Tim Bonner is Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance.
Land ownership, land rights and land use have always been central to progressive politics. From the Russian revolution through to Scottish land reform legislation, the ability of the majority to impose its will on the landowning minority has been irresistible to purveyors of social change.
The problem, however, is that with, very few exceptions, land use policies enacted to punish land owners and dismantle traditional land use systems have proved disastrous both for the countryside and the populations it feeds.
From the millions of Russians who starved in famines caused by Stalin’s collectivisation to the hungry population of Zimbabwe today, ideologically-driven rural policy has failed almost without exception. On a smaller scale, some ‘community buy outs’ funded by the Scottish Government after the first round of its land reform legislation have struggled to become financially sustainable without the external cash injections traditionally provided by ‘lairds’.
Shortly after the Hunting Act was passed Peter Bradley, then a Labour MP, wrote one of the most honest explanations of the perverse approach of some on the left to rural policy. Having stated that the ban was “class war” he went on to explain why Labour MPs had pursued it so obsessively: “Labour governments have come and gone and left little impression on the gentry. But a ban on hunting touches them. It threatens their inalienable right to do as they please on their land.”
Which brings me on to the latest attempt at radical land use change: the strange and almost indefinable cult of ‘rewilding’. This ideology seems to have grown out of a number of strands including those who seek to reintroduce flora and fauna, in particular ‘charismatic’ mammals (charismatic megafauna) such as wolves and lynxes to their historic range; those with a John Muir-ian belief that man’s intervention in the environment is always a ‘bad thing’; and those who see a debate about land use as central to counter-acting global warming. To a greater or lesser extent, they all share the belief that their proposals should over-ride the rights of existing landowners and users, and the cultural landscapes they have historically created. To a greater or lesser extent, such proposals also seem to be motivated by political, as well as practical, aims.
It is therefore more than a little surprising to see a Conservative think tank, Bright Blue, that prides itself on taking a centre-right approach to environmental issues, buying into such dubious proposals. All that those who recycle the mantra of ‘rewilding’ are actually doing is advertising ignorance of the reality of the British countryside.
First, it is best to start with some facts. Most important of these is that almost the entirety of the British landscape has been created and maintained in its current form by man. With the tiny exception of a few very high mountain tops, the countryside we love (and the polling is very clear that we really do love it) is man-made and unnatural. Perhaps the best example of an adored created landscape is the Lake District. Man and sheep created that extraordinarily beautiful countryside: they maintain it and, crucially, are also part of it. Millions come to walk on the fells that Wainwright wrote about – or even just to gaze at them – but it is no more a ‘natural’ landscape than a ploughed East Anglian field. Even Wordsworth’s daffodils are an introduced species.
Second, ‘rewilding’, in the context of the UK, is increasingly used to describe any environmental pipe dream which challenges current land ownership and use. Perhaps because the purity of simply withdrawing all management or human impact on large areas of our crowded island is so obviously impossible, we have now entered a surreal phase of redefinition. A recent select committee inquiry used the phrase ‘managed rewilding’ in its call for evidence, a charity included a session on ‘rewilding a golf course’ in its annual conference and even the primary cheerleader, ‘Rewilding Britain’, describes the restoration of a chalk stream, the ultimate in intensively managed watercourses, as ‘rewilding’.
I would argue that anyone really interested in conserving the countryside and improving our environment should be rejecting this sort of nonsense, and instead engaging with the huge opportunities that post-Brexit rural policy presents. After all, most of the really damaging impacts on our countryside and in particular the uplands in the post-war period – from tax breaks for planting commercial conifer plantations, to subsidy for draining upland bogs, to the idiocy of headage payments which pushed sheep numbers to completely unsustainable levels – have been the direct result of government and EU policy.
Now is the time to agree what outcomes we want from the countryside, which will include everything from food, to water, to carbon capture, and create a new system of payments which will allow farmers and the rural community to deliver them. Real conservatives should forget the dubious rhetoric of ‘rewilding’, and focus on the delivery of public goods and sustaining the cultural landscape of the British countryside.