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Hard to believe, but finally we have licence to go wild in the country

Simon Jenkins

WELCOME TO THE DAWN of the new Britain. I mean it. This summer begins the refashioning of the 80 per cent of Britain’s landmass that is not in some sense under human habitation. Forget schools and hospitals, factories and roads, houses and supermarkets. They come and they go like smudges over the other 20 per cent. But the rural landscape is for ever, almost. Now its management is to change. I never thought I would live to see the countryside no longer treated as a food factory but “farmed” for nature, leisure and pleasure. The new single farm payment scheme, so mundane in name, is a revolution as seismic as the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Students of advanced subsidy studies have long awakened early each morning to Farming Today on Radio 4. Unlike industries such as engineering, transport or tourism, farming is blessed by the BBC with its own saccharine soap opera (The Archers) and a daily platform to beg charitable relief from the taxpayer. For decades, Farming Today has given the National Farmers’ Union free airtime each morning.

The lobbying has been relentless and often fantastical. We heard that food convoys might not get through a Soviet submarine blockade and we would starve to death. The Americans and Europeans would desert us. Farming was rescuing the balance of payments. It was underpinning sterling. It was a traditional way of life under threat. Then the worm began to turn. Money was demanded for set-aside, for doing nothing. Money was needed to go organic, for not ruining nature with pesticides, herbicides and nitrates. Margaret Thatcher used to do her hair each morning to Farming Today. It worked her into a lather of anti-subsidy rage before unleashing herself on the daily job of government. Without Farming Today there would have been no Thatcherism, just a kindly lady patting children on the head.

Last weekend I tuned in to the said programme. It has recently stopped howling about the “farm incomes catastrophe” since incomes have been soaring. Interviewers have turned to attacking Nimbys for stopping farmers selling fields to development land banks. The programme should be renamed Property Today. But it too has realised that the new single farm payment scheme is transforming the future of agriculture. As of this year, farmers are no longer paid by taxpayers to produce food. They are being paid to do what they like, provided only that they run something called a farm. Cows, sheep, chickens, wheat, hay are sufficient but no longer necessary to the definition of farming.

The programme was asking a Cotswold farmer what salary he was now drawing from the State. He replied £90,000 a year. When pressed as to what he did for this honorarium — he is still free to sell anything he grows at market — he explained that it was for shifting fallen trees, feeding skylarks and watching wildflowers grow in the meadows. He thought £90,000 a year was reasonable for this. He had a lot of fields. Quite so, purred the BBC, its nose in much the same trough.

When I had mopped up my spilt coffee and recovered shattered pieces of radio from the corner of the room, I reflected that the Cotswold farmer was right. He is doing precisely what I want him to do. I do not like him coating the hills in sheep and turning every field to a lawn. I do not want stinking mounds of silage, hideous metal barns and rolling acres of rapeseed, overlooked by regiments of sitka spruce. I am fed up with hearing about suckler cow premiums, sheepmeat supplements, national envelopes and CAP pillars, all subject to EU “modulation and degressivity”. For a quarter-century we have refused to support other lame-duck industries this way. Why farming?

Now we have an answer. As Oliver Walston, the in-your-face East Anglian barley baron, wrote on these pages on Saturday: “For the first time in two generations, farmers such as myself are coming to terms with the end to the madness. I will still receive a cheque but it will no longer matter how much wheat I grow . . . I will, in short, be a park keeper.” In a bad year, he calculates, it will pay him to grow no food at all and just pipe to whatever tune the public wants for his £170,000 annual salary.

But what is the tune to be? In the past I have jokily remarked to farming friends that I expect them to smarten up, given what I pay them. Walston’s hedges looked a bit manky for £170,000. A friend on Exmoor failed to keep her sheep’s bottoms clean: at £30 a year per sheep I wanted them spotless. As for the caravans, turbines and spoil dumps now sprouting uncontrolled across the Welsh hills, words failed me. Did I somehow pay for these too?

Now every component in the countryside is supposedly singing from a common songbook. Simply giving money to each farm to remain in being treats it and its environs as an entity of intrinsic value, not as a means to a end. This is a huge conceptual shift. It is like the National Trust taking over a great house and park from a bankrupt family estate. The old owners can stay in residence, but the rules have changed and the public are to be admitted.

An unviable industry is not to be abandoned to what would certainly replace it, the uncontrolled building development visible along America’s northeastern seaboard or in north Kent and the Midlands. Instead the state is putting a financial value on countryside as such, on a fragile and (if John Prescott has his way) wasting resource whose worth cannot be realised through market prices. The single farm payment treats agriculture as land custodianship, no more nor less. All it must do is deliver a certain sort of land.

What is that? Needless to say the lobbyists are already at work. The basis of the new subsidy is size of farm. Big farms need more upkeep than small ones, hence their bigger subsidies. But payments will be conditional upon tiers of environmental stewardship, from a basic £30 a hectare to as much as £500 for highly sensitive areas. In place of veal calf premiums and crop acreage payments are 6m wildlife strips, clover mixes and 10cm cut green cover. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is dancing with the fairies, demanding a landscape of crested dogstail, cocksfoot, vetchling and common bent. The nanny state is truly counting stitches. The air is to be ringing with skylarks, corn buntings and turtle doves. The undergrowth is to be alive with voles, dormice and natterjack toads.

Yet the more I read about this dawn the more I sense something missing. The new countryside is being designed by English Nature, the Countryside Commission and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, by botanists, ecologists and soil scientists. Nobody has asked me what sort of countryside I want to spend £3 billion a year protecting. Nobody has asked the millions of mostly urban Britons who have spent huge sums to support farming in the past and must continue paying such sums in the future. Their wishes are taking for granted.

They may want a more sensitive ecology, but I believe they want more for their money than this micro-regulation. I do not care about fallen trees. I am happy to see sheep pasture return to scrub, plantations fill with undergrowth and moorland run wild with gorse, heather and bracken. I know the “rewilding” of Britain requires intervention, but wild is the direction in which it should go. This involves far more than species protection. It means a care for horizons, views and coastlines. It involves the elimination of ugly farm buildings, power lines, masts, turbines and defunct warehouses. It means treating the landscape, and the farms to protect it, as an aesthetic as well as a scientific reality.

There is none of this in the new policy because Britain has no lobby for beauty. Any fool can save a sedge but it takes a genius to save a scene. Yet it is Britain’s scenery which, in truth, we are now all paying to protect. We need the courage of this revolution, to think big as well as small.