My country, by which I mean England, has a nice mixture of terrain. Quite a lot of it is lowland and green, but there are areas of mountains and lakes, bog and moor, and so on. For a long time, we pretty much had the means to support ourselves, making most of what we needed, fishing the seas, and farming the land and adding to our diets, knowledge and culture with what could be brought across the channel by boat1. And then we got silly and started chopping down our vast forests to provide wood for warships, and we wanted exotic things like spices and silks, chocolate and bananas and pineapples and so on, and we began to import and export and go to war over resources in far-flung lands, claiming that stuff belonged to us because we got there first, and our armies are bigger than yours. Well, that’s obviously an over-simplification and misses out various bits of history and it’s all water under the bridge, but the fact is that we’ve somehow lost the ability (and/or the desire) to support ourselves and we are no longer content to travel slowly using horses and carriages and some things are going seriously downhill.
Farming, in the UK, accounts for around 70% of our land use. England, this green and pleasant land of ours, has traditionally been a country of small farms and mixed landscapes dotted with hedges and drystone walls2. Now, though, our farming practices, changing over time to suit perceived needs, are threatening the delicate balance of nature. Farms have got bigger. We have lost huge percentages of almost every sort of wildlife, both flora and fauna, and we have catastrophic flooding. Since the introduction of factory farming3, animals have largely disappeared from most of England’s landscape to be replaced with monoculture arable farming.
This next bit will no doubt upset a lot of people, but bear with me. It’s just my opinion, but I do have environmentalists on my side, and considering that we are facing a very uncertain future what with global warming and all, I think we need to stop thinking about profit and more about sustainability and repairing the damage that we are doing to the planet we live on.
Monoculture arable farming – you know, that thing they do with gigantic fields full of a single crop, ripping out hedges and trees to make it easier for combine-harvesting behemoths – is not sustainable. It requires unconscionable amounts of pesticides, destroys ecosystems, and has a lot to do with the increase in flooding in certain areas. The soil in far too many of these fields is all but dead, there is no wildlife habitat to speak of, and the food that is produced is, not to put too fine a point on it, contaminated.
Building on greenfield sites – that thing that they do where developers place ‘options’ on land that doesn’t even belong to them and put in outline planning applications, so that they can go to a farmer and offer him hundreds of thousands of pounds to sell them a field to build hundreds or thousands of houses on – is not sustainable. We are losing farmland at an unacceptable rate, which not only reduces the area on which we can grow our food, but it further increases the loss of wildlife. Not only that, but much of our fauna, not unsurprisingly, often requires exactly the same type of landscape as we do. There are bog and moor and mountain specialists, but a huge amount of our wildlife likes to live where we like to live; in more equable conditions and where the food and water and shelter options are more varied. So the arguments that ‘only 10.6% of our land is used for housing, you know’ are rather specious.
More to the point, perhaps, is that both of these things have an extremely negative effect on the balance of CO2 in the atmosphere. Trees are probably the most efficient thing we have for locking carbon into the environment, with hedging also doing very well indeed, thank you very much. And yet we are told to use less of this, more of that, on a personal level, while the big boys and girls continue to play their wasteful games.
There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Michael Gove – who, as I remember, nobody liked very much prior to the election4 – has been making some encouraging noises. He seems to have all the right priorities and is promising some very good things. Of course, we will have to wait and see whether all this is actually put into practice or if it will fall by the wayside of political expediency, but the future is beginning to look a little brighter. Then there are people like Lynne and Stephen Briggs, whose innovative measures on a farm in Cambridgeshire look most exciting indeed. They are bucking the trend and dividing their huge fields into strips – almost like the old mediaeval ridge & furrow system, only … well, not really. Their 21 metre-wide strips are divided by trees, running north-east to south-west across the fields to maximise sunlight coverage. Their trees are apple, but they can be fruit or nut, giving high-value cash crops, or something like hazel, which produces large quantities of usable wood when coppiced. Profit from agroforestry (as it is known), can increase productivity by 40-50%, because the crops grow and are harvested at different times, and it’s three-dimensional farming, for heaven’s sake, making far better use of the space. What’s more, the trees bring nutrients up from the depths with their extensive root systems, parking them in the leaves, which then fall and rot, and cycle the good stuff up into the topsoil.
Another wonderful thing about this is that it would return our green and pleasant land to that lovely patchwork of crops mixed with trees and hedges of different shades of green and brown, and the autumn would have proper colour again instead of vast areas of dispiriting stubble and stinking stalks of oilseed rape. Add the proposed Northern Forest project which has now been approved, and if it weren’t for HS2 about to cause the destruction of huge swathes of irreplaceable virgin forest on its way up north I’d be a very happy bunny indeed.
1 There was – of course – poverty and inequality, but we haven’t exactly solved those now, have we?
2 Mm .. yeah, OK. This is fairly recent historically, because in the middle ages England was covered with vast tracts of virgin woodland and later grew into a feudal system consisting of a landlord whose land consisted of a large house and parkland, and a little autocracy of small farms and smallholdings. This began to change, partly due to changing laws, depressions and so on, and we started to import more goods, then there were two World Wars which basically left us with a system pretty similar to the one we have today. Historians will pick this explanation to tiny pieces in two minutes flat, but that’s basically the gist of it.
3 An abomination if ever there was one, and the single most devastating blow for animal welfare in my lifetime.
4 Possibly because of the way he shafted Boris Johnson.