‘Like many things, we have gone a bit too far’
Dr Mark Avery’s new nature book starts from his own doorstep in Raunds and widens into a clarion call about wildlife decline in the UK
By Sarah Ward
Writer and conservationist Mark Avery begins his new book Reflections on his own doorstep in Raunds.
He describes how after making his first 6am pot of tea, on three regular mornings a week he goes outside to collect the milk and has a look at his surroundings. In Spring he looks down to find plant Herb-Robert going from a crack where his wall meets the pavement.
“It’s a pretty pink plant. I look at it - no, one has planted it there. It’s found a little crack that it can germinate in - that’s what wildlife needs. It needs the chance to develop in places.
“In the first section of the book I go for a walk round Raunds. So I mention going past the chapel and past the fish and chip shop and back along the road where I live and I don't find any other Herb-Robert and I go, ‘I’m really proud - people could address letters to my house - going the Herb Robert House in Lawson Street and I’m really pleased.
“But other houses in my street - if you look along what’s growing just on the pavement - each house has a different mixture and it’s just chance to see what's there.”
In the first chapter he also describes going to Glapthorn Cow Pasture near Oundle, to hear the Nightingales.
“I’ve been going there for more than 30 years, every spring, to hear the Nightingales in late April, early May. I went there with my parents, with my kids when they were little and I was looking forward to taking my grandson who is two-and-a-half to listen to the Nightingales, but they haven't been there the last few years.
“This has been a thing in our family - every year we have gone and listened to the Nightingales and now that link is broken. Nightingales are declining and this is a thing that will happen more and more.”
His book, to give it its full title Reflections - What wildlife need and how to provide it, takes a look at what is happening in conservation today and exploring what is wrong, what’s going well and makes the pitch that conservation measures must be rolled out on a bigger scale and how every nature lover can play their part.
Published this week, Reflections (his ninth book) has already garnered a number of highly complimentary reviews from leading conservation figures in the UK.
Broadcaster Chris Packham (more on him later) says ‘if I were king for a day, Avery would be installed as the benign dictator of conservation in the UK. If you love wildlife, read this, think about this and act on this.’
And author of Who Owns England Guy Shrubsole gives the book high praise calling it a work of ‘distilled campaigning wisdom’ and commends its ‘strikingly radical set of proposals for how to turn around the decline of wildlife in these isles.’
Mark grew up in Somerset, but after reading natural sciences at Cambridge and then onto a research post at Oxford university, he met his wife Rosemary, who worked as the Northants farming and wildlife advisor. After living in Banbury, they decided to move to Raunds in the mid 1980s - as by then he was working at the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) in Bedfordshire and his wife had to be in Northamptonshire for work. They’ve lived there ever since.
He went on to become the RSPB’s conservation director, a role he had for 13 years before leaving in 2011.
Since then he has been a freelance writer and an environmental campaigner - founding Wild Justice a few years ago with friends conservationist Dr Ruth Tingay and Chis Packham.
“Wild Justice takes legal cases on behalf of wildlife against government and government agencies. We are very middle class troublemakers really. We are using the law to get a better deal for wildlife. Some cases we win and some cases we lose.
“You have to find something where it is arguable about whether the government has made an unlawful decision.”
As one of the country’s most senior figures, his views are taken very seriously and his passion for it shines through in our chat. When I ask what is behind the demise of the county’s wildlife (sorry I grew up in a new town), he points to intensive agriculture and climate change.
“I don’t think farmers are completely innocent,” he says.
“It is fashionable just to blame government policy - in fact it is fashionable to blame EU (European Union) policy. It is definitely not down to EU policy because the way we in the UK implemented the overall Eu policy was down to us. So it was the UK governments and their policies. I have relatives who are farmers and my wife is a farmer’s daughter, but some farmers don’t give a toss about wildlife and others are very keen on it.
“One of the things that is very obvious is a decrease in insects. Most people are not that fussed about insects. They are quite interested in butterflies and might be interested in bees, but everything else is just a big, or fly or something that bites you. But those are pollinators and they are food for birds, bats and a whole load of insectivorous mammals. So that is a big thing.
“We use insecticides in fields and herbicides - we simplified the countryside really. If you wander into a field of wheat you won’t find many insects in there - probably aphids, that are pests of the wheat.
“You won’t find many other plants which are flowering. If you looked around you would go, that massive field - which also used to have half a dozen hedges in it in the old days - that’s not producing much food for the rest of wildlife. It is producing food for us.
“But like many things we have gone a bit too far. From the 70s and 80s there were really big declines in farmland birds - things like skylarks, tree sparrows, corn buntings, lapwings. I was at uni and dead keen on birds and so I saw it happening.”
If you want to find out more about what Mark thinks about how our indigenous wildlife can be saved, then you can buy his book here
Yo can also find our more about Wild Justice here