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

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.