I often marvel at the confidence and physical effort that went into shaping our farming landscape during the prosperous two centuries before the repeal of the Corn Laws (which imposed a tariff on imported grain) in 1846.
The subsequent opening of the US prairies to cultivation in the 1870s led to growth in international trade, UK food prices collapsing, farm workers falling from 25 per cent to one per cent of the population, and the agricultural depression which continues to this day.
During those prosperous years, the gentry and yeoman farmer class grew rich from high wheat and meat prices. When not shooting pheasants and playing cricket, they built grand farmhouses, mills and barns like cathedrals, in fields which they enclosed with stone walls, banks and hedges, limed and dug drains in – all to feed a burgeoning urban population.
On my farm, the stream bends around the only level field with the remnants of a water meadow system; in spring, the water was diverted along a leat to trickle down over the meadow before re-joining the stream. The water warmed and fed the meadow, providing much-prized early grazing land. Such grandiose farming was abandoned as food prices fell.
With an irrational confidence (or perhaps stubborn determination) not supported by food prices, I have used this rare bit of level land to create an irrigation lake, put up polytunnels, and plant a fruit and nut orchard.
My cattle-farming neighbour used to cut the remaining areas of grass for hay, but there are now too many obstacles. As the thistles, thorns, and sapling oaks and alders gain over the uncut grass, one half of me wants to cut it; to ‘tidy it up’ and keep it economically productive by arresting this ecological succession.
Some might call it neglect, and others rewilding. In contrast to the well kempt and productive, but ecologically depleted, surrounding fields, this land erupts around your feet with grasshoppers, toads, moths, butterflies and dragonflies. Beneath the uncut grass, the turf heaves with voles, supporting buzzards, kestrels and owls – while the insects fatten up this year’s swallows, darting over the reservoir. Mowing would be a massacre.
Am I farming for wildlife, carbon sequestration, or food? Am I a custodian of the land, or a business? Order and production compete with the guiding hand of nature – and like many of my neighbours, I feel confused and unqualified to decide. To be continued next week...