Michael McCarthy: A minister rooted in the natural world

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Here's a question to ask yourself this weekend if you're out for a walk in the country (there's a chance of fine autumn weather, at least in the South). Why do we value the natural world? What exactly is it that draws you to the woods, or the hills, or the shore, on an October Saturday or Sunday? I mean, it's not for the necessities of life, for food or fuel, is it, as it would be in parts of Africa, say? (Wild mushrooms are hardly necessities here). It's for something else. But what, exactly? Can you define it?

It strikes me as unusual that the man who is in charge of the natural world in England, Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, managed to define its worth and meaning fairly comprehensively, and with notable eloquence, in a speech he made last July, which has had hardly any publicity. Politicians do not often make speeches that rise above politics, and for sure, Mr Benn listed his department's achievements in reducing pollution, creating a new National Park in the New Forest, etc, etc. But he didn't make a song and dance about them, and he went far beyond that. He set out a clear view of why the environment matters spiritually and physically at the same time, which was both very wide-ranging and rooted in his own personal experience.

Mr Benn's department had a large lump of it chopped off last week when responsibility for climate change was taken away and put into a new ministry with energy. This was a sensible decision, because climate policy and energy policy go hand in hand. But it was also sensible for the rest of environmental policy, which climate change has in recent years come to overshadow. And now we have the situation where the man who is in charge of it, quite literally, knows what he's taking about. Not a lot of that around, is there? If you don't believe me, read the speech. Mr Benn said: "We have always known that the natural environment sustains our souls, but we have now come to understand that it also sustains our very existence."

Find the rest of it at www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/ministers/speeches/hilary-benn/hb080721.htm.

Top of the table for birds

Is there no end to the wonders of Nyjer seed? The magic stuff has been bringing goldfinches to our west London garden for two or three years now, but this week its powers of attraction have surpassed themselves – no fewer than nine goldfinches were in the garden at once on Tuesday. Living jewels on the bird feeders. It's the seed of a plant of the daisy family, Guizotia abyssinica, originally from the Ethiopian highlands. Magic stuff, indeed.

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