What do voles, beetles, mussels, trout and the golden plover have in common? Believe it or not, they have all been used as excuses by the Environment Agency not to improve flood defences.
Travelling around the worst of the flooded areas last week, I met family after family who said their local rivers had been left to clog with debris — and always because of some critter or other. Somerset farmer David Gillard, for example, repeatedly begged the Environment Agency to dredge the River Parrett, which runs near his sheep farm just outside Burrowbridge. And last summer they did come and give it a go. But while they were at it they found a vole, so of course they packed up and left. The farm is now flooded.
And what are we to make of this letter from the Environment Agency to Robin Haigh, a landowner in Chertsey, which he received after his house had been surrounded by flood waters? ‘Dear resident, I am writing to let you know about a new initiative to improve the river habitat for wildlife in your area. The Environment Agency are working in partnership with the Wild Trout Trust and local landowners on a project that will breathe new life into the Abbey River which our records show passes close to your property. The project will bring considerable benefit to wildlife in the area encouraging more fish, birds and other water-dependent species to use the river as its ecological value grows…’
The letter was sent on 28 January, after major flooding. Last week, as the flood waters rose dangerously again and the area was in a state of full emergency, EA staff came out to visit. They met Mr Haigh’s wife, Mary, who told them, ‘Well, I expect you won’t be going ahead with that trout project now, will you?’ Au contraire, the EA people told her. The project was very much going ahead. They will be moving a sluice and creating a riffle.
Mr Haigh says the effect of this will be to dam up the water near his home and cause even worse flooding. ‘They’re morons! They’re cretins!’ said Mr Haigh, who has himself worked in conservation.
The river Thames, meanwhile, was left undredged to prevent the disturbance of a rare mollusc called the depressed river mussel. Seriously, this is not funny. It would only be funny if it were not happening. But it is. The species known as the depressed taxpayer doesn’t seem to be on any priority list.
In Somerset, the environmentalists have provided a really super habitat for birds. A few miles from flooded Burrowbridge is the RSPB sanctuary at Greylake, where the golden plover occasionally drops in for the winter season, along with many other interesting winged species — dunlins, ruffs, black-tailed godwits. Farmers in Somerset have been encouraged by the EA and the EU (hard to know which is worse) to leave their fields fallow to create wetlands like this. And if all you wanted Somerset to do was to make birds happy, then truly the strategy is a huge success — but what about the people?
We shouldn’t just single out the EA. The same perverse instinct is at play in local government. I once rang my local authority, Lambeth, to complain about foxes ripping bins apart and was sent a leaflet instructing me on how I should feed and care for them and generally turn my back garden into a place they would feel at home. They particularly like chicken, apparently.
The liberal chattering classes lap this stuff up. Walking my dog in Balham, I moaned to a neighbour about the lack of fox controls and she said: ‘Yes, but they were here first, weren’t they? I mean, we’re the imposters.’
‘Seriously,’ I said, ‘even if it were true that foxes are the indigenous inhabitants of south-west London, you’re telling me you want to move out of your million-pound house, and see the rest of civilisation as we know it vacate the metropolis in order to make way for vermin?’
‘They’re not vermin,’ she said. ‘They’re wild animals and this is their home.’
I told her I thought a tragedy was waiting to happen, as foxes had attacked babies in their cots. ‘Well, fancy leaving a baby in a dirty nappy near an open window,’ she said. ‘What sort of people are they?’
Clearly, she had been drinking the conservationist Kool-Aid. The conservationists on the Kool-Aid are different from your common or garden conservationists, the sort who like watching programmes with Bill Oddie and are pretty harmless. The Kool-Aid conservationists will not confront the truth about nature — that it is not very nice and, left unchecked, produces anarchy. They think nature is benevolent and wise. They say things like ‘nature knows best’.
Taken to the extreme, this attitude leads to the bizarre re-wilding project that was undertaken in Holland some years ago with horrific results. In an extraordinary experiment, 15,000 acres of reclaimed land 25 miles east of Amsterdam was turned into a ‘nature reserve’ called Oostvaardersplassen. The area saw no culling or wildlife management or human interference of any sort. Everything was left to live a ‘natural’ existence and fend for itself. The result was that only the birds flourished, because they could fly away to find more food during the harsh winter months. The herd animals like deer and horses within the enclosure starved or were savaged by predators.
Every winter, commuters into Amsterdam got to witness emaciated deer, cattle and horses packed against the perimeter fence in the desperate search for food, while foxes and corvids picked over the bones of the fallen.
No one is openly attempting a re-wilding project here — although George Monbiot speaks favourably of the idea and has published a manifesto to ‘re-wild the world’ — but in a way, a re-wilding of sorts has happened in Somerset and other flooded areas.As the birds have enjoyed the best of the wetlands, then flown away, the people have been trapped in an area where they can no longer thrive or make a living. And so the world watches as the human animals of the plains struggle in a desperate battle for survival.
You can just hear the voiceover by David Attenborough. I’m sure it will make a terrific Life on Earth special one day.