In the past, when farmers have whinged it has been fashionable to dismiss their complaints as exaggerated; but this time there is no doubt that they are in real trouble, exemplified by the drastic action of Maurice Vellacott, who went out on to Exmoor and shot his ewes with a silenced .22, rather than take them to market and practically give them away. From every corner of the country come stories of farmers selling up, emigrating, committing suicide, because they find it impossible to continue; and unless the Government can devise some way of stabilising their incomes, the chances are that large areas of the countryside will fall derelict.
If they do, it will be by no means the first time that this has happened. In the depression that set in after the battle of Waterloo in 1815, hundreds of small tenant farmers abandoned their land; and the country fell into decline again 100 years ago.Then, as now, the prime cause was the import of cheap food, and its consequences were recorded in gloomy detail by the author Sir Henry Rider Haggard, who was struggling to make ends meet on his 370 acres in Norfolk. In the diary he kept of the year 1898 his constant lament was of prices so low that the best young men were being driven off the land and taking refuge in the cities. One farmer near Six Mile Bottom described life on farms as "the survival of the unfittest", and claimed that most of the men left behind were "daft, lame or blind".
Today the development of machinery has reduced the agricultural labour force to a level far below anything that Rider Haggard could have imagined. But the fact remains that it is largely farming which has given our countryside its present look. Attractive patterns of field and hedgerow, wall and ditch, coppice and spinney are not the work of nature: they have been produced by actively managing the land from generation to generation - by the need to grow food, to maintain the fertility of the soil, to keep livestock under control, to provide shelter, to drain the ground and to prevent erosion. When field divisions are ripped out for the sake of economy, as they have been in the Midlands and in East Anglia, most people feel that the landscape loses its appeal.
Few politicians realise how closely all rural activities are integrated. Fox-hunting is not a form of agriculture, but its practitioners have contributed enormously to the environment by planting woods and coverts and cultivating hedges. Shooting is in the same category. Gamekeepers who work on sporting estates do an immense amount to advance that trendiest of conservation concepts, biodiversity: on land where crows, magpies, rats, squirrels, foxes, mink, stoats and weasels are kept down, far more species flourish than on ground where predators go unchecked.
Even wild areas need positive management. Annual expenditure on the North York Moors National Park, to take one example, is running at about pounds 5.5m, half of which comes from the British Government, half from European funds. Some 40 per cent of the total goes on landscape conservation, including regeneration of moorland. Another large slice is taken up by transport - the need to maintain and improve roads, control traffic, and so on.
Many private landowners also spend fortunes on conservation. Paul van Vlissingen, whose family owns Letterewe, the 100,000-acre deer forest in Wester Ross, reckons that the net annual cost of keeping that magnificent wilderness of rock, peat, rough grass and water in its pristine state is about pounds 120,000. If loss of income on the estate's capital value is taken into account, the cost to the owners is pounds 680,000 a year.
Land left unmanaged quickly deteriorates. In the Scottish Highlands, deer in excessive numbers browse off young trees so that forests cannot regenerate. On lower moors heather grows rank and gives way to bracken, which not only is useless in itself, but harbours ticks damaging to sheep and grouse. In the lowlands, the policy of set-aside - of paying farmers not to grow crops on part of their ground - has vividly demonstrated how unattractive fields become when left alone: weeds proliferate at astonishing speed, giving the ground a hirsute, unkempt look, as displeasing to its owners as it is to townspeople who come out for a drive in the country.
Active management is the key requirement. For centuries farmers have provided it, moulding the landscape as they work. But if they can no longer afford to carry on, who is going to look after the countryside?
People mutter darkly about hidden agendas. One theory is that the Government is deliberately trying to drive small farmers out of business, creating big units that will be more efficient. Another is that the European Parliament aims to reduce Britain to the status of a theme park, in which agriculture, if practised at all, will serve only to prettify the landscape and gratify the preconceptions of tourists.
The trouble is, most farmers do not want to be park-keepers. Their roots are in the soil. Just as every gardening householder wants to grow handsome flowers or vegetables, and to keep his plot tidy, so farmers want to produce good crops, raise fine livestock and keep their land in the best possible heart.
Thousands have already been forced to diversify into cultivating people, either by providing bed and breakfast, or by opening their farms to the public. But they know in their bones that their real task is to grow the nation's food; and it is of paramount importance, both for them and for the countryside, that the Government should recognise this by making it possible for them to exercise their natural bent.Reuse content