if you’re in the business of sheep farming, you can’t afford to get too sentimental.
Obviously Owen Paterson can’t express this point himself, but being as he has lived in the sticks way longer than I have, I feel I can say it on his behalf. ‘Bugger off, townies! You don’t understand our country ways.’
Did you mean me, Martin?
In his column the other day, my fine friend Martin Vander Weyer had a dig at people who are ‘goldbugs’ and bang on about climate change and the EU. Since I belong to all three categories, I hope he’ll forgive me for noting a certain intellectual inconsistency in his position — especially given that in the same Spectator issue he had written a learned double-page spread on Britain’s economically suicidal energy policy.
Had Martin managed to overcome his lofty indifference to the tedious climate change issue, it might have occurred to him that the reason some of us have been so obsessed with it these last few years is precisely because of the disastrous effects its misleading junk science has wrought on the economy in general and on energy policy in particular.
Oh, and he couldn’t be more wrong about gold either. Simple question: why do you think there’s such a growing discrepancy between the price of bullion and of the exchange-traded funds that own it?