Birds, badgers and clueless city-dwellers

No government is going to have the blood of Mr Brock on its hands just before an election
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The Independent Online

Only the most curmudgeonly of license-payers will begrudge the great English artist Tracey Emin the £60,000 she has just received from the BBC in return for a bird on a stick. Celebrating culture in the north-west with a project called "art05", the corporation has commissioned Emin's first work of public art, which has just been erected near the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool.

Only the most curmudgeonly of license-payers will begrudge the great English artist Tracey Emin the £60,000 she has just received from the BBC in return for a bird on a stick. Celebrating culture in the north-west with a project called "art05", the corporation has commissioned Emin's first work of public art, which has just been erected near the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool.

The piece portrays a bird sculpted in the, shall we say, primitivist manner perched on top of a 13-foot scaffolding pole. As for what it represents in a deeper, non-physical way, opinions appear to be divided. Invoking the memory of Eric Gill, Alan Yentob responded to the piece with touching simplicity. "The thing I like about it is that it's a tiny little bird and it's as if there's a bird flying over your head," he explained helpfully.

The artist herself was rather more expansive. The sculpture, which she called Roman Standard, stood for strength and femininity. "Birds are the angels of the earth and they represent freedom," she said. When a literal-minded hack asked what sort of bird it was, Tracey was on shakier ground, replying that it vaguely resembled a swift "but then it could be a starling."

There is something rather touching about these two eminent urban figures reaching out blindly and cluelessly to the natural world. Yentob can do little but point upwards and talk about little birds while Emin, having spent minutes, perhaps even hours, working on her sculpture, has a general sense that a bit of avian symbolism is required but gets into a hopeless muddle when it comes down to specifics.

Unfortunately, although the swift is an excellent emblem of wild spirituality - it used to be know as "the devil's bird", after all - the reason it is associated with freedom is that, apart from when it nests briefly in the summer, it spends its life, day and night, on the wing. Without wishing to be over-literal, the one thing it would be unable to do would be to perch on a 13-foot scaffolding pole. It also bears remarkably little resemblance to a starling.

But like many interesting artistic expressions, Emin's bird on a pole works at another, deeper, level, and it is one that is specific to our little world in 2005.

A glance through any daily newspaper will confirm that, for various reasons, the natural world is much with us these days. Even readers who are firmly trenched among the urbanites in the great divide between town and country, have begun to see that wildlife impinges on the lives of all of us.

Birds, in particular, are in fashion. The better newspapers record news of how woodland species are faring, or how some egg-collecting prat has been arrested, or how idiotic gamekeepers are attempting to poison the red kite. This week, for varying reasons, it has been the turn of the corvids, with ravens, carrion crows and magpies grabbing their share of the headlines.

The problem is that interest in, and concern for, the natural world is more often accompanied by a drippy, incurious sentimentality than by any real knowledge. The tedious cliché about town-dwellers' tax supporting rural communities, trotted out endlessly by smug metropolitan commentators, has encouraged those with a fuzzily affectionate attitude to wildlife to think that their opinions about animals are as valid as those of someone who actually works with them.

An obvious recent example has been the debate surrounding bovine TB and badgers. The government are uneasily aware that compensating farmers is costing the taxpayer £100m a year and that the recent experience in Ireland, where they are less feeble about such matters, suggests a selective cull of badgers will solve the problem.

On the other hand, no government, least of all one with an urban voter base, is going to have the blood of Mr Brock on its hands just before a general election. Like hedgehogs (but unlike grey squirrels or magpies), badgers have a powerful and highly emotional lobby behind them.

Who should step forward to pronounce upon this tricky and delicate subject? None other than the St Francis of the backbenches, Tony Banks. The solution, apparently, is simple. Badgers should roam free over the thousands of acres where TB has been found; it is the cows and farmers who should be removed.

When this kind of silliness is being broadcast, it is time to start worrying. For Banks, the countryside is not a place where people live and work, where the balance between man and nature has helped to create a landscape and where difficult decisions involving animal welfare need to be made, but it is a leisure resource where he can go and torture fish and have fun. It should be run like a municipal swimming-pool or skating rink.

Perhaps the dynamic new Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, in recognition of the growing importance of the natural world - and also the abysmally low standard of knowledge about it - might introduce obligatory environment lessons into the curriculum . That way, it is just possible that the sincere, high-achieving city-dwellers of the future might feel just as warmly towards the birds and the badgers as Emin, Yentob and Banks do but will have the additional advantage of knowing something about them.

terblacker@aol.com

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