Country: Drained, sprayed, and flattened
The countryside is under threat. The story of Barbara Sutton and the family smallholding which was razed for efficiency is typical of the march of `progress'. Jack O'Sullivan reports
Saturday 22 March 1997
"It was a perfect life," she recalls. "Paradise." But earlier this week, we travelled with Mrs Sutton to the site of the old farm. Where once there were orchards of plums, apples and cherries, there is nothing. The willow that stood beside the bridge over a dike has now gone. Indeed, there isn't even a farm gate. All the trees have been uprooted, save one sycamore which looks, after being struck by lightening, like the sole survivor of a massacre. The hedges that surrounded the settlement are gone. Of the farmhouse and outbuildings, bulldozed in the Sixties, there is not a trace. All that remains are vast, featureless fields - a prairie that wouldn't look out of place in America's Midwest, drained, sprayed, artificially fertilised, tidied, a land devoid of insects, birds, wild mammals and people. Where there were once five small farms leading from a sleepy lane, there is just one, consolidated agribusiness, where the only thing that moves across the monotonous landscape is a huge tractor.
Yet this is supposed to be a model of British agricultural success. A land that has produced huge profits from decades of EU grain subsidies and more recently has cashed in on the explosion of prices on the world market.
"I don't come back very often," says Mrs Sutton, whose family sold up in 1961. "I feel so sad when I visit. To me this particular spot is like hallowed ground. No one can take it away from me, because I have my memories. But I've always wondered what happened to a tin we buried in concrete, when my step-grandfather built an extension to the milking parlour. We left a few things in that tin, messages and so on, which we thought would be there for 1,000 years. We didn't realise the whole place would be gone in five years."
Mrs Sutton's tale has been played out across Britain since the Second World War, when the first of many incentives for intensive farming led farmers to forsake traditional mixed farming in favour of industrial techniques owing more to ICI's laboratories than to history's great agricultural innovators - Turnip Townshend, Robert Bakewell and Jethro Tull.
A fierce indictment of post-war husbandry has been published by Graham Harvey, better known for nostalgic images of the shires, cultivated in The Archers, of which Harvey is the agricultural story editor. His book, The Killing of the Countryside, is a call to arms for lovers of Britain's countryside, a plea to save from the "grim reapers" of modern farming the riches that inspired Edith Holden to write The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, and to avoid a future more reminiscent of TS Eliot's The Wasteland.
Perhaps most worrying about the book are its predictions of what may be coming next. For if you think that, in the era of "set-aside" and food surpluses, agribusiness has done its worst to the countryside, Harvey will put you straight. He warns that Britain faces, with the active collusion of government, even greater intensification of farming. Big landowners, he says, now seek to drive down costs so Britain can compete against the US in the great new grain export markets of China and Asia where affluence is bringing huge increases in the demand for meat and, with it, demand for grain animal feeds. In short, you ain't seen nothing yet if you fear for the rural landscape being turned into an industrialised desert.
There is an alternative to this nightmarish prospect. The images of a different future can be found in isolated spots where farmers with a devotion to the land keep faith with older ideals than profit and loss accounts.
This week, Rosamund Young was enjoying just such a vision on the 390- acre farm she works with her mother Mary and her brother Richard. The farm, near Broadway in Worcestershire, across the Vale of Evesham, is a haven for wildlife. The tall, unclipped hedges and long, uncut verges at Kite's Nest Farm are providing shelter for an explosion of spring wild flowers: violets, wood anemones, primroses, dog's mercury. In a week or so the bluebells will be out, along with the first of the orchids, to be followed later by wood sorrel and then, in the summer, Dyer's greenweed, a very rare, low, broom-like plant with yellow flowers.
As you drive through the farm, dozens of ground-nesting yellowhammers rise up from the meadows and a charm of goldfinches feed on thistleheads. The songbirds have found their voices among the herd of cattle, with animals of all ages, that graze in the pastures. Kite's Nest seems more like a nature reserve than a conventional farm.
This oasis has grown directly out of the Youngs' farming methods, which reject the intensive techniques of modern agriculture. No pesticides, crop sprays, artificial fertilisers, special hormones, anti-biotic growth promoters or feed from ground animal carcasses are used on their organic farm.
"As a family we are desperately worried about the damage being done to the land by farming today," says Rosamund Young. "Even at the expense of profit, we are letting areas grow wild." So, for example, the hedges are spared the annual brutalities of the flail mow, a device which has served the obsessional tidiness of so many farmers by cutting hedgerows down to a level that offers scant cover for nesting birds and inadequate breaks against winter winds.
But perhaps the most unusual scene at Kite's Nest is the cattle. "We allow the cattle to live in extended families. They look after each other. Grandmothers teach their daughters how to bring up their children. They choose a nice place. The cattle stand together for hours, as if in conversation, before a calf is born. The older ones teach the young where the water troughs are, where the best grass is, how to get shelter from the cold. They need much less help from us. Whereas if you separate them by age, having a field, say, of one-year-olds, you get the same problems as if you leave children alone - a herd of delinquent boys who, instead of grazing calmly, roam around looking for something to do."
The Youngs don't raise cattle for milk - except to serve their personal needs - and they ensure that a calf is suckled for a year before a sibling is born. They have been surprised to discover - as has the local vet - that none of their animals has worms, even though no prophylactic drugs are added to feed. (Most British farm animals and many domestic ones have worms, providing a huge market for pharmaceutical products.) The farm's worm-free status is believed to be linked to the wide range of land over which the cattle can graze and the immunities passed on to calves by a long period of suckling (they are about four months old before they eat much grass).
Slaughter is performed as humanely as possible. Calves are taken only when weaned, and normally when a cow already has other calves. An appointment for first thing in the morning is made at the nearest abattoir, while it is still fresh from its overnight cleaning. The cattle are transported in pairs and killed within minutes of arrival. The meat is then brought back to the farm for butchering.
There has never been a case of BSE on the farm. Indeed, artificial feed - the source of BSE - has not been used on the farm since 1967, when Mary Young was horrified to discover, only after Poirot-style detective work, that cattle cake comprised ground-up chicken bones and chicken manure, laced with aniseed to mask the taste.
It isn't an easy life. Rosamund Young says that none of the family has had a day off in five years. Sixteen-hour days are the norm. And the recession was hard on organic produce, killing off many small shops which had been opened in expectation of sales taking off.
But customers now travel hundreds of miles to buy produce direct from Kite's Nest Farm. pounds 3.05 a pound for stewing steak and pounds 3.98 for topside doesn't seem much to pay for the finest food and a safer, more bountiful countryside. Barbara Sutton, in Lincolnshire, would certainly not flinch at it if she could have saved her childhood dream from obliteration.
The Killing of the Countryside, by Graham Harvey, is published by Jonathan Cape, price pounds 17.99.
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