Books: They make a wilderness and call it peace

Fraser Harrison curses the land lobby; The Killing of the Countryside by Graham Harvey, Cape, pounds 16.99

As his title shows, Graham Harvey is not afraid to use a sensational phrase. Within his first few paragraphs he refers to the "living garment" of the countryside, a metaphor coined by W H Hudson to describe the flowers covering chalk grassland, and declares that it is turning into a shroud. This impassioned book demonstrates that such language, far from being histrionic, simply meets the case. Our countryside is indeed being killed, and by the very people who are charged with its care.

What makes Harvey's book valuable is the intensity of his feeling. He grieves the wanton extinction of our "national treasure" - the mixed-farm structure of the prewar years - and fervently resents the alliance of politicians, civil servants and landowners who have grown rich on its bones.

Harvey is an angry man, and his anger allows him persuasively to restate a case that has become wearisome in its familiarity. It seems scarcely credible that we have now been deprived of 97 per cent of our meadowland. And who can believe that after all the pleas on their behalf, hedgerows are still being lost or, rather, plundered at the rate of 10,000 miles per year? The populations of our so-called common songbirds are falling at a desperate rate. The tree sparrow's numbers have dropped by 89 per cent in the past 25 years, and the skylark's by 58 per cent. As we in Suffolk can testify, Harvey does not exaggerate when he speaks of "silent fields".

His chief concern is to show how the countryside is being killed by the subsidy system, which currently costs you and me pounds 10bn a year. Not only are we helping to enrich the already rich, we are paying twice - once with our taxes, and again by surrendering our countryside to poison or plough. And we pay again when we buy food that is nutritionally void and contaminated with the chemicals that fuel the agribusiness machine.

If I have a criticism of Harvey's splendid tirade, it is that he does not analyse in sufficient detail the formidable lobby that keeps the gravy pouring onto the plates of the landowning class. Land and political power turn out to be branches of the same indestructible plant.

Harvey points out that landowners, not country inhabitants, dictate the shape of the landscape. Whitehall and the agricultural industry work together to reshape the countryside, a symbiosis of public service and private capital that leaves the suckered public to pay the bill. He says that country people, a third of the population, "live on the periphery like temporary expatriates in some foreign land". Temporary? When, then, may we go home? Not in the foreseeable future. Landowners will not accept that, while the country may be their property, the landscape belongs to all of us.

Harvey is the agricultural story editor of The Archers - for many listeners an authentic echo of country life. It is therefore a shame the programme does not contain a representative of the villainies denounced here. Brian Aldridge and Simon Pemberton come close to fitting the bill, but we do not hear about the destructive consequences of their methods. Larks still sing in Ambridge but, if the countryside really is being killed, Ambridge too must suffer.

Graham Harvey is interviewed on page 16

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