The hill country where I live is mostly occupied by small, family owned farms and it is often said that in such places agriculture has been less damaging to the countryside than in the intensively managed arable areas. And by and large that is true, but two recent incidents highlighted for me that we still have a way to go before there is sufficient overlap between valuing beauty and valuing efficiency. Both involved trees.
On one of my regular walks from our house there was a wonderful old birch tree in the corner of a windswept field: ancient, craggy and leaning away from the wind, its roots clung to the ground like arthritic fingers. That tree had withstood decades of hard weather in this exposed place, which I respectfully acknowledged whenever I passed by. Then one day I found it had been bulldozed out by its roots; it lay wilting in the field like a beached whale. The farmer was reseeding the pasture and, despite its marginal location, the tree was apparently in the way.
Secondly, across the fields from our kitchen window, in a battered old hedgerow, stood a magnificent crab apple, quite the tallest and finest I have seen in the district. Covered in blossom in the spring you could see it from half a mile away, its pale pink flowers a beacon of renewal and hope. If you stood beneath it the canopy hummed with bees drawn to the copious pollen and nectar. Then, just before Christmas it was cut down. The farmer was (to his credit) restoring the derelict hedge and felt the new hedge plants would not grow well around the roots and shade of the old crab apple. So he cut it down. All that remains between the new fences is a broad, amputated stump – which displays a little heart rot, as befits its age.
Both these trees were removed mostly because they were in the way of an easier or more efficient operation. In themselves I suppose neither were that important (except that they were ancient and splendid), there are thousands of birch trees and a fair scattering of crab apples locally, but both could easily have been accommodated within the usual running of the farm if they had been sufficiently valued. Part of the problem is that they were so easily expendable; probably fifteen minutes work in each case, with the machinery available.
I don’t want to characterise my farming neighbours as being uncaring or insensitive, certainly in the case of the man who cut down the crab apple he is knowledgeable about countryside matters, especially in this valley where his family have farmed for generations, but there is a gap in perception that is important. The focus for me in the countryside is the beauty and fascinating detail of its wildlife; for farmers it’s their work place and their livelihood depends on using it productively.
Nearly 85% of Wales is farmed and yet tourism, in all its guises, is the biggest earning industry here, so this ‘little local difficulty’ can be seen to represent a bigger argument. It seems that the public want and expect the countryside to be beautiful and buzzing with wildlife – although I have to own they don’t seem to want that as much as I do. In order to help bridge the gap between efficient work place and beautiful playground (to caricature both) the government pays farmers to look after the countryside as well as use it to produce food. It is also well understood that most hill farms are not financially viable without these various forms of financial help. That being so, many local farmers, including the two above, are signed up to an agri-environment scheme from which they receive substantial amounts of public money to care for the natural features and wildlife on their land.
Part of the purpose of such schemes should be to reinstate the value of, for example, old trees. The understanding and valuing of such things has become diminished amongst farmers as two or three generations have grown up through the era of increased productivity through intensification. Old trees or flowery pastures have been swept aside and so has knowledge of them; what would have been passed from father to son has withered away. Glastir, the agri-environment scheme available here, whilst doing some good, such as the hedge restoration above, has a poor reputation for design, implementation and delivering the goods. Recent research by the RSPB has shown that well designed and carefully targeted agri-environment schemes can, with little supervision, make a positive difference to wildlife on farms. It is by such means that the gap in values can gradually close so that when the moment comes to decide, a craggy old tree can be left standing for its own sake, despite being a bit in the way.