‘ELF ‘N SAFETY . . . AND ALL THAT
The Daws Hall Nature Reserve and River.
Pictured on the front cover and above are two of my favourite views, both on the Suffolk/Essex border; and I am the lucky man who owns the land from where these two photographs were taken. Both in fact are part of our nature reserve and are, I know, appreciated by the large numbers of schoolchildren and adults who come here each year. But more of these two places anon. . .
Until December 2010, when Essex County Council abruptly cut off our grant and relocated our teaching staff, the Daws Hall Trust, which I founded in 1988, came under the control of ECC for much of its work. And that, of course, included ‘Elf ‘n Safety.
Most of this tortuous topic I was able to leave in the capable hands of Simon Perry, then Head of our Environmental Education Centre and who maintained a massive file on this subject. Unfortunately, he was otherwise occupied when, several years ago, a lady from the Council descended on us. It was springtime and young lambs were playing in the wildflower meadow, the birds were singing, and we both agreed that she could not have come on a lovelier day. I gave her a map of the reserve, suggested she have a good look round, and said that I would happily discuss any points she wished to raise when she had completed her tour of inspection. Little did I realize what I was in for when, a couple of hours later, the good lady (GL) came back to the house.
GL ‘I’m afraid we can’t allow school parties to come into contact with pregnant sheep’ was her opening salvo.
IG ‘Oh, why’s that? We always make a point of putting in-lamb ewes into the wildflower meadow after we’ve taken the hay crop. It’s one of the things the children enjoy most when they come here.’
GL ‘Sorry, but we can’t allow it. Contagious abortion.’
IG (rapidly casting his mind back to veterinary lessons long ago at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester), ‘Sorry, but I didn’t know humans could get brucellosis. Anyway,’ (in an ill-judged attempt at a little levity) ‘surely you’re not suggesting that any of the schoolchildren who come here are pregnant?’
GL (clearly not amused) ‘Certainly not, but the teachers might be’.
IG ‘I see. Anything else?’
GL ‘I’m afraid so. First of all, I’m very concerned about the number of stinging nettles on your nature reserve’.
IG (beginning to get somewhat irritated) ‘Nettles are highly beneficial on a nature reserve. Whitethroats and chiffchaffs nest in them, and the larvae of several different butterflies feed on them. Anyway, we’ve got plenty of docks, so that’s another thing that children can learn about the countryside when they come here’.
GL (connection obviously lost on her) ‘Well, perhaps you could reduce them somewhat by spraying’.
IG ‘What, put poison down? Poison which could come into contact with children?’
GL ‘Well, no, I suppose not, but I must insist you put up more notices as a warning to visitors. Apart from the nettles, you’ve got two other very dangerous places.’
IG (by now thoroughly exasperated) ‘Right, so these schoolchildren, who’ve somehow managed successfully to run the gauntlet through dangerous nettles and pregnant ewes, have got some even more life-threatening obstacles awaiting them. Is that what you’re saying?’
GL (referring to my two favourite views) ‘I’m afraid so.
It’s a very dangerous bank near your badger setts and it’s even more dangerous by the weir. Apart from several notices about STINGING NETTLES you need to put up one notice saying STEEP BANK and another that says DEEP WATER. All, of course, in very large letters’.
Recent budgetary cuts have now meant that the Trust no longer receives a grant from the Council and, to all intents and purposes, runs an independent show. How nice it would be to think, therefore, that there would be no more visits from blinkered bureaucrats and that the young of today could experience the age-old joys of conker fights, rolling down banks and climbing trees. Better still that if, on my regular walks, I came across a child with a cut knee, I could demonstrate my remarkable knowledge of first aid by applying a sticking plaster. Alas, for such Utopian dreams! If I were so much as to touch a child without written authority from its parents, I would be laying myself open to prosecution on all manner of salacious counts.
Thirty years ago, when we first started having school visits, George Carrick (the then teacher) would take everyone up to the wood for their picnic lunches. On arrival, it would be ‘Boys to the right, girls to the left. Here’s a spade for each group, and make sure you don’t leave any mess’. The trees in the wood flourished, but, ten years later, the Council in its wisdom insisted on three state of the art loos – boys, girls and disabled – and the total cost came to more than I paid for my house.
I used to think that political correctness was probably the most pernicious of all modern creations. (Last Christmas I read in my paper that ‘US networks have now banned the term ‘virgin’ (Mary) as being ‘inappropriate’). ‘Elf ‘n Safety, however, must surely run it close.
Apart from being the founder and an active Trustee of The Daws Hall Trust, Iain is an antiquarian book-dealer, specialising in rare and unusual works on all branches of natural history, field sports, and Africana.