Once upon a time in the West Country: Richard Mabey on the changing patterns of wilderness

For a few days every year in the Fal Estuary, primoses flower underwater. But that's not the only spectacular sight in the South West. 

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On the first warm day of a 1990s spring, lifted by the sight of birds of prey spiralling above the Long Mynd in Shropshire, I began writing about “the buzzard line”, a frontier that stretched from lowland Scotland down to Dorset. Those meditative shapes above the hills were a sure sign that one had passed into “the west”, emblems as defining as cider and slate. I was some way in to this rhapsodic blarney before I realised that I was defending a kind of natural ghetto. Buzzards had only been western creatures for 150 years, driven out of the rest of Britain by the game bird industry. They weren’t immemorial local totems, just hapless refugees.

How times have changed. Despite an unreconstructed shooting community, buzzards have spread back across their natural range in Britain. We see them over our house in Norfolk most weeks. One surprised friend saw a young bird with more ambition than strength offload a live leveret on to her kitchen roof.

Local distinctiveness can be an ambivalent value in nature, just as in other contexts. Often it’s the authentic existential state of natural systems, the tangy product of geology, climate and organism braiding in one special way in one particular place. But living things resist confinement and the darker side of natural localism is the closing of mental and physical borders, the exclusive mutterings about “the way we do things here”. Where wild things “properly” belong has always been a shifting, disputed matter.

In the first week of this spring, four of us decided to circumnavigate the West Country in five days. We weren’t seeking some transcendental essence of westerliness but hoped for a few of those magic moments when harmonious regional tone is gatecrashed by the wild card. We set out from Dorset, bound for Cornwall, and snaked among the tidal creeks that fray the Fal Estuary.

We missed by a few days something not to be seen anywhere else in Britain. At the highest tide on the spring equinox, salt water rises up into the riverine oak woods and you have the disorientating vision of primroses flowering underwater. But we were on time for the wild daffodils along the River Teign, miles of them in drifts, tufts and rivulets, the same species that William and Dorothy Wordsworth saw on 15 April 1802. Even motionless, they don’t have a rival as the most beautiful wildflower in Britain: the soft primrose yellow of the ruff, the way six petals are cupped round the trumpet, the pertness of them, the lean of one stalk away from another... The pubs in Elizabethan London were decked out with them at Easter. The wild daff – or Lent lily – is another depleted native elbowed west.

We moved east through northern Exmoor, new territory to me, its dirt lanes and wild woodland reminding me of Appalachia. It was thick with beech. These trees were introduced here but are so corkscrewed and folded into the cranky contours that they look totally at home and are flourishing in the increasingly mild, damp springs. The government body Natural England is clearing self-sown beech from Dartmoor oak woods because they don’t belong here – as if the world outside were respectful of such ecological niceties.

We came home through the Somerset Levels and in a moment of serendipity saw the lift-off of nearly 50 cranes, their nine-foot wingspan making it seem as if they were sculling through the air. A hundred of these birds, reintroduced with Continental eggs after an absence of four centuries, are now the symbol of the Levels’ rehabilitation. Anyone who sees these awesome creatures – ancient residents, driven to extinction, that returned as stopped-off migrants and then as reintroductions – will find it hard to quibble about their “proper” place.

This article appears in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?