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Emperor_of_Exmoor_(red_stag)

“It is very strange, and very melancholy, that the paucity of human pleasures should persuade us ever to call hunting one of them.”
Samuel Johnson (1709-84), Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson

In October 2010, reports appeared in UK newspapers proclaiming that the Emperor of Exmoor, a giant stag given his name by photographer Richard Austin, had been shot. The red deer stag is the largest indigenous mammal in the British Isles and at almost nine feet tall, and weighing 300 pounds, the Emperor was a magnificent example of its kind. The Guardian reported that he was shot and killed close to the Tiverton to Barnstaple road at the height of the mating season and quoted Peter Donnelly, an Exmoor-based deer management expert, saying it was a disgrace the animal had been shot during the mating season: “The poor things should be left alone during the rut, not harried from pillar to post. If we care about deer we should maintain a standard and stop all persecution during this important time of the year.” 

I’ve never been an absolutist on hunting. I understand the need for there to be management of herds and for vermin to be controlled. I worry, too, that so many children today have no understanding of where their food comes from. (In one recent study by the British Nutrition Foundation, 18% of primary school children thought fish fingers came from chickens.) However, I have never been able to reconcile myself to the pointless destructiveness of trophy hunting.

It’s more than a vague feeling or an intellectual opinion. It is a very physical and emotional response to the idea that man (and it is usually men, not women) has to prove himself by killing other creatures, for no other reason than the sheer hell of it. I first encountered that response as a child, reading Willard Price’s Safari Adventure, and it has remained with me ever since. To my mind, such testosterone-addled, adrenalised thrill-killing demeans us as human beings.

article-0-1C49273D00000578-824_634x449Fast forward to 15 March 2014 and in today’s Daily Mirror are two stories which reveal that our appetite for momentary glory at the expense of the animal kingdom is as great as ever it was.

First of all, poachers hunting for antlers have killed a New Forest deer known as the Monarch. According to the report, the poachers used a calibre of rifle too low to kill cleanly and instead the deer, badly wounded, drowned as it tried to swim to safety.

Spend a moment imagining the sequence of events. Spend a moment imagining the fear that magnificent creature experienced as the bullet crashed into its flesh. The pain as it tried to get away from violent intruders into its safe space, its fight-or-flight response leading it to crash towards a familiar stretch of water that had been a place of rest and refreshment for sixteen years. Think about its desolate coughing bleat as it limped towards death. And then those last, terrified gasps as it drowned, its exhausted body weakened further by blood loss.

All because greedy, vainglorious men wanted to hang its antlers on a dining room wall.

500-pound-wild-hog-3236934And then, across the Atlantic, the story repeats itself. A different country, yes, a different animal, yes, but once again actions that lead from that same ignorant bravado of inadequate men. Unlike the two deer, the protagonist has been only too happy to be associated with his ‘triumph’. A cretinous redneck who’d not be out of place in a North Carolina remake of Deliverance, Jett Webb is shown posing proudly with his ArmaLite AR-10, resting on his kill – a giant 36-stone wild boar nicknamed ‘Hogzilla’ that had become the stuff of local legend. He shot it in the Indian Woods area of Bertie County, having hid out in the woods at night, but there was no Hemmingway-esque poetic reflection on this particular kill.

Jett’s insightful comment?

“The sweet-tasting corn and a night-hunting light was too much for this oversized heap of pork chops.”

What ignorance. What pointless cruelty.

In the deaths of the Emperor, the Monarch and Hogzilla we have gained nothing and lost much. Gone are the chances for stories that make a place, that lend wonder to those exploring for the first time, the “what if…?” and the “perhaps we might…!”. Gone are the chances for a glimpse of nature’s magnificence made manifest in three animals whose unassuming majesty had the potential to induce wonder in inquisitive young minds.

And, as usual, greed will be excused as endeavour by those that celebrate and justify this pointless pursuit.

Samuel Johnson couldn’t have been more right.

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So Charlie Hague’s beautiful eco-home, which wouldn’t be out of place in The Shire, is to be bulldozed within two months on the instructions of Pembrokeshire County Council because:

“”benefits of the development did not outweigh the harm to the character and appearance of the countryside

A lack of affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges for young people today. Local authorities are often reluctant to build or facilitate it, preferring instead to take money from developers to fund future social housing developments. In a different  place, at a different time. In a more ‘appropriate’ development. Rather than now, when people might need them.

We see this locally in Basildon with the proposals to build hundreds of “aspirational” homes on ancient pastures in Dry Street. Essentially, these will be unaffordable, luxury homes with a bare minimum of affordable provision. Neither the local council nor the developers have any interest in providing houses that local people can afford to live in. Instead, they are content to see greater and greater strain placed on local services and infrastructure by encouraging new people to move to the area.

Having been on a downward trend in the UK for years, the number of households in temporary accommodation has started to rise again. The long term impact of poor quality housing on health is well-documented. After four years of living in a damp caravan, Charlie Hague decided to act.

Charlie’s father owned a plot of land next to the pioneering Lammas Ecovillage. For around £15,000 he built a roundhouse out of straw bales, plastered with lime, and covered with a reciprocal roof (self-supporting, essentially). You can watch the story of Charlie’s house below:

I’ve served on local planning committees. The decisions are never easy. But retrospective planning permission is granted up and down the country all the time and for less considerate developments than this.

We should be looking to promote and support inventive and sustainable ways of building and living. This kind of construction should be championed as an example of how a new house can be sympathetic to its environment – not bulldozed out of existence.

Sign the petition to save Charlie and Megan’s house and please like, share and reblog to draw attention to the their plight.

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A couple of weekends ago I decided to get up early on a Saturday morning and, with Farming Today on my headphones, take a walk around the Langdon Hills Ridge.

Occasional readers of Fragments and Reflections will have seen similar pictures before. However, no matter how many times I make this particular walk, and no matter how many times I photograph the hills, fields and footpaths, it looks different every time.

Some of these reveal just how beautiful the landscape is in our neck of the woods – and how vital initiatives such as Langdon Hills Living Landscapes and the campaign to protect Dry Street are.

I finished my walk at “Hillcroft”. My parents’ garden is as fine an example of an English country garden as you can find. And I am not sure you can get much more English – and welcome – a breakfast than toast and Marmite. There is a real sense of satisfaction in walking such a distance before 9am. I heartily recommend it.

I hope you enjoy these photographs as much as I enjoyed taking them.

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Every now and then in this digital age we are sent links to videos or articles that make us stop and think about the way we live.

My friend Andy has always been a passionate environmentalist. He posted this on his Facebook.

Please watch it and share.

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I stumbled across this video on the Internet. There’s something strangely hypnotic about the way these ants work – and bearing in mind their size it seems all quite incredible.

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There is something quite bleakly beautiful about the countryside that lies against the Essex coast. The vast skies over flat scrub and grassland, the silhouettes of trees against the horizon as the sun sets, and the cold reaches of the Thames, snaking its way past Southend, Mucking and Tilbury, can conjure feelings of a romantic loneliness. It was the perfect surrounding for a New Year Day’s walk, a chance to walk and think and take in the beauty of the countryside I am lucky to live so close to.

At Mucking, the Mucking Marshes Landfill provided one of the largest landfill sites in Western Europe. Until very recently, the barges floating down the Thames, carrying London’s municipal waste in bright yellow containers, were a familiar sight. At the end of 2010, with the expiration of its extension on its waste license, Mucking Tip stopped taking waste. Now, the site has been capped and the amazing Essex Wildlife Trust has established its largest and most ambitious project yet, Thurrock Thameside Nature Park, creating a safe haven for dozens of birds and other wildlife, both common and rare. With a visitor centre providing stunning views over the Thames estuary and a café with welcome refreshments, EWT have  created something really quite special on this stretch of the Essex coastline.

Some photos from today’s excursion below.

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Life has its way of providing food for thought – sometimes more than it is reasonable to expect a person to digest. And much as a good walk can provide suitable repair after a heavy dinner, so a walk is often the best way to get one’s head around the various challenges that life throws up. Between national and local politics, happenings to friends, and other personal events, a long walk was long overdue.

I have a favoured route.

I walk along Nethermayne and past the hospital, turning into Dry Street. I head past the farm where I spent so much of my childhood, past my church and on to One Tree Hill Country Park. From there I walk through Northlands Woods, around Sutton Woods and in to Coombe Woods. Finally, I arrive back on to Dry Street, before ending up at Hillcroft for coffee.

On the way you can’t help but be moved by the beauty and serenity of the countryside. I think I have reflected previously that you could never imagine that you are just twenty-five miles from London. The sounds of traffic on the A13 is blocked out by trees and hills and fields. The sun was glorious this morning, and the sky blue. The rape fields were bright with their yellow crop. The bluebells are at their height, though they seem fewer in number than in previous years. A lack of sun, perhaps, or sustenance for the elusive muntjac deer that live in the woods?

Between Northlands and Sutton lie ancient administrative boundaries with interesting purposes and delineations. Thankfully, there are still a few people about the hills who know the stories of the past. Local social histories are fragile things and there seems less and less time for them in this increasingly busy and technologically-demanding world. With so much emphasis on the future, we often forget that there is a rich seam of learning to be had in investigating the history of the places about us.

Anyway, I thought I would share this morning’s walk in pictures.

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