The countryside has become the latest front in the culture war. Perhaps it was the original front – 2,500 years ago Aesop was recounting the tale of “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse”. Either way, wander out into England’s green and pleasant land and it won’t be long before you come across evidence of the fierce rural-urban divide: fences that keep roamers in their place, farming practices that offend metropolitan sensibilities, the wild inevitability of nature up against humanity’s relentless urge to tame the land.
Anna Jones, who grew up on a farm, wants to tell the personal stories of those caught up in this fight, starting with Alistair. He was once a nomadic, dreadlocked firebreather who lived in a van; now he and his boyfriend are dairy farmers. Oh, and Alistair also used to be vegan.
It’s a touching story: how a self-confessed keyboard warrior who spent hours arguing on the internet about the immorality of animal products ended up milking cows. “So you found yourself getting involved in a system you fundamentally disagreed with?” Jones asks. Through actually living on a farm and improving conditions for the cows there, Alistair realised there might be more than one way to champion animal welfare. There’s a middle ground, he says, explaining how he learned that much of what he’d seen of grim-looking farming realities in campaign videos lacked crucial context. The farmers weren’t too sure about him at first, but seem to have come around to his change of career. One even invited him over for beef stew. His vegan former friends… not so much.
Later, we’ll delve deep into the controversies of rewilding and learn about the “Iron Curtain of Somerset”, a 3,000ft metal fence thrown up by a millionaire farmer to deter walkers. Can the rest of the countryside’s bitter opponents find Alistair’s middle ground and relearn empathy, or has everything become too polarised? Maybe we should get them all to try milking a cow to find out.
BBC Radio 4, 6 November, 1.45pm
[See also: How John le Carré infiltrated Oxford]
This article appears in the 08 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Fury