Introduction: Going Local

From the doorstep we can hear sheep bleating over the garden wall. An array of beef cattle and calves are pounding nearby fields. Beside them, the barley and wheat have been ripening alongside tall batches of broad beans – doubtless heading for livestock feed – while the remnants of an insurgent called oil-seed rape, yellowing the landscape in late spring, has morphed into a sickly tangle ready for harvesting.

If it rains heavily – early 2020 was particularly wet – we can be sure that torrents of water will tumble down nearby hillsides, rolling onto road and pasture sometimes hardened by livestock, rather than being absorbed into cultivated land or tree plantations. Drainage – good land management – sometimes seems an afterthought.

Within a semi-circle of, say, ten miles around our house, many of the challenges and opportunities present on our land can be found in microcosm: plenty of cattle, sheep and cultivated acres. But why so many arable acres devoted to grain and crops for feeding livestock? Why so relatively few woods – and we’re luckier than many in our small corner of Britain – in a country with a lower tree cover than elsewhere in Europe? Why so little attention paid to land drainage – and, hence, to addressing the climate emergency? So many questions left hanging in the air. And so little time to address what amounts to a looming crisis: feeding Britain and preparing for the impact of global heating. These twin issues, inextricably linked, must be addressed holistically.

Walking countless country miles during three COVID-19-induced lockdowns in 2020–21 provided time for reflection: across cultivated field, hardened pasture, river banks and flood plain; through deciduous woodland and magnificently restored ‘hills’ of industrial waste, planted with birch and rowan; along stretches of the long-distance Hadrian’s Wall path barely half a mile from our front door, and, hence, gingerly into the Northumberland National Park.

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