One of the things James Rebanks touches on in The Shepherd’s Life is the sustainability of his type of farming. In contrast to other methods promoted in this country which are essentially dependent on scale, Rebanks’ focuses on preserving historic practices; only keeping as many sheep as the grassland can take; and ultimately, protecting the productivity of the area for future generations. As is made so abundantly clear, his entire system is built on sustainability and longevity – it’s working with the land, not taking from it.
I thought of George Monbiot frequently as I read The Shepherd’s Life, and wondered (with some trepidation) how a conversation between the two of them might play out. It is certainly very easy to see the value in what both of them are saying. Sheep farming is a much loved part of our national heritage; the animals may hail from Mesopotamia originally, but it feels like a very British undertaking. It is certainly also true that most of us have an artificially sanitized idea of what farming (and consequently food production) entails, but I don’t think many would dispute the importance rural economies have to our sense of national identity. The dry stone walls; the shepherds’ crooks; the chalk grassland and rolling hills dotted with grazing animals – they are quintessentially British scenes. “Baa Baa Black Sheep” is probably the first song most of us learn to sign as children. Hundreds of thousands of us head to the countryside during public holidays to soak up that bucolic atmosphere. Which is, of course, in part why agri-environmental schemes have been established – to reward landowners who manage their land in such a way as to preserve its environmental, historic and cultural importance.
At the same time, and as George Monbiot argues, the scale of it has got to be better controlled. Huge swathes of our countryside are given over to sheep farming – the scale of which, arguably, causes critical soil erosion, the suppression of woodland and shrub growth (which exacerbates flooding), and the creation of something akin to a rural wasteland. As he put it so pithily in one article (link below), Sheep have reduced most of our uplands to bowling greens with contours. A lot of us love the bowling greens, but it must of course be true that our landscape would look very different if its uses changed.
He also has plenty to say about highland deer. Such as, for instance, the fact that fifty per cent of the private land in Scotland is in the hands of 432 people – many of whom use it for grouse moors and deer stalking. As a result an artificially high number of Scottish deer is maintained, grazing the land to the roots. Again it defines the landscape, and has a considerable impact on Scottish wildlife.
A survey of Scotland’s native woodland has been undertaken over the course of the past seven years by a group comprised of the Forestry Commission Scotland, Scotland Natural Heritage, Woodland Trust Scotland, and Scottish Land & Estates, amongst others. They have found plenty to be concerned about, including the fact that more than half of Scotland’s native woods are in an unsatisfactory condition, and that since the 1970s, more than 14% of Scotland’s irreplaceable ancient woodland has been lost. This is a major issue – not only in terms of the environmental impact (thinking particularly of biodiversity; carbon sequestration; flood protection; and clean air) but also economically, considering the importance of the national timber industry, and of course, the fact that Scotland’s stunning landscape is one of its major draws for tourists.
What’s fascinating about all of this is that it is not development which is predominantly to blame for the loss of woodland, as one might expect. Instead, the group have identified that the main problems are failed regeneration, climate change and overgrazing. Indeed, 86% of Scottish woods suffer high or medium damage as a result of grazing by herbivores.
As a result of this study, recommendations have been passed to the Scottish Government’s Biodiversity Strategy team, some of which appeared in the new Biodiversity Route Map to 2020. However, there still needs to be a commitment from the Government to embed these into official policy. The Woodland Trust is campaigning to ensure these recommendations are enshrined, and to ensure that six further, key actions are incorporated (including halting further loss, and the restoration of at least 15% of the degraded ancient woodland).
The Trust is asking anyone who lives in Scotland to get in touch with their MSP, to make sure that these recommendations are crystallised into policy. More information is available on their excellent website: http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/our-campaigns/save-scotlands-native-woodland/
And for the non-Scots among us, the Woodland Trust would also love to hear what you think about how to prioritise responses to this study: http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/get-involved/campaign-with-us/our-campaigns/save-scotlands-native-woodland/tell-us-what-you-think
There are always going to be conflicts in the way in which we use our limited land resources; the best we can hope for, perhaps, is balance, and sense of communal responsibility. Which means that when we have an opportunity to make sure that governments actually implement positive change, we have to seize it.
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