The highest ground pulsates with life

High Alpine meadows, like their near relatives prairie and wetland, teach us to consider the world from a fresh perspective.

Take any path that leads upwards from a Swiss mountain village and you will find two distinct forms of meadow. The first, in clearings and open spaces below the treeline, has distinct flora, a lush mix of grasses and wildflowers that was once found all over Britain but is now mostly a fond memory (some estimates suggest that 80 to 90 per cent of our hay meadows was lost, in the space of about 70 years, in the shift from traditional farming to industrial agribusiness).

We have to concede that, in one sense, these hay meadows are artificial – they arose where native woodland was cleared to grow hay for livestock – but they are extraordinarily rich spaces, nevertheless, with a diversity and abundance of plant and insect life that most of us can only dream about. Here, the open ground is a brightly coloured tapestry of geraniums, hawkbits, bellflowers and daisies, while the dappled shade at the meadow’s edge offers sanctuary to diadems of Astrantia and that “queen of poisons”, Aconitum vulparia. Wherever you look, butterflies of every hue and pattern drift from flower to flower in seemingly impossible numbers.

These “artificial” meadows are a testament to what can be achieved when human culture dovetails with the natural world; they may result from our interventions, but they are havens for birds, bees and other wildlife and a perennial source of inspiration for painters, poets and musicians. That we have almost lost them demonstrates not only appalling carelessness, but also an astonishing stupidity on our part.

Continue that walk a few hundred metres further up the mountain, however, and you come to natural, or perennial, meadow, a terrain that is as old as the mountains themselves. Here, in spring and early summer, the ground is covered with clusters and carpets of gentian and saxifrage, Androsace and primulas, mountain asters and those fleshy clumps of sempervivum that, in flower, look like miniature krakens from some 1950s science-fiction movie.

The more you look, the more this natural variety and beauty become present to the eye. High Alpine meadows, like their near relatives prairie, desert and certain varieties of wetland, teach us to consider the world from a fresh perspective, to open our eyes and take account of what we have missed, reminding us that, in spite of our emphasis on the visual in everyday speech, we see so very little of the world. To appreciate these high meadows requires exquisite attention, but the exercise is salutary, considering how flabby our everyday awareness has become.

So, it is gratifying to know that, over the past few months, meadows have been in the news: Prince Charles, whose own garden at Highgrove contains a traditional hay meadow, recently set up a scheme to fund 60 “coronation meadows” across Britain. A few local councils have come to recognise the importance of permanent meadowland, with such projects as the Sanders Park initiative in Bromsgrove garnering huge support. And individual gardeners are beginning to forgo the joyless backyard monoculture of mossfree, manicured lawns for wild gardens that, however small they may be, offer way stations and refuges for insects and birds in cities and suburbs.

Any and all such projects, no matter how modest, are to be applauded, but we must always remember that, with regard to meadows, as with so much else, the elephant in the room is our continued tolerance of an agribusiness system that is both toxic and socially unjust.

Unless we change the very nature of our rural economy – first by breaking the hegemony of corporate subsidy-milkers, and then by supporting only those for whom farming is both a vocation and the expression of a living tradition – the diversity and abundance that makes for quality of life, in the fullest sense of the phrase, may never be regained.

World anew: the wild but subtle beauty of highland meadows commands attention and excited delight. Photograph: Misha de Ridder.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.