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Silent Fields, by Roger Lovegrove

Songbirds versus shotguns

We may not realise it, but compared with the rest of Europe we in Britain have a much-impoverished wildlife. We have about 60 butterfly species; go to France and you will find more than 250. Our woodlands harbour three species of woodpecker, and one, the lesser-spotted, you will be lucky to see in a lifetime; go to Poland and you can find ten.

This species-poverty is partly geographical accident. After the ice retreated what we now know as Britain was the outlying peninsula at the end of the Eurasian landmass. When this was cut off by the rising seas, it was much harder for dwindling wildlife populations to be replenished from the reservoir across what became the Channel.

But it's not just numbers of species. Our wildlife is much less abundant in general than it appears to be as soon as you set foot, say, in Normandy. There is another reason for this, nothing to do with geography: for the best part of 400 years, an unremitting campaign of organised slaughter was waged against it.

This was not hunting for food, but a campaign aimed at extermination. From the time of Henry VIII until the First World War, large-scale, systematic killing on a scale today almost unthinkable was directed at most of our familiar wild animals and many wild birds: badgers, foxes, hedgehogs, otters; green woodpeckers, jays, kingfishers, bullfinches. Millions upon millions of what we now regard as attractive wild creatures were slaughtered, in two phases: first, by country people, from about 1530 to 1800, to claim cash bounties; second, by gamekeepers controlling predators on shooting estates, from about 1800 to 1914.

These campaigns caused local extinctions all over Britain, many of which persist today; they caused at least two national extinctions, of the sea eagle and osprey. Besides "thinning out" wildlife everywhere, they drove to the edge of the abyss, and to the remote corners of the land, a whole series of creatures which in Shakespeare's day were familiar to everyone in the countryside: polecat, pine marten, wild cat, hen harrier, red kite.

Roger Lovegrove has for the first time documented this process, its full extent and its full consequences, in Silent Fields. It marks a new realisation, an entirely new fact in our history. We simply did not know this had happened. The spiritual ancestor to his study is Keith Thomas's majestic Man and the Natural World 25 years ago. Whereas what Thomas laid before us was attitudes - contempt for wild creatures, which gradually evolved into respect - Lovegrove gives us a vast synthesis of fact, proving that for four centuries humans in Britain actively sought to wipe out most of their fellow creatures, and sometimes succeeded.

It began with Tudor "vermin laws": legislation under Henry VIII (1532) and Elizabeth I (1566). On the grounds that many creatures might be seen as competitors for the produce of the countryside, they demonised a swathe of them as vermin, and offered bounties paid by the parish. Lovegrove has spent six years trawling parish records to build up an amazing picture of the killing - 498 hedgehogs killed in one year in the Cheshire parish of Bunbury, at 2d a head; 380 red kites killed in a 13-year period at Tenterden in Kent, for a penny a time.

Around the turn of the 19th century, the enclosure movement allowed the formation of large shooting estates by rich landowners, and their gamekeepers took over this process with more determination. Lovegrove has searched the estate records to similar effect. The killing built up to a climax before the First World War, when there were about 23,000 gamekeepers in Britain, and the buzzard and the raven had been exterminated from most of the lowlands. But the keepers went off to the trenches, and many never returned. The onslaught was never again so fierce, and a wildlife recovery began, which has continued to this day. There are now only about 4,500 gamekeepers in Britain, and many species - such as the red kite and sea eagle - are making remarkable comebacks.

"Ground-breaking" is a much-overused word, but Lovegrove's sweeping and meticulous research is for once genuinely that, endlessly fascinating as well as being elegantly written. The book leaves the strong conviction that we should not only appreciate our wildlife heritage all the more, but be thankful for having any left at all.

Michael McCarthy is environment editor of 'The Independent'

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