Here's one way to Keep Britain Tidy: modify all birds
With Monsanto Friendly Bird Seed, robins will be cuter and have optional blue or green breasts
The writer and broadcaster Terence Blacker contributes a twice-weekly column on a wide range of social, cultural and environmental issues. He is the author of four novels, of prize-winning fiction for children, and has written a highly praised biography of the brilliant reprobate Willie Donaldson.
Monday 31 May 1999
Of course, there's nothing new in rural racism. Species that have escaped into the wild, from the grey squirrel to the coypu, and even the delightful rose-ringed parakeet, tend to be perceived as dodgy aliens laying waste to the true, pure bloodline of British nature. Now and then, as in the case of the mink, the concern is valid, but normally it's little more than an excuse to trash the Johnny Foreigners of the animal kingdom when the real environmental harm is being done by our own agribusinesses.
All the same, it was quite a surprise when a rare sighting of that shy species, the Monsanto executive, revealed that this division between good nature and bad nature extends even to the higher echelons of the biotechnology business. Ringing in to Radio 4's Any Answers, the firm's head of corporate affairs argued that fields benefiting from their "genetically enhanced" crops are havens for what he called "friendly birds".
This was a new concept to me. I knew that, in certain quarters, plants are now neatly divided into wild flowers (lovely, heritagey things, part of the tapestry of the countryside) and weeds (vicious, strangulating, deep-rooted things, destroying the livelihood of innocent farmers), but it now transpired that bird-life, too, could be divided into heroes and villains.
Which birds will be acceptable in the new, clean, profitable English landscape? Already there are plans for a revolutionary new handbook, The Monsanto Field Guide to Friendly Birds, to clarify matters...
Robin. Entirely welcome. Imagine yuletide without our little-red-breasted friend tapping on the frosty window-pane. Unthinkable! In fact, thanks to our new Monsanto Friendly Bird Seed, robins will soon be bigger, cuter, and with optional green or blue breasts. Why not put some out on the bird table now?
Magpie. One for sorrow, two for joy - but off you go, my old son! Noisy, aggressive, always on the lookout for something they can nick, magpies are the lager louts of the bird world. Because there will be no place for inappropriate behaviour in Monsantoland, our people are currently looking for ways of cleansing the magpie population, either by introducing one of our famous suicide genes or, preferably, modifying them into lapwings.
Skylark. Hail to thee, blithe spirit! Nut-crunching environmental fanatics may argue that the skylark's dependence on the very seeds and insects our biotechnology will be removing make its extinction in Britain inevitable, but have these people never heard of laboratories? At this very moment, highly trained scientists are working on a new, enhanced skylark - better song, with a more visible flight pattern - that will become an essential part of our countryside's leisure facilities. This improved skylark can be sustained at reasonable prices, and with no damage to the environment, on a special, friendly diet that we shall soon make available.
Jackdaw. Cunning little devils. They act all innocent and unworldly when, in fact, they have a greater mental capacity than dolphins, elephants, or even that Einstein of the animal kingdom, the pig. We have no choice but to classify jackdaws as "unfriendly" on the grounds that they might analyse the secret formula for our enhanced crops and set up a multinational biotechnology firm in competition.
Hen harrier. Like the starling (once a garbage bird, now a much-loved, multicoloured urban friend) and the barn owl (looks great but makes a scary noise at night), hen harriers are bit of an avian grey area. On the one hand, they are magnificent birds of prey; on the other, sporting landowners in Scotland have complained that, in contravention of basic hunting rules, they are taking grouse well before the Glorious Twelfth. Rather than simply categorise them as unfriendly, we have decided to introduce a small number of sheep genes into their DNA so that harriers will soon be able to graze in a harmless, picturesque and economically valid way on moorlands.
Zeneca. A rival to Monsanto, Zeneca's UK habitat is almost exclusively in the Westminster, where it mobs its prey. Although its plans to produce a spotless, profitable landscape have sometimes been regarded as unfriendly, it is - I'm so sorry, I seem to have got my notes confused.
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