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8 April 2018updated 09 Aug 2021 7:35am

Mark Cocker’s Our Place makes clear that Britain’s countryside is in real trouble

“What countryside?” a friend of Cocker’s pointedly asks.

By Richard Smyth

Mark Cocker signposted his latest change of direction three years ago. His brilliant 2015 New Statesman essay “Death of the naturalist” warned of nature writing becoming “a literature of consolation that distracts us from the truth of our fallen countryside”.

Cocker has always been an interesting writer, positioned, we might say, between two peregrines. Like Robert Macfarlane, he has helped establish JA Baker’s The Peregrine (1967) as “the gold standard for all nature writing” (Cocker’s words), and recent years have seen him experiment on occasion with a Bakerish baroque high style. But then there’s another peregrine: Derek Ratcliffe’s 1980 monograph The Peregrine Falcon, which drew on intensive ecological study to establish that the insecticide DDT posed an existential threat to the UK’s peregrine population. It’s the spirit not of Baker but of Ratcliffe that drives this impassioned and thunderingly necessary new book.

Cocker describes the origins of Our Place as “the wish to write a short polemical work on the state of British nature” – then, with winning self-awareness, adds that “I am constitutionally incapable of polemic”. It’s true; this is no howl of protest, nor even really a methodical demolition job. We know Cocker as a social historian of wildlife through his monumental encyclopaedias Birds Britannica (2005) and Birds and People (2013); in Our Place, as in those works, the underpinning premise seems to be that we can only understand the present by examining the past – with the addendum, here, that only a clear-eyed view of the present can equip us to confront the future.

We begin at Blackwater, the murky reach of Norfolk fen Cocker purchased with the profits from Birds and People and is working to restore. It’s one of a handful of key landscapes that don’t so much anchor the book – Cocker is always liable to be carried off elsewhere by rip tides in history and politics – as furnish the narrative with contour and context. What really guide Our Place are the socio-historical themes that only become clear with this kind of long view, like topographical features only visible from above.

Leaning heavily on work by Marion Shoard and Kevin Cahill, Cocker butts up against inequalities in land ownership, inefficiencies in land use, narrow agro-industrialism, the historical “great divide” in British conservation – between the preservation of “beauty” and the pursuit of sustainable co-existence with biodiverse ecologies – and the smaller schisms that bedevil the modern movement. (“The world’s human population seems now to assail the most basic machinery of life,” Cocker writes. “Yet each organisation has chosen a different spot in that momentous unfolding to plant its flag.”)

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The stark conclusions of the 2013 “State of Nature” report are a touchstone throughout: “They don’t indicate the bottom of a curve: they chart the direction of an arrow. It means that, however bad things are, they will get worse without major change.” Cocker’s perspective is gloomy (every perspective on this, if properly informed, is gloomy) but there’s no eco-nihilism here. Our Place is an exasperated book, balancing between anger on the one hand and a frail sort of hope on the other. It’s too complex to be a rallying cry. The history of conservation detailed here is one of gains made inch by scraping inch, and the future of conservation will be more of the same.

Cocker on this kind of form – eloquent, practical, dogged and wise – is the sort of dynamic chivvying force it will always need, but just as importantly he is a naturalist of considerable vision: few writers on wildlife and landscape express with such deftness the emotional significance of close kinship with what he calls “the more-than-human parts of nature” or the pain of experiencing their decline (“We are suspended,” he says sadly, “in a landscape of losses”).

Our Place is a complicated book not just because nature is complicated but because people are complicated. It’s to Cocker’s credit that he acknowledges this. To a palate staled by the misanthropy of too much modern nature writing, a passage like this is hugely refreshing:

For the majority, nature barely registers. And it does not do so for perfectly acceptable reasons. They are simply too busy… They are consumed by the need to sustain their marital or family relations… and enjoy their precious leisure moments and their surplus wealth, with a barbecue or an hour at the match on a Saturday afternoon. There is no room for the fate of the fly orchid or the pine hoverfly.

It wouldn’t be right to call Cocker an everyman, exactly – in terms of experience, expertise and stature he is far from that – but he has a knack for inclusivity; this is nature writing from the midst of the real world.

Our Place is a dense book, rich and at times a touch abstruse (chapters headed “Subsidies 1” and “Subsidies 2” might scare off many casual bookshop perusers), but always diligent, fluent and discursive. Cocker pilots a careful way through fractious post-war conservation politics, the rise of the RSPB and National Trust, confrontations of different kinds at Kinder Scout and Widdybank Fell, the modern era of agricultural subsidy (he notes that subsidy culture in UK farming pre-dated EC membership and the madnesses of the Common Agricultural Policy, and follows Peter Marren in arguing that “EC membership did not so much change overall policy as reinforce it”). There is an anti-establishment tilt to Cocker’s tone throughout – again, how could there not be?

There is little that is simple, but one thing Our Place makes crisply clear is that Britain’s countryside (“What countryside?” a friend of Cocker’s pointedly asks) is in desperate trouble, and that the causes of its looming ruin are long-standing, structural and systemic. One gets the feeling that Cocker will still be out in his gumboots, mending dykes and raking sallow at Blackwater, however things turn out, but the reality presented by Our Place is that hands-on hard work in the fields and forests will never really be enough. Cocker is an unlikely radical in some ways, but at bottom the book he’s written – however measured, equable and intelligent – is a call for revolution. 

Mark Cocker will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival on 14 April (01223 357 851)

Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before it is Too Late?
Mark Cocker
Jonathan Cape, 336pp, £18.99

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This article appears in the 04 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire