History & Culture

Season of the fruits and falling leaves

Autumn Apples at Highland Farm, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

With the arrival of September, Autumn begins here in our pleasant verdant valley. Autumn, a season at once bringing the farming year towards its close with luscious fruits, the emptiness of fields, the sadness of decaying blooms, the first cold mornings and the fall of golden leaves. A “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” as Keats put it in his poem ‘To Autumn’.

While the names of months and days are capitalised in good English, the names of the seasons are considered generic nouns, so they are usually written with the initial letter in lower case. However, where a writer or poet like Keats chooses to personify a season by giving it a particular personality, the name of the season becomes a character’s name, a proper noun, so it is capitalised. But such is the influence of these seasonal characters upon our countryside, and so profound is the effect of the imposition of their individual temperaments upon our own lives, that we believe their personalities should be acknowledged every bit as much as the months and days; perhaps more so. Hence, throughout this piece (and in many of BridgeNature.org’s articles) the names of the seasons have been capitalised.

Today we recognise four seasons, but it has not always been so: while Summer and Winter have been accepted as distinct seasons for over a thousand years, it was not generally considered that there were two other seasons in our year until around the 16th century. In this country, up until that time, the late Summer period before Winter set in was simply known as ‘Harvest’, derived from the old Norse word ‘haust’ meaning ‘to gather or pluck’. During the industrial revolution, as more and more people moved from the English countryside to the new cities, the term lost its seasonal connotations and became just a word to describe the distant countryside activities of reaping and gathering of crops out in the fields.

Although Chaucer used the name Autumn (derived from Latin) in his writings in the 14th century, it was not until the 16th century that the word became widely used to describe the third season of the year. ‘Fall of Leaf’ became another popular, and more descriptive way to describe it too, and similarly ‘Spring of the Leaf’ acquired usage as a term for the beginning of Summer. Over the years they were reduced to the shortened forms of Fall and Spring respectively, and when the hordes of migrants travelled from these shores to the new continents of America and Australia they took those names with them. In Britain, for reasons unknown, Autumn remained more widely used than Fall; and it still is, much to the disappointment of Fowlers, the guardians of proper English, who prefer the more picturesque ‘fall’ (with a lower case f).

Fall of Leaf is surely the more poetic of the English names for the third season of the year; but in that name, and Autumn too, there is a sense of melancholy and ending, which conveys none of the joy, relief and satisfaction of the harvest: traditionally a happy time of year with feasting, singing and celebration when the work was done.

Hawthorn and hedgerow

Hawthorn hedgerow, The Butts. Sept. 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

For many months of the year the Hawthorn is a rather anonymous and unappreciated prickly little bush hidden in the hedgerow; but in May, white flowers lie like an errant scattering of snow upon the tree, and the occasional delight of candy-pink blossoms cannot go unnoticed. From late August into September the Hawthorn shows off again with an abundance of little fruits which glisten like crimson jewels upon its branches.

Some Hawthorns blossom with candy-pink flowers. This one is in Bishopsbourne. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Today these rugged little trees, more correctly shrubs, are ubiquitous in the rural landscape, particularly in chalk districts, because they make ideal hedging plants on even the poorest land. In fact the very name ‘Haw’ derived from the Old English ‘Haga’ which meant hedge, and hedging to protect and confine livestock has been going on since ancient times. The Romans and Anglo Saxons liked to enclose their farmland in this way, but much of the English landscape remained fence and hedge free until the ‘inclosures’ {sec}, a set of parliamentary acts introduced over the years between 1604 and 1914, which allowed landowners to enclose millions of acres of land that, up until then, had been open and freely accessible to local people. Today it is hard to imagine a landscape devoid of hedges and fences, but, up until the turn of the 17th century, that is exactly how much of the English countryside appeared. As the Inclosure Acts came into force, millions of Hawthorn saplings, along with other prickly shrubs such as blackthorn, were reared to provide sturdy, protective hedging around the land seized by the gentry. The acts, and we must assume the Hawthorn hedges too, were hated by ordinary rural folk who lost their farms, the right to graze animals on the land, and even the right to walk over huge tracts of the British countryside.

The fruits of the Hawthorn are ‘pomes’ (like plums), not berries. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

However, historically the Hawthorn was valued by common folk for other purposes. The leaves and flowers can be eaten, and the fruits, called ‘Haws’, which are not berries but stone bearing ‘pomes’ like plums and apricots, have been used to make conserves and wine. Furthermore, the Hawthorn tree has a long history of medicinal uses: preparations made from the Midland Hawthorn have been used in traditional medicine to treat heart disorders, and some very modern scientific studies have indicated that such remedies may indeed have valid properties in the treatment of cardiovascular disease. How apt then, that in Celtic folklore, the Hawthorn is said to heal a broken heart.

Ironically, in these days of declining countryside and wildlife, our hedgerows are valued and protected for the wildlife habitat they provide, and the ordinary folk of Britain campaign to keep them intact. In this new struggle over the landscape perhaps we should remember another of the rugged, stubborn little Hawthorn’s ancient symbolic meanings: as a symbol of hope.

BridgeNature.org does not advocate or condone the foraging of hedgerow plants and fruits.

Beauty confined

Goldfinch, Ford Close, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

We think the caged birds sing, when indeed they cry.”
John Webster

Although Goldfinches are quite rare in other parts of the country, they can be seen frequently in and around the village of Bridge, which is why one of these birds features in the logo of BridgeNature.org. Today we enjoy seeing them flying in family flocks out in the wild where they belong, but if ever we need a symbol of mankind’s yearning to possess that which has a right to be free, there is none better than the Goldfinch. Sadly its striking appearance and uniqueness have been its downfall: throughout history it has been treasured for its beauty and its song, and we know that in pursuit of treasure mankind is often at its most ruthless. Historically Goldfinches have been captured and caged in large numbers.

The poet and hymn writer William Cowper, who owned two caged Goldfinches which had been bred from captured wild birds, wrote of them thus:

“They sang as blithe as finches sing
That flutter loose on golden wing,
And frolic where they list;
Strangers to liberty, ’tis true,
But that delight they never knew,
And therefore never missed.” (1)

His verse demonstrates an attitude that still persists today: “If all an animal knows is cruelty, then you are quite justified in continuing to be cruel to it, because it doesn’t know any different”. This is an expedient excuse in defence of an irresponsible attitude. Of course the morality of what we do should be judged on what we know, not what we think our helpless victims know. That excuse was expressed here, ironically, by an intelligent, sensitive man who became a passionate advocate in the movements to end the human slave trade and cruelty to animals. How to tread the difficult moral ground of what constitutes cruelty is something William Cowper pondered a great deal; but it perhaps sums up the confusion and conflicting values of his time to note that he wrote some very thoughtful letters and poems reflecting on the plight of his imprisoned Goldfinches, and even put them in the same cage so that they would have company, yet he continued to keep them in captivity for the sake of his own entertainment (2).

By the later half of the 19th century the fashion for owning a caged bird, particularly a Goldfinch, reached a peak and thousands of wild birds were trapped annually. One common method of capture was to spread a glue called ‘birdlime’ onto branches near a food source. Birds would seek out the food and land in the glue.

Towards the end of that same century, ending these callous practices against Goldfinches became a primary objective of a newly formed group called The Society for the Protection of Birds, and their campaigns inspired the ‘Protection of Birds Act 1872’, the first law which imposed some concept of protection for wild birds upon an ignorant, disinterested British population. The group was later given a royal charter and became the RSPB as we still know it today.

Despite greater awareness of the issues in modern times, owning a caged bird, particularly a budgerigar, was still a very popular practice in 1960s Britain, almost a hundred years later. Today attitudes are much changed, but, astonishingly, it still goes on and the breeding and exporting of caged finches, including Goldfinches, is still perfectly legal. Capturing and selling wild birds is illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, but that still goes on too. Birdlime is still openly used to trap wild birds in Spain, despite EU efforts to ban it.

(1) William Cowper, ‘The faithful Bird’.
(2) Refers to: William Cowper, Letter to the Rev. William Lunwin. 1783.


Grass darts and summer holidays

A field of False Barley, Patrixbourne Road. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

And so the great school summer holiday begins. Those who venture out into the fields this month can encounter a plant which, for many older ramblers, will bring back fond memories of dallying childhood walks and endless summer holidays spent playing in the countryside. The plant is a particular form of grass which somebody (we suspect a long, long time ago) once discovered could be thrown like a dart and it would stick to clothing, particularly woolen jumpers and cardigans, which were the popular children’s fashions for those of us of a certain generation. Popular too were the outdoor adventure stories of ‘The Famous Five’ and ‘The Swallows and Amazons’: summer holiday inspiration in those days before computer games, iPhones and a general 21st century disdain for fresh air and the countryside.

False Barley: otherwise known as Dart Grass. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

The grass in question was False Barley or Wall Barley (Hordeum murinum or variant subspecies) though no one knew it at the time. To the youngsters of those days it was just ‘Dart Grass’ and it was as familiar as brambles, stinging nettles and sticking catchweed (cleavers) which would also cling to clothing. While remembered fondly, Dart Grass is generally regarded by adults as just another weed, but it has a valid place in the wild countryside and can be a significant plant in grazing pasture, although, if left to go to seed, it can be injurious to sheep and sheepdogs. Variants of this grass are often grown as forage for animals in different regions around the world, and in China a similar subspecies is cultivated for human consumption. One wonders if generations of Chinese children have also played grass darts on the walk home from school.

The Common Oat, too base for Rome

Oats growing in the Bridge area, 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

This year several of the arable fields around Bridge, Bishopsbourne and Pett Bottom have been planted with Oats, which have grown rapidly over the last month or so and are now turning colour from green to the golden hue of the harvest.

While barley, wheat and rye can sometimes be difficult to differentiate in the field, the Oat plant has a very distinctive shape known as a ‘panicle’, it presents as an array of flower heads hanging on delicate branches coming from a single stem. The flower heads or ‘spikelets’ hanging from it may number fifty or so and are formed of a husk, shaped like an upturned V, with two or three seeds or ‘groats’ held underneath.

Oat spikelet showing the V shaped floret husk and groats within. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

The outer casings of these groats (without the V shaped husk) are known as ‘oat bran’: they are removed, ground up and used as a valued food ingredient. What remains of the groats is crushed or rolled, and referred to as ‘oatmeal’. While this is well known as the main ingredient of porridge (a dish first described by the Ancient Greeks), only about 5% of oats are grown for human consumption. Most are grown as an animal feed and feed additive, particularly for chickens, cattle and horses, and it was as animal fodder that Oats were first introduced to Britain by the conquering Romans who, apparently, regarded the plant as unfit for human consumption. This, much to the amusement of the Scots, who adopted the Oat for their porridge and, even today, like to remind us that those Roman fussy eaters never successfully invaded Scotland.

The oat panicle. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Unlike barley, which demands hot weather, Oats prefer a cooler, wetter climate. In long periods of hot sun the plants will go dormant, so early planting and milder summers with spells of rain are beneficial. This is one reason why Oats became a traditional and popular crop in Scotland and the rest of Northern Europe, but they have been less commonly grown in Africa and India, although new Oat varieties are now being developed to grow in these regions.



For a life less cruel

Fox. East Kent. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017

The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered.
Genesis, ix 2-3. King James Bible.

Prime Minister Theresa May recently stated “personally I’ve always been in favour of fox hunting” (1) and, in an effort to repeal the current ban on hunting, her 2017 Conservative manifesto promised a free vote on the issue. We can today confirm that, following Mrs May’s disastrous election campaign, the plan to revive fox hunting has now been dropped, but why was it proposed in the first place?

The fact that an intelligent, well educated vicar’s daughter, now Prime Minister, admires the repulsive and barbaric ‘sport’ of fox hunting should come as a shock to all decent Britons living in the 21st century, but it doesn’t. Such has been the ambivalence of the Christian church towards cruelty to animals over centuries, and the political dominance of the landed gentry over generation after generation, that in fact the opposite is true: this wanton cruelty to wild animals is considered by the higher echelons of the British establishment to be a wholesome tradition within our national culture, one to be glorified and nurtured, not a vile and despicable wildlife crime which must be eradicated.

That foxes can do damage to livestock is not in dispute, although that nuisance is often exaggerated beyond the hard facts and what could be prevented by responsible measures of livestock protection. Nevertheless, there are valid reasons why the fox and other nuisance creatures may need to be controlled, but why should this control take the form of an amusement, a country ‘sport’?

The truth is, that killing wild animals has always been a sport, with roots embedded in the male bonding exercise of hunting for food; but the advent and dominance of farming, even well before Roman times, created a stable and readily available food supply without the need for hunting wild animals in Britain. Hunting increasingly became a practice for the would-be warrior, or a sporting pastime for the rich, sometimes with a prize of luxury meats like boar and venison (deer were often carefully fenced in so as to be easy to hunt). But often the sport of hunting needed an excuse to justify itself, and animals which threatened farming, or offered particular challenges in the chase, became the obvious ‘game’: targets for well fed people in search of amusement. Instead of supplying food, hunters envisioned themselves as the protectors of the farm, and, in heroically going out to slay the local ‘vermin’, they reasserted themselves as masters of the wild landscape and all that dwell therein.

No real animal threats to human or farm safety remain now in the British countryside, just a few wild boar, some deer, rabbits, hares and foxes; but many would kill them for the fun of it. For those of a vulgar, bullying mind, killing is the very affirmation of superiority, the irrefutable statement of that absolute supremacy of man over beast proclaimed in the Old Testament. Take that notion from our minds and human kind has some very different moral dilemmas to consider. It speaks volumes that the King James Bible has no answers to issues of animal cruelty: its much praised prose doesn’t even manage to ask the questions, perhaps because the issues can’t be resolved by sacrificing a goat. The Britain of the future needs scientific understanding and compassionate thinking, not obedience to discredited, outdated religious dogma sponsored by a king with a passion for torturing women.

With her failure to gain a majority in the general election and the subsequent collapse of her political authority, Prime Minister May’s support for blood sports now looks sickly ironic: she is the huntress become prey, while her former colleagues circle round her taking tactical positions like predators on the prowl. Clearly some of them are enjoying the sport. In her struggle to survive she has appointed Michael Gove as her new Environment Minister but, astonishingly, the appointment has only induced more contempt. Mr Gove is a man, according to Caroline Lucas MP of the Green Party “who is uniquely unqualified for the job” (2). iNews reports that he has previously voted against emissions targets, voted in favour of selling off our forests, voted in favour of fracking, and voted in favour of reducing building restrictions near environmentally sensitive areas (3). He supports badger culls (3) and fox hunting (4). However, in his role as Education Secretary, he sent thousands of copies of the King James Bible to schools across Britain. What can his message be?

We don’t know how long Mrs May will survive as Prime Minister, but in her preference for cruelty to wildlife over reasoned compassion, and her apparent support for archaic faith over scientific fact she represents an outdated vision of our environment which has no place in modern Britain. When her once trusted colleagues finally dispatch her from her post, we wish her a long and healthy retirement with time to contemplate and perhaps begin the search for a different set of values in a life less cruel.

(1) Interviewed by The Independent, Tues 9 May 2017
(2) Interviewed by Sky News, Mon 12 June 2017
(4) http://www.getsurrey.co.uk/news/surrey-news/fox-hunting-surreys-mps-stand-9661746



Sustainable Development: a dream betrayed?

What makes development sustainable? Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

In recent years anyone reading a local authority Local Plan or perusing a property developer’s brochure will have come across the term ‘sustainable development’. It’s a popular term at all levels of government and it is ubiquitous in modern planning documents, but what exactly does it mean?

Back in 1970, while Simon & Garfunkle were singing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, a group of MIT scientists working for a think tank called ‘The Club of Rome’ were studying a computer simulation which predicted that our world was developing too fast and our natural resources could not support the current rate of industrial production and growth beyond the later 21st century. They concluded that we needed a new global economic system which provided for the needs of everyone while remaining sustainable into the future. They called their report ‘The Limits to Growth’: it was seminal and it influenced minds across the world.

Two years later in 1972, Stockholm hosted the ‘United Nations Conference on the Human Environment’ which declared 26 principles for a sustainable global future. These are the first 10:

1. Human rights must be asserted, apartheid and colonialism condemned
2. Natural resources must be safeguarded
3. The Earth’s capacity to produce renewable resources must be maintained
4. Wildlife must be safeguarded
5. Non-renewable resources must be shared and not exhausted
6. Pollution must not exceed the environment’s capacity to clean itself
7. Damaging oceanic pollution must be prevented
8. Development is needed to improve the environment
9. Developing countries therefore need assistance
10. Developing countries need reasonable prices for exports to carry out environmental management

A new concept ‘Environmentalism’ hit the headlines, but, as anyone who lived through the 1970s and 80s will know, in those decades environmentalism was not taken very seriously in the developed west. Nevertheless, by 1987 the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development had released a report called ‘Our Common Future’, or ‘The Brundtland Report’, which brought into clear focus the idea that development and environmental conservation must work together if the world community was to have a sustainable future. To that end it introduced the concept of ‘sustainable development’.

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:
The concept of ‘needs’, in particular, the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
The idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs”

The idea drew support, and in 1992 the United Nations held a Conference on Environment and Development, known as the ‘Earth Summit’, in Rio de Janeiro. At this conference 128 participating countries, including the United Kingdom, agreed on a new global plan for sustainable development into the 21st century, it was called ‘Agenda 21’.

“Agenda 21 addresses the development of societies and economies by focusing on the conservation and preservation of our environments and natural resources”(2).

Agenda 21 is ambitious: it is a revolutionary new concept in global politics: a world of united nations working together with a plan to end poverty and improve health (particularly in poor countries), to enhance the lives of women and children, to control population expansion, to change consumption patterns, to conserve natural resources, to clean up pollution, to limit deforestation and to conserve biodiversity right across the world. All this within a framework which encourages economic growth for all the nations involved and financial prosperity and social inclusion for all of their inhabitants. A noble initiative indeed, but its critics say it’s not so much a plan as an unachievable fantasy.

In Britain in June 2000, The Sustainable Development Commission was set up to “hold government to account to ensure the needs of society, the economy and the environment were properly balanced in the decisions it made and the way it ran itself”(3). It was shut down by the coalition government in 2011.

The new National Planning Policy Framework, which dictates the planning rules for Britain, was published in 2012 with its much quoted mantra:

“At the heart of the National Planning Policy Framework is a presumption in favour of sustainable development, which should be seen as a golden thread running through both plan-making and decision-taking” (4).

It is a policy for building development. Yet each time we see this golden thread twisted into the context of a new planning proposal on our diminishing British farmland, we need to follow it back to its origin and ask ourselves: is the term ‘sustainable development’ really being used to describe a proposal which will help to end world poverty, to conserve natural resources, to preserve biodiversity, to change consumer consumption patterns? Or is it just being misused as a meaningless catch-phrase to justify a new housing proposal here in the affluent west?

(1) United Nations: www.un-documents.net/ocf-02.htm
(2) www.sustainable-environment.org.uk/Action/Agenda_21.php
(3) www.sd-commission.org.uk/pages/what-is-sustainable-development.html
(4) NPPF 2012, Para 14.

A journey on the Mayflower

Common Hawthorns in bloom, Bridge Meadows, May. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

The Hawthorn tree is one of our more familiar hedgerow trees, but we also see it growing locally alone in a field or on a riverbank, and when we do we can recognise it by its rugged, stunted shape and resilient attitude, its thorns, its bright red autumn berries and its white, or sometimes pink, spring blossom.

Common Hawthorn in flower, Bridge, May. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Those we see in the fields around Bridge are more generally the Common Hawthorn, but there is another less ubiquitous variety, the Midland Hawthorn, which is the true English species of this tree. I have been on a quest to find an example of it in our local area for about five years now, but, throughout that time, my search has been hampered by one small technical problem: I didn’t really know what made it discernibly different. Tree guides waffle on confusingly about leaf shape: the Midland’s leaves are less deeply cut than the Common, the Midland’s lobes are more forward pointing; but try looking at the leaves on just one Common Hawthorn and they are so variable throughout the tree that one could be looking at either species.

However, armed with a new differentiation strategy I have now identified one Midland Hawthorn(1) in a local meadow. From a distance of about three feet the tree is virtually impossible to tell apart from the Common Hawthorns in the same hedgerow, but get up close, examine a flower and the difference becomes apparent. Common Hawthorn has just one green style amidst the stamens in its flower, while Midland Hawthorn has two, or possibly three. On examination the leaf shape of this tree is as described in the tree guides, but it would be very difficult to identify the tree on that basis alone.

Midland Hawthorn flowers, Bridge Meadows, on an evening in May. Note the two green styles at the centre of the flower. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

So, to my great delight, after years searching, I have found my Midland Hawthorn, right here in a meadow behind my home. Why does it matter? Those who have to ask may never understand, but for the amateur naturalist such quests are the learning journeys which make life and the natural world that little bit more interesting. Furthermore, the Midland Hawthorn is hugely significant in our history: its flower is the Mayflower, for centuries the very emblem of May in rural England. It symbolises hope and new beginning. In the superstitious times of the 17th century, many ships were called Mayflower, but it turned out to be a wonderfully apt name for a little ship sailing out into the New World in 1620 with a group of pilgrims on their own journey of hope, personal development and new beginning.

(1) As with many trees, Midland and Common Hawthorns do hybridise, so this may not strictly be a genetically pure example of the Midland species.


In praise of olden Alder

Alder, Bridge Pond, spring 2016. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

Stand for a moment in the spring sunlight at the edge of our pond off Brewery Lane in Bridge and your attention may be drawn to a beautiful golden catkin laden tree leaning slightly over the water from the garden of Little Bridge Place. This is a Common (Black) Alder tree; perhaps one of the more forgotten native trees of our western heritage. Besides the Common Alder there are about 30 other species in the family including the Grey Alder, Green Alder and Italian Alder; some of which can often be seen in woodland today.

In olden times the Alder was valued not for its beauty, but because of a unique property in its timber: it remains immensely strong and rot free if placed in water or wet mud. This made it the primary choice for building wooden jetties, bridges and river bank supports and pilings when building on marshy ground. In fact much of Venice was built on Alder posts set into the mud beneath the Venetian lagoon. We don’t build with wooden supports so much these days, but Alders are still a popular choice for riverside conservation projects. Where riverbank stabilisation is required, Alders are ideal because they flourish in damp ground; in areas of land reclamation they can help to fix nitrogen into the soil; in farm hedgerows they provide good wildlife habitat.

With catkins and the hardened remains of last year’s cone-like fruits hanging from its branches, this can only be an Alder. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

Like the hazel the Alder bears male flowers on dangling yellow catkins which pollinate by the action of the wind. The two trees can appear similar, but they differ in that the female flower on the hazel is like a little flowering bud which produces a hazelnut, while the female flower on the Alder is like a tiny catkin which produces a fruit closely resembling a small fir cone.

The yellow male catkins of the Alder and the smaller pinkish female flowers which turn into a cone-like fruit. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

Later in the year seeds will fall from these fruits, often into water, and spread to other areas, leaving the empty fruits drying and hardening on the tree right through until the next spring.

Continuing an ugly tradition

Young Fox, Bekesbourne. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Last weekend a local hunt group continued at least some semblance of the tradition of fox-hunting with a meet in Bishopsbourne. In olden times the hunt was often regarded as an elegant, jolly affair, but from the distance of a different moral perspective, in the cold light of a grey February morning in 2017, this tradition just evokes feelings of sadness.

Hunting with hounds is an ugly relic of our barbaric past and it has no place in modern countryside management: it has little to do with controlling fox numbers in the Britain of today. Historically it was a sport of the landowning elite who, rather than actually trying to exterminate foxes, retained coverts of trees and shrubs across their land for foxes to inhabit so that they could be hunted for fun. The sport became so popular that during the 19th century foxes were imported from Europe and openly sold at London’s Leadenhall Market in order to stock the English countryside where hunting took place.

For many years, foxes were effectively protected specifically for the hunt, despite the pleas of tenant farmers, shepherds and pheasant farmers who wanted them efficiently eradicated, not preserved for the amusement of their landlords. Sometimes farmers secretly killed foxes, but bizarrely this so called ‘Vulpicide’ was regarded as immoral by the landowning gentry because it diminished the number of foxes left for hunting. Controversy raged until, eventually, a compromise was achieved and farmers were paid compensation for any birds and lambs lost to the fox. Of course the reports of damage done would have been grossly exaggerated in order to claim more compensation from the wealthy landowners.

Today foxes account for about 1% of all poultry (1) and 1-2% of lambs (2) lost in open fields. Annual (pre-slaughter) lamb mortality from all causes, including disease and hypothermia is “thought to be 15-20%” (3), a vastly higher figure, although precise data is not collected.

For our previous article on foxes search for ‘fox’ in our search box

(1) Game Conservancy Trust figure
(2) 1% Game Conservancy Trust; 2% The Burns Report. See:
(3) Sheep Health and Welfare Report 2016/17