The Future of the British Countryside.

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Nick Everitt, December 2003

(1475 words)

The Future of the British Countryside

For centuries the British rural landscape has been dominated by agriculture, beginning with Neolithic man about five thousand years ago.  Before then, most of Britain was covered with forest.  Prior to the Bronze Age (about 1700 B.C.), what agriculture existed was ‘slash and burn’, with no permanent settlements.  The Bronze Age saw the establishment of a more permanent field pattern.  When the Romans arrived, bringing with them new species of flora and fauna such as pheasant and Castanea sativa (sweet chestnut), they began the drainage of the fens and British wetlands began to be lost.  The Normans found, upon their arrival, that most large tracts of forest had been lost to agriculture and they set about restoring some forests in order to facilitate their enjoyment of hunting.  By the Middle Ages, sheep farming had become extremely important, leading to the creation of large areas of open grassland for grazing and, ultimately, to gradual enclosure, culminating in the parliamentary enclosures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which brought heathlands under the plough.  People lost land and common rights and workers were displaced from the countryside into towns to find work.

It was the two World Wars that revived agriculture.  Britain’s supply lines were under threat and it was suddenly vital that the country was able to produce enough food to sustain its citizens.  Encouraged by the government, farmers set about removing hedges, using pesticides and increasing mechanisation in a move towards more intensive farming.  This continued to be encouraged post-war and, in 1962, Britain signed up to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which aimed to increase agricultural productivity, stabilise markets and ensure availability of cheap food to consumers within Europe, via a system of price support and subsidies which were fixed to production levels.  The CAP unfortunately continued encouraging farmers to degrade the landscape and produce monocultures through the use of pesticides.  Increased stocking densities and the ploughing of every available piece of land were also direct consequences of this policy (DEFRA, 2003).  However, the shortcomings of the CAP became increasingly obvious.  It was extremely expensive, costing over €36 billion in price support and direct payments in 2000 (DEFRA, 2003) and it led to huge and wasteful overproduction.

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From the 1980’s onwards, efforts have been made to limit the losses of semi-natural habitats to agriculture.  The Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 was an important piece of legislation which placed greater emphasis on the formation of designated areas, such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).  These designations allowed the compensation of farmers for actively managing (or at least not destroying) areas of conservation value (Lowe and Ward, 1998).

In 1991 the European Union Commissioner, Ray MacSharry, introduced set-aside in a bid to reduce over-production and the years since then have seen the British government reflecting ...

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