Interview: Sir Henry Aubrey-Fletcher

We put the lake in as a marketing tool,’ muses Henry Aubrey-Fletcher, the new president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA). He is surveying the immaculately groomed family estate in Buckinghamshire from the steps of Chilton House, built by an ancestor in the 1740s. Chilton House is no longer the family home, but an unusually genteel nursing home, run by his wife since 1987. Nor is the home farm, on the left of the view, still a farm; it was converted into highly desirable offices for an event planner, a medical-software company and an international call-handling centre. Sir Henry to use the title which he generally drops, except when on duty as Lord Lieutenant farms 1,500 acres of it himself, ensuring that dairy cattle and sheep form part of the view. He describes it as ‘painting a picture in real time’. The bucolic scene is something he lays on for his tenants. ‘You go out onto the terrace, enjoy the sight of cattle coming up to the fence. It makes you feel good.’ These days, that’s what land management is about.

Sir Henry (sorry, we can’t drop the habit) loves farming ‘you go to bed exhausted and sleep really well’. But it wasn’t his first career choice on leaving Eton. ‘What I really wanted to do was to work in broadcasting and the film industry.’ After a year’s training with RTE in Dublin, he joined Radio Oxford when it started in the early 1970s, staying for 13 years. ‘It was enormous fun, but didn’t pay very well. Agriculture, by contrast, was enjoying the bonanza years that only got better when Britain joined the Common Market. It offered a better prospect.’ Radio became a side-line. But he retained his interest in broadcasting, forming a company that acquired a series of local-radio franchises in the 1980s. The experience makes him that unusual animal: a landowner who is at ease with the media. Waiting for the train that will take him to the CLA offices in Belgrave Square, he hails a DJ with Magic FM as an old friend.

The agenda that Sir Henry sets for his two years as President will demonstrate his excellent communication skills. ‘The really big issue is the impact that climate change will have on what we do to the land. We need to persuade our own Government and the powers in Europe that food security is a big issue going forward.’In the elegant drawing room of the Aubrey-Fletcher farmhouse, Armageddon seems remote. But the trends that will strain the world’s capacity to produce food are already in play: world population growth, the tiger economies being able to afford a more westernised diet, farmland being lost to motorways, housing and retail sheds, and ‘the current fad for using food for energy’. Add climate change to these factors and disaster looms. ‘All those arid places where we grow food at the moment will disappear. The temperate zones will retract to the north and south, but most of the southern hemisphere is sea. The northern hemisphere will become the breadbasket of the world in 50 or 60 years.’ As long as Norfolk and other fertile, low-lying areas haven’t disappeared beneath rising sea levels, of course.

Agriculture has its part to play in the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions. It needs to be ‘cleverer’ about using fertilisers. Barns that can capture the methane from cattle must be developed. Our efforts may seem futile if China develops a large-scale beef industry. But ‘Europe has to lead the way and take America with us’. Famously, politicians don’t look much beyond their term of office. But CLA members ‘want us to take these big, long-term challenges. We’re not looking at this year’s or next year’s profits, but at the sustainability of our estates in the long term. The pleasure of land management comes from seeing the trees you planted, or the restoration you have put in hand coming to maturity’. The CLA may yet save the world.