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Droughts and wildfires prove we need to end private land ownership

We can’t accept an annual lurch from droughts to floods – we must take our land back from the aristocracy

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
16 August 2022, 12.00am

Some 8% of British land is managed as grouse moor, which landowners routinely burn to encourage new growth to feed the grouse they shoot

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David Forster / Alamy Stock Photo

As climate breakdown increases, the cycle of droughts and floods in the UK will intensify. We’ve seen in recent weeks the devastation that this can cause. The stats are terrifying: half of England’s potato crop is expected to fail this year. Even drought-tolerant maize – which is only grown in the south of England because the rest of the UK is too cold and wet – is struggling in the heat.

People are suffering now, so short-term solutions are needed. With both food and fuel prices spiralling, it will be a grim winter, so medium-term planning is required too. But, of course, we need a long-term strategy.

Changes to Britain’s climate are now inevitable. And that doesn’t just mean that England’s pastures green will turn into French wine country, as too many news producers like to imagine. More carbon in the atmosphere means increased energy in our weather systems. That means greater intensity as well as more warmth – not so much the calm balm of the historic south of France as cycles of climate chaos.

Although we must do what we can to avoid pumping more energy into that system (by eliminating carbon-based energy), we also have to accept and adapt to what is coming: cycles of dry and wet, driving natural disasters of a kind our islands aren’t accustomed to.

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Much of that adaptation means rethinking our land use. At the moment, water falling on to higher ground often lands on barren moors, overgrazed by sheep or burned for grouse shooting. Where once there were trees, now any stems that break through the soil are munched by an ungulate or fried in a fire.

Where once rain gathered in upland wetlands and was absorbed and transpired by forests, now it is channelled in ditches like some unwanted pest and rushed downhill. Other than small streams siphoned off for reservoirs or irrigation, most of this water is sent down to the sea.

When there is more water than normal, banks burst and those homes that have inconveniently placed themselves down the slope from upland landowners are flooded. By the time the weather is dry again, the water has disappeared.

Wetlands are to temperate zones what rainforests are to the tropics. They are nature’s sponges, absorbing and releasing water, and regulating its flow. But after centuries of drainage, England has only about 10% of the marshes and fens that protected it from extremes of weather a thousand years ago. Now, with climate change, it needs those wetlands more than ever.

An astonishing 8% of British land is managed as grouse moor

Of course, there are some specific solutions: my parents were some of the first people to bring beavers back to the UK – for which they deserve a shout-out. Beavers are nature’s engineers, rebuilding riparian ecosystems at a fraction of the cost of a man with a tractor.

Burning heather must be banned. An absurd act of vandalism at the best of times, destroying whole swathes of moor to pander to a hobby of the mega-rich is completely unjustifiable now that those moors are needed in the struggle for climate change adaptation. While we’re at it, let’s ban driven grouse-shooting entirely.

But at its core, the problem is that vast swathes of the UK countryside are still owned by a tiny number of people, who manage them in the interests and traditions of their kin. A third of England and Wales is still owned by the ancient aristocracy. Scotland has the most centralised land ownership pattern in Europe – arguably in the Western world. An astonishing 8% of British land is managed as grouse moor.

The nations that make up the UK consist of people and the land they live on, and unimaginable portions of the latter are still controlled by tiny numbers of people, for the simple reason that their ancestors have owned them for generations.

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For the past 60 years, this ownership pattern has been maintained because the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP), launched in 1962, was designed for French farmers, with their much smaller parcels of land, and failed to properly consider the absurdities of British ownership patterns.

The result was that taxpayers were – still are – paying to be flooded and desiccated by wealthy aristocrats. Our rural land is privately owned, publicly funded and run largely for the rich.

Now that Brexit is supposedly ‘done’, reform is, theoretically, possible and the various governments of the nations of the UK are investigating what to replace CAP with.

This summer’s droughts should be a reminder that radical change is needed.

We could stop subsidising big landlords and fund community buyouts instead. We could stop paying millions to prop up otherwise insolvent upland sheep farms and, when those farms go bust, take them into public ownership, rewild our hills and restore our upland wetlands.

England, Wales and Northern Ireland could, as Scotland already does, insist that its people have a right to roam across its land and paddle up its rivers.

Restoring our ecosystems is vital in its own right. But forests, marshes, swamps and fens are nature’s buffers. They wet our brows when the sun beats down and they mop the ground when the rain pours. As we tip from thousands of years of climatic stability into an era of atmospheric chaos, they can help soften the landing. But only if the land is owned by those who let them.

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