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Reworking the Countryside

Feeding Britain while preparing for the ravages of climate change are two key issues – yet there’s no strategy for managing and enhancing that most precious resource: our land. This book explores how the pressures of leaving the EU, recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, and addressing global heating present unparalleled opportunities to re-work the countryside for the benefit of all.

Incorporating personal, inspiring stories of people and places, Peter Hetherington sets out the innovative measures needed for nature’s recovery while protecting our most valuable farmland, encouraging local food production and ‘re-peopling’ remote areas. In the first book to tackle these issues holistically, he argues that we need to re-shape the countryside with an adventurous new agenda at the heart of government.

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In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences. 1

What keeps people working the land: growing crops, raising and trading livestock, enriching the countryside, nurturing nature, hoping to make a living from improving ‘natural capital’ – in plain English, embracing key resources such as soils, peatlands, water supplies, geology, wildlife and living organisms?

And how to assess the cost of renewing that most basic resource – our land – by reworking the countryside for the benefit of all to provide the food we need, enhance the landscape we love and address the climate emergency which threatens us all?

The average farmer’s simple answer to the first question might well be “That’s the only life I know”. This invariably boils down to sentiment, comfort on home turf, being rooted to place, sometimes to language – certainly for farmers in the Fferm Ifan CIC. Their response to that question would be an emphatic “Because it’s where we belong”.2

The answer to the second question is more complex. It depends on a range of factors. Not least among these is the role of government in delivering an integrated land use strategy for England, learning – dare one suggest? – from the differing, and more coordinated, approaches of Scotland and Wales.

In this context, the argument from a former secretary of state for the Environment, John Gummer (Lord Deben), for a new department of land use to coordinate strategy across Whitehall is compelling. There’s “no hope” of sensible land use in England, he maintains, when planning is “imprisoned” within the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), agriculture within the Defra, infrastructure within the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and transport within the Department for Transport (DfT).3

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He is richest who is content with the least; for content is the wealth of nature. 1

High in the Conwy valley, amid the rugged splendour of Snowdonia, children from a local school are measuring the depth of the peat being restored by far-sighted farmers addressing a new reality: renewing the hills and uplands to help nature’s recovery.

For the young pupils from the Ysgol Ysbyty Ifan, the exercise represents science with an edge in the wild beauty of the great Welsh outdoors, beside one of the largest blanket bogs in the principality – the Migneint – where the 11 farmers have grazing rights.

In a riveting film, a nine-year-old well versed in the climate emergency describes how this bog, “vast and remote”, stores carbon on a huge scale. “But degraded peatlands damage our environment by releasing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide into the air,” she explains authoritatively in Welsh. “This contributes to global warming.”2

In this small corner of a splendid National Park, the children are raising an issue at the heart of our challenge to reverse a post-war draining programme meant to ‘improve’ our moorlands – but which, in reality, only succeeded in degrading them.

To achieve the turnaround on the Migneint, thousands of ditches – opened up to speed drainage decades ago – are being blocked as part of an extensive renewal programme. As the nine-year-old explains, in the helpfully sub-titled film, this is important to “re-wet and restore the Migneint to its natural, wet state … to tackle the climate emergency we are all facing”.

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For the upright will inhabit the land, and those with integrity will remain in it … 1

Around the gentle, rounded Cheviot hills, evidence of once thriving, self-sustaining settlements punctuate the landscape. Steep terraces for growing crops contour the hillsides. Ridges and furrows from ploughing are etched into valleys. Large, circular mounds provide evidence of hill forts alongside outlines of timber roundhouses in faint circles. In these magnificent uplands, amid the tumbling lapwings and ascending skylarks, agriculture survived and prospered, albeit in a near-Mediterranean climate.

In a small museum near the 11th-century St Michael’s church in the village of Ingram, vivid displays of another life give a sense of the effort involved in preparing the land for relatively sophisticated farming and creating the capacity for storing food for hundreds of people, maybe more. So rich is the archaeological treasure trove in this part of the Northumberland National Park – the fertile valley of the River Breamish and the varied uplands rich in prehistory, amid later signs of Roman occupation – that five Iron Age hill forts, collectively one of the country’s largest ancient monuments, are linked in a spectacular 4.5-mile upland trail. It is a testament to the earliest agriculture.

With polished axes, aspiring farmers created patches large enough to sow cereals such as wheat, oats and barley. Domestic animals, maybe sheep, cattle and pigs, were probably introduced from the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age, roaming the uplands in a setting doubtless beloved by some of today’s re-wilding enthusiasts – more on them later – until the Romans subsequently cleared the remaining woodlands.2

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And the horizon stooping smiles/O’er treeless fens of many miles. 1

To see the tidal defences and inland channels regulating water and protecting farms and communities is to marvel at the monumental task of transforming 1,500 square miles of wetland into the country’s best arable acres. With a habitat and history quite distinct from the rest of the country, we call this huge area the Fens: drained from the early 17th to the mid-19th centuries, at some cost to wildlife, nature and to a distinctive way of life for its people.

For Daniel Defoe, it was ‘all covered in water like a sea … the soak of no less than 13 counties’:2 a giant sponge absorbing the water flowing into a landscape, once one of Europe’s great deltas and ‘most diverse environments’.3 Today it is interlaced by a network of straightened rivers, parallel channels, small reservoirs, endless long and high embankments, several hundred pumping stations and sluices to hold back water; all this to protect vulnerable and drained farmland, semi-rural communities and, further upstream, Cambridge itself.

Now these flatlands, a food bowl for Britain, often below sea level and leaching carbon into the atmosphere, are degrading as the ground sinks – and the country faces tough choices. Should part of them be returned to a natural state of meadow, marsh, meres (lakes) and meandering rivers – in short, ‘rewetting’, to contain carbon – with the remainder reinforced to protect farmland at a cost of billions over the 21st century? Will the government, when it finally considers the issue, authorize limited funding and make do and mend as best it can? Or are the Fens destined to eventually become a wetland once again, by default if not by design? As we shall see, tentative signs of action are emerging, with a new government task force charged with addressing the challenges in our lowland peatlands – none bigger than the Fens.4

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See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth. Be patient … 1

Amid sunflowers and grasses wafting gently in the Lincolnshire breeze, the man who invented the bagless vacuum cleaner gestures around surrounding fields to highlight the latest in farming technology. On a bright summer’s day, Sir James Dyson barely stops for breath: the future of farming, he enthuses, will centre on research, science and “developing new ways of doing things, [creating] new machines”. As such, expertise built around consumer durables, and the new world of artificial intelligence (AI), will prove transformative in reworking the land to achieve a goal central to the country’s resilience, yet side-lined by successive governments: greater self-sufficiency in food.2

“We should be growing our own food; we shouldn’t be importing it … terribly important,” insists Dyson, warming to a theme which you might think is – but, alarmingly, is not – a top priority for government. ‘We shouldn’t give up …’3 Yet, up to now, it seems that – shamefully – governments have. We grow barely 60% of our own food.

The engineer-turned-inventor and multi-billionaire points over a hedgerow, in a short film, to 15 acres of six-metre-high glasshouses stretching as far as the eye can see: protection for the first strawberries, with other fruit to follow, bucking the seasons with a crop ready for market in November and March. Nearby, two power plants, known as anaerobic digesters – fed on maize from surrounding fields, rather than from organic waste – provide the energy for one of the country’s largest farming operations.

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A flock of sheep that leisurely pass by/One after one the sound of rain and bees/Murmuring, the fall of rivers, winds and seas/Smooth fields, white sheets of water and pure sky. 1

In a magnificent sweep of uplands, unequalled in England, the Lake District meets the Yorkshire Dales along the winding Lune Gorge on a far-northern stretch of the M6 in Cumbria: two National Parks, joined at the hip, with England’s highest peaks to the west and its finest natural limestone upland ‘pavements’ eastwards.

The six-lane highway meanders between steep, brooding hills scattered with sheep scrambling over fells and grazing on the valley floor, before rising and then rolling down northwards to the rich pastures of the Eden valley and, thence, to Scotland.

For some hill farmers, the arrival of the M6 in 1970 – and the disruption of the preceding construction work – would have been the ultimate threat to a way of life stretching back generations. For John Dunning, schooled in agriculture, and his resourceful wife, Barbara, it became an opportunity beyond their wildest dreams, although not without financial challenges and risks along the way.

Their story is a case study of how the economy of a depressed, forgotten corner of rural England, dominated by hill farming – an industry, John correctly predicted, with limited prospects – has been transformed, employing hundreds and creating local food supply chains to serve a seemingly unglamorous new venture: motorway services, which later accommodated farm shops selling local produce.

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We should be searching for policies to reconstruct rural culture to open the land for the gainful occupation to large numbers of people. 1

In the rarefied world of the landowning aristocracy, the splendid Tudor manor in west Oxfordshire might normally be the financial hub of a modest 1,000-acre estate, providing a tidy income for the lord and master. Instead, Hardwick House, with its extensive woods and farmland, is the centre of a quiet agrarian revolution: to provide a relatively inexpensive space for aspiring farmers to live their dream and to hone their craft.

Beside the chalk and the flinty earth of the Chiltern hills, rolling through woodland down to the River Thames near Whitchurch, the estate has already been leading the way with one of the country’s older, more adventurous organic enterprises, inspiring smallholders and horticulturalists throughout Britain, Europe and further afield. And horticulture is a sadly neglected area since the disappearance of the LSA in the early 1980s, alongside other producers, as imports replaced a once-vibrant vegetable and fruit sector.

But, as we shall see, an inspirational movement is gaining momentum, creating short, field-to-fork supply chains around Britain, created by local growers and producers. Certainly, it’s not a stretch to label the people, and the organizations involved, as the new food – and land? – revolutionaries. Something is stirring: from the Knockfarrell organic croft in the Highlands of Scotland, to Canalside Community Food in Warwickshire, Cae Tan community market garden on the Gower peninsula, the diverse Plaw Hatch farm in East Sussex and Liv and Henry’s productive three acres at Down Farm in Devon, dedicated to “more on less land” and growing 50 varieties of veg.

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The ownership of land is not merely an enjoyment, it is a stewardship. 1

When David Lloyd George railed against the landlord classes as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1909, he was consumed by the plight of farmers unable to make a decent living because of onerous conditions placed on their tenure in a country where few owned the land they worked. A year before his ‘Peoples’ Budget’, which bore down on the aristocracy with a vengeance (relatively briefly, however) he warned owners of the land that if they ceased to discharge their functions properly, ‘the time will come to reconsider the conditions under which land is held in this country’.2 While Conservatives howled with anger, the Liberal Chancellor promptly doubled their rate of inheritance tax.

This was a time of fiery rhetoric matched by radical action over land use, rarely to be repeated; a period during the first decades of the 20th century in which a raft of measures by the state would provide the means – for those without the considerable means of the ruling, landowning classes – to gain a foothold on the farming or the smallholding ladder. It followed significant reforms of crofting in the Highlands and islands of Scotland, where tens of thousands of smallholders, dependent on subsistence farming under the constant threat of eviction, were finally granted security of tenure in 1886 and, thus, given freedoms over land and its use.

At the same time, land reform in pre-partition Ireland – still more radical than anything ever undertaken since in mainland Britain – was high on the Westminster agenda.

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‘My people will abide in peaceful habitation in secure dwellings…’. 1

To renew our land, and rework the countryside, we need thriving villages and small towns: at their best, inclusive places with schools, shops, a post office, ideally a health centre-cum-neighbourhood hub and, of course, a pub. Most of all we need affordable, secure homes for those on low and middle incomes who underpin communities. Think of health and social care staff, shop assistants, those creating local food networks, land managers and farm hands – in greater demand to replace departing EU workers – and teachers, for a start. To achieve all this, as Scotland and Wales demonstrate, we need above all a functioning planning system at the heart of local democracy to assess and deliver community needs – none more important than affordable housing – and meet aspirations.

Behind the enduring images of timeless villages with period homes around manicured village greens – and of more remote spots offering solitude and spectacular scenery by the mountains and the sea – lies a hidden crisis. Rural Britain has, in large part, become the preserve of a moneyed elite, abandoning larger cities – an exodus intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic – while younger people, born in the countryside, are travelling in the opposite direction, often reluctantly, because they can’t find affordable homes.

This is economically illogical. It represents a failure by successive governments to truly value the foundational ‘worth’ of people to communities in a country – deregulating England, in this case – more attuned to asset wealth and perceptions of status, than to strengthening the base on which to build houses, communities and a good rural society – in short, valuing the low-paid people, in jobs we take for granted, who kept the country running during a year and more of a pandemic.

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