Among Flayed Hills

David Craig

  • The Killing of the Countryside by Graham Harvey
    Cape, 218 pp, £17.99, March 1997, ISBN 0 224 04444 3

The idea that Britain’s countryside has been ruined is hard to credit at first, especially if you live in a Northern village. Three minutes’ walk from home I have started a woodcock on the edge of a disused orchard, beside a triangle of meadow bordered by a hawthorn, ash and elder hedge full of brambles which the landlord of the Royal used to pick to use in his homemade icecream. In 20 years, 36 species of bird have visited our garden. Peregrine, kestrel and heron have flown over it. Fifteen minutes’ walk from here, on the limestone upland between Lunesdale and the vale of Westmorland, I have stroked a badger which our dog had cornered in a crag. Two miles away I have seen a bittern planing down to its nest in the reedbeds of a wide undrained moss and a young osprey resting in a sycamore on its way south from Speyside to winter in Africa.

The fact is that, partly by luck and partly by choice, I have managed to live and take my recreation in places where the ground is so rough or steeply contoured that the industrialisation of farming has been less easy to apply. But of course it gets in everywhere. The small irregular fields round here are as monotonously flowerless as anywhere. Just one was ablaze with dandelions three years ago and the cows were browsing it contentedly – as you would expect, since the flowers are nourishing, not harmful, and make a superb, heady wine. They are ‘weeds’ and must be poisoned. Most of that bramble hedge is now cut by a contractor with a hydra-mower, and if he gets round to the job in October, he destroys the fruit. How different from the Yorkshire farmer in the dale of Dent where we used to stay at Easter. He looked after his own field boundaries, layering the hedges and mending the stone dykes, and when I told him one evening that the blackthorn was flowering already down by the river, he exclaimed: ‘I shall have to get down there in morning! Sap will be rising.’ So variety of work and good conservation went hand in hand. Now a semi-skilled worker gives the hedges an army haircut with a mower that lacerates every branch and twig, leaves the hedge like a block of bristles and spits out fragments of wood all over the paths and roads. Small fields near here, half-surrounded by woods still full of buzzards, finches and deer, were bought recently by a businessman and resown with a single variety of grass – more blank green, not a flower except sorrel at the very edges, from which we make soup. Last summer I was up there at dusk. Heavy motors snorted as though a convoy was coming and headlights blazed. The contract silage cutters had arrived to polish off yet another field of which they had no knowledge. On the sides of their huge machines a metal label said ‘W.H.R. Contracting. Find Us In The Yellow Pages.’

Graham Harvey’s excellent polemic is one of those books which at first almost exhilarate you by the sheer awfulness of the crisis they confront, then leave you slumped in despondency at the gravity of the trouble and the injustice at its root. Harvey, an experienced farming journalist and agricultural script-editor on The Archers, is inspired by the knowledge that farming can be humane, economically viable and respectful of the wildlife that shares our civilised countryside. He is deeply angered by the postwar system which makes food expensive, farming hugely profitable for agribusiness, and the moors and hills, meadows and hedges, rivers and marshes a monotony bereft of the swarming species many of us can remember.

He begins with a lament for the vanished hay-meadows, musical with skylarks and linnets, the chalk downs halcyon with milk-wort and bell-flowers; 97 per cent of meadow-land has gone since the war; 150,000 miles of hedgerow at 11,000 miles a year; 200,000 farms; 880,000 jobs (more than three-quarters of the total). In the past quarter-century, three-quarters of the song thrushes have gone and more than half the lapwings, skylarks and linnets. The thriving variety of animals and plants has been devastated for the sake of huge crops of winter wheat, oil-seed rape, supermarket-standard vegetables and grass for silage, sprayed eight times a year with fertilisers, weed-killers and herbicides which are free to the farming industry: it gets £108 an arable acre in annual subsidy under Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy and the chemicals cost about £100. Here is the nub of Harvey’s argument:

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