Re-wilding: ‘There’s still so much to love and treasure in the countryside that it blinds us to how much more there once was’

The gentle creed of re-wilding, with its fierce name and fiercer advocacy, is more needed now than ever. Our weekly columnist, the countryside crusader Agromenes, explains why we must reward sustainable farming and re-establish the fecundity of the countryside.

There was a time when any drive in the countryside left the windscreen splattered with a host of insects. So abundant were they that people stopped to clean up just to see out. Now, you can drive 100 miles entirely untroubled by insect life.

Our ruthless spraying, hedge removal and monoculture have made our rural world a poorer place. The wildflowers have gone, the overblown exuberant hedges have been tamed and few birds sing. It’s all happened so stealthily that the loss of variety and fecundity goes unnoticed – we imagine we’re still in the rural England of our childhood.

‘The sights and smells of spring still lift the heart, but that annual reawakening is not as rich or various’

Human forgetfulness makes mending our ways so difficult. There’s still so much to love and treasure in the countryside that it blinds us to how much more there once was. We’ve bought the vast increases in crop yields by reducing the abundance of the natural world.

The sights and smells of spring still lift the heart, but that annual reawakening is not as rich or various, nor as overwhelming or all-pervasive as it so recently was.

This is a post-Second World War phenomenon. Dig for Victory morphed into a peacetime determination to feed our people ‘from our own resources’ and successive governments sponsored and subsidised the farming industry.

For more than half a century, any questioning of the use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides was out of court. Conventional farmers questioned the political agenda – even the sanity – of those who thought otherwise. However, beneath that consensus, slowly and surely, the mood changed.

Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) gnawing bark from a branch at the edge of its pond, Tayside, Perthshire, Scotland, UK

Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) gnawing bark from a branch at the edge of its pond, Tayside, Perthshire, Scotland.

The concerns raised by Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring gained credence among a widening group until, in the late 1990s, the Ministry of Agriculture was reversing its support for hedgerow removal, encouraging precision farming and the reduction of fertiliser use and even recognising that organic production had to be accommodated. The ‘muck and magic’ brigade was edging towards the mainstream.

Now, environmental and sustainable farming has become the only acceptable face of agriculture. Farmers and landowners have recognised the radical change in the public mood. They know they cannot expect support unless they provide the highest animal-welfare standards and keep their use of chemicals to a minimum.

However, the condition of the soil is now alarming. Putting fertility back is essential, not only to maintain productivity, but to enable the soil to sequester carbon as part of our battle against climate change.

‘All this doesn’t mean there’s no management. It’s simply that we have to manage for the longer term’

This awareness of the need for much more radical action has reached well beyond the organic movement to make even re-wilding a serious proposition. From its extensive expression in Charlie Burrell’s Knepp estate in East Sussex to farmers offering up small patches of land as corridors for wildlife or as landing stages for migrating birds, the speed with which the whole idea has moved into the mainstream is remarkable.

Betrayed by its name and the extremist advocacy of people such as the campaigner and writer George Monbiot, re-wilding is actually a gentle creed about recovering the countryside, respecting the soil and repairing the ravages of 70 years of industrial monoculture. It isn’t about reintroducing the lynx or other wild animals.

Letting hedges grow and animals roam, allowing natural species to reappear and insects to recolonise, re-establishing natural cycles and rebuilding soil fertility: all this doesn’t mean there’s no management. It’s simply that we have to manage for the longer term.

That’s why, whatever happens with Brexit, we must reapply our support system so that we reward sustainable farming, giving long-term agreements and stability to farmers who, in place of sterility and silence, re-establish the fecundity of the countryside, the buzzing of the bees and the joyful noise of birdsong.