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Countryside progress despite Government chaos

Friday 12 June 2009

This is Daelnet’s 400th Week in the country column, almost eight years of reporting on the state of country life, all of it spent under a Labour government of mainly townie MPs. Despite that – or perhaps in spite of it – life in the countryside is getting better, claims our commentator John Sheard...

THE LAST thing I wish to talk about is politics and the chaos now gripping Westminster, which seems to further removed from the English countryside than the moon. But this is the 400th posting of this column and it is worth recording how things have changed, for better or for worse, in the country whilst the townies in Parliament bicker.

All those almost eight years have been spent under a Labour government and it started very badly indeed. Tony Blair was reported in his early years as Prime Minister as asking: “What’s the point of producing all this food when we can buy it cheaper abroad?”

John Sheard
John Sheard, optimistic after 400 columns

As a result, he was famously slow hand-clapped at the annual conference of the Women’s Institute and patently could not understand why. His being bullied by his loony left into trying to make fox hunting illegal might have had something to do with it.

But he and his fellow ministers simply could not comprehend the deep offence given to country folk – very few of whom actually hunt – at this trampling of ancient rights, which potentially made law-abiding people criminals whilst thugs and yobbos run riot in our towns and cities un-troubled by the police and courts.

As for his successor – either Josef Stalin or Mr Bean, depending on which insult you prefer – he was so involved in cocking up the City of London that country folk – about 20% of the population – were totally ignored. And that might well have been a good thing – keeping in the long grass is not a bad policy when the nation is run by incompetent zealots.

Ministers like caravan-loving Margaret Beckett, the first minister to run Defra after it replaced the old Min. of Ag. following the foot-and-mouth debacle, added bankruptcy to chaos by screwing up the new single farm-payment subsidy scheme so that thousands of farmers were not paid for two years and some had to wait three.

This is a pretty dark picture, I admit, and now I will ease up on the doom and gloom. For strange though it may seem, things are getting better in the countryside as our towns and cities sink into recessionary despair. There are different causes for this, some accidental, but to use a century’s old country phrase, let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth.

One of the good things – and I never thought I would say this - has been the creation of Natural England, the quango that was created out of the amalgamation of the Countryside Commission, English Nature and a few other bits and pieces of organisations dotted around the countryside.

The reasons for forcing them together were largely political – New Labour’s obsession with controlling anything that moves – but, surprise, surprise, Natural England has turned out to be quite a success, getting on with its work quietly whilst the politicians fiddled as the economy burned.

Although it still has a long way to go, the agency is coming to grips with the conundrum of how to promote a thriving wildlife with economical farming. For example, it has just finished a consultation with various farming organisations on how to make up for the EU’s abandonment of land-set aside, which left thousands of acres of uncultivated land in which wildlife thrived.

That could mean farmers being compensated for leaving strips of land round their fields to run wild and there are similar plans for fallow land next to rivers and streams, a huge benefit for insects which, in turn, feed birds and fish.

But one of the biggest boosts for upland areas like the Yorkshire Dales has come virtually by accident as a result of the international obsession with climate change and, in particular, the release of carbon-based greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

Country folk tend to be a hardy breed and for centuries have survived whatever the powers-that-be have thrown at them

It has just been realised that huge amounts of these gasses are “trapped” in peat bogs which, a few years ago, were being drained to make way for more grazing. This act of folly contributed hugely to widespread flooding when rain and snow melt, once slowed down in the peat sponge, roared non-stop into the valleys below.

Now, natural England has realised the crucial part in carbon-capture played by the peat and upland farmers are to be paid for managing it. At the same time, gardeners are being urged to give up peat-based composts. And this will help save the habitats of rare birds like curlews, cross-bills and plovers.

There are many other reasons to be optimistic. The supermarkets have now been forced to pay their suppliers a living wage. The “eat local” campaign is growing. More and more people are growing their own. And – despite New Labour’s anger – various police forces have admitted that they have neither the time nor the men to enforce the anti-hunting laws.

Country folk tend to be a hardy breed and for centuries have survived whatever the powers-that-be have thrown at them. They survived medieval serfdom, the enclosure of the fields, the neglect of farming in the 1930s which almost led to starvation in World War 11, and in the past eight years the disinterest of New Labour. It might be cheeky, then, to steal Tony Blair’s victory song, but I firmly believe “Things can only get better...”

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