We are all custodians of our countryside: now we have an opportunity to save it

John Burnside on the countryside’s future

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This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Graham Harvey’s The Killing of the Countryside, surely one of the most incisive studies of how we in Britain lost our place in the world: whether it be the child’s realm of birds and butterflies, or the grown-up’s sense of belonging to the Earth itself, even if that good Earth is mostly seen through the windows of a commuter train.

That world was destroyed by a combination of ill-considered subsidies and the rapacious, blind machine of Big Finance, which makes as much money for shareholders as can be squeezed from the system, no matter the consequences.

Harvey’s book was a landmark. Closely researched, elegantly written and passionate about the fabric of rural life, it exposed the folly of a runaway subsidy system and the harm it had caused, from environmental degradation and loss of habitat to rural unemployment – and, crucially, it reminded us that this system was not a product of the EU, but had been introduced in Britain just after the war.

Was it surprising that, from the first, landowners raced to clear every inch of land for cultivation? That hedges were grubbed out to make prairie-style fields for the new breeds of agricultural machinery, that even the least patch of wetland was drained, that copses where children had once played were felled for good?

Last year, Nigel Farndale remarked in the Spectator that, although farmers have chosen to “avoid examining their consciences too closely . . . it’s not their fault if their counterparts in other EU countries, especially France, represent such an aggressive and powerful lobby. And it’s not their fault that a staggering 40 per cent of the EU budget is spunked away on the Common Agricultural Policy . . .”

But this is not only bad ethics, it is also misleading, as it forgets that much of the damage was done before we joined Europe. It was a purely British policy that brought down a mixed farming method that offered the best food production systems human beings had ever engineered and provided a network of wildlife havens all across the land.

Meanwhile, the price of farmland rose as the City swallowed up the acres in its search for easy money, and agriculture as a whole became more intensive and more cynical, with dead cattle being fed to cattle and patches of ancient meadow “accidentally” ploughed up to get around limited planning regulations.

As Harvey notes, politicians “set farming on a calamitous dash for intensification that was to put three-quarters of those farmers out of business”. By 1997, things had fallen so low that we might as well have enshrined the decline of the lapwing, the turtle dove and even the hedgehog in government policy.

Now, two decades on, a wildlife study has painted a dark picture: the RSPB-led State of Nature report for 2016 notes that between 1970 and 2013, 56 per cent of species declined – 40 per cent strongly or moderately. Among conservation priority species, overall numbers have declined by 67 per cent since 1970.

Yet, as Graham Harvey urges in a recent blog, we do have an opportunity, post-Brexit, to set things right. “The £3bn or so we taxpayers stump up each year to reward investors, land speculators and large chemical corporations could be used to drive towards a better, more beautiful countryside.”

It would be a long haul, against determined opponents (who apparently feel justified in not examining their conscience too closely). But is it too optimistic to add that the fight for a resurrected countryside might also inform a new sense of national/regional identity, one that allows us to define ourselves, finally, not as the sum of our fears and prejudices, but as the equal and democratic custodians of “this other Eden, demi-paradise”?

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article appears in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition