Pity the beleaguered countryside

On one side, red-faced plonkers blowing hunting horns; on the other, prissy townies from Islington
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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the more remarkable aspects of the astonishing documentary series Shanghai Vice is the discovery of how similar the Chinese are to us. They think about sex most of the time. The women regard their men with a sort of despairing contempt. Policeman behave with the swaggering self-importance of B-movie actors. When anything goes wrong, migrants from the countryside are blamed.

Except, over here, the prejudice of town towards country cuts both ways. A succession of issues - hunting, the crisis in farming, the right to roam, the housing problem, genetically modified crops - has revealed a great chasm of suspicion and misunderstanding between urban and rural dwellers. It was probably always there, but now battle lines are being drawn almost as a matter of form.

The news that a village in Devon, anticipating an influx of incomers buying converted barns, will formally require them to agree not to bring their townie objections to local bell-ringing is entirely consistent with the new paranoia. These weekenders will doubtless be used to a Peak Practice version of the countryside - one without smells or noise, one that can be switched off. "Those who come to live amongst us should accept our ways, not try to change them," a parish councillor, appropriately named Mr Yeoman, has pronounced.

The townies are coming; they'll be changing our country ways for ever. Ever since a Labour Government came to power and began to take an uncharacteristic interest in rural matters, the alarm and hostility has been palpable.

The Countryside Alliance, representing a wide conflation of interests, has identified vote-catching moral absolutism on the hunting issue and an inbuilt urban bias on matters such as the ban on beef-on-the-bone and the increase in petrol prices. Landowners have convinced themselves that newly liberated ramblers will accelerate the growth in rural crime and threaten the environment. Ground-nesting birds will be disturbed, rare species of plant will be trampled under foot. The rural message to legislators over the past year has been a simple one: leave the countryside alone; it's safe in our hands.

Unfortunately, this is also patently untrue. Farmers have learnt to talk caringly about ecological issues, but the fact is that the vast majority of them are hard-eyed businessmen for whom the land is a production line. The more under threat they feel, the more ruthlessly they cane the soil with intensive farming or grub up hedgerows. It is widely argued that the bad old days of hedge destruction (18,000 kilometres destroyed every year between 1990 and 1993) are behind us, but anecdotal evidence suggests that many landowners, anticipating further tougher legislation, are hard at work destroying these habitats. I have heard of three major instances of hedgerow destruction in the past two months.

Few arable farmers would think twice about the effect on the landscape of planting genetically modified crops if the law allowed it. Beside their profit-and-loss account, the fate of the lapwing, skylark and barn owl is regarded as a luxury.

It is a depressing paradox that it is in this area where they have found common cause with the Government. While the media debate onmodified crops focused on over-excited stories about Frankenstein foods, the more serious threat of reducing vast swathes of the countryside to a clean, profitable, silent wasteland was lost.

The great advantage of modified crops, we are told, is that eradication of weeds can reach unprecedented levels of 95 per cent or higher. These weeds are what sustain insects, birds and mammals. You don't need to be a sophisticated geneticist to see that if modified crops are doing their job, there can only be one result: the destruction not only of weeds but of the entire food chain that depends upon them.

Beneath these rows, big and small, there lies the profoundly important issue of what we want from the countryside on this small, crowded island. Is it essentially a factory floor for the production of food, where the landscape is shaped by commercial concerns? Or is it a leisure resource, a sophisticated but controlled theme park which belongs to us all?

On the one hand, red-faced plonkers blowing hunting horns and greedy farmers, with Monsanto executives lurking in the background; on the other, prissy, churchbell-hating, leylandii-planting townies from Islington. Either alternative seems deeply depressing. On this day when we await the song of the skylark, the arrival of the swallow, when nature is waking up to spring, the countryside has never seemed quite so beleaguered.