Holding on to who we are

IT is easy when we talk about the rights – and the sufferings – of indigenous peoples to think it is only a problem for distant lands. But across much of the developed world, traditional communities and ways of life are being undermined by financial and social pressures.

There are irreversible challenges facing indigenous peoples in the Arctic region, in rainforests in South America and south Asia and in the colonised continents where native peoples were driven to the margins at best and to extinction in many cases.

The changes in the developed world are less dramatic but the effect is still to destroy social cohesion, deplete livelihoods and erode centuries of culture. The obvious examples in this country are the mining villages of the south Wales valleys and the Notts-Derby-Yorkshire coalfields, and the steel and ship-building communities of south Wales, Tyneside, Merseyside and the Clyde. As one pit or mill after another closes, there are sympathetic noises from governments and sometimes European regeneration funds, but the future for many in these communities is a bleak descent into depression and deprivation.

The decline of the manufacturing base in the country which powered the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century is a much-told story, in books, plays and films, protest songs and elegaic photographs.

In rural areas, the changes are almost as drastic. Although less visible,  they threaten the balance of life in the countryside in ways that will have similarly lasting consequences.

Farming now provides a tiny fraction of the historic employment, even in agricultural areas like Dorset and Somerset. Where once a farm supported families and employed permanent and seasonal farm workers, now there is often only an ageing farmer and his wife to run the farm, manage herds or flocks, sell the produce and take in guests for B&B or self-catering to make ends meet.

In beautiful areas like the New Forest, the Lake District and the Yorkshire moors and dales, traditional cottages and farmhouses are bought at inflated prices by incomers and second-home owners, or converted to holiday accommodation. James Rebanks, the Herdwick shepherd (with thousands of followers on Twitter), explains the conflicts well in his moving and often funny best-selling book, The Shepherd’s Life*.

Traditional farmers of the northern fells like James and his neighbours have not only to face the rising costs of housing and declining rural services, but the ignorance (and arrogance) of tourists and incomers. Even people who have moved out of local towns often do not understand the risks that letting their dogs run free can pose to the sheep on the fells.

Cornwall has some of the UK’s most desirable and expensive homes in its picturesque coastal villages but inland it remains one of the poorest counties in the country. Villages that 30 or 40 years ago had a lively fishing industry, with fishermen down at the quay with their boats, drinking in the local pubs and sending their children to the village school, are now often 80 per cent holiday or second homes.

The fishermen that still go out from the little harbours live in cheaper homes in Redruth or Camborne or Penzance. The village shops close – holidaymakers bring food with them or go to supermarkets in the few large towns. The pubs close or become expensive gastro-pubs-with-rooms, where locals feel unwelcome. The schools close. Even the churches close or share a vicar with five or six other communities.

Inland Cornwall is largely run-down, with the old industries gone and no tourist attractions to reverse the decline. The only ray of light on this depressing picture is around St Austell, once dominated by the china clay industry but now invigorated and revived by Tim Smits and his visionary restoration of the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the environmental powerhouse of the Eden Project.

Many people born in the New Forest, as I was, cannot afford to live there.  Our house on the edge of Beaulieu Heath had commoners’ rights, which my mother exercised by running geese on the common. The neighbours – and any strangers who ventured round the back of our little row of houses – were even more frightened of the geese than they were of my mother’s collie-Alsatian cross. In truth, they had nothing to guard us from, as the Forest at that time was much as it had been for most of the 20th century. Nobody had any money and the biggest excitement was going to Lymington on market day.

Our little wooden bungalow has been extended beyond recognition. The Norwegian wood council houses in the next village were long since sold, under the right to buy, and have expensive cars parked outside. The small-holdings that fringed the heath in villages like East Boldre or Portmore have been gentrified, the tumbledown cottages of the commoners, who ran their ponies on the forest and let their pigs out into the beechwoods, exercising the ancient right of pannage, are prettified into Country Living chintz charm.

The commoners, apart from the very few who owned their own houses, have been driven to the margins, to the straggling settlements along Southampton Water, or the poor land between the M27 and the Forest’s northern fringes. Wealthy incomers sometimes exercise their newly acquired “commoners rights” by letting their horses or ponies out onto the heath, unaware of the hard life to which the New Forest ponies are accustomed.

It may be difficult to make a case that New Forest commoners or Lake District sheep farmers are indigenous peoples, but their ways of life, that have maintained the ecology, landscape and rural culture for centuries, are under threat. They are an endangered species as surely as the peoples of the Amazon rainforest or the native peoples of the Arctic circle.

* The Shepherd’s Life: A People’s History of the Lake District by James Rebanks, published by Allen Lane.

Fanny Charles