Sunday, October 19, 2008

The squire, the serf, and the squirrel

One interesting difference between conservation in the US and conservation in the UK is the way the UK's class system is integrated with the conservation system in a somewhat unhealthy way. Because of a longer history of urbanization, but also because the British countryside is so expensive to live in, and remains dominated by the former aristocratic/land-holding elite, who may own vast tracts still complete with whole villages of "tenantry," the great countryside conservation groups have boards and leadership that are often a 'Who's Who" of the former peerage.

This is only a symptom of the larger phenomenon that, effectively, whole social classes have widely different mental models and cultural associations with the countryside, and there's very little overlap.

(The US equivalent would be, for instance, the mental model of countryside held by an average African-American urbanite, compared with that of a white rural-dweller on the low end of the economic scale. Both might have similar incomes and they might even vote similarly (not guaranteed!), but the white rural-dweller's mental model of the countryside would likely include a lot more utilitarian conceptions, as well as specific knowledge of hunting and fishing, farming and other subsistence or "extractive" sporting activities.)

Most social scientists would explain this by reference to the large-scale peer groups historically known as "classes", but a growing number of qualitative studies would use the theory and practice of building "mental models," qualitative description ("thick description") of the conceptual arrangements and explanations of land-use that individuals and classes (of many different kinds, not just socio-economic) might have for the countryside. Class-consciousness is controversial in the so-called “class-less” society held up as an ideal in either country, but class exists and is useful for explaining all kinds of phenomena. Mental model theory is also helpful.

I enjoyed this article, which is purely journalistic, for the way it toys with everyone's class-based cultural assumptions and mental models. In particular, the way that an arguable conservation necessity, culling invasive American squirrels, has become a blood sport following fairly traditional lines is just fascinating, but what is also fascinating are the new associations and mental models that are being used, some of which do transcend barriers of class.

It's about time we shook some of this up a bit. It's been a problem.

In Britain, notwithstanding this new eruption, because of the remaining and powerful dominance of the countryside by the aristocratic classes and the rich in general, and a few other contributing factors, there remains only a tenuous and slender link between the urban working class and the countryside that supports them. Although there is more cultural exchange between the classes around the issues of countryside conservation than there was, say 50 years ago, there remains a huge "barrier to entry" for urban and suburban young people.

This problem of alienation from the countryside, and from nature itself, in different form, with different mental models playing a role, also exists in the United States. (I could go on at length!) But here, at least, it remains relatively affordable for a low-income person to live in the country, or move there.

Red Squirrels

'Reg' a part time bouncer who has helped Paul Parker of the Red Squirrel protection unit culling grey squirrels in Northumberland. Photograph: Gary Galton

They shoot squirrels, don't they?

It may be wiping out our native red squirrel, but the American grey has finally met its match. Tim Adams meets a pair of modern-day pied pipers hellbent on extermination

Tim Adams, for The Observer.

In Rochester, Northumberland, the last village before Scotland, Rupert Mitford, the 6th Baron Redesdale, and Paul Parker, a pest controller, are examining a map. We are in Redesdale's kitchen, in a cottage that borders the Otterburn army base. Chinook helicopters fly low up the valley, the last stop before Helmand and Basra. Redesdale and Parker, however, are organising battle lines of their own.

Redesdale, in a lived-in tweed jacket, eventually locates his home on the well-used Ordnance Survey. 'This house was ground zero,' he says. 'In the first six months we had cleared everything to here,' he gestures towards a wooded area to the south. 'May to June we got down to this line here. July we did Newcastle.'

Parker, shaven headed, chips in, in his broad Geordie, tracing his finger along the Tyne. 'We were doing the damage in this area. They can swim, but they'd rather use the bridges. We hammered them here and here and here. Now we are really hunting them down in ones and twos.'

Redesdale continues, with boyish excitement. 'We developed what we called our killing strategy. Hit them in the woods. Dipton Woods: we took 2,000 out. If you clear a woodland you suck all the surrounding population to it. Then you hit them again. Suck 'em in, hit them.'
'Slaley Forest,' Parker says. 'We took 3,500 out of there. In the winter there's no cover and you can pick them off with the .22 rifle. They all get together in the cold. You can get eight or nine with a couple of shots. All huddled together. We just annihilated them.'

Redesdale is a tall, consummately charming, slightly distracted man, who attended public schools in north London and studied archaeology at Newcastle. He can trace his bloodline back to the Norman conquests; the Mitford sisters were his great aunts. Having been relieved of his hereditary peerage in Blair's reforms, he became the youngest elected life peer and is now, at 41, the Liberal Democrat spokesman for the environment in the second chamber. Parker, who grew up in the west end of Newcastle, was not much for school. Once he was seven or eight he was off in the fields, rabbiting, shooting crows and starlings and selling them to local butchers for pies. He and Redesdale, who rents him a house up the road, are an unlikely double act.

Together, camouflaged crusaders, they form the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership.
This is not a resurgent Tufty Club. 'We only call ourselves the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership because if we called it the Grey Squirrel Annihilation League people might be a bit less sympathetic,' Redesdale announces, chuckling. 'But we do nothing with red squirrels apart from save them by killing grey squirrels!'


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