Money shapes the face of the countryside

Nature also has to create families' income
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The Independent Online
As in architecture, so in farming. In the Duchy of Cornwall's magazine, Prince Charles declares himself an arch-traditionalist. He venerates the wisdom of our ancestors in their ways of managing the land, and mourns our rapid abandonment of their practices.

''I believe we can still learn from them in this supposedly more advanced age,'' he writes. ''Traditional farming practices are ... eminently sustainable, because they would not have survived so long if they were not.''

Across huge swaths of our countryside, those traditions have perished in the past 50 years, transforming the landscape in the process. Dry stone walls have crumbled, hedges lucky enough to escape erasure in the creation of prairie-fields have become gappy and ragged.

Hundreds of square miles of wildlife-rich pasture, heath, marsh and hay meadow have gone under the plough. Surviving woodlands are now full of geriatric trees or overgrown coppice because no one takes wood from them any more.

The Prince wants to turn the clock back at least 40 years. He is doing what he can on the Duchy's 50,000 hectares of farmland, and hopes his 222 tenant farmers will see things his way. But his article offers little in the way of prescriptions for how and why these traditions should be revived nationwide.

The look of the British countryside has always been the result of farmers' need to make a living. And like their ancestors, post-war farmers have sought to make the best possible living by growing as much food as quickly as possible. A combination of rapid technological change and generous crop subsidies have made them abandon traditional methods.

Old ways have become too labour-intensive, obstructive, or irrelevant, just as in most other industries. But only in farming does our overwhelmingly metropolitan society challenge this abandonment of tradition.

The public appears to want traditional farming with landscapes and wildlife conserved, animals given more freedom, pesticides and industrial fertilisers shunned. But people should not be surprised if farmers resist because those changes would mean a large drop in their living standards.

Given the right incentives, farmers will do what is asked of them. Many hundreds are already receiving grants from the taxpayer to revive traditional practices, but these are still minute compared to their other EU subsidies. And to be fair, there are plenty of farmers who like to maintain hedgerows and plant trees out of a sense of stewardship.

Environmental groups argue that EU subsidies should only be given if farmers make at least some basic undertakings to look after the landscape. So far, they have persuaded neither the Ministry of Agriculture nor the European Commission.

You could, theoretically, compel farmers to restore the landscape but imagine the bureaucracy involved in enforcing rebellious squires to do so. There would have to be regular inspections to ensure that hedges and ponds were properly maintained and trees planted.

One should not be bound by tradition. If we are going to pay farmers for their contribution to the appearance of the countryside, then it can be almost any kind of landscape we want.

Why should we not have one or two huge, wilderness forests which it takes more than a day to cross on foot? After all, that is what almost the entire countryside looked like 9,000 years ago, and they still have them in the United States. We could even reintroduce wolves, and give traditional fairy tales fresh meaning.