Turf Wars

Andrew Sugden

  • The Forgiveness of Nature: The Story of Grass by Graham Harvey
    Vintage, 372 pp, £7.99, September 2002, ISBN 0 09 928366 2

The Prince of Wales would love The Forgiveness of Nature. The underlying vision is of England on a Saturday afternoon in late summer, the village green bathed in golden light, the groundsman leaning on his roller and puffing on his pipe, milkmaids and strapping young farmers snogging in the grass, Hereford cattle grazing calmly in nearby fields, confident that their softly marbled beef is second to none. This is a story of grass or grasslands in the service of mankind: more specifically, of husbandry and land use in England and Wales from the Middle Ages to the present, punctuated with entertaining digressions on groundsmen’s turf technology and the history of the lawnmower, and firmly rooted in tradition and organic farming. Graham Harvey quite possibly contributes more to agricultural awareness than any other person in Britain. It is through him that many of us learn about rotations with red clover, the pros and cons of subsidies, even the health benefits of conjugated linoleic acids in the milk of cows fed on fresh grass. For Harvey is the agricultural editor of The Archers, with the power to influence demand for organic products and inform supermarket managers’ purchasing policies. Listeners may discern Harvey’s organic sympathies in the storyline of the soap – though there are often counter-arguments for balance, in good BBC style. And grass gets into just about everything in The Archers: even Brian Aldridge’s current infidelity was facilitated by some entrepreneurial agricultural activity in Hungary.

The grass family, Poaceae, is one of the relatively few genuinely cosmopolitan families of plants. Grasses can be found from Alaska to Antarctica, from coastal salt marshes and desert sand-dunes to tropical forests and the Tibetan mountains. Exceptionally speciose (more than ten thousand species have been formally described), they range from tiny herbaceous plants to the giant, woody, perennial bamboos of China’s western forests. They dominate the natural landscape in the prairies of North America, the steppes of Central Asia, the savannahs of Africa and South America; in total they cover about a quarter of the world’s land surface, and probably account for a disproportionate 10 per cent of the biomass of land-dwelling plants. Wherever people have settled down to manage the land, grasses in the form of crops or animal forage have been key to its transformation. The cultivation of three grass species alone – wheat, rice and maize – has been hugely influential in the development of human society, in many periods accounting for more than half the dietary intake of protein. (In this engaging but lopsided book, Harvey doesn’t bother much with grain crops, their breeding, history or influence.)

Grassland in Britain and Europe is generally not an aboriginal vegetation: its presence and form is determined – unlike the prairies and steppes and savannahs – by human intervention rather than soil and climate. Its presence is a result of the clearing of forest and woodland to make way for arable land and pasture. The rich mix of plant species – not just grasses, but all manner of herbaceous plants – characteristic of ‘traditional’ pastures and meadows sprang chiefly from the open vegetation of forest glades, riverbanks and heathlands. Grasslands spread with the onset of sheep farming and with the cutting of hay for winter forage. The introduction of the grass ley, in which a mix of grasses and nitrogen-fixing legumes were sown in rotation with arable crops to restore fertility on a roughly triennial cycle, was at the heart of the agricultural revolution of the 16th century, and persisted for three hundred years until the introduction of inorganic chemical fertilisers began to short-circuit the managed fertility cycle.

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