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:

The more the farmer can produce, the more subsidy he will collect from the state. Therefore a chemical company has only to show that the new wonder product will yield more than its own value in extra output to be assured of a market. Not surprisingly, the main thrust of agricultural research and development goes into the creation of just such products, the fertilisers and pesticides. Happily for the chemical industry these two product groups are synergistic. High levels of nitrogen fertiliser render crop plants more susceptible to disease. So if farmers can be persuaded to push up their nitrogen inputs in pursuit of yields, they are, at the same time, increasing their dependence on fungicides.

Here is the image of the countryside from which his argument flows: ‘Drive across the Cheshire Plain in summer and you are unlikely to see a primrose. Get out of the car and you probably won’t hear a skylark either, just the sound of a tractor and fertiliser spreader applying more nitrogen to the thick, lifeless ryegrass sward. This is a landscape created by the chemical giant ICI.’

When Harvey writes about the ‘desertification’ of Britain and the ruin of wildlife, he is not dealing with types and areas that are exotic for most people – golden eagles among granite mountains or otters on remote islands. The cereal field, he shows, ‘evolved its own characteristic life forms over many thousands of years. It represented a rich, semi-natural wildlife habitat covering more than ten million acres.’ Nearly a fifth of all flowering plants used to grow in the fields – knotgrass, corn buttercup, poppy, the whole colourful host. The animals belonged with them on a food-chain that started among the leaf beetles and stretched through the yellowhammers and partridges, voles and mice, to the kestrels, sparrowhawks and owls. Now all is matt yellow or matt green from edge to edge of each huge field. The downs and meadows are falling silent. The rivers are losing their clarity and their fish as nitrate residues leach into the watercourses. It has happened fast, under our eyes, like some terrible special effect in the cinema whereby a beauty with unblemished skin shrivels and turns leprous in seconds, or perhaps a Stepford wife or Midwich cuckoo who looks unnaturally perfect and has no spontaneous behaviour, no heart.

Even the fells, so rocky and intractable, are succumbing to the desperate drive to quality for subsidy and keep up with the mounting expense of machines and chemicals. The close munching of the sheep has stripped the hills, in Cumberland and Wales, of all herbage except the shortest grass. Thyme, tormentil and eyebright, heather and blaeberry have little chance against their monstrous regiment. There are now almost as many of them as there are of us – 46 million three years ago. (In the Arctic winter of 1947, I remember, one-fifth of the national flock had died of snowdrift and cold by March: it came to a mere four million.) The Lake District farmers have little choice but to overstock their pastures. Last year the price they got for sheep was the same as it had been in 1983 and some of them are having to sell their stone dykes to make ends meet. How can they resist the subsidy of £30 per animal? Overgrazing has spoiled nearly half a million acres of moorland in Wales alone, curlews and golden plovers have nowhere to hide and are decimated by crows and foxes, and the brainless policy of throwing money at the countryside regardless of wise husbandry results in a £30,000 subsidy to keep a thousand Herdwick ewes in Lakeland, no matter what their breeding performance. So ‘there is no incentive to farm efficiently’ and so we walk and climb among flayed hills where bird and plant life have sunk to a minimum.

At least the hill farmers live among their work and know the terrain from which they make their livelihoods. But they are outgunned by the business people who have bought up the British countryside in the last forty years. Ten thousand farmers produce nearly two-thirds of our milk; the same figures apply to beef and sheep. Their subsidies, which each of us pays through taxes, are vast. A Cambridgeshire farmer happily announced in the Sunday Times that his subsidy for 1994, not for actual produce but for losing price-support on his wheat and oilseed rape, was £200,000, which he considered crazy folly. He was rewarded by his fellow rural rich with hate-mail and menacing messages on his answering machine. One Essex farmer, whose own subsidy on his 8000 acres came to nearly £1 million, warned him against publicly discussing issues ‘too complex for the average person to comprehend’. Such are the leaders of the class who have made their fortunes under a system which forces us to pay between 31 per cent and 49 per cent more for our food than the world price and to pass on £46 billion a year to farmers ‘who then spend much of it on fertilisers, pesticides and the general destruction of the countryside’.

The chief attraction and moral lynchpin of Harvey’s book is that he unashamedly puts beauty and sensuous nourishment near the top of his priorities. Often he leads into a stage of his argument by describing an agricultural settlement or district that is good-looking and by the same token humane. Such a place is Kite’s Nest Farm near Broadway in Worcestershire, on the northern rim of the Cotswolds. It is farmed by Mary Young and her adult daughter and son. On their premises they sell beef they have grown themselves. Their sixty cows graze among cowslips and cherry trees, living in families even when an elder calf has been weaned, then displaced at the udder by the new-born. They range where they like, over unfertilised pastures with the full natural population of herbs and flowers. The Youngs buy in no feed or animals and the cow stock replaces itself.

Harvey evokes a kind of paradise, with just one serpent. The pasture at Kite’s Nest is rich with bedstraw and crow’s-foot trefoil, the woods with owls and warblers, and the cattle have endearing names like Dizzie and Gillespie. When these happy creatures go to the slaughterhouse, Richard accompanies them himself and they travel in pairs ‘to reduce the anxiety of the final journey’. We are indeed a ruthless species. Once when I was driving by night from Wensleydale to Swaledale, the blackness turned solid and desperate on me and I hit a cow a blow on her flank which shattered my nearside headlight. The bellowing and hollering from behind the farm nearby told me that she had been frantically plunging through the fences to get back to the calf from which she had been separated for the autumn sales. The scar on my conscience never quite healed and was opened again one afternoon between Thirlmere and Keswick, when the whole vale resounded with the agonised voices of ewes parted from their lambs. I never ate mammal flesh again. My compassion stops short of chickens, I notice – I eat them freely although they are often kept in flocks of thousands in hangars lit by 40-watt bulbs and sometimes collapse at six weeks because they are not fed well enough to firm up their bones. It also stops short of fish, although I have often seen and felt for myself, on the dancing waters of the Highlands and Islands, their writhing and shuddering as we wrench them from the sea to drown in air. We crucify and enslave our fellow animals all the time. At least, on Kite’s Nest Farm, they are not in solitary confinement, or in cells with barely room to stretch or turn.

Small is beautiful. Nobody who saw Countryside Undercover on Channel 4 in March – a bruising and courageous series about agribusiness, based on secret filming by people who took jobs as pigmen and vegetable packers – will be able to forget the factory farms where piglets are crushed to death by their mothers because their pens are cramped, especially since pigs are now bred to gross sizes; where, illegally, sick pigs are sometimes not separated into the ‘poorly pen’ and a pig with meningitis was eaten through its arse to the backbone by the other inmates until it was paralysed; where their tails are cut off without anaesthetic and, illegally, not by a vet; and where one worker’s wife has been unable to eat meat since she smelt the stink in which her husband works. ‘A lot of disease and pigs dying,’ the man said, ‘is due to stress and their being so close together.’ Such farms are slums; their counterparts in human societies are the worst parts of Glasgow or Manchester in the middle 19th century, Calcutta or Rio today. We do not need to equate the other animals with ourselves to see that such extreme distortions of natural living, in respect of their families, their food, their homes and their numbers, are self-defeating as well as abhorrent.

The Youngs’ farm in Worcestershire does well enough, although they are in debt and have had to accept a subsidy for turning cereal fields to grass, against their wish and instinct to keep their farming as mixed as possible. They had already foregone £7000 a year in subsidies because they were determined to remain organic and turn over arable fields to grass and clover periodically instead of drenching them with agrichemicals and growing wheat or rape year after year. They probably want to be able to face themselves and sleep at night, knowing and naming their animals instead of hitting them with hammers until they scream, branding on the firm’s logo, or packing them off in lorries where, illegally, they can’t lie down but climb and shit all over each other for 18 hours at a time. At the industrialised farm near my home, which we have always called ‘the stinking farm’ because you must hold your breath as you walk through it on the way to the fell, there are notices saying ‘Disease Free Swine. Do Not Enter.’ So no cohabitation between people and animals there. Once I tiptoed up to a hangar across the lane, alerted by the lacerating screams coming from it. Through the sliding door I saw heaps of pigs lying on concrete floors inside pens with steel bars. They were caterwauling like people who had been tortured. It’s no wonder that one of the few workers I ever saw around the place gave me the stony, truculent look of a felon.

An organic pig-farmer on Countryside Undercover remarked that ‘pigs have such curiosity, so full of joie de vivre. They need more out of life – they should get it.’ It is heartening that Sweden, Denmark, Austria and some of the German states are committed to having 10 per cent of farmland under organic management by the year 2000, and are getting there. Such land, in the EU, has risen tenfold in a decade. The British organic percentage, according to Harvey, is less than half of 1 per cent. Is it imagination or are our capitalists among the most avid of their kind? Harvey is restrained; his deep-dyed opposition to the sharks who have eaten out the liver of the countryside shows through briefly and unmistakably. He writes that the huge capital costs of starting to farm have restricted access to everyone except ‘lottery winners and the chairmen of former nationalised industries’. Dairy farming, he argues, ‘has become a club for the wealthy’ because the Government’s rules allow milk quotas (a farmer’s right to produce milk at a guaranteed, and inflated, price) to be traded like a commodity – bought, sold or leased out, ‘speculated on by land agents, farm companies and City investors’. It is no wonder that agribusiness has now raised a cry for Harvey’s dismissal by the BBC – for the sake of impartiality, no doubt. He is ‘an enemy of the people’, in Ibsen’s ironic term; like the scientists in Jaws, who are abused by the mayor of the seaside resort because they warn about the great white shark.

His argument is carefully researched and closely reasoned from start to finish. He writes in a way that is certainly clear enough ‘for the average person to comprehend’. He exposes a system which has deformed farming, emptied the countryside of people and species, and taken us taxpayers to the cleaners for the sake of the gross profits that go to the chemical giants, the food giants whose demands for uniform products now clutch all countries, and the rich who buy into farm management, speculate in quotas or run the parasitic consultancies. The beneficiaries are plain to see: ICI and Zeneca, Velcourt, Booker, Tesco, Sainsbury, Deloitte and Touche Agriculture, Shell, Ciba, Bayer, DowElanco, all transnational companies, at least two of which benefited richly from the Holocaust and the Vietnam War. Big is ugly; where the swollen system goes wrong, the results are monstrous, as we are seeing now in the beef and water crises. Farmers like the Youngs could not have fed the chopped-up spinal cords and innards of their own animals to others of their own. But ‘as the financial pressures intensify, it is often best to separate land ownership from its operation, leaving the latter to experts who can reap the full rewards of economics of scale and specialist business management’ (the Velcourt contract-farming corporate blurb). Such a separation is always hostile to humanity. It has given us expensive food, e.g. milk that costs twice as much as in New Zealand where price support has been abolished, a half-sterilised countryside and an industry where much of the work is brutalising and numbingly repetitive.

It is especially indecent that the common-or-garden means of life are now at the mercy of profiteering. In Hertfordshire, it was reported in March, great numbers of people had to boil their water. The Three Valleys Water Company is now having to introduce expensive machinery to filter out pesticides. Ten years ago, according to Harvey, government analysts already found such residues in one-third of our staple foods (bread, milk, potatoes) and in one-fifth of vegetables and fruit. Now the Hertfordshire water regulator is insisting that ‘the cost of purifying water to meet European standards is more than we can afford.’ A healthy and life-enhancing way with the organic world is not hard to conceive of, and Harvey sets it out concretely and honestly in his final chapter. Who in Britain will give a lead? As Labour gets into bed with business, it announces an urgent conference on water. This is very like Zeneca’s becoming the second-largest producer of agrichemicals while sponsoring a field guide to the rare arable flowers it is doing its utmost to wipe out. Companies and governments alike do little more than apply green make up to their ugly features. ‘What have they done to the rain?’ we sang in the Sixties. Now we know. They have flooded it with chemicals and sold it to the speculators.