Conservation – a talk by retiring vice-president Robert Erith

'In many ways the local landscape is now more attractive than it was then'

One of the highlights of our AGM was the talk by Robert Erith, who, after 25 years’ stoic service in the role, is standing down as a CPRE Essex vice-president.
Also president of the Dedham Vale Society and a committee member of the Colne-Stour Countryside Association, there can be few people better qualified to offer their thoughts – some doubtless contentious – on the always thorny subject of conservation.
The first part of his talk is presented here…   

by Robert Erith

I have been asked to speak on conservation. The OED defines this as “The action of conserving; preservation from destructive influences, decay or waste; official charge and care of rivers, sewers, forests etc”.
This subject is so vast that I want to address just three aspects [the first is included here – the other two in a separate post].
The first is one or two general observations. As I have lived all my life in North Essex, although over the years I have travelled widely, my observations come from my background as a countryman in this locality. Some may be controversial.
The second is to talk about the work of an affiliate organisation of which I am president, the Dedham Vale Society.
The third is a little about what Sara and I have done on our small farm in Lamarsh in the Stour Valley, North Essex.
It is entirely natural that most people think of the landscape of their childhood as being somehow ‘right’ and something to which an ideal society should return.
I was born before the war in August 1938 and as a boy my early memories are of my father’s farm at Ardleigh in wartime.
The farm was about 150 acres and we employed six men, most of them from families who had worked on our land for many generations.
Power was provided by an old, very temperamental International tractor and four magnificent Suffolk Punches, two geldings and two mares.
We had Essex pigs, Suffolk sheep, chickens of uncertain pedigree, Aberdeen Angus cattle for beef and two Jersey ‘house’ cows that provided milk and cream, much of which my mother made into butter.
Our farm men each had a free can of milk every day.
We had tiny fields by today’s standards, with overgrown hedges especially along the roadsides. ‘Brushing’ them was the main winter work for our men.
The three great farming occasions were haymaking in the spring, harvest in summer and winter threshing, from the corn stacks. Many people in the village joined in for these events.
I graduated from leading the horses at harvest to chaff boy and later to making hay cocks, stooking sheaves of newly-cut wheat, oats or barley and then to carting the sheaves of corn and thatching corn stacks. Threshing, powered by a steam engine, was exciting, especially when rats started running out from the bottom of the stacks. It wasn’t unknown for mice to run up your trouser leg if you didn’t tie string round above the knees.
There were insects, especially flies, everywhere. Rats and mice abounded. So did frogs, toads, hedgehogs and a great variety of songbirds and other wildlife.
Almost everybody under 80 will have no idea what I am talking about, but in the 1940s this was commonplace and on about 5,000 similar farms in Essex alone. It is truly a vanished world.
I recall my grandparents saying the countryside was so much better before the First World War. That to them was the most idyllic time.
Two generations further back, our forebears complained bitterly about the devastation caused by the railways.
Two before that it was enclosures, forced through by multiple Acts of Parliament, and the changes and destruction of that era immortalised by the poet John Clare, much of whose life was spent in Essex.
So conservation is not about stopping change. I would not want to go back to the farming of my youth and in many ways the local landscape is now more attractive than it was then. I doubt whether there is a single unimproved house in the whole of the Stour Valley. The picturesque cottages were often rural slums with no heating except coal or wood fires and no electricity.

‘I doubt whether there is a single unimproved house in the whole of the Stour Valley’

I believe conservation is about balance. Unfortunately, government policy over the last 60 years has led to violent swings such as the mass removal of hedges, encouraged by grants and subsidies. This policy has now been reversed, but it is much harder to put hedges back than to grub them out.
The same is true with wildlife. One example is badgers. In my youth I never saw a badger – they were considered a great rarity. Then came the Badger Act of 1992, which made interfering with badgers or their setts a criminal act. Badgers proliferated and have become a menace in many areas. The hedgehog population has collapsed over the same period. Badgers can unroll hedgehogs, which curl up in a tight ball as their main means of defence from predators.
I do not want to exterminate badgers. However, what is needed is a new, all- embracing Countryside Act that will seek to conserve all species with sensible powers to control over-populations and encourage those endangered.
Conservation is also urgently required at sea and in our rivers. I have just read an excellent book by Charles Clover, who runs a charity called Blue Marine Foundation and in his spare time is chairman of the Dedham Vale Society.
The book is called Rewilding the Sea and tells of the horrific damage done by modern fishing methods, principally long-net trawling and dredging, which have caused once-prolific fish stocks to crash in many seas and oceans.
As a result of his campaigning, large areas of the Atlantic around our remote possessions of St Helena, Tristan da Cunha and Ascension Island have been made no-fishing zones that can be patrolled and policed thanks to satellite technology. The results have already been amazingly positive and led to other no-fishing areas in many parts of the world. The overfishing by various countries such as China is still alarming, but it shows that conservation is working when conditions allow.
My final general comment is about population growth. In the UK this is entirely due to immigration. Without it, the population would be static or falling, as it is in some European countries including Russia and also Japan. Thus, there is pressure for more and more development, and this will continue.
The countries of greatest population growth over the rest of this century will be in Africa and South Asia. Modern technology enables almost everyone in these often-poverty-stricken areas to see the high standard of living we enjoy and thus many, especially young adults, will be determined to come to Europe and particularly to the UK because English is now the principal world language.
Our society is changing rapidly. The first generation of newcomers will be in big cities, but, inevitably, after that more people will want to come to market towns and villages. Development will need to be carefully controlled so that the best of our scenic countryside and finest agricultural land is preserved. This is where CPRE has a key role to play.

  • Read the second part of Robert’s talk here