What is countryside for?

The English countryside is a contentious topic. Books about various aspects of English nature are being published at a terrific rate. There is a great deal of media attention and much below-the-line argument plus more blogging and tweeting than is possible to keep track of. Biodiversity? Rewilding? Mindfulness? These terms are being bandied about and battle lines are being drawn. But what exactly is at stake?

Farmers are condemned for wrecking the uplands and rendering the lowlands sterile while milking taxpayer-funded subsidies. They’ve responded with a mix of defensiveness and creativity. Social media abounds with pictures of quirky-looking sheep, border collies and rosy-cheeked children, all buttressed with much defensive talk of doing things as they have always been done.

Nature conservationists face growing criticism, discombobulated as their traditional supporters become suspicious of their methods. Enhancing biodiversity is fingered as cautious and inherently conservative; reintroducing large predators and allowing a ‘self-willed nature’ is where the real radicals are at.

Re-connecting to nature is now the thing. But this is less about renewing the debate about access to the countryside, and more about how nature will cure our ills, tackling the depression and the obesity epidemics, making us all feel better. Perhaps, too, that re-connection will finally wake us up to the terrible threat facing the planet from anthropogenic climate change and the destruction of wildlife habitats.

Underpinning it all is a complex debate about agricultural subsidies.

The sense of crisis has created a sense of possibility and raised a big question: what is countryside for?

Is the present situation seeing the final unravelling of the post-war agricultural settlement? Why has the approach to nature conservation that developed since the 1990s come to seem as inadequate? Why have certain articles of faith, like maintaining the Green Belts, begun to be seen as relics of the past rather than solutions for the future?

Above all, what do we want from the countryside in the decades to come?

1) Nature Writing: Romancing the Anthropocene

Hardly a week goes by without a national newspaper running a feature on Nature Writing. It’s a publishing phenomenon. Robert McFarlane, Helen McDonald and James Rebanks are among the most successful of a host of writers crowded under the nature-writing umbrella. These authors might bridle at the label, as the labelled almost invariably do, but for anyone looking on, they clearly occupy common ground. Non-fiction writing has rarely been so descriptive, so focused on the individual or subjective experience, or so autobiographically framed. And it has rarely been so preoccupied by demonstrating knowledge of and sensitivity to the natural world. John Clare has never been so quoted. For the reader to be won over the quality of the prose and the seeming authenticity of the experience must chime. And often it does, but the moment one feels the author is reaching for their Observer Book of Trees and a thesaurus, the spell breaks and the artifice stands revealed. Prosy virtuosity isn’t enough.

What sense can be made of this craze as a cultural phenomenon? Why is it, at a time when England’s wildlife is more depleted than at any time in its history, has this literary phenomenon taken off? By fetishizing every encounter with the natural world, is it creating a false sense of abundance? Or is this heightened sensibility, which can only find expression through language, the first step towards developing a more significant environmentalism? Where is the line to be drawn between pose and poise, between the word worlds of prose and nature it seeks to represent? What is it about Nature Writing that turns us on?

It must have something to do with England. Much Nature Writing is intensely, almost aggressively, local, insisting we must learn to re-see – or re-feel – England’s natures as a set of miniatures, each valuable in itself, irrespective of whether or not it comes designated a National Park or an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Nature Writing’s didacticism makes it morally incumbent that we value all nature and it is through nature that we re-discover England itself. It’s a little cultish, a touch romantic and achingly middle-class. Or so its critics insist.

James Rebanks is a particularly complex exemplar of the trend-and despite my critical engagement with his work, I thoroughly enjoyed A Shepherd’s Life and learned a lot from it. He presents himself as a horny-handed son of toil who is gradually coming to embody the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of his elders; he is fiercely protective of what he represents as the semi-communal way sheep farmers extract a living from the soil; and he presents A Shepherd’s Life as a realist, if somewhat sentimentalised, chronicle of a long-established way of life. And yet, A Shepherd’s Life is a much more deliberate literary artefact than an initial reading might suggest. Rebanks makes the case for the defence, and as a case for the defence it is very affective. Barely a mention is made of the agricultural subsidies—and the accompanying form filling—that keep him and his fellow commoners on their land, despite which his community resents outside interference as informed by various kinds of ignorance. Rebanks also reminds us that the Lake District we love is the product of long-practiced grazing regimes. We need him and his like to maintain what we like.

All this ticks along nicely until the reader is catapulted from soggy hills to dreaming spires by the discombobulating revelation that Rebanks has a History degree from Oxford. The development of his literary sensibility might be attributed to the influence of his mother, who is cast as the foil to his no-nonsense father, but getting into Oxford doesn’t just happen. As such, Rebanks might deal in a form of environmental determinism—he is doughtily of his place—but the apparent cultural distance between the highly erudite Cambridge dons Robert McFarlane and Helen MacDonald and this particular Cumbrian sheep farmer seems not so great after all. Indeed, Rebanks’ choice of title is a literary allusion, being a borrowing from W. H. Hudson’s identically named book of 1910.

More generally, it is easy to be sceptical, sceptical of the sincerity of writers who claim to have been obsessed with their place or preferred bird or animal for decades before they picked up their pen in their early 30s, easy to be sceptical about whether the botanical knowledge displayed comes from deep learning, and easy indeed to indulge in a little parody.

As a child, Matthew Kelly was obsessed with cow shit, its aromatic riches, its sculptural intricacies and the slip-slop-slap-splatter-splodge of its creative moment. In Dung, he travels the length and breath of England in search of the perfect pat. He stitches together some quotes from poems, talks to some fellow-obsessives encountered along the way, making sure to write about them as though they are a bit simple, and half-invents some words that capture the fragrant density of this ineffably English effusion. It is an extraordinary piece of writing that will forever change the way you think about running miles, jumping stiles and eating country pancakes.

And yet, it is too crude to suppose literary trends are the invention of Machiavellian marketing gurus and it is equally problematic to suppose literary trends simply respond to an existing need. They don’t simply enhance existing sensibilities and interests, but help create them, changing how readers feel and see and what they know. And one of the things Nature Writing has helped people know is that a closer connection to nature might make them happier.

2) Mindfulness: Making Happy Healthy People

Whether Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure (2006) or the recent ‘30 Days Wild’ experiment, in which volunteers committed to ‘connect’ with nature every day for a month, the last ten years has seen much evidence of the idea that connecting to nature is good for human health and wellbeing. In essence, much of this isn’t new. Faith in the restorative power of nature has classical origins and is perhaps as old as urban life itself, while the idea that individuals have a right to the psychological or physical refreshment provided by encounters with the natural world has underpinned aspects of public policy for more than a century. This impetus is found in the politics of access, which came to public prominence in the 1930s, or the original National Parks legislation of 1949 or indeed the Countryside Act of 1968, which aimed to improve access to suburban park and woodland. Protecting the ‘amenity’ value of select rural environments, as the post-war civil servant would have had it, was tantamount to saying the countryside’s utilitarian value lay in its health-giving properties.

But there is much that is new in the current turn to nature. Talk of ‘nature deficit disorder’ is certainly novel and the ‘30 Days Wild’ experiment is a serious attempt to provide evidence of the benefits of connecting to nature where in the past this was simply taken for granted. In June, participants are encouraged to seek out a nature experience each day, keeping a brief diary, possibly sharing it on social media, before reflecting at the end of the month on whether they feel happier in themselves. Others have tried to link connectedness to nature to healthy child development or have argued that it should play a role in preventative medicine. The ‘30 Days Wild’ team are part of a broader attempt to persuade the government to commit at least 1% of the health budget to nature-based healthcare. All of this feeds a renewed insistence that access to the countryside is a right that should be actively facilitated by government, particularly with respect to children.

Fearing that children are disconnected from nature or insufficiently active is an old lament. And it is a little ironic that the generation first reared on computer games now play concerned parent, but there is no doubting the obesity epidemic or the increased evidence of mental illness among children and adults. Nature surely should be an integral part of our response to this crisis. What gives the agenda added drive is the idea that by experiencing a greater connectedness to nature we will become more inclined to protect it. By learning to see or feel the presence of the natural world around us, we’ll not only feel better but will want to look after it better.

3) We need to talk about subsidies

Agricultural subsidies have a bad name, especially on the Left. They’re also baffling in their complexity and jargon, as any farmer grappling with the forms will attest. Much of the popular opprobrium they suffer stem from the 1970s and 1980s when it was widely thought that farmers and landowners were lining their pockets at the expense of the taxpayer, while harming the natural environment. The grubbing up of hedgerows, the overproduction of produce and the run-off into rivers of poisonous artificial pesticides and insecticides caused much anger. Marion Shoard wrote a bestselling book that indicted the farmers for their ‘theft of the countryside’, launching a broadside against modern agriculture and challenging the notion that the land could be treated as private property. As the 1980s progressed, famine in Africa and the European Economic Community’s ‘wine lakes’ and ‘grain mountains’ all added a deep sense of moral affront to the mix. That the agriculture industry – traditionally a Tory interest – was protected when industrial Britain was being run into the ground politicised the issue still further. The National Farmers’ Union could expect a hearing in Whitehall in the way that the National Union of Mineworkers could not. ‘Gentleman farmers’ were not in good odour and reform was inevitable.

Reform came in the early 1990s, commencing a shift in the subsidy regime away from productionist subsidies to a broader suite of payments that emphasises the custodial role played by farmers with respect to the land. Some farmers are now paid less for what they produce and more for how their farming practices affect the ecology of their land. This signalled a radical shift in subsidy regimes, unpicking our sense of what farmers are for. Are they there to produce food – or to maintain ‘cultural landscapes’?

The irony in all of this is that the failures of the 1970s and 1980s were a direct development of the ‘cheap food’ policies made possible by ‘agricultural intensification’ that were pursued by successive postwar governments. Agricultural subsidy, despite its Tory associations, was a component of the social democratic settlement that emerged from the Second World War. In this respect, subsidy was as much a part of postwar Britain as the National Health Service or the state school system. To begin to make sense of the current conflicts at work in our countryside, we need to understand the historical development of these subsidy regimes. Farmers have been as much the agents of the state as they have been the defenders of vested interests.

4) The Green Belt: Housing the Millennials

Few doubt that the housing shortage and high cost of housing is one of the most pressing issues in England today. Barely a week goes by without the press carrying a story highlighting the apparently ludicrously high prices being paid for homes in London or the plight of young adults and their parents, the former effectively homeless, the latter called upon to stump up deposits for mortgages or simply to take their fledgings back into the nest. The causes of this are multiple and the blame cannot be entirely laid on the landlords happily exploiting the situation.

Part of the problem is the price of land, which is high because there isn’t enough of it. A scarce commodity always attracts a premium price, and land is easily the single largest cost in most building enterprises. Except, of course, there is plenty of land in England. Most land isn’t built on and much that is farmed is far more valuable once turned over to development. Acquiring planning permission for a piece of agricultural land near a town or city and then flogging it to a developer is a sure way to make a fortune. It’s the sort of thing clever bursars at Oxbridge colleges spend years plotting. But, as every supplicant finds, acquiring planning permission is a difficult and awkward business. It brings the landowner into close contact with the local planning authority and myriad rules and regulations. Governments committed to facilitating development, sometimes propagated as ‘rolling back the state’, always promise to make the process easier, a coded way of saying they wish to increase the number of outcomes favourable to the applicant. Despite this, the weight of statute is such that really significant change seems scarcely conceivable. Unless, that is, as some are beginning to say, the protection provided by the Green Belt is removed or diminished.

The Green Belt is another legacy of the twentieth century, this time a mid-century attempt to contain urban sprawl. Some 13% of the land area of England is now classified as Green Belt, about 1.6 million hectares, setting the limit to the outward development of most major cities. And those cities that don’t boast a Green Belt are often near a National Park, which hardly sets the bar to development any lower. But is the Green Belt, as conceived by 1930s planners, the mechanism we need today? Is the land it protects really of such high value? Inner-city brownfield sites can be more ecologically rich than the greenbelt, dominated as it is by the monocultures of intensive agriculture. Is the greenbelt a sacred cow that needs to be slaughtered?

5) Biodiversity: Protecting the Fritillary

What is it with the pearl-bordered fritillary? Each spring, nature conservationists throughout England go in search of this small butterfly, blogging their sightings and speculating on whether its numbers seem improved or not. The reason is political. Pearl-bordered fritillary, whose numbers fell dramatically in the post-war period, has become one of the primary symbols of the attempts made over the past twenty-five years to restore England’s lost biodiversity. If it thrives, then the fragile ecosystems it relies upon must be in good shape and the conservation professionals tasked with implementing the Biodiversity Action Plans promulgated in the late 1990s must be getting something right.

These plans reflect a commitment made by the British Government at the Rio Earth Conference in 1992, the first significant global response to the growing fear that the rate of species extinction had reached epidemic proportions. Few doubted that a large part of the problem was that modern farming practices were producing habitats within which little wildlife could thrive. Junky ecologies, dependent on ever-greater injections of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, were the result and something had to be done. Shifts in the EU subsidy regime had begun to recognise the problem. Should farmers be paid to steward their land, farming in a way that enhances its biodiversity, rather than on the basis of how much produce they send to market?

From the 1990s, improving biodiversity has been firmly entrenched as the principle concern of state-led nature conservation. It provides what bureaucrats need, namely a way of quantifying conservation efforts and showing that money is being well spent. To understand how this thinking achieved its ascendency is vital to any understanding of how the countryside is valued today. And to understand the emerging critique of this kind of eco target culture is to start to recognise where the new focus on natural processes rather than quantifiable outcomes is coming from. This takes us on to rewilding.

6) Rewilding

England’s most celebrated landscapes—uplands like the Lake District and Dartmoor—are ‘sheepwrecked’, insist George Monbiot, campaigning journalist and author of Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding (2013). These uplands, sacralised as National Parks and promoted as England’s wildest places, are effectively barren, denuded of most of their wildlife by subsidised grazing regimes whose very purpose is to maintain their current sterility. This challenges almost everything that is commonly supposed to characterise the National Parks. Reading Monbiot changes how one encounters the uplands and his case for their ‘rewilding’ by the removal of unprofitable livestock, the reintroduction of long banished species and simply allowing trees to grow (though some careful management is needed) is compelling.

It would be churlish to deny the tremendous impact Monbiot’s fearless proselytising has had on the debate in the UK. He brought rewilding to public notice, mobilised opinion, generated converts and sowed more than a little discord. It is remarkable just how quickly Monbiot has changed how many people see the English landscape and the national parks in particular. His bravura assault on the conservation professionals at the National Parks annual conference in 2015 was a particularly discomforting moment. That said, the rewilding idea is a global phenomenon and has animated discussion among professional and academic ecologists for some twenty years, generating a distinct branch of conservation science. Rewilding has occurred in some parts of Europe as a managed process, but nature has also moved back in where rural depopulation caused by the collapse of farming incomes has seen much land abandoned. A newly available ecological niche won’t go to waste. Evidence that its territories have expanded, by accident and design, has made the wolf the symbol of rewilding, an excitingly charismatic intimation of a new European nature.

In England, rewilding is in its infancy. Fauna that are extinct in Britain aren’t going to recolonize the island through natural processes, and subsidy and grants have kept the farmers more or less in place, their activities preventing all but the carefully managed re-establishment of previously abundant flora. Birdlife, perhaps, is the exception. The recent appearance of a vulture on Dartmoor caused much excitement among the bird-watching community, but as was quickly pointed out, they were unlikely to stay given the lack of carrion. If farmers were permitted to leave dead livestock on the moor, the vultures would soon become established on the moor, but notions of agricultural hygiene and disease prevention make leaving carcasses to rot illegal.

As the debate has developed since Monbiot detonated his bomb, the emphasis has shifted away from confrontation towards building consensus between farmers and other key stakeholders. Evolution rather than revolution now provides the base note, but does this risk devitalizing the whole agenda?

7) Flooding: Slowing the Flow

There has been much talk about why recent winter floods have proven so catastrophic. The inundation of the Somerset Levels in 2014 or the flooding of York in 2016 are but the most prominent of a sequence of flood incidents witnessed in recent years. The damage and disruption has been great, while complex matters of social justice, not least access to home insurance, have been brought to public attention. These floods differ from the flood risk of most concern in the postwar years because the excess water comes not from the sea but the sky. Since the rebuilding of England’s sea defences in the light of the terrible east coast floods of 1953, tidal surges have only caused significant damage in isolated incidents. Recent inland flooding, by contrast, has not been caused by violent weather at sea but by sustained heavy rainfall inland.

Although these heavy rains are partly caused by anthropogenic climate change, we tend to consider their consequences as a natural disaster. And yet, anyone who has remained abreast of these events will know that the discussion increasingly emphasises how the management of rural England and the uplands in particular can have a profound effect on lowland flooding. The extent of flooding downstream depends an awful lot on the degree to which water can be held upstream. As the polemicists argue, we need to ‘slow the flow’, allowing upland rivers to flood, inundating agricultural land, in order to protect densely populated low-lying land.

It’s a contentious issue, for agricultural policy and water management systems have long sought to minimise the likelihood of flooding by speeding up the flow of water by straightening, widening and deepening rivers. The emphasis has not been placed on maintaining rivers in their natural or semi-natural states but in turning them into conduits for the efficient transfer of water to the sea, developments that benefit the agricultural interest and suit developers and city planners keen to build on flood plains. In the 1980s, these issues were brought to the fore when the Suffolk water authority, supported by local farmers, proposed re-engineering the river Stour where it flows through Dedham Vale. More frequent flooding of grazing land had been a consequence of upstream urban development. The water authority blithely published its plans, just its had for similar ‘improvements’ upstream, only this time local activists got angry and mobilised a campaign that eventually caught the attention of national politicians, who then demanded the water authority modify plans but then opposed them altogether. The Dedham Vale river project was transformed into a cause célèbre by the landscape’s well-known connections to John Constable, the ur-nineteenth-century English landscape painter. It might now be fashionable to sneer a little at Constable’s ‘biscuit tin’ oils, but his legacy in the Vale is fiercely guarded by the National Trust and there is something peculiarly affecting about seeing his iconic landscapes made flesh. Thanks to this protection, the river crossing at Flatford is still recognisable today as that of ‘The Haywain’ (1821). It now seems hardly surprising that the water authority eventually had to accept that the peculiar cultural significance of the landscape and ecology made its proposals politically untenable. But without the Constable connection, the plans to re-engineer the river Stour’s flow through Dedham Vale would likely have met little resistance, transforming an ecologically-rich, semi-wetland ecology into something rather more ordinary, just as had occurred when similar plans were applied upstream.

But if the intensity of rainfall continues to increase, riverine bottlenecks will continue to occur in towns and cities, leading to further flooding. Common sense suggests that holding water upstream, even if this means flooding farmland, is preferable to allowing thousands of homes to be inundated, but as a public policy question there are tricky issues to get around. Is restoring hydraulic roughness to our uplands, especially by planting trees, consistent with existing subsidy regimes? Just how extensive should the reverse engineering of our rivers be? And should farmers be paid to temporarily store rainwater on their land?

8) Lowland Farming: Letting Nature Back In

Rewilding tends to be associated with England’s uplands, the agriculturally marginal areas already subject to significant protection as National Parks. But is there a role for rewilding in England’s lowlands? Is rewilding, as a recent conference focused on Dorset asked, ‘a viable conservation strategy?’ It all depends on what is meant by rewilding. If the emphasis is placed on the reintroduction of charismatic megafauna, particularly predators that need to range widely, then is answer is probably no. But if the territory is riverine and wooded then beavers can get to work. An experiment run by the Devon Wildlife Trust has seen an 180m stretch of woodland transformed by a single pair of beavers. The river that runs through the woodland now boasts thirteen ponds and study has shown that after heavy rainfall the water flows more quickly into the beaver’s terrain than it leaves it. Beaver dams slow the flow, making downstream flooding less likely. Not only that, but the water entering the terrain contains a high level of nitrate and phosphate – run off from adjacent agricultural land – but the water leaving contain negligible amounts. The dam complex acts as a filter partly by encouraging the growth of nitrogen-fixing legumes. Beavers could be introduced to other lowland wooded riverine environments, but this requires a shift in one’s aesthetic sense of what these environments should look like. Letting in beavers means letting go of notions of ‘tidy’ woodland.

A form of rewilding has been pursued on a much larger scale at the Knepp Estate in Sussex. This is 3,500-acre farm, intensively but unprofitably farmed since the Second World War, which now offers a radical reinterpretation of what a farm can be. Pigs, cattle, horses and deer roam free; plants, shrubs and trees are left to grow; and the positive consequences for biodiversity are such that Natural England part-funds the project through an Environmental Stewardship Agreement. Intensive farming has been replaced by extensive farming: meat is produced and income is supplemented with Knepp safaris and letting redundant farm buildings to affluent home-counties tenants.

The beavers of Roadford and the roaming cattle of Knepp suggest a new lowland agriculture, but is it really a plausible approach for more than a small number of select sites?

9: Whose countryside is it anyway?

Every patch of the English countryside is owned, be that owner an individual, a business, an organ of the state, or a NGO. It is striking that the current turn to the countryside has not raised significant questions about land ownership. Knepp might now be heavily subsidised, but there is no pressure to see the estate taken into public ownership. It’s another area of public life that shows how the ideological context has shifted to the right since the 1970s. And yet, the assumption that the citizens have rights with respect to rural property suggests the countryside is a form of public commons and a terrain quite distinct from domestic gardens, urban business premises or industrial plant. It is doubtful that this attitude has much to do with the subsidies that keep farmers afloat and everything to do with an older set of claims about how the land is a part of the people’s patrimony that dates back at least as far as Wordsworth’s idea that the unique beauty and cultural significance of the Lake District made it a ‘sort of national property’. But what happens if there is a more fundamental shift in the custodial duties of the landowners away from meeting the needs of the general public towards protecting the intrinsic value of non-human nature? What if, as is the case with many nature reserves elsewhere, keeping human beings out becomes one way in which the state does its work for nature? At present it seems unlikely that the interests of England’s nature will become subordinate to the needs of the landowners or the general public, but the fact that we don’t and are unlikely to segregate in this way says much about the peculiar form of co-ownership that holds sway in the most valued terrains of the English countryside.

Anticipating the forthcoming ‘stress test’ of EU subsidies, conservationists like Paul Jepson of Oxford University had embarked on a concerted attempt to lobby Brussels, seeking to persuade the European Commission that in the future subsidy payments must place more emphasis on the restoration of natural processes. Such lobbying has now been thrown into disarray by the Brexit vote and it was initially assumed that environmental protection will be now weakened and the rights of landowners strengthened. Ecologists have been quick to take to the blogosphere, making the case for a new system of British agricultural subsidies with natural processes at their heart. At the same time, there has been some disbelief in agricultural regions where there was a strong vote for Brexit that subsidies are now under threat. At the time of writing, these issues have been thrown into sharp relief by the National Trust’s decision to purchase at auction the land attached to Thorneythwaite farm in the Lake District, outbidding a neighbouring farmer keen to extend his holdings. The farming lobby has been outraged, arguing that an opportunity to strengthen traditional farming has been missed, and Rebanks had led charge, with Melvin Bragg, professional Cumbrian, bringing up the rear. Others, wary of rousing the ire of the Lakes lobby, have nonetheless been glad to see the Trust, the owner of numerous farms, committing to manage its land for nature rather than productivity. Quite what that means in practice isn’t yet clear and the broader issue of whether farm incomes will be protected in the future is impossible to predict, but the seemingly unbreakable link between the agricultural interest and the Tories is proving weaker than it once was. In the light of the Brexit vote, metropolitan scorn for the political choices of provincial agriculturalists might be tempered by the knowledge that the landscapes that make second homes so appealing won’t look after themselves. But if the idea that public money should only be paid for public goods properly takes hold, then the question of what now constitutes the public good raises a profound challenge to the farmers, making it all the more urgent that we ask: What is countryside for?

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2 Responses to What is countryside for?

  1. Thanks Matthew for an informative and thoughtful piece. I do think that where land is in public ownership there is quite a feeling that it shouldn’t be sold off – there are big campaigns in Brighton and Eastbourne for instance, against the councils’ moves to see their downland.


  2. Pingback: Reflections on the ‘countryside’ – Landscapes of the Normans

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