The Lesson of Swaffham Down

W.R. Mead

  • The Theft of the Countryside by Marion Shoard
    Temple Smith, 269 pp, £9.00, October 1980, ISBN 0 85117 200 8
  • Britain’s Wasting Acres by Graham Moss
    Architectural Press, 230 pp, £13.50, February 1981, ISBN 0 85139 078 1

These two books could not have been written about any other country. They are distinctively – indeed instinctively – British. Both are concerned with Britain’s most precious and irreplaceable natural resource – the land – and with the problems of its employment. With one acre of land per capita, it behoves us to keep an eye on how this scarce resource is used or misused. The emphasis in Marion Shoard’s book is on the increasing divergence between farming practice and conservation – conservation of the landscape itself as well as of its natural constituents. She prosecutes with vigour the thesis that the farmer has become increasingly the destroyer rather than the guardian of the landscape. Graham Moss takes a broader look at the way in which so many of the finite acres are being wasted. He contrasts the neglect of the inner city with the continuing expansion of the urban area over so much of the country’s highest-quality farmland. He estimates that between 3 and 4 per cent of the country’s surface area is wasted, that wasted land in urban areas alone is as extensive as the area occupied by all of Britain’s 34 New Towns, and that every five years an area of farmed land equal in size to the county of Gloucester is lost to urban and other developments. He laments that he is only able to deal in estimates, because facts and figures relevant to his theme cannot be consulted except from a host of organisations using different criteria and employing different definitions. Indeed, there appears to have been relatively little progress in the collection of the kind of statistics that he needs since L. Dudley Stamp prepared his pioneering land utilisation survey in the 1930s. Marion Shoard is no less sensitive to what Alice Coleman (director of the second land use survey) has called ‘the galloping consumption’ of agricultural land for other purposes, but her banner is unfurled for a different reason. So, following in the wake of a stream of hardbacks and paperbacks, official reports and semi-official documents (all listed in Graham Moss’s helpfully annotated bibliography), come two more polemical statements about the landscape of Britain. The one aims ultimately at a plan of campaign to control developments that impair the unique heritage of the rural landscape. The other challenges the profligacy with which farmland is being squandered and the complacency with which (in the words of George Orwell) its ‘defilement is taken for granted’.

Marion Shoard argues that the traditional English landscape is an inconvenient obstacle to the activities of the agricultural businessman (agri-businessman, her unlovely epithet, is intended to conjure up the vision of a latter-day robber baron). She sees farmers at large as agents of destruction who, ‘mesmerised by the combination of technical change and excessive subsidies’, are dismantling the landscape that they have inherited rather than adapting to it. At the same time, the owner-operators of farmland, who are more numerous today than ever before, enjoy freedom to shape, use and change the 70 per cent of Britain’s land surface that they control, with very little let or hindrance. Marion Shoard reviews the character of the new agricultural revolution that has precipitated the situation, considers the economics of present-day British farming, stresses the inadequacy of existing legislation for safeguarding the rural heritage and puts forward a programme of action.

It is natural that, with more people concerned with the countryside than at any time in history, her book should be widely debated. Membership of such organisations as the National Trust, the Ramblers’ Association, local natural history, ornithological and archaeological societies, continues to expand. The demand for books dealing with ecology and conservation, topography and local history testifies to the hunger for information about the countryside. And because most British are townsfolk, it is the hunger of a largely alien group who are rediscovering their rural roots. Interestingly enough, the protests against the impoverishment of the landscape by many of those who live behind what Graham Moss calls the ‘urban stockades’ have opened their eyes to the equally intractable problems of the townscape. Visually unappealing though many of the changes in the countryside may be, at least they avoid the mediocrity of so much that technology has given to the contemporary city.

In the countryside, four features are especially vulnerable to technological change and the profit motive. They are field boundaries (especially the hedgerow), woodlands, rough pastures and wetlands. The hedgerow shrubs themselves will never disappear, for the familiar members of the N.O. Rosaceae, sensitive though they may be to other climates, thrive in the British Isles. But the hedgerow, which has become their usual habitat and where their protective thorns have served a valuable function through the centuries, is an obstacle to modern farming methods and one which is removed with increasing ease. As a result, it is disappearing at the rate of 4,500 miles a year, with all the consequential effects for the fauna that inhabit it. Worse still, twice as many hedgerow trees have probably been removed by farmers since 1945 as the 11 millions estimated to have been killed by Dutch elm disease. Deciduous woodlands have experienced a simultaneous reduction partly because of the increase in the value of their timber and partly because of their replacement with swiftly growing conifers. The rough pastures, especially those of the downland, with their diverse grass species and rich flora, are also being ‘brought into the 20th century’ as they are ploughed and seeded with rye grass. The wetlands, assailed by pump drainage and reduced through river canalisation schemes, reduce a fourth natural habitat.

Three principal causes lie behind the destruction of the old familiar features. The first is technological. It is not merely the replacement of 300,000 horses by 500,000 tractors in the space of two generations. It is also the increase in the size and power of the equipment employed, from the giant combine-harvester to the tractor-drawn 12-furrow plough. Simultaneously, artificial fertilisers and chemical pesticides, the application of which has increased twelvefold in thirty years, have changed the approach to arable husbandry. Animal husbandry has changed correspondingly – and not only in respect of factory farming, for paddock grazing is succeeding to the field-by-field management of permanent grass and leys. Such new systems are inhibited by a landscape pattern which was largely conceived for simpler and often more localised operations. There are no contemporary counterparts to the 18th-century landscapists who embellished the countryside for posterity with their parklands or to 19th-century farming encyclopedias such as that of Loudon which were so influential in the planning of model holdings for yeomen farmers.

The second reason for the demise of established landscape features is rooted in the financial background to farming. In the space of less than fifty years, British agriculture has been lifted from a state of depression to one of high prosperity. During the war, farming acquired a new strategic importance. In the years that followed, to ensure adequate food supply in the event of a future national emergency, a system of price supports was introduced which was meant to guarantee satisfactory returns for the farmer. The Agricultural Act of 1947 survives, despite arguments that the conditions for which it was created no longer exist. The farmer has been further assisted by generous grants and loans for the improvement of land and buildings, while entry into the EEC has brought farming into the ambit of the Common Agricultural Policy. In theory, this is of overall benefit to British farmers, though at a disproportionately high cost to the consumer and taxpayer (among whom, of course, the farmer is included). Finally, it may be recalled that since 1929, agricultural land and farm buildings have been exempt from the payment of rates, while landowners have enjoyed substantial capital gains through the rise in land prices.

Thirdly, there is next to no legislation appertaining to the landscape as such. Indeed, there is relatively little appertaining to the management of privately-owned land. Thus farmers are exempt from the major regulations of the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. Most county structure plans have very little to say about the management of land. There appear to be only three minor constraints and they deal with tree preservation, the size of farm buildings and moorland ploughing. Accordingly, attempts to restrain landowners from undertaking changes are reduced essentially to persuasion. The experience of an official body such as the Nature Conservancy Council in trying to preserve the 3,500 sites of scientific interest provides ample evidence of the difficulties faced, while the saga of Swaffham Down, which Marion Shoard treats in extenso, illustrates the near-impossibility of successfully intervening to prevent a major scenic change.

What are the solutions that will enable a reduction in our wasted acres and permit contemporary agricultural practices to exist side by side with traditional landscapes? Graham Moss calls for greater public responsibility towards the land (and most of the wasting acres that he defines are publicly-owned in one way or another), greater knowledge about the land (which suggests a reduction of the confidentiality about land ownership that distinguishes Britain from most other European countries), and better education in the care of the land. For Marion Shoard, education is not enough. She is totally sceptical about the educational experiment conducted by the Countryside Commission to persuade the farming community to change its attitude to landscape and wildlife protection. First and foremost, she urges administrative reforms, arguing that the conservation of landscape requires a different frame of reference from that provided by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of the Environment. In order to reconcile private gain through land-use change with public interest, she advocates an extension of the 1947 planning legislation to include farmland. This would have the effect of shifting decisions into the hands of elected regional planning authorities. Secondly, an increase in the number of national parks is proposed. Unique and successful though they may be, the ten national parks of England and Wales are remote from the most densely populated parts of the country. To transform some of those Cinderellas of the countryside – the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – into parks in their own right would give them the protection they currently lack, and would provide lowland Britain with major amenities which could be formally controlled. The proposal would accord landscape priority over agricultural change to the Somerset levels, the Norfolk Broads, the Downs of Dorset, West Sussex, East Hampshire and the Chilterns, the lower Wye valley and the Vale of Hereford-shire. Thirdly, fuller access to the countryside is urged, and the establishment of schemes whereby volunteers might be recruited to maintain the landscape features. And, since all planning calls for basic knowledge, a nationwide map of landscape features would be a preliminary requirement.

It is a brave programme, and the irony of it is that for all its radical approach it is concerned with the preservation of the traditional. Furthermore, for a book of much sense and not a little sensibility, the argument descends all too easily into exaggerated metaphor and over-generalisation. Is the River Yeo really ‘like the Suez Canal’? Is the risk of serious illness from pesticides as high as is suggested? Does the conversion to rye grass expose us to a Science Fiction fate consequent upon the death of grass? Is it appropriate to suggest that the continued existence of Exmoor as a national park is ‘an expensive farce’? Can it be seriously believed that the face of rural Britain is being so transformed that its landscape threatens to resemble that of the Middle West of America (much of which is attractive anyway) or that of Soviet Central Asia? Where there have been significant changes, it would be fairer to compare them with parts of Denmark or the Netherlands, neither of which does too badly out of the tourist appeal of its rural areas. As for generalisation, it is a tactical error to include all farmers under the label of ‘the enemy’, while to employ the word ‘theft’ in the title and the injunction ‘Stop Thief’ as a chapter heading not only reduces the strength of the argument but encourages contrastingly exaggerated rejoinders from those who lump all conservationists together as nymphs and shepherds.

The reality of the rural situation is not so simple. Three brief comments must suffice. First, for all the truth that may lie behind Marion Shoard’s thesis in respect of extended areas of the countryside, most of it looks far tidier and in much better heart than fifty years ago. Price supports and agricultural assistance have not had an entirely negative effect upon the landscape. At least no one can accuse the farming community of the neglect that can be levelled against the public authorities that manage our inner cities. Secondly, it is a mistake to treat the farming fraternity as a unitary group. There are still farmers who recall their Tom-and-Maggy-Tulliver days and who are every bit as understanding as Marion Shoard about the destruction of the rural scene. Such farmers may well be among those whose families resented being told by wartime authorities that they must plough up their meadowlands for food crops when they knew better than their bureaucratic masters that the subtle floristic assemblages of which their meadows were composed provided critical springtime grazing and that grain would not yield satisfactorily where fritillaries flourished and ladysmocks throve. The trouble is that the action Martion Shoard proposes, independently of setting up a new bureaucracy, would be likely to affect most those farmers who are least likely to merit her strictures. The third point is that landscape appraisal is a matter of interpretation inseparable from the philosophies and aesthetics of the age. Our ancestors are applauded for the way in which they have tamed and changed the natural landscape. If they had left a different visual legacy, would we still applaud? If the present generation of farmers changes the landscape that we cherish, will our descendants applaud us more or less than if we succeed in preserving the essentials of its present form?

There is no denying that a threat exists and that it is in the piecemeal nature of the destruction that it lies. Ils sont les ensembles qui comptent – the French regionalists conceived the appropriate phrase three generations ago. In the English countryside (and in the town), the totality represents more than the sum of its parts. Remove one or two constituents, change the balance and the relationships between the components and the unique harmony is destroyed. It is these harmonies that Marion Shoard seeks to retain and that Graham Moss hopes might be recreated in at least some of the urban areas. The spirit of Ruskin lives again in these two books. Caring for the land and the landscape – the townscape, too – is ultimately a matter of ethics as much as of ecology and economics.