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.
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.