Herbal leys and other fertility-building features of the new agriculture will restore the traditional charm and character of the British countryside. Nowhere more than in the special areas known as ‘protected landscapes’, our national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs). For close on half a century industrial agriculture with its monocultures, chemicals and big machines has worked to diminish the distinctive characters of these places. As far as topography, soil type and climate would allow, they’ve had to adopt a standardised production model using a limited number of crop varieties and animal types. Like urban High Streets, farms across Britain are being made to look the same.
21st December 2019
Creating new British landscapes
Regenerative agriculture – which is far more productive than the present chemical model – thrives on diversity and ‘localness’. It requires small fields, native livestock, and crop rotations which include species-rich pastures. Reassembling these traditional features will not only make our food supply more secure, it’ll bring back wild species on a big scale. Equally, it will re-establish the unique character and distinctiveness of protected landscapes. It’s why we at Land Alive believe ‘regen-ag’ should be the default setting for these special areas.
Looking back to the countryside of World War Two no one saw a threat to local landscapes. Why would they? Farming had barely changed in two centuries. We know this from the aerial photos of rural Britain taken by the Luftwaffe, the German air force, at a time when invasion was planned. Britain’s farmland was mostly made up of small fields, hedges, trees, ponds and wetlands. The countryside didn’t need to change because it met the needs of the people, producing high-quality foods in ways that didn’t exhaust the soil. Carbon levels in those soils up to ten times higher than today.
Though no one realised it at the time, it was a landscape that still functioned as a powerful carbon sink. The land was covered with vegetation for much of the year so the natural planet-cooling systems – the hydrological cycles – were still functioning well. Sadly Big Oil in the guise of fertiliser industry persuaded the politicians they could improve on nature. Britain – along with the US and many other countries – set out on a global experiment. Solar powered food production – mediated though plants and soil microbes – was augmented by fossil energy in the form of gas-guzzling nitrate fertiliser.
Industrial nitrates de-stabilised farming and accelerated the process of climate change. They’ve done it by turning more and more of the world’s soils into arid wastelands. To reverse this climate scientists say we now have to revert to a landscape more like the wartime countryside. Professor Ian Boyd, the Government’s former chief environment scientist, says there’ll have to be more trees and hedges to lock up atmospheric carbon. He also expects there to be fewer grazing animals in a climate-friendly countryside. Because beef cattle grow faster on indoor, cereal-based rations – and dairy cows produce higher yields - they emit less methane per kilogram of meat or milk than grazing animals. So goes his argument.
But it ignores the role of grazing animals in taking care of soils. By restoring soil as an active carbon sink they help to cool the planet. This may be far more important in averting climate-catastrophe than the level of carbon in the atmosphere. Boyd’s analysis takes no account of carbon locked up by the new planet-friendly farming methods, which include herb-rich pastures (herbal leys) and managed grazing with ruminants. The new methods are the best way – perhaps our only way – of restoring fully-functioning soils across degraded land.
It’s vital UK governments find ways to support farmers as they switch to the new methods. A good starting place would be the cherished landscapes of the national parks and the areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs). Though many still retain features of carbon-rich landscapes – woodlands, hedges, wetlands and veteran trees – they haven’t escaped damage in the chemical age. Restoring carbon-rich features – including deep fertile soils - will make farmers richer while delivering benefits like clean water, flood-risk reduction and drought protection. Above all it will be a big step towards normalised weather patterns.
In his review of these national landscapes Julian Glover highlighted the need to bring back nature. Climate-friendly farming would achieve this. Glover also emphasised the importance of deepening people’s emotional ties to these special areas. This is our aim at LandAlive. We’ll use social media campaigns to connect people with their local landscapes. We’ll tell them about the food, the wildlife and, most of all, the amazing role these landscapes play in cooling our planet. The new climate-friendly farming methods are tried and tested. They are our best hope of leaving a diverse, productive and beautiful landscapes for future generations. With your support we’ll make this life-changing idea a popular movement the policy-makers cannot ignore.
Graham Harvey. Author, Grass-Fed Nation