Just upriver from my home, there is a walk along the river. Quiet and unspoiled, it is known only to local people, and each of us knows it in a different way. Some have walked generations of their dogs here. Some run here, dodging winter’s puddles, ducking summer’s jagged, arching stems of dog rose. Someone once dumped a stolen car here, setting it alight, leaving a crisp halo of browned oak-leaves all around it, and a twisted hulk. At first I hated its intrusion. Now it is another landmark on the path, slowly being welcomed back by nature, early dog violets flowering from its chassis every year in March. The young lads of the village have made this wrecked car theirs, gathering round it in the balmy dusk of summer. Adding to the balm with words and weed. Do they, I wonder, hear the soulful peeping of the bullfinch which is always just nearby?
For my part, since I moved to my house almost thirteen years ago, I have walked the riverbank hundreds – thousands probably – of times. The more I walk it, the more intimately I know it, and the creatures which scurry, grow and sing along it. I can lead you straight to where wild strawberry grows alongside mouse-ear hawkweed and sweet vernal grass. I can tell you where to listen for lesser whitethroats in the spring, and which parts of the riverbank flood most deeply by late winter. I can tell you where a buzzard sits, spying on worms and rabbit kits. Where little owls nest in a crumbled barn. And where a nightingale once gave his rapturous song from a knot of blackthorn, years ago.
This is my way of knowing. Listening, watching, letting understanding drop like layers of silt through water, into my mind’s still, newt-haunted depths. Close – dare I say loving – knowing and attention are critical to nature conservation, I realise more and more. When we raise children, we come to know their every feeling, as it flickers on their faces. When we live with dogs, we learn to read their body language. Why would the business of bringing nature back across the landscape be any different? It is an act of love, of nurturing, requiring no less focus or affection than the raising of a child.
I am reminded of Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s team of wardens in the Broads. Years ago their predecessors banished encroaching alders from one of the last sites for fen orchids in the UK. Yearly – over winter – today’s volunteers and wardens cut the fen by hand to keep conditions perfect for these tiny, demanding flowers. And yearly – in spring – they count each orchid spike. Where once a dismal handful of these rare plants bloomed, now there are thousands. Thanks to the loving, attentive care of wild, marsh-haunting wardens.
I’m reminded, also, of our wardens in the Brecks. Thanks to their collaboration – over decades – with a neighbouring farming family, our Arable Plant Reserve is home to many of the UK’s rarest annual plants. For millennia, gentle cycles of organic agriculture – spring sowing behind an ox-or-horse-drawn harrow, summer harvesting and winter fallow – fed us, fed hordes of farmland birds, and favoured dozens of annual plants whose life cycles matched the barley, wheat and rye we cultivated for ourselves. In the twentieth century, farming radically changed. Chemical pesticides eradicated all but intended crops, nitrate fertilisers wrecked the nutrient balance of the soil and water, fallows were surrendered under winter cereals. A suite of wildflowers slipped – all but unheeded – from our ancient arable landscape, into obscurity and near extinction. With them went the long-loved poetry of their names: pheasant’s eye, fingered speedwell, prickly poppy, Venus’s looking glass, weasel’s snout and interrupted brome. Our Breckland Arable Plant Reserve, where many such species have thrived for fifty years, is testament to the loving care of farmers, wardens and botanists who were not prepared to let these fragile flowers – and their poetry – vanish altogether from our landscape and our lives.
And I’m reminded of our years-long collaboration with Natural England, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation and others, under which northern pool frogs are being restored to Ice Age pingos in the Norfolk Brecks. The attention with which the pingos in our care have been restored, with which each pool frog tadpole has been nurtured into froglethood and then the wild, is nothing less than love: love for the natural world and for the landscape, for Norfolk’s future and our distant glacial past, and for the generations – yet unborn – whose lives will be blessed by northern pool frogs. Or diminished by their absence, if we failed to love.
I will not hear a word against such sentiment in conservation. For what’s our motivation, if not love? Why would volunteers go out on wet, late-winter nights to marshal toads across our roads, scooping every one into a bucket, were they not enchanted by the bronzy beauty of their eyes and lovingly invested in their warty future? Why would our wardens worry over nutrients leaching into ancient, flower-rich fens; why would they turn the turf in Breckland to create conditions needed by our rarest wasps and ants and bees; why would they court hostility by politely asking visitors to control their dogs around ground-nesting birds? Why would they do these things, day on day, and year on year, if not for love?
Their motivation is both a love for wildlife and the precious places where it still persists, and a love for people, whose lives – present and future – are immeasurably enriched by nature. If your life has ever been enhanced by nature, if you are drawn to nature’s beauty, then it’s time to put your curiosity aside and tumble headlong into love. Pay dear attention to the natural wonders all around you, fall in love, and lend that love to Norfolk Wildlife Trust and all our partners in nature’s conservation and recovery.
Main image - sunrise over the River Yare, Strumpshaw Fen, Elizabeth Dack