What’s your favourite season? A lot of people say it’s autumn, when a red and gold tapestry of woods and hedgerows unfolds across the landscape. For me, though, summer is the best time of year, and not just because of the weather. In summer, every grass verge and meadow is bursting with life, and when the pageants of wildflowers start to fade miniature palettes of colour – butterflies – still float around our countryside.
After waxing lyrical about nature like some present-day Edith Holden I’m sorry to now introduce the ugly world of politics. But for the first time I can remember the butterfly has become a political issue, “weaponised” – to use the vogue word at Westminster – by the new environment secretary Andrea Leadsom.
As it happens I’ve recently been teaching myself butterfly identification, thanks to a new smartphone app. I was surprised to learn that compared with the 350 or so regularly occurring birds in the UK there are just 60 species of butterfly, and here in the north we have a realistic chance of seeing a little over half of them. The vast majority of these butterflies are found around lowland fields and hedges, woods and gardens. The chalk landscape of the Yorkshire Wolds is especially rich in butterflies despite being one of the most intensively farmed parts of England.
On the bleak fells of the Pennines, the Dales and the Lakes, however, there are only a handful of species, like the green hairstreak and common blue. Worryingly, though, this does not appear to be understood by Leadsom, who is now in charge of policy affecting the English countryside. We know this because during a pre-Brexit referendum debate the prominent Outer revealed that her vision for the countryside was that farmers “with big fields do sheep, and those with hill farms do the butterflies”.
Presumably, the news has yet to be broken to the orange-tip butterflies, the red admirals, the speckled woods, tortoiseshells, painted ladies and peacocks that the government intends moving them from their natural habitat to the slopes of Kinder Scout and Ingleborough.
Every comment Leadsom has made about the countryside suggests she is the wrong person for the job. “It’s like putting a fox in charge of the hen house,” wrote one commentator. Except that she wants to bring back foxhunting.
But there is a wider point to her ignorance of butterflies. She made her fatuous remark in the context of how farmers get paid subsidies for managing the land in a way that’s beneficial to wildlife, and appeared to suggest that this proactive nature conservation system on lowland farms is under threat.
I’m not defending farmers, by the way. Too many of them seem to require bribes with taxpayers’ money to look after the nature on their land. But Leadsom’s vision of big fields means the grubbing up of more hedgerows and ploughing of anywhere that’s not already cultivated. This practice has already seen the reduction of turtle doves, corn buntings and other farmland birds, as well as some butterfly species disappearing at an alarming rate.
Those people who, like me, hadn’t heard of her before the Tory leadership contest and her stupid mothers-know-best oneupmanship should be concerned. Proud mother she may be, but earth mother she is not.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe