The book begins when I was a child in the 1970s in Herefordshire and I walked into the wheat field behind my grandparents’ house –they were farmers – and I bumped into a corncrake. It was probably the last corncrake in Herefordshire, and possibly one of the last in England. Due to the development of intensive agriculture the bird became extinct. I was always haunted by that encounter. It’s quite easy to become an accountant of environmental miseries, but instead of moaning about things I thought I’d try and do something positive about it, which was what I did with The Running Hare… The book is about my recreation of an old-style traditional wheat field, full of flowers and wildlife, as opposed to the sterile open-roofed factory which passes for a ‘field’ in most of Britain.
A nod to a Victorian naturalist
To get a real picture of a traditional wheat field full of flowers, butterflies, birds and animals, I read the works of the Victorian naturalist, Richard Jeffries. His books gave me a picture from his books of what one could do - actually farm in a way that was full of wildlife,but also quite productive in terms of food for us. The seed was planted.
My Grandfather, the arable farmer
Next influence was my grandfather, who was an arable farmer. These days everyone who farms – hands up here, I’m as guilty as everyone else - drives a tractor the size of a house. The problem with those massive tractors and the weight of the machinery is that they compact the earth. And sitting in an air-con cab staring at a computer screen you become detached from the environment. So I thought I’d go back to that style of treading lightly on the land, in the way that my grandfather had done years before. And use a 1956 Ferguson diesel tractor, with no cab. Plus a pony.
Another influence is the hare – in serious decline in the west of England, where I live – because hares are one of those definitive immemorial English animals. If you have hares, you have our national landscape. Hares are the soul of the countryside.
An aversion to chemical farming
As a farmer myself, I have had a gut’s full of chemical farming. Everyone assumes that if you pour on more chemicals you’re going to get greater productivity of crop. It suddenly occurred to me: how much of that’s completely wrong? Quite a bit, it turns out … If you farm with wildlife in mind, and drop the chemicals, you can actually get more productivity but do less harm to the soil, and the environment generally. Fantastically, if soft fruit farmers have just a strip of wild flowers next to their soft fruit - food for bees, and the bees are of course pollinators - you can increase yield by over 50%. I’m not such a romantic that I ignored the financial element; I wanted to show that you can actually make money from your faming this way as well as be beneficial to Nature. A win-win.
More about the author
The Sunday Times Bestseller from the winner of the Thwaites Wainwright Prize 2015.
Traditional ploughland is disappearing. Seven cornfield flowers have become extinct in the last twenty years. Once abundant, the corn bunting and the lapwing are on the Red List. The corncrake is all but extinct in England. And the hare is running for its life.
Written in exquisite prose, The Running Hare tells the story of the wild animals and plants that live in and under our ploughland, from the labouring microbes to the patrolling kestrel above the corn, from the linnet pecking at seeds to the seven-spot ladybird that eats the aphids that eat the crop. It recalls an era before open-roofed factories and silent, empty fields, recording the ongoing destruction of the unique, fragile, glorious ploughland that exists just down the village lane.
But it is also the story of ploughland through the eyes of man who took on a field and husbanded it in a natural, traditional way, restoring its fertility and wildlife, bringing back the old farmland flowers and animals. John Lewis Stempel demonstrates that it is still possible to create a place where the hare can rest safe.
Shortlisted for the Richard Jefferies Society White Horse Bookshop Prize 2016