Myth of the British countryside

Published by The i paper (28th May, 2018)

For all his faults on Brexit and that disastrous leadership bid, Michael Gove remains one of our more interesting politicians. He attacks his brief with rare energy – and right now, in Theresa May’s moribund and divided government, stirs up more headlines in the traditional Tory backwater of environment than the rest of his cabinet colleagues put together. Like him or loathe him, his relentless determination and fierce political desire deserves credit amid so many cautious technocrats.

After less than a year in his latest job Gove has declared war on plastic, toughened animal cruelty penalties, banned ivory sales and barred bee-harming pesticides. His latest move is to launch a review of national landscapes under the author and journalist Julian Glover. ‘Are we properly supporting all those who live in, work in, or want to visit these magnificent places? Should we indeed be extending our areas of designated land? Could we do more to enhance our wildlife and support the recovery of natural habitats?’ he asked in a newspaper article.

No doubt Gove wants to shore up stumbling Brexit by trying to demonstrate some benefits of taking back control. But these are important questions, not least since removal of regressive farm subsidies offered the only good argument to Leave. The first National Park was established almost 70 years ago in the Peak District, where Glover lives and goes horse-riding. Now Britain has an alphabet soup of acronyms for its designated landscapes – from AONBs (Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) through to SSSI (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) – that overlap yet seem often to offer weak protection against rapacious developers and industrialised farming.

These issues are raised in Our Place, a superb new book by the naturalist Mark Cocker that is fast becoming highly influential. It was read by Glover, who then recommended it to Gove – and now the environment secretary is telling friends he found it ‘powerfully persuasive’. Yet while this is a work rooted in lyrical writing about rural places close to the author’s heart such as the Norfolk coast and Scotland’s Flow Country, it is also an impassioned polemic that challenges many sacrosanct British myths about the countryside and our supposed love of wildlife.

Cocker poses a simple question at core of his book: why do Britons seem to adore their countryside, with landscape woven into national identity and huge membership of conservation bodies such as the National Trust and RSPB, yet have ended up living in one of the planet’s most denatured countries? He highlights the terrible scale of habitat loss – half the ancient woodland gone over course of my lifetime, along with nearly three-quarters of heathland and ponds, plus almost all flower-rich meadows. The inevitable result is plunging wildlife populations from bugs to birds.

Partly this is down to abysmal farming and forestry subsidies that took billions in taxes from ordinary people and pumped them into pockets of some of the nation’s richest people, while at the same time encouraging intensive production methods that devastated wildlife. In just 12 years to 2011, 50 Scottish farmers received an astonishing £230.6m between them. Perhaps most appalling were tax breaks that fuelled planting of ‘dark cubist blocks’ of alien conifers from Cornwall to Caithness. Native oak can support 423 species of bugs and insects, creatures at base of all biodiversity, compared with just 37 found on spruce. And beneath the dismal serried ranks of conifer saplings, ground flora was wiped out.

Yet Cocker argues the issues are far more profound than just subsidies, going deep into structure of society. He highlights inequality, with one-third of Scottish land surface held by just 246 private estates, and says too much terrain is held secretly, with perhaps half the acreage of England and Wales left unrecorded in the Land Registry. Meanwhile landed interests retain influence on many key institutions, nor just the archaic House of Lords. He points to one study showing farmers made up almost one-fifth of councillors in six counties yet just 1.4 per cent of the adult population. Little wonder land taxes gain little traction in this country.

Many people also point at surging populations, which undoubtedly pressure natural areas. Yet densely-populated Kent retained more ancient woodland than any other county, since the big problem is bad policy. As Cocker says, drive through sparsely-occupied Border regions to see a sheep-grazed monoculture punctured with conifer plantations. Or visit those vast swathes of arable areas in England stripped bare of wildlife, leaving suburban and urban areas with often greater species diversity than rural regions. ‘Whenever people talk to me about the British countryside I ask ‘What countryside?’ remarks one of the author’s naturalist friends.

Here lies the key to this powerful polemic, with its subtitle ‘Can we save Britain’s wildlife before it is too late?’ Cocker believes the sacred rural idyll beloved by the public is largely owned by rich people, farmed intensively to deliver cheap food, bickered over by fractious conservation bodies and denuded of wildlife. It can be beautiful but is ‘almost devoid of biodiversity’ – even in protected areas such as national parks.

This is a clarion call to the country, confronting some fundamental hypocrisies. The author warns we have done too little ‘to turn the environmental ship around’ and that biodiversity will continue to deteriorate at alarming rate without drastic action. Yet as an important review is launched by a determined minister, the key question is whether anything can really persuade Westminster to place green issues at heart of the political agenda? Or will this just be one more false dawn as birds, bees, butterflies and bugs die out at alarming rates in a nation professing to love animals?

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