The Empty Countryside

is a writer and editor living in rural West Dorset in an old house with tarpaulins on the roof. Occasional newts in the downstairs bathroom. Guardian Country Diarist.
I thought the sheep was dead. It was lying in the middle of a big grass field with its legs in the air. I wasn’t surprised; those fields are rented by a farmer who can’t afford to run his business in the way modern farming demands. He doesn’t own enough land to scale up his production by borrowing against its value. The result is not too many beasts on the farm, but too few: in this case six scraggy ewes roaming 15 acres. As I walked by, the dead one waved her legs. Alive then, but stuck on her back by her weight of wool. I trudged across to her, put my foot on her side and pushed her over away from me. She scrambled to her feet and ran off, fleece bouncing, bleating confusedly. If I hadn’t rescued her she probably would have died. No one would have noticed in time because no one passes this way.

For thousands of years, the English countryside has never been so empty of people and animals as it is now.

The part of West Dorset where I live was once a busy network of small farmsteads, most with fewer than 100 acres, keeping Red Devon cattle for meat and milk. Today, the old farm names on the Ordnance Survey map are a roll call of lost activity: Prime, Oselhay, Middlebrook, Taphouse, Lower Park, Purcombe, and Higher Sminhay. Their land has been sold and consolidated into bigger agricultural landholdings. Some of the farmhouses are second homes or holiday lets. Many more settlements have simply disappeared. The 1861 census lists Dodseye, Brickhouse, Poor House, Froghouse and Duckpool – all gone. Those that have survived are inhabited by far fewer people that at any previous point in their history. In 1861, there were eight people living in our house, these being the farmer, his wife, children and brother, plus a carter and a ten-year-old ploughboy. Today there are three of us.

That reduction – eight to three – is about average round here. Add in the lost homes as well, and you have a massive difference in the number of people who once lived in the Marshwood Vale. Villages were bigger and tattier with an astonishing array of services – shops, forges, pubs, bakeries, brewers, butchers and cobblers. Outside the villages, there was more than farming going on. For the price of two guineas, the 1830 Beerhouse Act allowed homeowners to buy a licence to make and sell home brewed ale. In the 19th century, our house used to have one of these simple pubs in the end room, an arrangement that would have been familiar to Thomas Hardy. No one in the Vale was rich and they made what they could from the natural resources the landscape had to offer, whether that was wood, building stone, brick clay, cheese, milk or meat.

Of course it wasn’t Eden. Country living was hard, especially with lots of people to feed. Farmworkers were part-paid in local cider (another product of the land), which sounds idyllic but wasn’t. The amount consumed damaged their health – a couple of pints before even starting work – and their families were stinted for money. In 1795-7 the poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived at Racedown Lodge on the edge of the Vale. The Wordsworths were appalled by the poverty and primitive living conditions they found here. They too were poor and had to grow most of their own food. It was a hardscrabble existence – every poet for himself. Wordsworth built a fence to keep loose cattle out of his vegetable garden and was enraged when vagrants stole the wood for fuel.

Wood was still valuable to those in need as late as the 1950s. An older farmer I know remembers his father saying that when they cut and laid a hedge, they would leave the brash (the thinnest twigs) on the ground overnight and by morning it would all be gone, collected for firewood by the poorest. Not just as kindling to light a more solid wood fire in a house that had other sources of heat, but as one of the main fuel sources. Bigger pieces from the hedge, about the thickness of a wrist that could burn for some length of time, were even more prized. These were gathered and sold, or taken by the hedge layers as payment for their work – it would have been considered stealing to scavenge them.

Lay a hedge today and the brash is a nuisance to be burned on a bonfire when the landowner has time. Those same, slim hedge logs, the ones that could pay a working man for a full day’s hard labour, are more or less worthless. My farmer friend calls them ‘ugly sticks’. He uses them in his own stove quite happily, but the customers who buy his logs all want good-looking, split chunks from felled trees that they can stack into attractive log-piles. In the past, that kind of prime wood would have had many other uses and been too expensive to use for fuel by ordinary people.

Marshwood Vale Oak 3 low res
Oak on Lamberts Castle overlooking the Marshwood Vale. Photo by Sara Hudston

It’s not only people who have gone – where are the animals? This is dairy land, not sheep pasture, but the cows spend most of the year indoors in barns – the farmers allow them access to a bit of summer grazing but the ground is deep clay and too wet to support more than a few weeks outside for the numbers of beasts needed to make dairies economically viable. So the farmers mostly use the fields to grow silage and maize fodder and keep the cows indoors milked by robots. It sounds brutal, but the irony is that the welfare standards for the cows has arguably risen over the last 30 years; they are well-fed and don’t get the foot-rot and rain scab they would suffer if they lived out all year up to their hocks in churned mud and shit. In the 1970s and 80s there were times when starving and emaciated beasts had to be literally pulled out the winter mire by tractor, some dying on their feet before they could be freed.

Back in the 1970s, the system was already out of balance. Farming methods had changed dramatically with mechanisation after the Second World War. By the late 70s, the type and size of cattle kept here had altered. Farmers had abandoned the smaller, lighter and less productive Red Devons, which were bred to cope with the local land conditions. Instead they introduced a Holstein/Friesian/Charolais/Hereford mix. These breeds were larger and heavier, churned up the soil far more and were less suited to the local conditions, hence getting stuck and scabby and perhaps being better off indoors for much of the year, if they had to be kept here. Overall, of course it would be best for both the cows’ welfare and the ecology of the Vale for them not to be here at all, and for the area to have either no cattle of any kind, or fewer numbers of the better adapted Red Devons. The Devons can do well here under a management system that doesn’t involve being incarcerated in sheds, milked by robots and separated early from their calves. But there’s not enough money any more in that way of doing things.

Even using new methods, it’s still hard to claw results from the land. To hit the milk production levels needed to stay viable, each farm must keep more cows than the land can truly support, unless the farmer changes the nature of the land. In order to feed the cows in their sheds, most of the ancient meadows have been ploughed and re-seeded with monocrop ryegrass on rotation with maize. Those lost, unimproved grass meadows supported a complex bio-system of plants, insects, animals and birds, which cannot exist in the new habitat. Some species cling on, many have gone. You never hear skylarks in the Vale any more because early and frequent grass cutting for silage has destroyed the nests and young chicks, wiping out the local breeding populations.

The full disaster goes deeper than the loss of biodiversity, tragic as that is. This is one of the wettest areas in the UK. Its micro-climate has some of the highest levels of rainfall in the country and water from the surrounding hills drains down into a bowl of clay. The soil in the old meadows was bound in place by a thick thatch of turf anchored by established root systems built up over years. The new ryegrass growing in fields frequently ploughed and re-sown, has shallow roots and does little to stop the soil washing away. Maize is even less use – it’s notorious for increasing soil erosion in any environment. It would be difficult to think of a more ecologically unsuitable crop for this place. Enormous quantities of slurry from all those indoor cows is collected in vast pits and then spread on the fields. The farmers don’t do this to fertilise the pasture, they do it to get rid of the slurry. They often (illegally) choose to spread when heavy rainfall is forecast or actually underway, so that most of the shit washes off into the streams, poisoning the waterways. There’s a recognised term for this tactic: ‘dilute and pollute’.

The truth is that modern dairying methods are fundamentally incompatible with this particular landscape. The machinery needed to produce and harvest maize and silage is too big for the network of narrow, medieval lanes. Everyone hates the massive tractors, which crush down the roadside banks with their giant tyres and push the farmers to slash back the hedges to gain an extra couple of inches width, but there is no other way to do the work now that there are so few people employed on the farms. It’s impossible to increase the labour force because the income from all this effort and destruction is not enough to pay the extra wages, especially in an area where housing is so expensive.

The lack of labour brings us round again to the emptiness of the countryside and the lack of humans, which is not a good thing in itself. The Dorset landscape around me, like all of lowland Britain, has been created by hundreds of generations of people living on and working the land. Their efforts created habitats in which many species flourished. Take the nightingales, which used to nest in the woods across the lane from us. In the 1970s, the old lady who once owned our house held annual nightingale parties. Her sophisticated London friends would sit on the damp lawn drinking cocktails, bitten by midges and showered with birdsong. Somewhere in the late 1980s the nightingales disappeared. They left because their breeding habitat was lost.

Unlike the meadows disappearance, the nightingales habitat went because of what people stopped doing rather than what they did. As the value of wood products fell and the old woodsmen died, coppicing ended and the woods were left to grow on without intervention. The scrubby lower growth and sunny glades that nightingales require disappeared and the understory became a dingy cave shadowed by tall ash, oak and alder. The forest floor was swamped with pendulous sedge, crowding out other more delicate flora such as orchids and anemones.

The idea that untended nature is always better and richer is a specifically Romantic conceit. Coppicing, long established and correctly managed, can produce stupendous ecological diversity comparable in its riches to rainforest.

Coleridge was wrong when he wrote so beguilingly about the nightingales he imagined thriving in unworked, neglected woods:

And I know a grove
Of large extent, hard by a castle huge,
Which the great lord inhabits not; and so
This grove is wild with tangling underwood,
And the trim walks are broken up, and grass,
Thin grass and king-cups grow within the paths.
But never elsewhere in one place I knew
So many nightingales

In the woods across the lane there are praiseworthy efforts at regeneration by the newish, conservation-minded owners. In the last five years they have coppiced and fenced sections of the wood to protect the new growth from deer. But it’s a hugely expensive and time-consuming process and the areas involved are a small percentage of the whole. There are still no nightingales.

Give those neglected woods another 200 years without human intervention and they would probably revert to a more mixed habitat – in the meantime they are eerily quiet and wildlife poor. I don’t think we can afford to wait two centuries in the hope that nature will restore itself without us. Rewilding through the complete withdrawal of people and activity is not always the answer, especially in landscapes where people have been part of the ecosystem for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Our yearning for rewilding can run the risk of placing humans somehow outside of nature, maybe even counter to it. This gives people special status; a version of the old idea that humans occupy some kind of unique category distinct from the rest of the living world. But we are not strangers or interlopers in the wild world; we are part of it. The wildness is in us and we are in the wildness.

The truth is that farming has always been a deeply compromised activity, focusing as it inevitably does on gain and control at the expense of land and beasts. There isn’t an obvious fix and maybe our belief that we should find one and sort things out is part of the problem. We are looking into the darkness, we don’t know, all we can do is to try to listen, think and tell stories, trusting that from telling, listening and remembering many stories, we might become attuned to a certain frequency that speaks to us.

What says the land? Those who listen, know that it is undergoing profound change. This change reaches further than any individual ecological, topographical or social insults wrought by agriculture. The actual genius loci, the spirit of place, is altering. Something fundamental has shifted in the deep and tangled relationship between people and the land.

There seems less of everything, the natural variety fading and flattening. Increasingly, the English countryside is a nowhere place where, away from celebrated beauty spots and organised, marked trails, people don’t go for any length of time. No one notices the lack of wildflowers or the silent woods. It’s becoming a dull, closed waste of ploughed-out paths and cracked mud. We forget how animating and exciting it once was to those who were part of it, and it was part of them.

Here is a story about one of the old farm labourers in the Vale who died in the 1980s. He never travelled more than 30 miles from the village where he was born. One of the most exciting incidents in his entire life, which he would recount to anyone who’d listen, was the day a fierce storm came across the farm. He was convinced that the oak in the field where he was working was going to fall on him. He spent all day hiding in an old barn nearby, watching the hissing tree twisting and thrashing in the gale. It didn’t fall on him and the storm passed.

It’s hard to understand such intense, visceral excitement being conjured up from a landscape without what the modern mind sees as real justification. After all, no damage was done. And in any case, he could easily have left the field and got away from the oak. The oak was rooted in place; he was not. It was only a tree, only a storm, what would it have mattered if it fell? The answer is that he was as rooted as the oak; it was part of his life and its drama was his drama. He couldn’t leave, he was bound to the tree and had to watch and wait, sharing its groans. The time was frightening but also exhilarating – he was part of the oak and the storm and the world was alive in him and around him.


  1. What a brilliant and accurate observation on the emptiness of wildlife, animals, sounds.
    Your understanding is inspiring & well researched.
    Thank you

  2. Not exactly sure what the author’s lamenting. Days of yore when there were more people who were so poor they collected twigs for fuel? Paid for their labour with apple cider so their livers gave out after their short, brutish, and nasty lives? I get her main point but there’s an awful lot of “on the other hand . . .”
    Much like in America where the GOP wants to return to the good ‘ole days of the 1950s, there simply were no “good ‘ole days.” We’re missing something and losing lots of terribly important stuff, while moving towards unprecedented and therefore dreaded directions. But the past wasn’t exactly days of wine and roses unless one was the landed gentry profiting off the backs of the peasants.

  3. Thank you very much.

    There are similar phenomena throughout the US. For instance;
    One may drive on the older East-West highway 36 across the plains of eastern Colorado and western Kansas for hundreds of miles without encountering another vehicle, The towns are not quite abandoned. There is no livestock.
    In a very different terrain, the small orchards and farms along the Rio Grand between Taos and culture and Española, New Mexico have ceased to exist, The small towns, like Trampas (with it’s extraordinary 18th C. adobe church now mouldering,) along the high mountain roads have become near-ghost towns.
    However, far from all this, rural Bavaria seems still to flourish.

    1. Hi Tom, you know the area well then and probably recognise the places I’m talking about. There are no nightingales left in Prime Coppices. Interesting to see your Scilly paintings on your website – I wrote a little book about the Isles of Scilly called Islomania.

  4. Ways to remedie the problem
    Collectively owned land
    Repopulate the land with permacultureists
    Create tiny homes for thousands of young families

  5. Sara,

    Beautifully written. The paragraph I loved the most “Our yearning for rewilding can run the risk of placing humans somehow outside of nature, maybe even counter to it. This gives people special status; a version of the old idea that humans occupy some kind of unique category distinct from the rest of the living world.But we are not strangers or interlopers in the wild world; we are part of it. The wildness is in us and we are in the wildness.”

    I often think the same. I am as much a part of nature as any living creature around me. It is a form of human blindness or madness to think otherwise.

    The changes in rural life have been enormous. There is a wonderful video series called the “Edwardian Farm”. Watching it I couldn’t help but see the changes in England that were taking place on farms as a result of the industrial age. Go back further in history and watch the “Tudor Monastery Farm” and we get a glimpse of what English farm life was like prior to the invention of machines run by fossil fuels. Life was challenging indeed, but also rewarding.

    I often feel that doing any task by hand gives a deeper meaning to the word “work”. There is a timeless rhythm to tasks we do by hand that is less hurried, more intentional, more rewarding. Even something as simple as washing dishes by hand versus loading the dishwasher. Hanging clothes outside on the line versus throwing them in a dryer. Gathering fresh eggs from a nest, picking fresh greens for dinner. We have in such moments an opportunity to become aware of the sun, wind, clouds in the sky, the scents of plants blooming, the sounds of birds. I feel more in touch with living.

    We are sometimes called romantics those of us that can see the beauty of a simple life but you expressed quite well:

    “The answer is that he was as rooted as the oak; it was part of his life and its drama was his drama. He couldn’t leave, he was bound to the tree and had to watch and wait, sharing its groans. The time was frightening but also exhilarating – he was part of the oak and the storm and the world was alive in him and around him.”

    Yes indeed. to be part of the oak and the storm…when the world is alive in us and around us.” To be fully present and connected in life, that is truly what it means to be alive.

    1. Thank you Jody. I saw some of the Tudor farm series, which was interesting as I live in a Tudor farmhouse. I think the point is that farming life has always been hard, probably because of the inherent contradictions in farming itself. It’s interesting to look at the archaeological record and see how with the advent of farming, more people could live on a smaller area and have more children, but those people were often less well-nourished – they had stunted growth, their teeth were worn down excessively by eating a lot of ground grain that included stone chips from the grinding stones, and there is other evidence that many existed on too narrow a diet.

      However, what interests me is why we invented farming in the first place, what does it indicate about ourselves? If you accept that we are not separate from nature or special in any way, then the invention of farming is not something outside nature or counter to it, even though the effects can be so deleterious to the ecology of a place (and also beneficial in certain circumstances). In this light it’s not ‘bad’ or ‘good’, it’s not an Eden narrative about the fall from grace and harmony with the environment. The story of the Garden of Eden itself was probably created as a result of the invention of farming, a way to deal with the contradictions, which were apparent even in those earliest days.

      What’s different now is that our relation to the land is changing drastically (again) and that change has accelerated. I would trace this change in the UK back to at least the late 18th century when the effects of the industrial revolution were being felt. The works of Wordsworth and Coleridge reflect the severing of a connection with the land. They urge emotional and spiritual reconnection with the wild because they feel it is being lost. For the first time, writers see themselves as divided from the natural world in a way that would have baffled earlier poets. Coleridge’s wild and ecstatic visions (so hard and dangerous!) are very different from Andrew Marvell’s cool ability to blend into the landscape, even be absorbed into it as “a green thought in a green shade” just over a hundred years earlier. In The Garden Marvell writes:

      Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
      Withdraws into its happiness;
      The mind, that ocean where each kind
      Does straight its own resemblance find,
      Yet it creates, transcending these,
      Far other worlds, and other seas;
      Annihilating all that’s made
      To a green thought in a green shade.

      Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,
      Or at some fruit tree’s mossy root,
      Casting the body’s vest aside,
      My soul into the boughs does glide;
      There like a bird it sits and sings,
      Then whets, and combs its silver wings;
      And, till prepar’d for longer flight,
      Waves in its plumes the various light.

  6. Thank you Horst, Mia and Robert. I appreciate your comments. Somebody once asked me whether I wrote ‘anything else part from lovely nature stuff’, as if the ‘lovely nature stuff’ was a minor topic and writing about it was like copying the Diary of an Edwardian Country Lady. I wondered if he had actually read what I write, or understood it. The great joy of Dark Mountain is connecting with people who don’t see it as ‘lovely nature stuff’, but the essential matter of our lives, sometimes lovely, often loathly, always vital.

  7. Lovely and heart-breaking.
    I do despair for the loss of the natural world.
    Thank you.

  8. Thanks for this beautiful piece, Sarah, it’s depressing what we have done to our countryside in pursuit of profit. I can’t help but think that farmers (and supermarkets) have a lot to answer for.
    Have you come across the Knepp Castle rewilding project that has led to a large increase in nightingales in a small area?

    1. Hi Philip. Yes I am aware of the spectacular work being done at Knepp. The problem with attracting nightingales in West Dorset, is that the species as a whole has retreated eastwards and it really needs a ‘corridor’ of suitable habitat to entice them this far west again. One isolated habitat is not sufficient. I last heard a nightingale near Bridport more than 15 years ago and they were very rare then. Just as it was establishing its territory that spring, the landowner barged in and chainsawed the trees. I never heard it again.

  9. Hello,

    The poet John Clare in his poem ‘The Nightingale’ would appear to be a corrective to Coleridge and his idea of the Nightingale thriving in neglected woods: (particularly read from ‘The ploughman feels’.) He also wrote a much longer poem called ‘The Nightingales Nest.’

    This is the month the nightingale, clod brown,
    Is heard among the woodland shady boughs:
    This is the time when in the vale, grass-grown,
    The maiden hears at eve her lover’s vows,
    What time the blue mist round the patient cows
    Dim rises from the grass and half conceals
    Their dappled hides. I hear the nightingale,
    That from the little blackthorn spinney steals
    To the old hazel hedge that skirts the vale,
    And still unseen sings sweet. The ploughman feels
    The thrilling music as he goes along,
    And imitates and listens; while the fields
    Lose all their paths in dusk to lead him wrong,
    Still sings the nightingale her soft melodious song.

    1. Yes, you’re right. But then Clare was much more of a naturalist than Coleridge. He spent time observing the animals and birds he writes about, which Coleridge didn’t. Clare writes with close attention to what is there before him, sometimes with heartbreaking effect as in ‘Badger’. Coleridge uses the natural world as a stimulus to his imagination, as a jumping off point to rouse emotion – Exmoor has lots of ‘deep romantic chasms’ but none of them were or are covered in cedars or surrounded by ‘incense-bearing trees’, as he writes in ‘Kubla Khan’, his opium-dream fantasy.

  10. Paul Theroux once wrote: “Everything I had expected to find in Africa I found on the edge of the Marshwood Vale. I was fascinated but I was also a little frightened. These are the emotions that produce fiction.”

    I’m giving a talk about some of the themes raised in The Empty Countryside on Saturday 11 November. It’s about unearthing buried stories in Dorset.

    I hope you can come along if interested – the event is in Church Studio, Haydon, Sherborne (UK) from 6-10pm. The evening also features traditional English folk songs from Dominie Hooper and Nick Hart. It’s a free event with voluntary donations in support of Sherborne Food Bank.

    More details here:

  11. Sarah I am new to The Dark Mountain and this was the first blog I read. Wonderful. Absorbing. Compelling.
    I live across the valley at Ryall and can see Lamberts Castle and Pilsdon Pen, probably you can see my window looking out. Every day I am grateful for the view. Its a beautiful farmland valley landscape steeped in history and a deep past but I hear what you’re saying. On the southern side is the Jurassic Coast, where 1000’s flock to the beaches, to sit inches away from each other on small bits of sand. I have always wondered how many actually know about the in-land from the coast. How many venture into a woodland or walk along the Rivers. And I have recently thought of their disconnection and thoughtlessness. Do they care? As quoted by David Attenborough ‘No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced”
    I often go and work as a ‘woodlander’ in Prime Coppice, spending the day, cutting hazel, chopping wood, clearing and in exchange I not only receive free fire wood but a sense of achievement, a connection with others who love to be out in the woods for a day and always learn something new. We have an opportunity to engage people back into the land. And if it is consumerism that is driving our lives – perhaps we need to consider what it means to be consuming from our local land. Charcoal does not need to be bought from Tesco, coated in some nasty smelling chemical, exported from some far off country. But it goes deeper than simply changing our consumer patterns and thinking.
    I have heard from local people, who provide the ever fast moving tourist service with accommodation options to stay in our beautiful valley that the rubbish which is produced in a week is more than they produce in month. Holiday folk don’t want to cook, or buy local produce, so the wrappings of packaged and take away meals are thrown into bins at the end of a weeks stay. There seems to be something wrong with our whole way of living.
    I wonder if it all started when women, who used to be the guardians of the land, who worked the land, knew of its herbal remedies, its magic, protected and nurtured our wild ways, were driven off, burnt at the stake, and over a couple of thousand centuries became devalued.
    You pose many of the difficult questions. And the answers are not simple but complex in their roots. Maybe the ’empty countryside’ is calling us to change things. To come together and celebrate, because for sure we do have a beautiful countryside but the way we have changed it is not helping; our environment, our health, our way of being. The Earth is calling us back to our roots. The wild bees need our help. We know what to do. Do we, here in England, here in our comfortable cosy homes care enough?

    1. Hi Jenny, I think it’s possible that us folks holed up in the Vale have never talked to each other so much as we are doing now on, or through, this blog. That is one of the things I hoped would happen; to start a discussion ‘beneath the vale’, about what is awry here and how it illustrates larger circumstances in other places. Email me through my blog if you like, you’d be welcome to come round for a cup of tea.

  12. Living as I do in South Somerset on the Blackmore Vale I recognise the place you describe and the problems we have, but sadly the brightest minds have yet to come up with an answer.

    Great piece thank you

    1. Thanks Ed. There are no answers. It’s not a problem to be solved by ingenious minds. The thing for me at the moment is to try to tell the story of the land and perhaps formulate the right questions. I spent a few hours last week with a local farmer walking over his fields and debating some of the points raised in this piece. No answers, just more questions. We challenged each other’s views, not least about what it means to own land and have the ‘right’ to do with it whatever is needed to preserve that ownership. It was good to have that debate and even more so to do it in an outdoor setting, while scrambling through woodland, negotiating electric fences, wading through streams and unblocking a culvert.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *