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Should Our Countryside Be Regarded As An Economic Resource Or As Natural History? by John Henry

One of the saddest sights in the English Countryside is the congregation of frogs around a spot of drained irrigated farmland that used to be the pond of their birth. Instead of being able to re-breed in their original pond according to their natural instincts, they have been left ‘high and dry’ by man’s exploitation of his natural resources.

As well as frogs the English Countryside is noted for containing an abundance of Natural History. Strangers to our shores are often staggered by the sheer variety offered by our landscape. Instead of endless forests of conifers we have a range of irregularly spaced Deciduous trees such as Oak, Elm and Hawthorn. These trees support a much greater range of insect life than conifers, which’ snowballs’ into an extensive variety of wild plants and animals. This heritage is further enhanced by the traditional English ‘patchwork quilt’ countryside of field, wood, down, hedge and stream.

However the traditional English countryside has a sentence of death hanging over it; a sentence that is being carried out: The destructive trend seems to have stemmed from the end of the Second World War, where priority has been put on ever increasing food production. Instead of relying on imports, self sufficiency in food has been achieved, and beyond. Though industrial and urban building has been linked to the trend towards destruction of our countryside, the problem can almost be dismissed as being insignificant when compared to the damage being caused by intensive agriculture. Before discussing this argument it is useful to delve into the history of our countryside.

Before man the English Countryside was an expanse of Trees. The fields we see today originate from Neolithic man, who first made clearings in the forest and adopted agricultural techniques such as field fallowing that allowed Agricultural settlings. This first Agricultural Revolution laid the foundations of the medieval system of open fields and rotational farming, which were implemented by villagers who were permitted to farm the land owned by the Lord of the Manor.

The Second Agricultural Revolution followed a period of a sharp increase in the population, during the Mid-18th Century. The Manorial system gave way to farmer owned land that was bordered by hedges and walls. This change enabled the new breeding techniques to be used efficiently. Much of our ‘traditional’ landscape originated during this period.

We are now in what can be termed as a Third Agricultural Revolution. Following the Second World War an increasing trend of greater efficiency is turning such of the English Countryside into ‘food factories’. Technology and intensive farming have eradicated much of the short-term need for hedge/wall divisions, and anything other than the basic (flat) land is often regarded in terms of money rather than conservation. The past few decades have seen the number of farm holdings reduce by half, giving a present figure of less than a quarter million, at the same time employment of farm workers has reduced from 750,000 to 125,000. Conversely the actual area of land owned by farmers has increased, completing the pattern of man and animal being replaced by machines.

The paradox of preserving our ‘Natural History’ is that much of what is regarded as natural countryside is really only semi-wild. The typical English patchwork landscape evolved through the efforts of countless generations of man, that created a type of countryside that is in many ways superior to the natural forest blanket of prehistoric times. Without man’s direct influence our countryside would eventually return to its ‘inferior’ natural state.

Consideration of Man and his Environment can conjure up images of a vast montage of houses, factories, roads, pipelines, pylons etc. gradually engulfing the beauty of our landscape. Though there is a certain amount of justification to such visions, the problem seems to have diminished since the urban development of the fifties and sixties. During this period much of our present eyesores were built, including high-rise flats, multi-storey car parks and major motorway routes. The most notable example being Spaghetti Junction at Birmingham; a system that undoubtedly works in a mathematical topological model in practice this blot on our landscape is often a nightmare to drive through. Since the peak of new building in the sixties, a more conservational attitude seems to have evolved in society, aided by much legislation. Most historical buildings have a fairly extensive network of protection rights, helped by a personal public interest shown by people such as Prince Charles. Our countryside is no longer the fair game of industrialists, the slightest change (such as extensions to buildings) needs planning permission.

Pollution is also much less a problem than it vas a few decades ago. Technology and laws have combined to eradicate the smog that London was once famous for, and fish have even been discovered in the river Thames, a feat unheard of 20 years ago. It seems that a reasonable compromise has been reached that reflects both Economic aspects of industrial and urban development and conservational considerations. The significance of any destruction caused by buildings can be further sobered by noting that the countryside still accounts for over 90 of the English land. The National Trust puts a priority on conservation, but it is interesting to note that much money is made on their land through tourism and traditional farming, offering some proof that it is possible to reconcile Economic and Conservational interests.

The most significant threat to our Countryside is, perhaps surprisingly the group that owns over 80% of our land: Farmers. The traditional curators of our countryside can now be regarded as a major threat to our heritage through a combination of a policy of over-production of food and the effects of technology. The rotational farming systems now have a tendency to be abandoned in favour of single crop ‘prairie’ fields, saturated with chemicals to produce 811 annual harvest without the need for fallowing. Any form of wildlife or Wild plants are often regarded as nuisances to be exterminated.

East Anglia is a classic example of the sort of damage intensive farming can do. The old scenic landscape has been obliterated in favour of vast monotonous plains. Unless something drastic is done to curtail the ever enlarging intensive farming the majority of Britain’s landscape could look like East Anglia.

The protection given to sites exploited by farmers is virtually non-existent. Industrialists seeking to enhance their operations even to a minor extent have to satisfy their local authorities that their proposals will not seriously damage the interests of the rest of the community. There is no such protection given to land savaged by farmers. Incidents have occurred following pressure group opposition to the destruction of an ancient wall or hedgerow, where the farmer has achieved his aim overnight before any bureaucracy can be swung into action, instantly deeming the pressure group defeated. Ultimately all English land is owned by the Crown, but the lenient attitude towards farmers seems unjustified. No other business group is offered guaranteed minimum prices, irrespective of how much is supplied. It also seems madness to pay farmers generous subsidies to exploit uncultivated land that would not otherwise be considered, and to produce crops (at a guaranteed price) that are already stored at great waste in intervention stores. The plundering of our land through Agricultural policies defies both Economic and Conservational reasoning.

Economics can be defined as the social science of the efficient allocation of man’s scarce resources. The principal is based on the presumption that man cannot satisfy all his needs, but has to make choices between what he wants or needs most. The allocation is decided either through a free market, where supply and demand dictates who has what; or through a centrally controlled Command Economy system, where a central body such as a government makes the decisions. The United Kingdom is a Mixed Economy that shows elements of both the basic models.

In a scenario where the countryside is regarded purely as an economic resource, all land would be considered in production terms. With over three million Unemployed there would certainly be no shortage of a means of production; but given this scenario perhaps things may not be so bad conservationally. Utilising resources economically does not simply mean carnaging every piece of available land as a means of production, as in the long term resources would not be efficiently allocated. Building a multitude of factories, houses, mines and intensive farms would not make economic sense without considering the demand for the products. It would not take much (if any) further production to reach a saturation point, where the Law of Diminishing Returns curtails exploitation other than what is economically necessary, especially under a Free Market system. Present agricultural expansion would not be possible, if the reasoning were based on economical criteria only!

Technology can also aid conservation, as was aptly shown by Shell in their building of a gas pipeline through the middle of one of the top beauty spots in the Lake District. Instead of building an overground monstrosity the pipeline was built underground. The character of the area was retained even to the extent of replacing plants in their exact positions. Shell itself saw a return for its efforts through spin-offs such as the advertising that followed and the improved Shell’s image both in the eyes of shareholders and consumers.

There is no short Yes or No answer to the question of whether our countryside should be regarded as an Economic Resource or as Natural History; the answer is surely a compromise between the two. However the most significant destruction of our countryside is caused through unnecessary intensive farming that benefits a small group of the British population to the detriment of the majority. This destruction would be curtailed whether we regarded our countryside purely as an Economic Resource or as Natural History.

To conclude, the late Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India said at the 12th World Energy Congress of 1983 “We should be good guests on Earth, neither too demanding nor disturbing its delicate balance. We should allow it to renew itself for those who are to follow”. This sobering quotation is backed by Science that highlights the effect of man plundering his natural ecology would ultimately be a major recoil that will affect man himself, because of the close links between global cycles such as production of Carbon, Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Sulphur. The British countryside can be regarded as a small part of the World, the whole of which requires a careful balance of conservation and exploitation if man and his animal and plant neighbours are to survive successfully.

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About The Author
John D Henry BA BSc is Managing Director of
Datalite UK Ltd is a company based on the Isle of
Wight supplying personalised gifts and picture frames.

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