Silent spring and living landscape

Ann Pettitt
24 May 2001

“There was no possibility of a walk that afternoon, despite the persistently clement weather, as the whole of the British countryside had been declared a no-go area due to the foot and mouth outbreak…”

In its own horrible way, foot-and-mouth disease has done for farming – and the countryside – what no amount of marching would ever achieve. It brought it national, across-the-board attention, and of the thinking kind. Commentators have talked about the end of the era of industrialised farming methods; phone-in callers have expressed dismay as yet more of the hidden facts of our food production are revealed.

I have been able to delete big chunks of this article to avoid repetition of the same points: we should never have allowed so many small abattoirs to close; we have encouraged farmers to produce cheap food and now we are paying the price for a narrow view of farming efficiency. Our food is cheap and nasty, bad for us, bad for the animals, bad for the countryside. The air resounds with the thuds of metaphorical returning chickens.

Right of way: a consensus

A consensus seems to be building around a cluster of related ideas: farmers produce food, and the way they produce that food also produces various kinds of landscape. Intensive food production is incompatible with high quality food that reflects regional identity and is low in traces of toxic chemicals and, in the case of meat, hormones and antibiotics.

If we want better food, and a return to a more traditional countryside and a richer landscape, we should be prepared to pay more for it. Then farmers would not have to squeeze every drop of potential profit out of every square metre of every field. Intensive food production is also incompatible with a landscape rich in wildlife. This is the kind of landscape many city-dwellers want. But the farmers at the centre of all this may have other priorities.

For if the foot-and-mouth crisis has provoked a debate amongst Guardian readers that centres on the idea of quality rather than quantity in food production, that is not quite the way the farming press sees it. Here the headlines seem to be concentrating on the need to close all rights of way, and on stories of the irresponsibility of ramblers who ignore advice to keep away from the countryside. Indeed, the response in this respect in my rural area – so far, luckily, free of disease – has shown an alacrity unusual in our local authorities.

My Carmarthenshire local community council normally takes eighteen months to reach a decision, and a further three years to act on it, but red and white plastic tape appeared across the village’s single, rarely-used quarter mile of Right of Way within hours of the parliamentary announcement. Driving around with the smell of disinfectant heavy in the air, one notices this tape everywhere, applied with what I can only describe as zeal and efficiency.

There is no mention in Farmers Weekly of the closure of small abattoirs, nor of the wider implications of intensive, industrialised farming as a background to the foot-and-mouth outbreak. It would be quite easy to get the impression that the whole thing was caused by ramblers – nothing to do with animals being transported from one end of the country to the other for slaughter.

Who shares in the consensus?

This is indicative of the gulf in attitudes that needs to be addressed if we are to have any chance of things changing. What happens when the story goes away, when the debate dies down – as it already has - and after the election? Who shares in this growing consensus? To what extent do farmers themselves contribute to it – if at all?

“Listen,” I said to my neighbour last May. “That’s a skylark singing. Because you usually cut the hay late, they nest in your field. D’you know there are hardly any left in England now?”

“Get away,” he said. “That can’t be true.”

“Well it is true,” I said. “You ought to be able to get a grant for that bird. I bet there’s a scheme you could apply for, and they’d pay you to just carry on doing what you do anyway.”

“Oh Ann-bach,” he says when I go all Linda Snell-ish on him, “the regulations, the paperwork, you’ve got to do this, do that, and by the time you’ve done all the fencing and you’ve reduced your animals and done all the things they want, and you’ve paid for it all, the money’s run out.”

I’m afraid he’s right. There are schemes which recognise that the landscape itself is a product, and which pay farmers to farm in a way which maintains that landscape, restoring the thickly overgrown hedges which are vital for nesting birds, keeping trees, managing woodland, allowing small areas of wilderness and “wildlife corridors”. But the total sums involved are pathetic and nowhere near enough to satisfy the demand.

Going organic

It’s the same story when it comes to conversion to organic farming, which in practice is fiendishly difficult. Organic farming appears to provide the win-win solution, providing us with high quality chemical-free food, happy animals and a landscape fit for wildlife. Yet only three per cent of our land is farmed in this way, with demand having to be met through yet more imports.

It is easy to grow your own vegetables without weed-killers and pesticide sprays – although no one I know in west Wales ever manages without slug pellets – but on a field scale, and as a business where labour is costed in, the mind boggles. Organic farming is expensive because it needs much more labour – and much of that is back-breaking hard work outdoors in bad weather – and involves lower yields. Our solid fields of wheat would have seemed an absolute miracle to an eighteenth century farmer. It is also difficult, if you are a stock-farmer, to face having to do without antibiotics altogether.

The change-over, or “conversion” period, involves for many farmers throwing out everything they were taught at agricultural college, and most current received wisdom and practice. It takes a certain attitude, and a lot of confidence, to do this. It also, almost inevitably, means an initial drop in income during the five-year conversion when you produce less, but can’t yet sell at a higher price for an organic product.

“The only person who can afford to go organic,” said another farming friend, “is one who owns his own farm, has no overdraft or debts, has plenty of good land, and sells direct to the public.”

Drop the hunting bill

If the rhetoric is great, and the reality bleak, what can we do? First of all, we should urge the government to forget about the hunting bill. Set beside the mountain of cruelty to animals, particularly pigs and chickens, caused by factory farming, and the denial of wildlife habitat that results from intensive farming, the killing of a tiny number of foxes by hounds is a molehill indeed.

This bill will reinforce the prejudices felt by country mice about town mice – that they are sentimental, hypocritical nit-wits who weep over foxes and live on a diet of breast of chicken and imported veggie-burgers. The bill to ban hunting is a complete red-herring, an appallingly silly diversion when there is a massive, urgent, real problem with our livestock farming industry, which is now staggering from one crisis to another.

All that the banning of hunting will achieve is a further polarisation of attitudes, and a hardening and closing of minds – land-owning, tractor-driving, food-growing minds. The serious discussion is about respect for our native environment and for our native food – and we will not be able to have this discussion in an embattled and prejudicial climate of opinion.

Campaign for changes in farming

Secondly, if we care about the quality of our food and the quality of our native landscape and its creatures – and it is not merely sentimental to care about these things, it is a deeply felt human need – then we should press our views upon our government as vociferously as have the anti-hunting lobby. If we want to see more support for smaller mixed farming units – the traditional family farm, now an endangered species – then we should say so loudly and clearly.

Likewise if we want to see more organic farms, then we should be asking our MPs why the subsidies – without which no farmer can hope to survive the five-year conversion period – are so pathetically small, in comparison to those CAP licensed funds which have encouraged farmers to pack in as much livestock per acre as possible.

What is this government’s policy for farming? If it is to allow smaller farms to fail as “uneconomic” business units, weakening still further our rural communities, then we should be arguing strongly, with many voices, that we won’t allow this to happen. A landscape that can support a diversity of wildlife is also a “product” with economic value. Perhaps here is the right point to introduce a public health equation: 1 bluebell wood = 4 health centres x no. of car parking spaces needed for same. Somebody should put in a bid to the Lottery Fund for “Healthy Living Centres”, on behalf of the entire British countryside.

If we want the land to be farmed less intensively, then we have to recognise this has to be paid for out of our taxes. Farmers need incomes, and if their role as landscape custodians is to be recognised and taken seriously, then it has to be rewarded.

Consumer action is practical, simple and effective. The tide may still be flowing the wrong way for our lapwings and skylarks, for our busy villages where friendliness and nosiness still lie intertwined, for small farms and for what remnants of local food traditions may remain. But everywhere there are counter-movements, little eddies which we can support, starting with our nearest old-fashioned greengrocer and butcher. Farmers’ markets, organic vegetable boxes, local specialities – this is the system which has kept regional food alive in France. All we have to do is pay up, buy them, enjoy them, tell our friends about them.

We can revive the dormant practice of cooking, and demand that our children are taught this vital life skill in our schools. Instead “food technology” is a minor part of the soggy mess called “Design and Technology”. Children don’t learn the blessed simplicity of pizza-making: rather, they are confused by the mysteries of “design a bread product”.

Wildlife as a product

There is a farm in mid-Wales where, as a scientific experiment in conservation, they have been “turning back the clock” – leaving fields to become poorly-drained damp unfertilised meadows, allowing hedges to develop thick undergrowth, even leaving ruined overgrown buildings. A small herd of cows graze the fields as part of the management system, but no farmer could make any sort of a living on this alone: the main “product” of this place, enabling it to support several employees, is the wildlife itself, which in the past ten years has flooded in.

The surrounding countryside, heavily stocked with sheep that nibble down all undergrowth, looks green and pretty but is eerily quiet. Step onto the land at Denmark Farm and the explosion of birdsong is almost deafening. The meadows look like Impressionist paintings in summer. In winter they are home to large numbers of Mammals, feeding on the rich invertebrate life in the soil, and which themselves provide hunting for the barn owls, now rarer than red kites.

While conservationists and landowners from all over Britain sign up for its courses on wildlife restoration and management of diverse systems, and its scientific monitoring is highly praised, the local farmers almost universally view the place merely as an example of bad farming, undoing the good work done by a post-war generation of tidy-minded, hard-working improvers.

I find the busy wildlife of a place like Denmark Farm enthralling. But that is not the only view to be had. I recently listened to a retired farmer talking about a journey through mid-Wales last summer. “The countryside was humming, it was busy,” he said, “Everywhere was haymaking and silage-making, there were people and tractors everywhere, people were all out working on the land, making it productive – it was beautiful.” His vision alone gives us a silent spring, mine gives us no food – there is a middle way, and we as consumers and producers can make it a reality.

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