The countryside isn’t the countryside. Not really. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that much of the countryside isn’t my idea of what countryside should be. Allow me to explain…
If I asked you to think of the countryside, what would you imagine? My guess is that many may think of the things that they can see from the car window. Woodlands, lakes and mountains would hopefully feature heavily, but I suspect that vast, rolling fields of farmland would be the most common response.
I want to be very clear in stating that I have nothing against agriculture. It is hugely important to sustaining the population of the UK, and indeed some of our farmland is exceptionally valuable to wildlife. There are large numbers of species that wholly rely on farmland, including some of our most beautiful bird species and our most charismatic mammals. I have no beef with agriculture (excuse the pun), but I have a real problem with the bastardised form of agriculture that dominates many rural parts of the UK. Endless fields where ancient hedgerows have been deemed an inconvenience and ripped out. Fields that are cropped to their boundaries to maximise yield. Tracts of grassland given over to sheep and castle grazing to keep our failing dairy industry alive. The increasing trend towards crops such as oilseed rape and maize, both of which are like wildlife deserts in comparison to more traditional wheat or barley crops. Each of these practices has dealt a harsh blow to biodiversity in this country, sterilising huge areas of land for native wildlife and destroying valuable topsoil. This topsoil in turn is washed into our streams and rivers as silt, where it it clogs the gills of fish and contributes to our ever growing problem with flooding by reducing the carrying capacity of the wetland infrastructure upon which we are so reliant. In addition, the use of pesticides and herbicides that are needed to keep these areas at their most productive has an equally devastating effect on nature. We’ve all heard about the extent to which bees are being damaged by pesticides, but the same problem extends to a myriad of other species. Fish are poised, insects are wiped out, and in turn the species that rely upon them for food slowly starve and reduce in numbers. Intensive agriculture is tantamount to concreting over our green and pleasant land.
The farmers aren’t to blame. The blame lies with the politicians that have created an economic race to the bottom, wherein farmers are under extreme pressure to produce more and more in exchange for less and less. Money is pumped in via subsidies to create an illusion of a healthy, functioning market, but it’s not hard to see beneath the veil. Farming in this country is broken, and the farming communities and our wildlife suffer equally. This is the true price of a cheap loaf of bread or pint of milk.
It’s heartening that many landowners are in agreement that the current situation is unsustainable, and that there is a better way. There is an observable trend towards lower intensity land use, and in recent years EU funding has seen an increase in better environmental stewardship. It’s incredible what the retention of arable field margins and areas of set-aside can do, and it’s also evident that there is a market out there for ethical produce. People want to support sustainable farming and wildlife, but that’s still not enough. Without a fundamental sea change in policy and the economics of farming, the rate of biodiversity loss will continue. I’m optimistic that we can make real improvements, but it’ll be a long road.
My perfect countryside is an unachievable utopia, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.
My countryside is one of ancient woodland, of hedgerows enclosing small fields, of wildflower meadows and field margins, of rare breed livestock on organic land.
My countryside has clean water and rich soil, and crop fields are thick with skylarks, pipits and partridge.
My countryside is one where foxes and badgers can sleep safely at night, without fear of being murdered to appease a vocal minority.
My countryside is driven by self sufficiency and a love of nature, rather than tariffs and quotas.
My countryside is about 500 years in the past. Let’s make it the future too.