Although some of his political opinions have not worn well, almost everybody agrees that George Orwell was a fine writer. What may be less well known is that he was an alert observer of nature. Reading a newspaper article about the “ignorant” slaughter of Barn Owls and Kestrels, supposedly to protect pheasants, Orwell was moved to write in his own newspaper column of May 5, 1944,
Birds of prey are killed off for the sake of that enemy of England, the pheasant. Unlike the partridge, the pheasant does not thrive in England, and apart from the neglected woodlands and the vicious game laws that it has been responsible for, all birds and animals that are suspected of eating its eggs or chicks are systematically wiped out.
Orwell was right, wild pheasants don’t do well in England. But they are raised on farms for hunters. By 1850 gamekeepers were rearing them for hunting. Today as many as 30 million a year are released on “shooting estates” and those that are not killed by hunters seldom survive even a year in the wild. Hunts consist of people who pay for “beaters” and gun dogs to flush the birds which are then shotgunned.
Before the war, near my village in Hertfordshire, I used to pass a stretch of fence where the gamekeeper kept his “larder.” Dangling from the wires were the corpses of stoats, weasels, rats, hedgehogs, jays, owls, kestrels and sparrowhawks. Except for the rats and perhaps the jays, all of these creatures are beneficial to agriculture. The stoats keep down the rabbits, the weasels eat mice, and so do the kestrels and sparrowhawks, while the owls eat rats as well. It has been calculated that a barn owl destroys between 1,000 and 2,000 rats and mice in a year. Yet it has to be killed off for the sake of this useless bird which Rudyard Kipling correctly described as “lord of many a shire.”
Orwell kept a diary which is now being published as a blog. The entries are posted 60 years to the day after they were written. 60 years ago Orwell was living near Marrakech, recuperating from pneumonia and the entries mainly concerned the number of eggs his chickens were producing. But the blog will get more interesting as it approaches the onset of World War II. Orwell was a perceptive observer of much more than nature. Here is the blog. Sixty years ago today he only got two eggs. Of course, it was winter and free range chickens aren’t as productive during the shortened daylight of winter. We beat him though. Our girls produced five eggs today.