In the history of the English countryside there have never been as many landowners and tenants as there are at present and it is an ongoing trend. This new population has had huge and ongoing implications for the rural landscape which is evolving and not for the better.
There is an easy stereotype to fit this trend; the Volvo driving, Aga owning, Barbour clad semi retired professional. But in truth the vast majority of these new landowners and tenants are as diverse as society as a whole. The renaissance of self sufficiency is a key component of this changing landscape and it is rarely researched as well as it should be. Combined with screams of ‘diversify or die’ to farmers a huge amount of land continues to be sold or leased for what in many peoples eyes is falsely believed to be for sustainable purposes. This is a problem set to get worse in the run up and post 2013 CAP reforms. ₁
We are already realising the results of the lack of understanding of the consequences of this new element within rural landscapes. A blending of certain media spread ideals into a deeply rural setting is not as sustainable as it is believed to be.
Huge fragmentation of the rural landscape is occurring; from overly managed, to totally unmanaged pockets. The wider rural landscape is now subject to the same patterns of the worse garden landscapes.
There are now peri urban or rural fields where allotmenteers are busy following guides to growing your own; heaping up massive compost heaps in geographically tiny locations – the nutrient base for that field or beyond is under change with huge stresses to existing soil make up and damaging nitrate run off is inevitable. There is also a considerable proportion of land under new ownership which sees little maintenance if any at all. Invasive pests and plants run amok, with the owners believing that this is naturalisation.
The fact is that farmers, foresters and others are not stupid and have kept a balance in the English countryside despite many pressures and in full knowledge that the countryside they either inherited or trained to be in custodianship of, was a managed landscape – a landscape which was the result of our predecessors actions to simply make a living by whatever means necessary. This was often pure sustainability, which could not protect itself, (and it was not even considered), against population growth, the industrial revolution etc. The vast amounts of time and effort put into maintaining the countryside are now subject to budgets which are intrinsically linked to centralised economics. Being able to provide the fruit and vegetables to supplement your Sunday roast is far from proof that your land management is sustainable let alone of a value to others as a multifunctional landscape should be.
Good sustainable land management is hard work, it cannot be done at the weekends or as a leisure activity, thus money to pay for proper maintenance becomes an issue. There are minimum budgets needed for land management, (even if you were to tackle the work yourself) and if when moving from the city to the countryside you believed that it would be possible to sideline the management of the land surrounding your new cottage or farmhouse as you did with your suburban garden or apartment balcony in times of hardship, you are guilty of causing real damage to a landscape that belongs to others as well as being guilty of creating and enhancing threats to the wider landscape also.
Many myths exist which do little to help the situation. The English countryside is by and large in good health and to say it is ‘chemically soaked’ is just nonsense. There are concerns; ongoing research into solutions together with innovative agricultural methods are vital. But we need to accept that some land is simply too valuable for crops or animal production to be used for anything else and some land is or will become too valuable due to its potential for renewable energy. Nimbyism is not sustainable and does nothing to aid future generations who should be able to inherent a multifunctional landscape.
The mindset of many new landowners and tenants is of course also at odds with those already present within their chosen landscape. But this does not mean they do not have a valid voice. Allowing debate to reach the legal system or further the halls of Westminster aggravates an unnecessary ‘us & them’ scenario, resulting in a polarised rural community. The hunting debate illustrated this perfectly; the invasive nature of the traditional hunt was what upset people, not necessarily the fact that some culling is regrettably needed. It was time to change hunting, regulate it and address the real and severe problems associated with invasive pest populations. Instead we saw the inevitable consequences of trying to please the stubborness by both pro and anti hunting lobby and thus an unresolved and increasingly damaging stagnation is the ongoing reality. The draft NPPF on offer is likely to head in the same direction unless urgent talks between all those with a voice to find sensible middle ground which correctly balances population needs against the needs of the countryside and its cultural and natural heritage.
A lack of communication further exasperates the problems. For example Richard Benyon MP, minister for the natural environment and fisheries, had not been informed accurately with regards Ragwort, and therefore faced a barrage of vitriol from ecologists₂. Whilst this clearly helped publicise modern thinking with regards Ragwort, it highlighted an obvious lack of an integrated communication system across the boundaries of land management needed to ensure correct management is forthcoming.
Some of the newer landowners are actually charities, both national and local. A general mistrust in the management techniques of local practitioners and over reliance on volunteers leads to a morphing of pockets of rural landscapes. These areas are rich financially and are maintained to evoke the classic ‘biscuit tin’ image of rural England, but they rarely relate to the countryside immediately outside their boundaries. The flow of huge quantities of money channelled into ‘weekend’ landscapes, protected niches we can all share by membership are also subject to national economic trends and it is no surprise to see some charities selling their ‘stock’ to help finance new schemes in tune with new international ideals, such as ecosystem services and landscape perceptions.
The popular TV shows which follow people as they move to the countryside rarely if ever look into the most basic facts with regards land management. It is all to do with budget and aesthetics. How refreshing it would be to see a program investigating the different factors needed in terms of actually managing that land properly.
No ‘one size fits all’ guide is in place to truly aid new landowners as they seek to encapsulate the lifestyle trend that can only be found in the rural countryside, because the geology, climate and other factors cannot be assimilated into one easy to read national model. But one thing is clear; be it voluntary or mandatory there has to be a minimum qualification or amount of training available to all new landowners, or tenants to help prevent irreversible yet unwitting damage to the wider English rural landscape.