Wednesday, 16 February 2011

On the edge

Flicking through the Sunday papers, I came across this review of Edgelands, a new book by poets Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley which looks at those scrappy, scratchy, scrubby places that divide town and country yet are neither one thing nor the other.

Minutes later, trawling the web (what an energetic life I lead), I discovered this new volume from Shearsman - The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry. From the accompanying blurb, I'd expect it to touch on at least some of the same territory.

Now coincidentally, the whole concept of 'edgelands' and marginal landscapes has been very much on my mind lately. I've just got back from a fairly brief trip to Extremadura, in Spain, for the launch of Swarovski's new EL50 binoculars, and as always on the Iberian peninsula, I was struck by two things.

One is the fact that many of those previously common bird species which are declining here are doing just fine over there. A good example is the Corn Bunting, now vanished from large swathes of the UK, but whose distinctive jangle was the soundtrack to almost every waking minute spent outside of the centre of Trujillo, where we stayed.

Number two was the 'messiness' of the landscape there, compared to the UK. It's beautiful, and there are plenty of areas that are unspoiled, as well as others such as the dehesa that are, although shaped by man, managed with the intention of maintaining some sort of natural balance.

But there are also plenty of patches that, were they in the UK, would immediately be tidied up or tamed, but which in Spain are simply left to grow wild. Weeds, wild flowers and scrub flourish, with the knock-on effect of providing seed and insect food for birds, as well as cover for nesting.

Back over here, on the other hand, roadside verges are being mown for no apparent reason, and hedges are being stripped so bare that there's no prospect of them being used by nesting birds this year. You'd think that, in these straitened times, councils and landowners would welcome the chance to cut back their maintenance budget and restrict work to those areas where it's absolutely necessary (at junctions, for traffic safety, for example). Apparently not. If it's not farmland, a park or a nature reserve, it has to be neatly manicured.

That has to be one of the major reasons for the decline of so many of our small birds (as well as larger species such as Lapwing). It's nothing to do with predators (the third thing you notice in Spain is the much greater density of raptors), but instead because by eliminating these marginal landscapes, these 'edgelands', we eliminate major sources of food and shelter for all sorts of birds. Instead of pursuing the absurd cull of corvids (and, potentially, raptors) being piloted by Songbird Survival, a body dominated by hunting interests, we should be looking at the root of the problem.

So, if either or both of these two books can do anything to change attitudes, that has to be a very good thing. The Shearsman anthology contains several names - Colin Simms, Elisabeth Bletsoe, Helen Macdonald, Mark Goodwin, Peter Riley and editor Harriet Tarlo - whose inclusion would make it a must for me anyway, but they both look worth a read. Might have to wait a while, though.


Caroline Gill said...

Both look interesting 'on the edge' volumes ... Thank you for pointing these out, Matt.

The Editors said...

Great post, Matt. Yes, the demonisation of raptors and corvids is abolsutely absurd and disgusting, an attempt, I feel, to try and alleviate our own human guilt in the quiet destruction of the habitats in which wildlife thrives. (Especially absurd, too, because I think - double check this for me, as you're the ornithologist - corvids technically count, biologically speaking, as songbirds.)

I'm looking forward to checking out both books when I get the chance, The Ground Aslant especially, as it's crammed with writers I admire and have learnt a great deal from.

Simon, Gists and Piths

Matt Merritt said...

Thanks Simon. I think you're right. It's got far more to do with our own guilt than anything else. Songbird Survival is backed mainly by shooting interest, but of course they also attract support from well-meaning garden birdwatchers and the like, who I suspect don't want to admit they might be part of the problem.

What always goes unmentioned by SS, of course, is that raptor and corvid numbers are only now returning to natural levels after centuries of persecution. They also conveniently forget that many of the most regular prey species for raptors and corvids, such as Blackbirds, aren't declining at all. Quite the opposite.

Interesting point about songbirds. Sometimes it seems to get defined quite narrowly, but in other places it's used to encompass all passerines.