This vanishing land of ours: Anna Pavord calls for a unified approach to halt the piecemeal destruction of the countryside

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The Independent Online
THE COUNTRYSIDE survey published last November by the Department of the Environment has been hailed as the most comprehensive audit ever undertaken of the British countryside, an environmental Domesday.

Based on a combination of satellite mapping and detailed field surveys, the document itemises the resources of the British countryside at the beginning of the Nineties: so much arable (34 per cent), so much pasture (29 per cent), so much marginal land (16 per cent), so much upland and moor (21 per cent). The survey team measured hedges, which are still disappearing at an alarming rate, counted plant species on 11,500 vegetation plots and monitored 360 water courses.

The last audit, not as comprehensive, was carried out in 1984 and comparison of the two reports throws up some interesting indicators. Broad-leaved woodland has increased slightly. That is the good news. But built-up areas have grown by 4 per cent, always at the expense of good agricultural land.

The amount of arable land lying idle has more than doubled, a sign that the Government's set-aside scheme, introduced in 1988, has been enthusiastically taken up by farmers. This is not surprising given the current level of compensation, pounds 253 a hectare and due to rise this autumn to pounds 320. You can knock up a pounds 15,000 cheque quite quickly that way.

The most depressing aspect of the report concerns changes in vegetation. Almost everywhere, plant colonies are less complex, botanical diversity reduced. Lowland, woodland and grassland are all affected, but for different reasons. In arable landscapes, the combined effects of herbicides and fertilisers seem largely to blame. In the uplands, changes in grazing regimes have affected the fragile mosaic of grass, heather and whin. Hard-pressed hill farmers have been running increasing numbers of sheep on the hills and the effects show up clearly in this report.

The richest habitats are shown to be the linear features in the landscape: hedges, verges, the banks of streams. The wider the verge, the more useful and diverse a habitat it provides. Meadow plants find an alternative home here. Their seed provides food for small animals. Nettles, cleavers, false oat grass, blackberry and hogweed dominate verges in farmed land. In the uplands, soft rush, common sorrel, the hard fern, heath bedstraw and heather are the most common plants. Increasingly, in the mania for road widening, they are replaced by tarmac.

In its particulars, the survey is a remarkable document. It provides immensely detailed information on land cover in Britain, on landscape features and habitats. It tells us what is happening in the countryside. But, crucially, it does not tell us why. Nor does it attempt to assess the significance of the changes in habitat for animals and birds. Or for us.

The findings of this survey will be of value only when they are integrated in a much larger scenario that involves the way people live and work in the countryside. A start has been made with the Processes of Countryside Change project being undertaken by Wye College in Kent, which is examining the socio- economic causes for changes in land use. Habitats do not self-destruct. The degradation of the environment is a result of things that go on in it and the value that is placed upon it.

The Government has recently embarked on a roads programme costing pounds 23bn. The unseen, uncounted costs of our increasing reliance on road transport are monitored in the survey. Roads, which in 1978 covered 3,300sq km of the country, had, by 1984, gobbled up 4,500sq km and the figure is rising.

In six years, the amount of building in the countryside has increased by 4 per cent - another 800sq km lost to tarmac and concrete. This huge increase in hard, impermeable surfaces affects the way that water is soaked up by the land. There is less sponge than there used to be.

And then, of course, there are the farmers. The survey, although commissioned by the Department of the Environment, maps changes that have to a great extent been brought about by another government department, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The report indicates that just over a third of Britain is arable land, concentrated in the Midlands and the eastern counties of England. Just under a third is pasture, grassland that is often as intensively managed as a ploughed field. Farming has a greater effect on the landscape and environment than any other activity, and yet it is largely outside the remit of the DoE.

Common sense dictates that MAFF and parts of the DoE should long ago have merged into a single body - a Ministry of the Countryside, or of the Rural Economy, call it what you will - which could take a holistic view of what is happening out there between the houses, the roads and the out-of-town shopping malls.

It would be a shotgun wedding, with important adjustments to be made on either side. MAFF would have to jettison its bullish, land-only-as-maximised-asset mentality. The environmentalists would have to come to terms with the fact that the countryside is not one vast nature reserve - people have to live and work in it.

Farmers should be the conservationists' most valuable allies in creating the countryside that we all want to see: diverse, prolific, sustainable. For this to come about, each needs to know more about the other's business. This surely would be more likely if all concerned in producing the dish were using the same recipe book.

There have been occasional forays from the one into the other's territory: Environmentally Sensitive Areas, the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, Sites of Special Scientific Interest. But this piecemeal approach, combined with a pathetically low level of funding for the countryside in general, is not the right way to manage a resource as massive and as important as Britain's rural environment.

Only when farming and the wider environment are managed together as an integrated whole will there be any possibility of answers to some of the questions posed by the survey. What is the knock-on effect of the massive increase in maize growing, up three-fold from the acreage grown in 1984? How important are fields of barley as habitats? We may soon find out, as barley has plummeted as a crop over the past six years. Human allergies to oil seed rape have been widely reported since it first blazed its trail over the fields of Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire. What other as yet unseen effects is it having, particularly on insect populations, in the areas where it is widely grown?

Rape, as it happens, is already being pushed out by linseed, the yellow fields replaced by blue. Farmers have first and foremost to be businessmen; the level of support for rape ( pounds 444 a hectare) has been overtaken by that for linseed, which pays pounds 478 a hectare. If the level of support for hill farmers were anything like as generous, overgrazing on the uplands would stop overnight.

Those without land are always very quick to tell those with land what they ought to be doing with it, but an integrated ministry would surely make life easier for farmers, who are at present caught between two giants with opposing agendas. Farmers recognise that the way they run their businesses will be increasingly influenced by their effect on the wider environment, but theirs is a price-driven business. They produce what the Government pays them to produce. It can be pigs. It can be poppies.

When launching the survey, the Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, pointed out that the UK had pressed for environmental considerations to be integrated into the Common Agricultural Policy and had played a leading role in getting the European Union to include measures to encourage environmentally-friendly farming in CAP.

What is sauce for the European goose should be sauce for the British gander. The countryside survey alerts us to changes in rural Britain. Now the causes and consequences of those changes need to be examined with equal commitment in the context of a new, all- embracing Ministry of the Countryside.

'The Countryside Survey 1990' is available from the DoE Publications Sales Unit, Government Buildings Block 3, Lime Grove, Eastcote, Ruislip, Middlesex, HA4 8SE, price pounds 12.

(Photographs omitted)

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