One thing that my research into sustainable farming and permaculture has really changed is my perspective of rurality in the UK, or more specifically, Wales. I have always valued the Welsh rural landscape where I grew up, and have yearned for the ‘green green grass of home‘ whenever I have been travelling abroad.
However, I have come to realise that the opinion I, and many other people, hold of the British countryside, has been built upon a very limited and socially constructed value system.
This is what has come to be known as the ‘rural idyll’, which the online Oxford dictionary defines as:
“An extremely happy, peaceful, or picturesque period or situation, typically an idealized or unsustainable one.“
The word unsustainable is key here. If the concept of the rural idyll was harmless, then there would be no problems. However, as I shall discuss here- the rural idyll has had and continues to have huge ramifications on the way the countryside is used in the UK.
The rural idyll has been built upon a variety of assumptions. Look at the image featured at the top of the page. For many, especially in Wales, this is considered a pleasing landscape. Something that would make the Sunday walker breath in and exclaim ‘ahhh, it’s good to be out here in nature’. The fields are neatly dissected into well-maintained squares by hedgerows, sheep are grazing, the grass is lush and green. But from a sustainable farming perspective, if we try to dig a bit deeper (excuse the pun), we can start to build a more honest idea of what this landscape is. The likelihood is that at one point it was heavily deforested. The little vegetation that is left seems to have a very low level of biodiversity, and the fields themselves are little more than a grassy wasteland- containing very little in the way of habitat for wildlife. The lack of vegetation means that the soil is likely to be very poor, possibly worsened by the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides on nearby farms which leak into water systems and spread through the food chain.
Furthermore, there is something intrinsically missing from this scene: and that is people. The rural idyll tends to see nature as something very separate from society, as something to be admired and consumed rather than used. This has significant consequences for anyone seeking to ‘live off the land’ in the UK. Ask anyone who has tried. These mainly include tight planning permission restrictions and legal criteria that are almost impossible to overcome.
The trouble is, due to policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the state of rural landscapes in the UK and elsewhere in Europe is unlikely to change, in fact, they’re likely to get worse. For example, there are new subsidies and rewards now for farmers who leave their land bare, and the more land you own, the more money you can claim. George Monbiot describes it as a €55billion incentive to destroy wildlife and cause flooding downstream. A good piece written by George Monbiot about the CAP and its relevance to the recent Brexit pandemonium can be found here.
I think, therefore, that there is an urgent need to reinvent rural beauty- here in the UK and elsewhere. We need to build a new value system based upon the sustainability of a landscape, the extent to which it is maintaining and improving its ecological services, the extent to which communities are able to meet their needs off of it. If there is to be any measurement of beauty in a landscape, perhaps the most reliable way we can measure it is by its diversity. Maybe then we could create rich and dynamic landscape that is good for us, good for wildlife, and good for the environment.