Still time to save our countryside?

Image: Moors for the Future Partnership.

Mark Cocker, campaigner and award-winning author, talked to Keith Savage about what we can do to reconnect with our environment.

When Mark Cocker’s Our Place was published two years ago Alex Preston, reviewing in The Guardian, wrote that this “is a seriously great book, important and urgent.” In it Cocker outlined what happened to Britain’s wildlife in the twentieth century. Since then we have left the EU and are confronted by the Covid-19 pandemic. It seemed a good time to ask Mark how we can bring about a better environment.

The book’s main argument is that the British landscape was subjected to a massive process of simplification last century. “Since the 1970s we have lost 44 million breeding birds. A further headline figure concerns what was once the soul of the English countryside. At the beginning of last century England possessed 4 million acres of flower-rich meadows. In combination they created an interlocking patchwork of colour, delicacy, abundance and bee-loud beauty. Today 1% of those meadows survive.”

He argues that “Britain’s wildlife would have been in a far worse state had it not been for the conservation organisations. The Wildlife Trusts, such as the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, along with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds hold in combination 2,500 reserves covering 550,000 acres of our richest places. With its Scottish sister organisation, the National Trust safeguards a further 800,000 acres. Without the heroic achievements of these wildlife charities our landscape would be have been even more diminished.”

Yet charities cannot achieve by themselves the wider national goal of a wildlife-rich landscape. Cocker argues that the future of nature lies in the hands of the real decision takers – politicians at local and national level. He argues that it is they, ultimately, who will make the decisions that ruin or restore our wildlife heritage.

Before that, however we have to be clear, he suggests, what precisely are the drivers that have brought us to this crossroads and which inflicted the wholesale restructuring of Britain’s countryside. “They are 80 years of intensive agriculture and industrial forestry, underpinned by a sophisticated chemistry set of fertilisers and pesticides, and by a system of subsidies, latterly administered under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.”

“Whatever your views on Brexit, and however tragic some may view our painful separation from the mainland of Europe, one of the consequences of EU policy in the countryside has been a simplification of its human ecosystem – of the farms, farmers and the wider rural communities that they supported. Since the 1970s over 100,000 small farms have vanished and been swallowed up by larger holdings.”

“Subsidies, amounting to hundreds of billions of pounds over 50 years, have had the impact of concentrating wealth in the hands of a minority. Even now 77,000 of Europe’s largest landowners receive annually about 12 billion euros in CAP subsidies, for no other reason than they are the most land-rich people on a continent. Many of the recipients are not millionaires, but billionaires, including – formerly – our royal family. It is a fiscal measure of the most outrageous and medieval inequality, transferring taxes to the richest in society.”

Cocker: “77,000 of Europe’s largest landowners receive annually about €12bn in CAP subsidies, for no other reason than they are the most land-rich people on a continent.”

He further points out that “subsidies in this country had the effect of hiking land prices, which in turn debarred young farmers from entering their chosen profession. They inflated the costs of the agro-chemicals and the sophisticated hardware on which modern farming has become dependent. The whole community was essentially trapped between this process and the downward pressures upon commodity prices at the farm gates as a handful of powerful supermarkets coerced farmers to meet the so-called public demand for ‘cheap food’.”

The whole system has then been locked into place by the supra-national mechanisms of the CAP, making intensification an irreversible juggernaut virtually impervious to change. “In the last 30 years,” he points out, “and partly through the relentless lobbying of wildlife NGOs, a glacially slow softening of its impacts, known collectively as ‘agri-environment schemes’, have allowed farmers to practice wildlife friendly measures. Yet in this country they still represent only about 10% of the old annual handout of 3 billion euros.” Theoretically there is a chance to redirect the worst consequences of some of that system, but will Britain under a Conservative government seize the opportunity?

The Johnson government has brought forward both an Environment Bill and an Agriculture Bill. Yet there are already deep anxieties that in jettisoning the EU directives on the environment, and loosening the bonds of collective legislation, the government will allow our wildlife to fall even lower as a priority. On the plus side there is possibility that subsidies, which were once paid merely for acres owned, could be redirected towards communal and environmentally sensitive purposes, broadly defined as ‘public money for public good’.

“This is a challenge but also an opportunity to diversify for many of our region’s upland farmers. Much of the marginal land in our area has been devoted to sheep-rearing”, says Cocker, “but these farms have struggled for years and many would go bankrupt without subsidies. The average Welsh sheep farm, for example, loses £20,000 a year but costs the taxpayer £53,000 in subsidies.

“Farmers could be helped to redirect efforts towards less intensive farming and towards multiple outcomes that had major benefits for nature. Instead of the over-grazed monoculture which we see in large parts, hill farmers could be supported to create high quality food, but also the diverse landscapes that are the context for tourism and nature-focused activities.

“To give you a sense of the relative importance of the latter, tourism (worth £2.3 billion) in the Peak District and Derbyshire contributed £100 million more to the national economy than the entire British sheep-meat industry in 2015. The first receives no tax handouts, the other is dependent on subsidy. It makes no sense. One of the consequences of a more complex landscape would be to redistribute visitors over a wider area and, given the anticipated context of declining meat consumption, the future of the Peak District could be healthier for the nation, and restorative for nature.”

There is presently a confrontation in moorland areas of the Peak District between proponents of grouse shooting and conservationists, partly because of the illegal killing of birds of prey that is associated with intensive driven shoots. “Let’s hope there are grounds for a compromise that offers a future for everyone,” he argues. “Maybe intensive driven-shoots, with their concerns for excessive grouse numbers, will be consigned to history – partly because in an age of climate chaos we cannot tolerate the burning of peat landscapes. These are the most important habitats for carbon sequestration. Setting them on fire is madness.”

Many have no problem with someone shooting a brace of birds as a modern expression of an ancient subsistence tradition. Let’s not forget that the practices which underpin what’s called ‘walked-up’ grouse shooting are also beneficial for a whole suite of iconic animals in the Peak District such as curlews and mountain hares.

“So this could be a good opportunity to try and talk to owners of grouse moors, to find ways of enjoying these important peat landscapes in a qualitative rather than a quantitative way. Hearing and seeing curlew, spending time on those wide-open tops and understanding the value of its plant life, while also taking wild protein home for the pot.”

“The wider point is that we need to change. Do not the 1.5 million other species on this planet have a right to persist too? Yet we tend to see nature only in utilitarian ways, to see only its agency for us. This is partly a failing of our education system. Those of us fortunate to have gardens can make a contribution to creating a more diverse environment but it involves work. Nature is relentless and the temptation to choose the easy option – more decking, more tarmac – will always be there.

“As we are building new housing estates – sometimes on improved grassland which offers little in terms of biodiversity – there is the potential to create richer environments for wildlife. It might need better planning legislation and enforcement, goodwill on the part of developers, but the introduction of ponds, wildflower meadows, inbuilt swift and sparrow nest boxes into residential estates would not only create habitats – they would also foster a healthier human engagement with the world of which we are a part.

“One of the positive things that we are seeing during the coronavirus pandemic is people taking a much closer interest in the spaces around them and spring is such a great time with garden birds so active and so much fresh growth to notice. Let’s hope this new fascination endures.”

For Mark the loss of environmental diversity has an impact on our own species’ creative activity and the increasingly “denatured landscapes impact on the human spirit. Our loss of engagement with the natural world hurts us. We have learned during the coronavirus pandemic that the one thing that gives us solace in our state of isolation and strain is the natural world that continues undiminished; trees, flowers, birdsong. Being able to stand on a hilltop, in an environment that is not full of ourselves, connects us with the rest of life. It does the soul good.

“We all have a responsibility when it comes to saving landscapes and wildlife, all of us can act – none of us are perfect, not even Sir David Attenborough. But we need politicians at all levels to find ways of working together with landowners, with industry. We need people to be big enough to look beyond their differences in order to manage the land in more diverse ways. So much of this is achievable given the political will and a preparedness to work together. We can take responsibility for what is close to home and if we do that we will make a difference.”

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