Understanding the landscape – have we lost the plot?

SOME years ago, there was a widely-publicised (and widely believed) rumour emanating from Defra, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that a senior official had suggested that farmers were no longer necessary in England, that outstanding landscapes and environmentally important areas should be protected and that, essentially, the British countryside should become a glorified country park. All our food, according to this official, could be imported.

The proposal demonstrated an arrogance on the part of the unnamed official that would be almost laughable if it did not speak so tellingly of the failure of understanding, not only of the individual but of the Whitehall officials in the department – a frightening lack of knowledge of the geography, history, topography and culture of Britain.

There was (and to some extent still is) a feeling that bureaucrats in Defra and in organisations such as the Environment Agency or Natural England are far more concerned with birds and bugs than with the people who have cared for the countryside for centuries – the rows over flooding on the Somerset Levels, and claims that rivers have not been dredged because money has been spent on bird reserves or protecting beetles, are just the latest in a lengthy catalogue of mistrust and misunderstandings.

The truth is that we need our farmers – not only to feed us but also to continue to maintain the landscape they have largely shaped over the centuries. Most of lowland Britain is a manmade landscape.

It is a managed, farmed landscape – accretions of civilisation over thousands of years gradually changing the look and in some places the lie of the land.

Look around us here in the West Country and you quickly see evidence of successive peoples and progress.

There are the massive 5,000-6,000 year old stone circles, dolmens and standing stones of Wiltshire – Avebury, Stonehenge – and Stanton Drew in north Somerset, the neolithic barrows across Salisbury Plain and the still mysterious Silbury Hill.

In West Dorset, parts of Hampshire, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, there are many Iron Age hillforts – the best known and the biggest of course is Maiden Castle, the vast rings south west of Dorchester where Sergeant Troy dazzles Bathsheba with his sword play, in the beautiful original film of Far From The Madding Crowd.

There are the massive trio of hill forts across West Dorset – Eggardon, Pilsdon Pen and Lewesdon – and in North Dorset the earthworks on Hambledon Hill, overlooking the Stour and the communities of Child Okeford, Shillingstone, Farringdon and Iwerne Minster.

Moving on another thousand years or so, you have the arrival of the Romans, leaving their legacy of roads, forts and settlements often adapting existing drove tracks and ancient holloways to make their military paved roads.

Each subsequent invasion brought new demands for settlements, new methods of agriculture, new crops and always, demands for ships and consequent tree-felling. Forests and chases were created to enable kings and their cronies to hunt the deer – the New Forest and Cranborne Chase are two such partially manmade areas (Cranborne Chase also has many marks of ancient trackways and Roman inhabitants).

Wars and house-building added to the deforestation – the once-great Selwood Forest, which spread across what is now south Somerset and part of Mendip district, and the vast Gillingham Forest of North Dorset disappeared centuries ago.

The coming first of canals and later railways wrought more dramatic changes to the landscape, often creating new vistas that we now cherish. The industrial revolution speeded up the pace of change and development – and the 20th century, with its constant technological innovations, vast demographic and social changes and increasing leisure demands, has accelerated the process at dizzying speed.

But through it all, Britain’s farmers have continued to produce food for growing populations. In times of war, drought, plague, mini ice age and floods there have been serious scarcities, but few farming industries in the world have proved as flexible and adaptable as British farmers.

Now, as climate change becomes an increasing reality in all our lives, with water supplies under severe stress not only in sub-Saharan Africa but in the most technologically advanced state in the world’s only remaining superpower – California – the question of food security is one that must go further up the agendas of national governments and international organisations.

Uncomfortable truths will have to be faced and a western population used to cheap food – and to sinful waste of much of it – will have to relearn ways of cooking and eating that are less demanding of fossil fuels, less wasteful both in terms of production (clearing forests to feed animals to become beefburgers or burning rainforest to plant palm oil trees are examples of grotesque misuse of natural resources) and of consumption.

We need to value the food that we grow and produce in our own country, in our own region; we need to support our farmers, growers and producers by being prepared to pay sensible prices for the food they produce; we need to shop locally and to remember that the money we spend in a local farm shop, market or independent high street retailer, stays in the the local economy.

We need to re-engage with the landscape that human beings have made over millennia and to relate the food to the landscape. We need to understand the route from plot to plate.

The two best writers to explain the history of our countryside and the landscape of the British Isles are Oliver Rackham’s History of the Countryside and WG Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape.

If you want to help the victims of the floods, particularly the farmers on the Somerset Levels, contact the Somerset Community Foundation and to donate, visit http://www.justgiving.com/Somerset-Community-Fund-Flood-Appeal

Fanny Charles