Keith Skipper: Let’s respect nature better after lockdown is done

Glorious self-isolation in full flight on the lake at Felbrigg Hall Estate near Cromer Picture: Liz

Glorious self-isolation in full flight on the lake at Felbrigg Hall Estate near Cromer Picture: Liz Quigley - Credit: Archant

Our columnist says the way our environment is blossoming while we stay indoors should give us greater respect for the ‘outside’.

There have been many joyful examples of nature taking advantage as the human lockdown offers unlikely freedoms to celebrate a quieter, cleaner and slower world.

For me, the sight of over 30 deer sauntering across the normally manic A11 in broad daylight symbolises perfectly our vital need to find a far more caring and inclusive trail when the all-clear sounds.

No, I don’t mean a whole series of impromptu Strictly Come Prancing sessions over our main roads – not even as traffic-calming measures – or flocks of real peiicans crossing near schools to offer children and parents free copies of the highway code.

Yes, I would love to welcome a closer rapport with and deeper respect for wildlife contributing to our oft-envied patch of immense variety from country to coast, village cottage to city spires, and still cherishing unique brands of humour and language.

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I found a few spare minutes to track down a deer expert who might throw a little light on those unlikely antics down the A11. Sir David Attenborough said he would look into it on his next trip to Norfolk. Then I tried someone almost as venerable and well-travelled.

The old boy was at ho-ho-home in self-isolation somewhere in the Lapland outback. He admitted that herd of deer formed part of his global scouting team looking for signs of where he might be even busier than usual on festive rounds in years to come.

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“They must have missed a signpost or had their heads turned by so much peace and space along a main thoroughfare. My instructions were to take a crafty peek at Attleborough and work out how much longer it would take us for deliveries once a few thousand more desirable dwellings have been added.

“We fully appreciate why so many people want to live in this area” continued the genial old boy, “but lack of decent chimney pots, gardens big enough to cater for a loaded sledge and any sort of reasonable social distancing between homes must make our job harder and longer”

He said he would text Rudolph and his specialist colleagues with a message urging them not to confuse Attleborough with Attenborough this year and so appreciate the difference between expanding towns and diminishing forests.

Sadly, he appears to concede Norfolk will continue to fall victim to predatory instincts. It is still seen by most outside, and far too many within, as an underdeveloped market fit for exploitation. Fields, particularly those dotted with buttercups and daisies, are to be built on – though rarely for locals on low incomes.

After Brexit intrigue, climate change catastrophes and a global virus pandemic, a period of earnest but orderly international reflection and discussion ought to take place.

We know, however, political blame games, financial and social depression, more major health scares and grisly cuts to essential services is the more likely menu.

A matter of fighting for survival way ahead of tasting any fruits of revival. That sort of backdrop offers scant chance of any kind of equality in the eternal battle between ecology and economy. Just remember how long it took to find some sort of balance on the Broads.

I fear too many environmental concerns will be buried under exaggerated pledges of “vital money and jobs”. If developers, planners, landowners and councillors could get away with it during what now appears to be a time of relative affluence, high employment and a smidgeon or two of proper scrutiny, one can only shudder at the prospect of a totally unfettered building boom.

One of the key legacies of our enforced indoors marathon must be to show fresh appreciation for so many things we had come to take for granted, including a gloriously natural fanfare in honour of advancing summer.

We found consoling little tasters in back gardens and on daily release for fresh air and exercise. We missed one of the greatest shows on earth as our countryside burst open a new package of colourful clothing for farming, woodland, heath and wildlife adventures.

Of course, a post-virus Norfolk should take a pragmatic approach to what’s required to clamber out of the biggest pit of economic and social despondency most of us have ever seen. However, that cannot sanction yet more irreparable damage to a precious rural heritage.

The kind of building we sorely need now involves renewed faith in a “dew diffrunt” mantra serving us so well for centuries.


One of my favourite yarns features some lads from London evacuated to a Norfolk farm during the Second World War.

The farmer promised to take them to market in his horse and cart. They waited patiently by what was for them a new form of transport when one little boy ran into the house yelling: ”Come quick, Mister, the flippin’ ‘orse is losing all its petrol!”

There are countless other stories designed to underline blatant ignorance of town and city dwellers when it comes to life close to the land. Laughter is laced with pity rather than malice.

But just how honest is that laughter these days? How many people living in Norfolk, still a predominately agricultural county, would pass a simple test in farming matters?

Let’s narrow it down even more. How many inhabitants of any six Norfolk villages taken at random would be able to chat easily about agricultural topics with a local farmer?

Precious few, I suggest, could argue coherently for or against set-aside schemes, milk quotas or nitrate levels. Does it really matter? Depends on how you see roles of our farmers, many of whom still like being regarded as “custodians of the countryside”, as we prepare for one of our toughest spells in modern history.

Long gone are the days when the bulk of the rural population would need merely a glance over the hedge to identify the crop, to determine the status of that crop and to make instant comparisons with yields of the previous five years.

Virtually every family had close connections with the land, some of them sinking deep into Norfolk’s past. Few of those roots remain in a world where the prairie and a lone ranger in a cab have taken over from the meadow and a posse of country thoroughbreds.

The farmer’s status in the community has diminished alongside traditional dependence on him or her for employment and shelter. Mechanisation has hauled down history’s hedgerows. Too much prime agricultural land is being coveted by greedy speculators in hard hats.

As pressures and inducements multiply, we must show our concern by trying to meet the farmer on his own midden. Sorting out meaningful wheat from troublesome chaff will help.

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