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Half a decade on: our 250th country column

Friday 19 May 2006

Writing our 250th column in this series, rural commentator John Sheard reflects on the changes in the countryside over the past five years. Like the curate's egg ,as described by the great satirist Jonathan Swift, it is good in parts

FIVE YEARS ago, when we first launched this column, the countryside was reeling under the shock of the first outbreaks of foot and mouth disease. This week, along with the one-time Yorkshire Dales-based author Bill Bryson, I am worried about bluebells.

Putting those two problems on a scale of one to ten, the vexed future of one of our favourite wild flowers must rank pretty low compared with the pain and loss caused by the culling of hundreds of thousands of farm animals. So I believe that things have changed somewhat for the better - though there are many country folk who would disagree.

Bluebells: Bryson’s delight
Bluebells: Bryson’s delight

Foot and mouth was a monumental disaster which left scars on people's souls which will last until their dying day. Yet, in a very roundabout way, it has had its benefits because for the very first time in my working lifetime, Government began to realise the very special place our countryside holds in the hearts of the English people, despite the fact that 80% of them live in towns or cities.

This tragedy led many townies to understand for the very first time that the countryside they love was actually created by, and is maintained by, farmers. And this, in turn, led the Government to finally tackle to monstrosity of the EU Common Agricultural Policy and think up ways of rewarding farmers for the work they do in preserving that environment.

The fact that they made a pig's ear of these bold schemes was, I suppose, to be expected given the total lack of understanding by most politicians about rural affairs and their incompetence at running any form of department: the proverbial booze-up in a brewery would be well beyond their managerial skills.

Despite that, a precedence was set and plans made. One day, those plans will come to fruition, the Rural Payments Agency will actually deliver those cheques in the post, and after a traumatic five years, this could be the beginning of, hopefully, a brave new future for country folk.

All of which takes us to bluebells and Bill Bryson, the Anglophile American who wrote his most famous book, Notes from a Small Island, whilst living at Malham in the Yorkshire Dales.. Something of a Bedouin, Bryson then left the Dales to return to America but has now come back to the U K, this time to settle in Norfolk.

Although this may seem a strange choice for a man who loves hills, Bryson has maintained the passion for the English countryside that was instilled in the Dales and took the time last week to express his concern at the decline of the traditional English wood and - at this time of the year - its very symbol, the bluebell.

His concern was so great that an interview on it was spread across no fewer than seven columns of the august Sunday Times, arguably the most influential newspaper in the land (an opinion which will no doubt infuriate Guardian readers).

Bryson is a passionate supporter of the Woodland Trust and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, two of the many conservation charities which have flourished in recent years. The rural environment now has hundreds of thousands - perhaps even millions - of active, vocal protagonists and the vast majority of them are urban based.

Many of those were propelled into active service after foot and mouth exposed on television and in the press just how fragile the social, economic and environmental fabric of our countryside had become. Like all good Brits in time of peril, they flocked to the flag in hordes.

For a man of the international standing of Bill Bryson to take a public stance for the humble bluebell - and for an internationally respected newspaper to take up the case across seven columns - is proof that the fate of our countryside is now a matter of grave national import to the general public - i.e. the voters.

Politicians may know nowt about the countryside but they have acutely sensitive antennae to monitor where votes lie. And in the past five years, largely thanks to one of the biggest crises that has ever convulsed our countryside, rural affairs have been placed firmly at the centre of public concern. Although the cause was terrible, the effect could well be a boon in the end.

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