LAPWING: a small levy on middle-class coffee drinkers to finance bird-friendly farming

Stephen Moss’ book, Wild Kingdom, is about bringing back Britain’s wildlife. Industrialised farming since the Second World War has devastated Britain’s landscapes and the birds and animals that lived in it. Originally the destruction of our historical, zoologically rich farmland happened because we needed to feed ourselves during the war. Now it happens because we don’t want to spend properly on food – British people now spend 8% of their income on food compared to a third of their income a few generations ago.

We want cheap food and we enlist the supermarkets to put pressure on farmers. The farmers, in turn, put terrible pressure on the land and its flora and fauna.

Since food one of the most important things in our lives – as it is necessary for life – we should spend properly on it. We should be ready to pay for food which is not only wholesome for us (that is, fresh food, not processed food) but which is produced in a way which is wholesome for the land. Anything less is a false economy.

While it is not fair to put any more financial burden on people with low incomes who are struggling to make ends meet, lots of people in the UK could tolerate a higher spend on food. I expect many in the middle class don’t even know how much they are spending when they check out at Tesco or Sainsbury and certainly not those who check out at Waitrose.

The test is the espresso test. If you can afford an espresso, you can certainly afford to make a contribution to wholesome farming.

The logical conclusion, therefore, is a small levy on coffee to finance wildlife-friendly or bird-friendly farming schemes.

The levy could be called the Levy on the Affluent who Purchase fancy coffee, for Wildlife IN aGriculture or LAPWING – this being the name of a bird which has seen a dramatic decline on British farms. Or, for something shorter, LARK – Levy for Agriculture and Rewilding Know-how.

(photo from

I suggest starting with a trial levy of 30p a cup. I estimate some 10 million cups of fancy coffee are sold a day – about 20% of the 55 million which are consumed daily in the UK. This would raise £3 million each day. Over the course of a year this means around £1 billion. Invested each year into helping farmers farm more gently, this could go a long way to restore farmland habitat for larks, lapwings, corncrakes, curlews, tree sparrows, yellowhammers, turtle doves, hen harriers and so forth.

There might even be a bit left over to paying a fair price to the coffee grower so he, too, can farm in a bird-friendly way.

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Nature notes – Nature’s builders and more death gardening

Nature’s builders

Although calcium is recommended by doctors, the taste of cement and plaster, which are rich in calcium, is not pleasant. Yet, during a construction project you get a lot of calcium in your mouth. Consider, then, two creatures which are obliged, not having hands or machinery, to use their mouths for construction work.

On an early morning trip to Platform Construction Store in Budaörs to buy cement and bricks, I noticed that under the awnings of this building suppliers, house martins have built nests. The nests were placed directly above lights, and, happily, the good people of Platform had constructed wooden boarding around the light shades to collect poo from the nests. This stops the poo landing on employees, customers and goods.

It was good to see that Platform had taken care to solve a problem without simply wiping out the birds nests. This is rather rare example of courtesy to animals; perhaps a show of respect, by builders, of the skills that the house martins show in mud construction.

Martin's nest above light at Platform Construction Supplies

Let’s hope that the enormous amount of construction work around Budaörs does not remove the last sources of open water which the martins need to make their mix.

Back at the building site, I noticed a faint, repeated scratching sound coming from behind black foil taped on to a wooden ceiling beam to protect it from the plasterer. I climbed a ladder to inspect behind the foil, and saw this:

Dauber wasp cells

It is the work of the mud dauber wasp, who I had seen earlier collecting mud from wet ground around the house. In each chamber, I read, one larva is put, together with several small spiders as food – a bedroom with larder annex. The amphora-like chamber is then sealed, and the larva, in spring, by which time it has turned into a young wasp, will eat up the flies and then break out of the chamber.

Unfortunately, I disturbed the foil and stuck it back slightly differently. When the wasp appeared, it seemed not to be able to find the nest it was making.

Luckily, the next day I saw that the wasp had found its way back to the nest and continued its delicate construction work.

I am worried that if the nest stays in the house, then the larvae will not know what season it is, and mistime their growth and emerging from the nest. I am thinking it might be wise very carefully to remove the nest from the wooden beam and put it somewhere safe in the garden, where it will experience the proper temperature cycle of autumn, winter and spring. Consultation with an expert is needed.

Origins of death gardening

Death gardening, the style of gardening practised by town councils worldwide, the nouveau riche and other social groupings, seems to have its origins in the upper class. This is consistent with a view that the upper class start things off and then everyone copies them.

Look at the gardens of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, Versailles near Paris or Frederiksborg in Copenhagen.  You see straight lines, geometrical patterns, order, monotonous green or simple primary colours and much gravel; a statement of complete control over nature. These are the gardens of kings and emperors. Their realms thrive when they are ruthlessly controlled from the centre, when power is absolute, with no exception and no complaining. Naturally, the aesthetic tastes of such a ruler will reflect his curious psychology, hence a style of gardening which prefers death to life.

Even where non-straight shapes are allowed, they are formalised and just have one species of plant in.

A few hundred years later, the common man still considers this style of gardening desirable, such is the lure and comforting effect of absolute, centralised power.

Commercialisation of death gardening

First and foremost, a death gardener sees his job as to kill. This is the instruction he receives from his boss. And, armed with strimmer and motorised sprayer, to kill as loudly as possible. At the weekend I visited a source of the killing machine: OBI in Siofok. In the gardening section the first thing I saw were diverse chemicals and equipment aimed at killing or scaring: rats, mice, moles, pigeons, slugs, snails, aphids, mosquitos, other forms of flies and insects and even helpful arachnids … and moss (!!!). Moss??? What the fuck. Beautiful, soft, gentle, comforting, dewy, emerald moss. Yes, to garden is to kill.

In a country were intolerance is encouraged politically, it is not surprising to see such dramatic intolerance of other species. But so ruthlessly, on such an industrial scale, in the back garden?

Recent death gardening highlights

Outside our building project, the grass banks of the 59 tram were, until Tuesday, awash with blues, whites, purples and yellows of wild flowers. Then came a municipal death gardener and he not only exterminated the wild flowers, but also hacked to pieces two elderberry bushes which were making great progress and had enriched the street with its flowers and fruit, both suitable for making delicious and refreshing drinks.

I came across our neighbour’s gardener out in the street in front of our house, about to attack a frond of wild clematis with its exquisite dried flower preparing to give seed. He told me he had to remove it because it will be ugly. I told him it was from my garden and he should leave it alone. I also said that you shouldn’t cut stuff back until they have finished their growing in later September or October. I am not sure whether this is true or not, but it makes sense that a plant should be able to make as much use as possible of its nutrients. So why were these death gardeners hacking back the neighbours garden in the middle of August?

Outside the office a still flowering hedge was getting the chainsaw treatment. Bright pink flowers being brutally decapitated. Why plant flowers if you destroy them before the flowering is done?

Eliminating death gardening

I am not sure how death gardening will be eliminated. It will need a huge sprawling, unkempt movement with many unruly branches and tendrils: to make champions of brilliant wildlife gardeners; to replace IT lessons with wildlife gardening in schools; night time gorilla / guerrilla campaigns to sow wild flower seeds on pristine lawns and to replace decorative evergreens with indigenous fruit trees; punitive decibel tax on strimmers and leaf blowers; an international convention, hosted in Montreal, to outlaw the manufacture and sale of gardening weapons of mass destruction (GWMDs); electro-therapy for directors of municipal works to instil species tolerance; more conversations about moss and earwigs on Game of Thrones; replace the pointless Nobel Prize for economics with a Nobel Prize for garden permaculture; compulsory fence holes for hedgehogs; free days off work for scything lessons and gathering wildflower seeds; retraining the gardeners at Versailles and Schonbrunn as IT consultants, where their deep need for order will be put to better use.

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Good government

I recently had a chat with someone and became very disappointed. This is a fellow who is exceptionally brainy and all together a nice chap with good values. However, he has let himself be seduced by the economic unorthodoxy of the Hungarian government and has become an apologist for the kleptocracy that Hungary is. He makes light of the pernicious manipulation of the people through the media, of the deliberate stoking of xenophobia, of the cynical dumbing down of the people, of the centrally planned enrichment of philistines and thugs, and the egregious corruption and state capture upon which the current regime is based.

In his view all this is justified.  The government is building a new Hungary, with a unique economy, free from foreign influence and failed neo-liberal dogma, liberated from the ravages of foreign investors, recovering that which was stolen by cosmopolitan financiers after the fall of the Berlin wall. All the ills of the past shall be put right by establishing a nomenklatura of thirty or so favoured, loyal dynasties, and the means by which wealth is transferred from public coffers or international companies to those families do not matter. What matters is that by pursuing these policies in five to ten years the Hungarian economy will flourish.

Here is someone so enchanted by radical economic thought that he has completely lost touch of normal moral or social considerations, like an adolescent besotted with a beautiful girl and completely blind to the fact that she is a selfish bitch. (There is some interesting psychology here – some form of extreme compartmentalisation, perhaps, but that would be subject of a separate investigation.)

For a moment I thought I might be wrong. Perhaps, after all, it is justifiable to steal and subjugate, bully and menace in order to build a greater nation. Hmmm. Then I regained my confidence. No, it is not.

All this caused me to list the things which I think are important in the matter of government and ruling a country. It probably sounds awfully naïve and terribly old-fashioned but here is the list:

  1. Treat others as you would have them treat you. Much of what we think of as moral codes is based on this simple principle. It seems to be fairly universal. It is in contrast to the principle known in Hungarian as: a nagyobb kutya baszik (the bigger dog gets the fuck).
  2. The elite should behave well. This is not least because the people always copy the behaviour of the elite.
  3. Ignorance is a bad thing and exploiting ignorance should be avoided. By the same token investing in high quality education for all, appropriate for their cognitive powers, interests and abilities is supremely important. To choose good politicians people need to be discerning and therefore educated.
  4. The primacy of economic growth is rubbish. Politicians need to read books such as The Spirit Level, Prosperity without Growth and The Joyless Economy before dabbling in economics.
  5. Mild pride for your country is wholesome, although there are several other levels of social organisation for which positive thoughts are at least as important. Zealous nationalism is bad. Nationalism turns ignorant and intolerant people nasty and tends to be exploited by bad leaders. Failing to love your neighbour is to ignore the first item in this list..
  6. Care, compassion and acts of kindness are very important for a flourishing society. A wise leader has the courage to distinguish between compassion and indulgence. Leaders who reject compassion are bad.
  7. In a wholesome society, politics is holistic, in that it considers the social, spiritual and intellectual realms as well as just economics.
  8. Someone else’s bad behaviour – now or in the past – does not justify your own bad behaviour. We should have got beyond an-eye-for-an-eye.
  9. Ends very rarely justify the means except in the case of avoiding environmental catastrophe.
  10. Cynicism must be excised from society and expunged. A wholesome and just society cannot abide cynicism. If people are cynical they should not hold positions of power.
  11. Hypocrisy should be avoided wherever possible. However, people should be understanding if a leader tries, but fails, to aspire to high ideals which might not be immediately achievable.
  12. Learn from history and don’t behave like bad people from history. In any case, they often ended up with short lives.
  13. Integrity is important: try and apply principles and embrace values consistently in all matters. Without integrity a leader is seen as capricious and unsuitable for guiding a large population.
  14. The most important things for making a society wholesome are the pursuit of truth, the pursuit of justice and compassion (including compassion to other living species – both animal and plant – and to-be-living things not yet born), learning the skills of justice and compassion, nurturing of beauty and love, achieving physical and mental health and passing all the skills for these things on to our children. Political leaders should bear all this in mind.
  15. Since power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, create organisational structures which weaken the power of any individual.
  16. Tolerance of differences is important but tolerance of evil, avarice, cruelty and so forth is bad.
  17. People thrive by having, in balance, autonomy, belonging, mastery and purpose. These are functions of our alternating needs for freedom and bondage, and our respective dealings with the physical and mental worlds. Political leaders should bear this in mind.

Now you can test whether you have a good government by seeing to what extent they adhere to these principles.

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Death gardening, the rich and promise of designer Cornish hedges

The previous blog highlighted old people as proponents of death gardening. Another form of death gardening is practised by the rich.

I know of several examples in this part of the 12th district of Budapest where wealthy people have purchased a house with a lovely garden. The garden would typically have old trees faithfully yielding a bounty, year on year, of apricots, apples, cherries, sour cherries, plums, damsons, pears, quinces and peaches. There might be walnuts and hazelnuts, figs, and just possibly almonds if there is a nice south-facing plot with enough shelter from the wind. There will be sprays of elderberry, rambling bushes of blackberries, unkempt raspberry canes; on the ground sprinklings of tiny szamoca strawberries. For decades – perhaps for centuries – the ladies of the house will have picked these and made pies, strudels and cakes, jams, compotes and jellies; dried them or frozen them for the winter; squeezed juices and distilled pálinka.

Then along come the new owners flush with cash recently earnt. The first thing they do it clear the garden of everything, to create a uniform muddy surface. Half a day with a bulldozer obliterates centuries. Then they build their BigMac concrete and glass slab to live in. Then they turn back to the garden: they lay emerald grass, glistening with piped dew drops. They prop up a line of dutiful (but not beautiful), evergreen thujas, and apart from a few annuals in primary colours, that is as far as it goes. Oh yes – the bark mulch. Everywhere, decorative mulch.

The frequency of this scenario justifies considering it as a social phenomenon.

I try to understand the preference of the rich for death gardening.

The first cathartic act of clearing the gardening is a statement of power, control and a rejection of the past. A denial of the past. The rich of Central Europe are often from poor stock, perhaps the first generation not bound to the land. The first thing they must do, once they have broken those shackles of bondage, is to expunge any memory of it. Thus they must destroy anything which connects them to working on the land.

(This act is a rejection of Conservatism which shepherds the past on to next generations. The rich who consider themselves as on the political right are in conflict with their own stated values when it comes to gardening.)

They will try and justify the wanton destruction of a beautiful garden by saying things like: “It’s a jungle; it is disorderly; I will make something far more beautiful when I have finished.” They believe that beauty is completely subjective and it is up to them what is beautiful.

The appeal to subjectivity and “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is, I think, a way to mask a more sinister truth: the need they have to make a statement of power: that act of destruction is a marking of territory, like a beech marten shitting on a stone, an affirmation of their strength and control over the environment. It is the ego screaming that this is their patch, they can do what they want, whoever came before can go figure, this is mine now, and I will show you.

This case shows that beauty is not subjective, despite the saying: someone creates a sterile plot of land barely deserving the name “garden”, by destroying a thriving, living, burgeoning, fruitful, thronging semi-wild place, full of blackbirds and woodpeckers and warblers, hedgehogs and stag beetles … and they claim the result is something of beauty? I don’t think it can be beautiful when it is polluted by the act of vanity and vandalism that preceded it.

They appeal to cleanliness and simplicity as if contemporary aesthetics had some moral authority. Aesthetic simplicity might have evolutionary, neurological benefits in that it takes less energy for the brain to process and perhaps more accessible for the simple minded, but it has no place in a garden. In a world where every living thing is under threat from man, imposing arbitrary aesthetic standards on the habitat of birds and beetles is like Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji burning down the Library of Nalanda in 1200 AD on the grounds that he prefers watching Neighbours to reading books and shite.

Then comes: “It is easy to maintain, I am a busy professional.” Again, rubbish. The easiest form of maintenance is to do nothing: just what nature wants the owner to do.

It might be in some cases that there is no reason for death gardening, there is no particular decision. It is just what they have seen elsewhere, on telly, in magazines and they assume that this is all there is. This is how the world is. They don’t know about wildlife gardening and the myriad of other ways of gardening with life.

But what can be done about this?

Some urgent and far from ideal measures might be needed in the short-term to save what can still be saved: councils need to place preservation orders on traditional gardens in the district and regulate the chopping of trees and cutting of bushes. It sounds interventionist, an undue intrusion into people’s freedoms. However, it is quite regular to constrain people’s freedom to commit acts of vandalism and destruction. If the rich may only enter a garden in manacles, so be it.

Then, as with any other movement for making the world a better place, change has a thousand facets which all have to align.

Luckily the recently rich are particularly impressed by what is considered to be to in fashion, and so it would be a great help to see some celebrity individuals creating disorderly wildlife gardens and then broadcasting this on social media. Ecological features could be turned into a fashion item. A friend pointed out to me Cornish hedges: these are living walls built – centuries ago (they need maintenance work every 150 or so years) – comprising layers of stone with earth in the middle, and often decorative arrangements of stone at the top.

Cornish hedge









Cornish hedge 2








More fancy cornish hedge






Cornish hedge 4


Wild flowers will be planted in the soil between the stones, and birds, small mammals, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates will make use of a labyrinth of hollow areas inside.

An enterprising gardener and stone mason could create design Cornish hedges as fashionable garden features, affording at least some habitat in the otherwise barren, minimalist space. True, Cornwall is a long way from Central Europe, but adaptations can be developed.

To some extent the damage can be undone quickly because nature’s capacity for recovery is outstanding (it will come back when we are long gone, anyway). Plant some new fruit trees, dig up the thujas and sow the lawn with wildflower mix. Put holes in the concrete border wall to allow hedgehogs through. Bury the death-gardener under the compost heap. No-one will think to look there and he, too, will compost well. Meanwhile, the spread of wildlife gardening in the richer world does give some hope –

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Death gardening and its colourful alternative

Here are some pictures of a roadside in the 11th District of Budapest.


Here I have highlighted the bit which was done by nature, at no cost to landowner or local council.








Here I have highlighted the bit which was done by a man with a strimmer, costing probably a thousand forints (something over €3) an hour plus fuel and equipment rental.







The natural bit is utterly wonderful, but the mown bit (death gardening) is very dismal.

I try to understand what is happening in the mind of people who prefer dry grass to burgeoning wild flowers. What is the system which results in this horticultural interpretation of Stalinism?

There are several, divers starting points:

  1. A manufacturer or trader of strimmers sends out his salesmen to pressurise people to buy strimmers. Nature has no salesmen putting pressure on gardening contractors.
  2. Old people in particular have a concept of “order” in their minds – it is something they cling to in order to handle or make sense, to themselves, of a complex, unjust and disorderly world. They seek to impose this concept of order on the physical environment around them.
  3. Again, old people, but also some young, see nature as something to be defeated and conquered. Rather than the source of life, it is, to them, a threat. Once, decades or centuries ago, nature was a threat en bloc: people could do nothing about the storms, floods, drought, monsters, pests and disease that it hurled at them. Now, even though, for most practical purposes nature has been tamed, nature as a threat lives on in their minds.
  4. As described earlier ( many people have an infantile aesthetic in respect of gardens.
  5. Municipal officials, seeking to avoid losing power, assume that their voters want “order” (perhaps having observed the proportion of old votes in their district) and so allocate budget to hiring death-gardeners to create that order. They recognise that the majority of their voters have the infantile aesthetic mentioned above. It may be that they are, out of habit, repeating processes which were followed the previous year.

As a result you get municipalities with ugly, skinhead-mown, patches of dry grass where there could be swathes of wildflowers in a myriad of colours and home to butterflies, bees and millions of unknown, wonderful (and harmless) insects.

Some municipalities are getting smarter. The tract of wildflowers along the embankment of the 59 tram in the 12th District has only been mown a couple of times this year. At least flowers have been allowed to develop.















It could be lusher and wilder and more colourful, and could have piles of logs and stone as habitat for wintering. Nonetheless it is a great start. May the practice of leaving good alone spread. In the context of municipal gardening, less is generally more.

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