It is an August Sunday in Cuddington, in rural South Buckinghamshire. The air is a mild 20 degrees centigrade and an occasional breeze wafts the ripe wheat, and the sun has a pleasant intensity when it moves out from behind the broken cloud. I set off for a walk through the local countryside for exercise, enjoyment of the scenery and to try to get some good wildlife photographs.
Down Spickett’s Lane there are several wild plum trees festooned with fruit and I stretch up, standing on the bank to gather some. They are small and crimson when ripe, and quite deliciously sweet with an intense flavour. Juice dribbles down my chin. There are damsons, small and black and too high to pick without a ladder, more small yellow fruit and one in-between. On the other side the lane, the blackberries are not ready yet, but will be black and luscious in a couple of weeks.
I turned right, past the piggery where a few Oxford black-and-tan rare pigs remain, snoozing in the gentle morning, then round the edge of the bean field down towards the river. Waddesdon Estates farm this land and, as part of their Environmental Stewardship Scheme, all of their fields have a wildlife strip around the edge where wildflowers (weeds) prosper and bees and butterflies dart and settle in their search for nectar. A month ago, when the wildflowers were at their best, there were lots of butteflies: meadow brown in particular, common blues and small whites, green-veined whites, red admirals, peacocks. Now these are fewer, but they are still to be found along with a gatekeeper (small meadow brown) or two.[nggallery id=11]
There are rustlings in the high, scrubby hedgerow and I hear some squirrels having a fight, squeaking and jumping about but see nothing. I cross the stile that penetrates it and step into a cow pasture with a wooded, watery drainage channel on my left. This is where newts, grass snakes and waterfoul skulk and a source of dragonflies and damselflies, and I see a large one zoom over my head, too fast to identify.
There is a brown bull with broad shoulders and a deep chest right ahead of me, on the footpath route over the field, and I approach with a little caution; but he is quiet and docile as I skirt around him. The air is fairly quiet now where it was alive with birdsong a month or two ago, but there are birds about. A buzzard circles up on a thermal, but doesn’t come close enough for me to see his colours. There are a lot of crows in the sheep meadow, and rooks in the wood at the top of the field, and an owl box in the tree near the cattle bridge where I saw a tawny owl last march. And there are the ubiquitous pigeons, flapping away noisily as I approach, and sparrows.
The cattle bridge crosses the River Thame, and a pause to see if I can see any fish in it’s fast flowing water. The reeds are varied and luxuriant and a shy moorhen pokes it’s head out of them but doesn’t emerge this time. A couple of cows gaze vacantly at me as they chew their cud.
I cross a gate and a stile, entering the Eythrope Estate, home of Lord Rothschild, who also owns the entire Waddesdon Estate.
Again there are wide, wild field borders, and as I skirt the field through longish grass, I see more white butterflies, and a couple of brimstones that look like a leaf when they stop to feed.
Above, buzzards and red kites glided under the blue sky and seemed to be gathering over the hill to the north: perhaps there was some carrion there.[singlepic id=179 w=192 h=144 float=left] [singlepic id=178 w=192 h=144 float=middle]
As I walk, young pheasants suddenly burst up from the wheat and tall grass, flying further down the track or running into the scrub for cover. These are being bred for the shooting season that starts in October, but that is not the only doom that awaits these tasty game birds!
From only a few feet away, a fox springs up from the wheat where it had been lying in wait to catch a pheasant dinner, and runs off disconsolately through the golden crop. It is amazing what a wheat field conceals: along with the fox, and the pheasants, various small birds would suddenly appear, wings flapping at great speed in their panic to reach the nearby trees.
I come to a wider area of wildflowers still in bloom: this area would have been planted with a rich variety of native species as part of the Waddesdon environmental work. The air hums with honey and bumble bees, many different flies and some small blue butterflies. This is a sound I hear too seldom these days where it used to be the norm on a summers day. It is the sound of nature at work in a healthy countryside and alien to blank squares of monoculture. This land is intensively farmed, but space is left for natural ecosystems to work and it’s health protected from chemicals and machines.
I stop to enjoy this buzz of life, then as I turn, a hare bursts out from the undergrowth a few yards away, and disappears into the hedge. About half a dozen kites are still circling in the air high over the hill, and a sudden birdsong bursts from nearby trees.
I leave the Waddesdon land, and climb through a meadow, then over another stile onto a neat and tidy field of rye grass: green and even and silent. The field edge has been mown, and it is empty of flowers, insects or any interest and the contrast is staggering.
We have turned much of our countryside into an aseptic monoculture which has been profoundly destructive to the diversity of nature in the British countryside. We have cut down hedgerows, ancient forests (over 80 percent have dissappeared this century), poisoned waterways and tried to turn the land into a factory floor which, for sterility, this field resembles. The terrible thing to me is that we have forgotten what the countryside should be like, and was like until very recently. The land along the Thame Valley shows that we can have both efficiently produced food and healthy natural ecosystems.
Waddesdon manages to farm profitably and efficiently, and because the people running it leave some land for nature and take care how they use modern technologies, after only a few years there is a resurgance of a diverse and healthy countryside. This creates a balance that protects crops, a balance that is destroyed by over-use of expensive chemicals and over-intensive practices. The result is that many of our species of birds and mammals are on endangered lists, and the countyside is often silent and boring.
My walk took me less than two hours, and in that time I have come across dozens of species, and been inspired and amazed by seeing the web of life at work. We do need more of it throughout our country, and it is us, all of us who have to make it happen realising that it is our health and quality of life that is at stake, and doing what we can to understand and restore our countryside.