Journalism and Environmental Issues – The Contested Landscape Story

by martinhesp

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A builder once boasted to me that he’d concreted over every square inch of his front and back gardens. He didn’t like all “that green stuff” – it grew constantly, cost him time and money to cut, weed and control, and was a general nuisance.
 
There are times when you might be forgiven for thinking that urban Britain regards the countryside in much the same way. Some people living in overcrowded cities vaguely regard the great green rural world as a theme park populated by old fashioned folk who like killing animals, and not much else.
 
For some, the countryside is a luxury we can’t afford – a place that is ripe for development – a forgotten swathe that would be better off playing host to homes, shops and roads.
 
There is, of course, a great host of country-lovers – I say that because no newspaper series I’ve ever worked on inspired so much discussion and debate as the Contested Landscape articles that appeared in the Western Morning News over a two year period.
 
One of the unique, timely and central questions it asked was: what is the countryside for?
 
Half a century ago just about everyone would have answered that it was there to grow food. Many still would, but now you’d get a plethora of other notions too. It’s probable that the majority in this country would argue that our pleasant peaceful rural acres are there for people to enjoy. That’s the giant theme park scenario, in which hard pushed city folk can rent thatched cottages, go walking and lunch in village pubs.
 
Others would contend it was there as the nation’s collective nod to the natural world – a place that re-balances the excesses of the concrete jungle and plays host to all manner of birds and bees. Indeed, there are new arguments which declare the countryside to be the vital sequestration zone for our burgeoning carbon footprint.
 
A few might even recall that the countryside is the last resting place of a traditional British way of life – a place full of old fashioned concepts like courtesy and good manners – a museum featuring the quaint skills and pastimes of yesteryear.
 
All these assumptions are correct, at least to some degree. Certainly, the land still does produce food, although there are far fewer farmers than there used to be. Just before World War Two there were half a million farms in Britain – most were small affairs worked by families, but between them they employed an impressive 15 per cent of the population.
 
By the late 1960s the number had dwindled to half that number – and, in the past couple of decades, farm numbers have reduced further until there are only about 130,000 left.
 
In the agricultural sense, we’ve arrived at a crossroads – and this will undoubtedly have ramifications on the landscape. Will the number of farms continue to decrease? If so what will happen to that land? Will large agri-businesses take over – and what effect would that have on the visual landscape we enjoy?
 
It’s possible the growing of crops for bio-fuels could overtake the production of foods. Conversely, could it be that there’ll be increasing concerns over this island nation’s security in terms of food production. It might be deemed a good deal safer to grow our own rather than import the majority of our nutritional needs.  
 
That might see large scale industrial farming take over – on the other hand the escalating price of fossil fuels might counter such an industrial move so that we’d see a return to a more traditional, less oil dependent, kind of agriculture.
 
All these scenarios are valid ones – and I haven’t even mentioned the wholesale changes that might come through European CAP (common agricultural policy) reforms.
 
Which ever way farming goes, changes could alter the way the countryside looks, the way it operates, and the way it relates to the natural environment.
 
And this brings us to the big fat elephant-in-the-room. The natural environment represents a £multi-billion “industry” which incorporates government agencies, European departments, CAP advisors, pressure groups, lobbyists and many more – all employing legions of environmentalists, ecologists, experts and bureaucrats.
 
This large army is either saving the planet, or getting in the way of commerce, depending on which way you look at it. Some landowners rage against all the environmental red tape – others welcome the chance of making their local landscape more ecologically friendly.
 
The millions of people who vaguely like the idea of a healthy countryside welcome moves to help Mother Nature, while sometimes agonising over the funds spent.
 
In the middle of all this, there stands dominant a general misunderstanding of what the natural environment actually is. Ask the average person in the street and they might well envisage an archetypal swathe of Devon – all rolling hills covered in a patchwork of fields. But of course, this is very much a man-made landscape – with the possible exception of the long thin strips otherwise known as ancient hedgerows.
 
They are said to contain 600 plant species, 1,500 types of insects, 65 birds and 20 different mammals. But they have been disappearing – in the 1950s Devon had a staggering 45,000 miles of hedges – now some 12,000 of those have gone.
 
So how about the wild heather moors – surely they are a natural landscape? Not really. The high heaths of Dartmoor and Exmoor have been shaped by the grazing of domesticated animals – although there is a fascinating argument over just how much the wild herds managed to control the moors before mankind turned up.
 
In Northern Europe natural environments are pretty thin on the ground – unless you count places like nature reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. The latter account for some eight per cent of the Westcountry’s land mass – but may only represent a landscape that’s been “frozen” in a certain time. Protected in an aspic of expense and legislation…
 
If you fly to Europe from the Far East you can see just how much the planet beneath has been changed by the hand of Man. In the Himalayas there’s not that much sign of his workings, across the great steppes of Azarbyjan, Central Asia and Caucasia it’s the same, but the further you soar west the more the landscape changes.
 
Reach Holland and the entire world beneath is manmade – much the same goes for eastern England – it’s only when you fly a bit further west still that a few rugged bits begin to show once more.
 
No wonder there’s so much fuss over the few really green and wild areas left.
 
We all worry when we see things like the logging operations which are wrecking natural habitats in the Third World – forgetting that we almost totally destroyed our own natural forests many centuries ago.
 
We’ve been abusing our environment for so long we’ve hardly anything left that is truly wild. No wonder the ecologists get so excited when they oversee the resurgence of some rare butterfly.
 
But introduce hard times to the equation and a great many people will question the money spent on the wild environment. In a financial recession for example, environmental projects seemingly designed to save just one pathetic creature can go against the grain.
 
Actually, such a scenario is rarely the case. More often than not an endangered butterfly or some other hapless beast will merely be a symbol for something far bigger and more important – acting as an indicator, perhaps, that a specific environment is returning to good health.
 
But why is that important at a time when we are struggling to keep jobs and make ends meet? Because, to give a rather un-green answer, it could end up saving us money.
 
No matter how cocooned in our urban jungles we become – no matter how far removed from the natural environment we think we are – we humans do require a few very basic things to survive.  
 
Water is one. And it has to be good clean water. Think of the cost in health services if we were all drinking dirty stuff – think, indeed, of the massive cost of cleaning polluted water. Day in, day out, it’s a cost which is added to our household bills…
 
In one article I wrote I did come across a rare butterfly that at first glance was the most visible result of a £6 million project to improve a type of natural landscape. At the second glance we learned that this renovated landscape was helping to filter water destined for a large reservoir which, for a number of years, had been polluted by algal blooms. Then we learned that the vast cost of cleaning the contaminated water industrially before it reached people’s taps could be much reduced by this more natural filtration.
 
Suddenly that rare butterfly didn’t seem quite so expensive after all. It was merely a pleasing symbol that showed a landscape in good health.
 
In nature there are plants and animals which have symbiotic relationships with some other element that helps them survive. It is becoming increasingly obvious than mankind needs a symbiotic relationship with the whole of nature’s shooting match if we are to remain healthy and flourish
 
Since the first farmers starting planting and harvesting crops in the Syrian plains some 13,000 years ago, we’ve been bending nature to do our bidding. Often that’s meant trashing the hell out of it to get our way.
 
Now, as we stand on the brink of climate change, we are beginning to realise that the wild world is full of answers to problems of our own making.
 
Take those seemingly useless but scenic heather moors that the English love so much as just one example – it turns out that some peat bogs in the high hills not only act as a massive natural water filter and flood prevention scheme, but that they also sequester huge amounts of the carbon we burn in our cars and homes.  
 
But what this natural world so badly needs is a public relations department – so many of these stories are reduced to a few paragraphs or a mere mention here or there – and there are too many folk like the builder who’d concrete all of rural England if he could.
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