Humans in the Landscape

Shortly before my father died, he was reading “The Road to Wigan Pier”. He had been struck by Orwell’s description of the industrial scars and the poisonous detritus in Northern England in the 1930s. I had been walking a great deal, and my father wanted to know whether I too had found a landscape “wrecked by too many centuries of industry; too many people in too small an island.” But in fact our environment is, in many ways, in a much healthier place than when Orwell was alive and my father was young.

Acid rain has been removed from the air, and chemicals from the rivers. Our beaches have never been so clean. Our engines have never been less polluting. Mile after mile of new rowan, birch, oak and ash have been planted by highways, on old rail tracks, and along the sides of deep gills. The increase in woodland cover is staggering. When my father was born, only two per cent of England had been covered with woodland. The figure today is closer to ten per cent. Part of this is due to economic change. The lead, iron and bauxite mines of the Lake District, and the coal mines of the Cumbrian West coast – which employed thousands in my father’s youth – are all gone. So too are the military munitions sites, airfields, nuclear plants, and secret test sites which were scattered across the border valleys forty years ago.

Part of it is about different approaches to agriculture. Over-stocking has largely disappeared with the old headage payments. And we are getting much better at agri-environmental schemes. Walking through Peppering Farm in Sussex, for example, three weeks ago, I saw how by moving to smaller fields, wider hedgerow margins, more crop rotations, and more feed for birds, the Arundel Estate has combined profitable crops, with an explosion of birds: skylark numbers have tripled, lapwings doubled, and grey partridge have increased almost one hundred-fold since 2003. Sometimes, as in Knepp in mid-Sussex, the transformation has come through ceasing arable agriculture (I have never heard bird-song so loud and beautiful, or been more moved by the sight of Tamworth pigs, and long-horn, and red deer moving through a primeval savannah of unruly flowering hawthorn and thick willow).

In the National Forest, the secret has been a DEFRA-funded scheme of tree-planting which, over twenty-five years, has turned the industrial landscape of the West Midlands – bare mines and potteries – into a paradise of glades and copses. And last weekend I saw how the Peak District National Park has restored bare black peat, poisoned by two centuries of acid rain, back into native grassland, heather, and sphagnum moss. But where does this leave the Cumbrian landscape? These other projects have easy champions in ‘environmental’ or ‘farming’ camps. They are able to count things like farmland birds, tonnes of carbon, or cost of production. The landscape of much of England today – in which we are able to see far more birds of prey in the sky, more badger setts and more otter holts, but fewer farmland birds, probably fewer hedgehogs or water-voles, and certainly fewer salmon – reflects the ability of these different interests to bend subsidies, regulations and land-use in order to back their different agendas. And our small traditional sheep farms, often represent exactly what such interests think they want to eradicate.

The environmental movement is tempted to argue that the sheep are damaging to bio-diversity or water quality, and agricultural economists are tempted to argue that small farming is inefficient and lacks ‘economies of scale.’ They rarely acknowledge that here in Cumbria, we have inherited a landscape of small farms, where every wall, and barn, and flock carries the trace of a thousand years of human cultivation, and management – which is unique in Europe, and uniquely beautiful. So, how do you promote projects such as the farms at Peppering, the rewilding at Knepp, the reseeding of the Dark Peak, while still maintaining Lake District hill farms? The answer, I believe, is to emphasise something which is not easy to measure or justify in a government document: beauty. But hard-headed types need not be so worried.

It is beauty that ensures that millions of people pay to visit our landscape, it is beauty that will guarantee that future generations care about our land and defend it. And what has struck me in my recent walks is that these environmental and agricultural projects, which I have visited are in fact obviously and profoundly beautiful. But beauty is a more generous, open idea than ‘food production’ or the ‘environment’ because it leaves room for the human, the historical; for a dry-stone wall or a medieval bank-barn, as much as a productive crop; for a Herdwick lamb as much a lapwing.

What I should have said to my father, is that if his generation’s problem was too much human interference in the landscape, ours is the reverse – we are losing our belief in a positive role for humans in our landscape – and the way to restore it is to be less embarrassed about admitting what we love.

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