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How we lost our green and pleasant land

The pandemic has revealed not only how essential Britain’s natural landscape is, but how little ownership we have over it.

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It is now an established truism of Britain’s spring and summer of lockdown that it emphasised, like almost nothing in our recent history, the importance of countryside and nature to the nation’s well-being. In the media and on every kind of social platform, the part played by the living world in providing spiritual and physical release from the strains of coronavirus has been relentlessly repeated.

Ironically, perhaps, the defining images of that interrelationship between people and place are the photographs of Bournemouth in late June, with its enormous beach crowds. On the one hand, the half a million visitors were condemned for their inexcusable littering and thoughtlessness. On the other hand, the scenes symbolised precisely how little space and how few rights to our landscape British citizens enjoy.

It is this latter interpretation that has informed a succession of calls among environmental organisations for a radical re-evaluation of our access to the natural world. The Green Party, as well as the Wildlife Trusts, Friends of the Earth, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the National Trust, have all issued similar if separate challenges. Hilary McGrady, the National Trust’s director-general, has called for a recovery plan that “responds to what the lockdown has clearly shown: that people want and need access to nature-rich green spaces near where they live”.

All the new campaigns find powerful corroborative evidence in an ever-expanding shelf of books about the importance of nature to the entirety of the human organism. The latest titles include Isabel Hardman’s The Natural Health Service, reviewed in these pages in April, which explores the part played by her encounter with the living world in overcoming mental illness. She also reports how hospital patients recover faster when the convalescent’s view includes natural elements such as trees. Nature-centred activities and therapies – gardening, exercise in green space, woodland walks – are now prescribed by parts of the NHS and valued for their contributions to mental health.

Patrick Barkham, with customary grace and charm, tells us about the importance of nature to children in his new book Wild Child. Like Hardman, he discusses the science underpinning the Japanese folk therapy of “forest bathing”. Trees are known to produce antimicrobial chemicals called phytoncides; people exposed to them through woodland walks experience lowered pulse rate and blood pressure and an enhanced immune system.

While there is no end to works highlighting why we should value nature and why it is beneficial, few tackle the processes that actually determine our access to nature and the condition of our environment. We know why we need improved nature, but the how is missing. A new book that makes the case, albeit implicitly, is Derek Gow’s Bringing Back the Beaver. Gow’s totem animal, a native resident of the UK until it was exterminated in the 16th century, is what is defined as a keystone species.

Beavers are essentially engineers, and with their dam constructions they reshape and enhance riverine landscapes, improving flow rates, helping flood prevention, building fish stocks and adding to aquatic diversity like no other animal in the wetland environment. Gow, who is both a farmer and conservationist, is the perfect advocate for the value of returning beavers to Britain. So, how are beavers doing here? In the eight months to December 2019, Scottish Natural Heritage, the government’s wildlife agency, licensed the killing of 87 of them, about one-fifth of all beavers in Britain. Beavers require tolerance and can disrupt river patterns, but this level of slaughter reflects the deep conservatism of landowners when faced with new “problem” species.

There now come two books that in radically different ways examine and expose precisely what shapes national nature policy in Britain and how. The first, by Laurence Rose, is Framing Nature: Conservation and Culture. It is doubly significant because it comes at the end of a long career as a professional with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). The book is a summary of a lifetime’s experience, but also a heartfelt admission of failure. First, Rose shows there is a powerful precedent for the way the present crisis has amplified the call to re-evaluate our natural landscape. Until the Second World War not a single penny of state money had been spent on official protection of the British environment. All the key mechanisms we have – town and country planning acts, green belt, national parks, national nature reserves, areas of outstanding natural beauty, sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) – were devised in a time of global conflict and rolled out, despite national bankruptcy, in the early postwar years.

These may make up the bedrock of present conservation policy but, according to Rose, they are no longer fit for purpose. Far from developing ever-richer natural environments in the ensuing 75 years, we have failed even to hold on to the landscapes we inherited. The book is shaped around nine key species, including the otter, nightingale, white-tailed eagle and badger.

As well as giving full rein to Rose’s lyrical prose, the formula allows him to explore the indisputable achievements of conservation charities. Otters and white-tailed eagles, for instance, have both been brought back from perilously low numbers. By the 1970s otters were wiped out over most of lowland England by agrochemicals. Yet, through a combination of state and charity work, the species has now returned to every English county surveyed, just as white-tailed eagles have been restored to northern Scotland over the same period.

Rose points out that these specific gains must be set against more general adverse trends in wildlife. By almost every historical index, Britain has a pitiful record on environmental health. On the Farmland Bird Index, which offers insight into the quality of the nation’s food-producing countryside, Britain was last among all EU countries. Overall Europe has lost 421 million birds in 30 years, of which Britain accounts for 44 million, a total that – proportionate to area – is nearly twice the EU average. In 2016, on what is called the Biodiversity Intactness Index, England specifically was judged to be the 29th most denatured country on Earth.

Rose shows how we have come to such a pass when he charts the unstoppable decline in our most celebrated songbird, the nightingale, which has lost 90 per cent of its British population. His account centres on an ongoing battle to save a site in Kent called Lodge Hill, formerly owned as a munitions store by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Access has long been restricted because of its military sensitivities and, in our absence, this legally protected wildlife site has grown into a paradise for bats, a suite of rare reptiles and amphibians, as well as about one-tenth of England’s last nightingales.

The MoD has since transferred ownership of Lodge Hill to a quango called Homes England, thereby seeking to subsume the clean-up costs of unexploded ordnance within the economics of building thousands of new homes in the area. Over ten years, conservationists, including the RSPB, BugLife, Butterfly Conservation, Kent Bat Group and Kent Wildlife Trust, all of which attest the exceptional importance of Lodge Hill, have fought four planning battles with developers and Medway Council to prevent it being turned into a building site.

Rose highlights how the root problem for conservation is that protective designations are located within, and are subordinate to, the planning regulatory system, whose underlying rationale is to enable development. To protect an SSSI such as Lodge Hill, environmentalists must not only win every time a fresh application arises: they must also bear the high costs of fending off each assault. But conservation charities don’t exist to make profit; property developers do. The implications are that wildlife loss is built into the very process of environmental protection. We have not developed conservation policy to hold the natural world inviolate; it is there as a temporary fix, to fulfil a proclaimed if often hollow moral position, that cedes ground whenever a human need is viewed as overwhelming.

As a remedy for this failed system, Rose proposes a simple expedient: largely remove legally protected wildlife sites from the planning system so that the right to overturn their status occurs only in the minimum of cases. In other words, make legal protection mean precisely what it says. Given that Boris Johnson gave a summer speech declaring a wish to “build, build, build” and sweep aside “newt-counting delays in our system”, it is hard to have faith in the government’s proclaimed desire to reverse the fortunes of Britain’s natural heritage.

If Rose identifies the central issue that has failed nature in Britain, then the graphic novelist Nick Hayes, in The Book of Trespass, has named the other central obstacle to a post-lockdown future in which people enjoy genuine access to wildlife-rich space. According to Hayes, it is simple: most of the British are a landless people. While 53 million of us own on average seven-hundredths of one acre, roughly 35,000 people own half this country. One-third of all land is still owned by the aristocracy and the 24 non-royal dukes have almost four million acres of it.

Yet it wasn’t always so. Britain’s ordinary commoners once had access and rights of usage over 6.8 million acres. But the landed classes, via 5,200 acts of parliament, mainly between 1760 and 1844, and through a legislative process that they controlled in its entirety, transferred to their own possession most of the common estate. The land-grab amounted to internal colonisation. In the past 100 years there has been a further reduction in public access to land with the loss of roughly half of all footpaths in England.

Brilliantly argued, The Book of Trespass explores with clarity and courage an ancient problem in radically new ways. Like Jay Griffiths in another essential book, Wild: An Elemental Journey (2007), Hayes unearths the psychological preconditions that empower and legitimise these monumental inequalities. He describes how the British have so long internalised this sense of alienation from the countryside that they consider it a kind of trespass even to reflect on the privileges of the landed classes.

It is with this filter in place that we can at least comprehend the shocking littering seen at the Bournemouth beaches. With no investment in it and no sense of shared responsibility towards the countryside, is it not inevitable that people will treat land carelessly? A secondary factor in the littering epidemic must surely be government failure to invest in public messaging about proper countryside behaviour. In the past decade it has spent around £2,000 a year promoting the Countryside Code, as opposed to £46m on the “Get ready for Brexit” campaign.

Hayes explains how land has been made a vehicle for fiscal transfer, by which ordinary citizens pay for their subservience and exclusion through monetary benefits to landowners. For more than half a century, the EU’s common agricultural policy has been party to a taxation that is little short of medieval in character. Hayes gives the example of our non-royal dukes, 17 of whom pocketed £8.4m, while 14 marquises got £3.5m in tax transfers, in 2016 alone. (These sums are paid by the EU, but after Brexit replacement policies will almost certainly continue to give money to large landowners.) The author Kevin Cahill, in his devastating exposure of land injustice Who Owns the World (2006), calls this transfer from the poorest to the wealthiest “the heist of all heists”.

In making this judgement, Cahill should perhaps have singled out for special consideration the public swindle associated with Britain’s grouse moor. When we survey the full extent of the nation’s environmental mismanagement, as outlined in Rose’s book, then grouse moors are among the worst-case scenarios.

These upland landscapes are a component of those “wastes” conferred on the landed gentry through the 19th-century acts of enclosure. Long misunderstood and unfortunately known as “blanket bog”, they are among the rarest ecological treasures on our islands. In a world of climate chaos, they are additionally the most significant natural storage system we possess, sequestering more atmospheric carbon than rainforest. Their predominant vegetation, called sphagnum moss, is twice as absorbent as cotton wool, offering opportunities to mitigate the escalating problems of flooding in Britain.

The inherent environmental benefits of moors are not maximised for the good of all, nor do the open character and wild aspect of these places fulfil the public’s need for space through rights of access. Rather, they serve the sporting pleasure of a minuscule elite. According to Mark Avery in his seminal exposure of grouse moors, Inglorious (2015), the 1.5 million acres of moorland in England are shaped to meet the interests of about 15,000 mainly male clients. For a day’s shoot each “gun” can pay anything up to £3,000.

Driven shooting is apparently the most exciting form of bird-killing sport in which the “guns”, immobile and expectant with their expensive tweeds and Purdey firearms, await grouse flights that are driven toward them by paid beaters. Even the physical choreography of driven shooting seems a ritualised expression of dominance by those who have the sporting fun over those who do the beating.

To achieve the abnormal surpluses of grouse needed to pursue driven shooting, the moor owners and managers intensively flay the vegetation, drain it and, until very recently, widely burned it over vast areas to create the desired monoculture. Setting fire to moorland is a distorted abuse of our upland environment, but the most ecologically illiterate part is that we pay them to do it. The annual subsidy that underpins the sporting obsessions of roughly 0.01 per cent of our population was about £17.3m in 2013.

There is a further darkness to driven grouse practice that receives little light: the sport involves the relentless illegal slaughter of birds of prey – kites, buzzards, peregrines, eagles and especially hen harriers – and anything else that impacts on grouse numbers. Perhaps the most pernicious of these killing exercises is the previously wholesale destruction of mountain hares, because they carry a sickness that affects grouse. Mercifully the hare has been given legal protection in Scotland this year, but not in England. Yet the recent jubilation that the Holyrood decision ignited, especially south of the border, was not just an expression of justice achieved. The long-awaited protection for this scarce, native, utterly harmless and beautiful animal illuminates how infrequent is the triumph of such values in relation to British nature.

What would be genuine justice for the British is a total ban on driven grouse shooting throughout the country. Even better would be the reclamation of these territories for national benefit. As George Monbiot has argued, we have paid many times over in subsidies the value of their outright purchase already.

Repossession of our upland landscapes would provide huge opportunities for outdoor activities, for trails and recreation in areas close to large population centres in Yorkshire, Lancashire and north-east England. Overnight it would deliver an area for nature conservation and for programmes of ecological restoration that would be roughly equal in England alone to the entire landholdings of the National Trust, the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts combined.

Will it happen? Almost certainly not. Yet the cessation of driven shooting will come in the near future. From every ecological perspective it is untenable, but the continued killing of our country’s birds of prey is little short of a national disgrace.

If we are truly intent on a new dispensation in our relationship with nature, then banning driven grouse shooting would not be the fulfilment of the policy. Yet it would represent a very important beginning. Were the environmental organisations to unite in a collective campaign then, as low-hanging fruit, it would fall very quickly. If the various organisations currently calling for a new deal on nature undertook it, they should pursue and understand it at two distinct levels.

It is firstly the physical restoration of national territory to the public estate. More importantly, it would represent a symbolic assertion of the principle at the heart of all conservation efforts and land-access rights. Land and nature nourish humans across the entire spectrum of their needs and aspirations. Control of those multifarious benefits is not exclusive to he or she who holds the title deed. It belongs to us all.

Mark Cocker’s books include “Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late?” (Jonathan Cape)

Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature
Patrick Barkham
Granta, 256pp, £16.99

Bringing Back the Beaver: The Story of One Man’s Quest to Rewild Britain’s Waterways
Derek Gow 
Chelsea Green, 208pp, £20

The Book of Trespass: Crossing the Lines that Divide Us
Nick Hayes
Bloomsbury Circus, 464pp, £20

Framing Nature: Conservation and Culture
Laurence Rose
Gritstone Publishing, 256pp, £11.95

This article appears in the 04 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn't working