Back to Nature – Again!

We are living through very strange times. Laying aside the political melt-down which has become part of everyday life in Britain, we also seem to have taken our eye off the climate change problem – what in the 1970s we used to refer to by the catch-all term Pollution. But now, and quite suddenly, it’s all become much simpler and there’s a new scapegoat: plastic. But surely we’ve known about the dangers of plastic pollution for at least twenty years, haven’t we? I recall my wife Maisie buying a green net 100% cotton shopping bag, named a Turtle Bag, because if we all used Turtle Bags there’d be fewer plastic bags to choke turtles swimming in the ocean. Incidentally, Turtle Bags were founded in 2001 – and they’re still going strong. Get one today!

Another simplistic ‘solution’ to all environmental problems is seen as Veganism. If you want to be a Vegan, that’s fine, but you should also think through some of the consequences. The wide open, treeless ‘grain plains’ that are such a grim feature of so many fertile landscapes in eastern England are a direct result of intensive arable agriculture. The pleasant hedged and wooded pastures of the West Country are the result of keeping sheep and cattle. If we all go Vegan we can kiss goodbye to hedges, pasture and woodland. Personally I would opt for a middle way, whereby the methane and other gases produced by livestock farmers are somehow reduced or are captured for other uses, such as the generation of (renewable) electricity. Incidentally, the much-vaunted ‘re-wilding’ will lead to the damage and destruction of thousands of very ancient archaeological sites which owe their survival to the carefully nurtured farmed landscapes that followed-on from their initial building. There is evidence already for this on the moorlands of the south-west where the growth of scrub vegetation near stone rows and prehistoric hut sites has been uncontrolled. All attempts to increase trees, hedges and woodlands must do so in a way that respects history and the way the landscape has developed.

The modern trend to over-simplify difficult issues, whether by re-wilding or seeking appealing scapegoats, is symptomatic of a far deeper problem. Long before Brexit, we ceased to listen to what politicians were saying – and I blame most of this on the introduction of ‘spin doctors’ in Tony Blair’s time. Essentially politicians now speak in a series of pre-prepared statements provided for them by their PR staff. It’s no wonder that the interviewers on Radio 4’s Today programme are always interrupting them – not that it works, and by God it’s irritating! But seriously, you rarely hear a politician say anything sensible, constructive, original or analytical about climate change. In some way Trump has found the perfect answer: pretend that it’s not happening. Trouble is, he knows, and we all know, that’s a lie.

So I was delighted when British school children recently held protest meetings and I was hugely impressed by the Swedish 16 year-old Greta Thunberg’s recent visit to Britain. I don’t think it matters if she and her colleagues have shortened the timetable too much: the fact is they have reintroduced the subject. And that’s something that those of us who dwell outside the Westminster Bubble have been worrying about for decades.

But certain things rarely get mentioned, like jet-engine powered flight. Yes, it’s a topic when the additional runway at Heathrow is being discussed, but the emissions of airliners are colossal. I wonder how many environmentally-aware and politically active young people take a flight for their summer holidays or to wedding and engagement parties? And long-distance holidays are now routine. Happily Maisie and I have never flown to a foreign holiday. If we do take the bold step to cross the English Channel, it’s either by ferry or through the Tunnel. Slowing climate change is a complex matter and it does nobody any favours to seize on simplistic solutions.

I didn’t mean to sound rude about urban Vegans, because at least they are doing something, as are the people who avoid using plastic bags. Here in our small Lincolnshire farm we do our bit by growing our own vegetables and by buying food in the local market, where nothing is pre-wrapped. I have also planted 2,000 trees and have established some 50 acres of permanent grassland, fertilised by clover, not artificial nitrates. Oh yes, and there are 64 solar panels on the barn roof and 16 on the house – enough, I’m told, for 7 households. I’ve also become very interested in what individuals are doing to improve the environment. My cousin John Cherry, who farms my grand-father’s land near the village of Weston, in north Hertfordshire, where I spent a very happy childhood, has helped to pioneer a system of no-tillage farming, which cuts down greatly on tractor fuel and which improves soil health and fertility enormously. Like John, I feel passionately about soil health – one of the next big environmental problems that will confront us all. A healthy soil is a huge absorber of carbon. Dead soils can be very depressing. When we laid out our garden in 1995 the land had been intensively farmed for many decades and there wasn’t a mole or earthworm to be seen. Today they are everywhere and fat green woodpeckers feed on the ant hills in our grazing. The soil is living again.

I have always had a taste for books that look at landscape and the environment in a new way, but I’m only interested if they are also based on personal, practical experience. Two have recently been drawn to my attention and I can recommend them heartily.

Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the WorldThe first is a a very original account of a woman’s life on a remote farm, looking after 500 sheep in an area of Iceland known locally as the End of the World (Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World, by Heida Asgeirdottir [John Murray, 2019]). It gets coldish in winter there and all sheep have to be brought in before the heavy snows fall. But this book is about far more than the practicalities of farming in such a difficult – I almost said impossible – environment. The author is an Icelandic woman who gave up a promising career in modelling to run the family farm, which she mostly did on her own, with the help, of course, of her quad bike. I sometimes think that modern sheep farming is as much about four wheels as four legs. And she had to face other problems, too, such as an unfriendly developer which meant that she had to become involved in politics. What I like about this book is its perspective: yes, it is a remarkable and humane, multi-stranded story, but it also shows how farming, the landscape and daily life are intimately connected.

Jeremy Purseglove: Working With NatureMy second book is also firmly rooted in reality and personal experience, but it couldn’t be more different (in fact they make an excellent pair to take on holiday). I only received my copy last week and I have to confess I’m still reading it – it’s a book to be savoured in small, reflective doses and I’m blowed if I’ll hurry it. I have known Jeremy Purseglove the author of Working With Nature: Saving and using the world’s wild places (Profile Books, 2019) for some time. We first met when he was presenting a television series on his first book, Taming the Flood (which was republished and revised by publishers William Collins in 2017). At the time I was working on The Making of the British Landscape and was growing increasingly concerned at the way British streams and rivers were being straightened and tamed. Jeremy’s book took the opposite approach: he argued that marshes and wooded areas along rivers were not just good for wildlife, but also helped to lessen the impact of flash floods. It was an important lesson which many river authorities are now, belatedly, starting to heed. Working With Nature continues the story. It is based on Jeremy’s life as an environmentalist for a major firm of civil engineering consultants and it is set across the globe, in Britain, central America, India and Bangladesh, U.S.A., the Caribbean, Asia and the Middle East. It’s a wonderful, absorbing read, written with charm and grace. And when you’ve read it, I’m sure you’ll agree that our environmental problems are far more complex and diverse to be addressed by simplistic solutions. They require time, knowledge, experience and creative thought. That’s quite a scarily tall order – but something that must be taken seriously both by voters and people in power. And we don’t have long.

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