The Archers - A moment in history
Updated: Jan 5
The countryside that inspired the world's longest-running drama was very different from the rural Britain we know today. It was mostly a land of small-mixed farms run by fiercely independent and self-reliant families. With little help from government they'd come through the depressed inter-war years, then gone on to feed the nation during the time of conflict.
Despite the hardships, the countryside they created was both vibrant and beautiful. The Britain I grew up in was a land of tall hedgerows and small fields, of woodlands, wetlands and clear running streams; a land teeming with wildlife. It was also a land with flourishing village communities.
I wouldn't want to portray it as some kind of rural idyll. It wasn't. There was a lot of poverty and deprivation in the countryside of the 1940s and 50s. Even so those tough-minded rural communities ran a farming system that was both productive and sustainable. They knew they had to work in harmony with nature if they were to survive. This is why the countryside of the time was so rich in wild species.
But even as millions tuned in each evening for the latest adventures of just such a community, Whitehall was plotting their downfall. In the Ministry of Agriculture small mixed farms were seen as backward and inefficient. Urged on by a brash, young nitrate fertiliser industry, governments of both stripes used public subsidies to encourage large-scale specialist farming, particularly for arable crops.
Across wide stretches of the countryside hedges were torn out, woodlands felled, and wetlands drained, all to create a prairie-like landscape for efficient arable farming. Farmers were encouraged to plough up their grasslands and abandon rotations in favour of continuous cropping. It was a system that depended entirely on chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
Surprisingly The Archers supported this rural revolution, at least in the show's early years. At the time the BBC believed it had a mission to educate as well as entertain. In The Archers this meant providing farmers with not-so-subtle messages about modernising and getting up to date. Actors' scripts would sometimes contain thinly-disguised lines from the latest MAFF press release.
All this had ended by the time I joined as a script-writer in the 1980s. It seemed a touch bizarre that a show centred around a community of mostly small farmers should try to undermine them. I did my best to balance things up by introducing stories about nature-friendly farming like Toby and Rex's ill-fated pastured eggs business and Ed Grundy's attempt to get into small-scale dairy production. It was all a drop in the ocean though. By that time industrial farming was unstoppable.
It had been given another boost with Britain's entry into the EU in the early 1970s. Lavish subsidies under the European common agricultural policy spread the practice to many marginal areas such as the chalk down-lands of southern England. Sensing greater profits, the biotech industry piled in with new crop varieties that required even heavier inputs of chemical fertiliser and pesticides. In a cynical piece of marketing double-speak this development was known as ' the green revolution'.
In reality it was anything but green. Nitrate fertilisers, made with huge amounts of fossil fuel, now drive UK crop production. Every time a farmer grows a high-input wheat crop they might as well drive a tanker spraying petrol up and down the tramlines. The fossil fuel industry controls our farm production. And it's doing untold damage to both wildlife and that last great undiscovered world, the soil.
Despite a succession of reports lamenting the decline of British wildlife, governments refused to intervene. The EU attempted to mitigate the worst effects of its farm policies through a series of environmental measures. Most attempted to take a small percentage of land out of full-on production and manage it for wild species. The same principle is now being adopted in various re-wilding projects. Their weakness is they do nothing to relieve the wildlife damage on the vast majority of farmland.
If our wildlife is to survive – perhaps even recover – we need a farming system that's both productive and nature-friendly. Fortunately we have just such a system ready and waiting. No research needed. We can roll it out without delay. The model's in those long-forgotten farming communities that inspired The Archers.
I've just finished making a short documentary film about a remarkable farm on the border of Hampshire and Wiltshire. It's a large farm – about 2500 acres – and because of its amazing biodiversity it's been part of DEFRA's research-and-development programme helping to shape the new, post-Brexit farm policy. The principle being explored is how farmers can be paid for 'public goods' rather than the food they produce.
On this farm the DEFRA team have been astonished by the sheer diversity of the wild species they found – 137 bird species; 40 different butterflies, including the scarce and endangered Duke of Burgundy; 740 species of moth; and 70 wild plant species associated with cultivated soils. The team were also surprised to find huge amounts of carbon in the soils, even though the land was inherently poor.
What makes the farm so rich in wildlife is that the farmer gave up chemical fertilisers and pesticides more than 20 years ago. It's now run as a traditional mixed farm with a dairy herd, beef cattle and sheep. Fertility is maintained, not with chemical fertilisers made from fossil fuels, but from grazing pastures containing leguminous plants like sainfoin and common vetch, plants which make their own nitrogen fertiliser with the help of soil microbes.
With the nation facing climate catastrophe it's surely madness to go on allowing the oil industry to grow our food when nature can do it far better. By kicking out the nitrates and planting herbal leys (short-term pastures with deep-rooting herbs), farmers can sequester millions of tonnes of carbon, helping Britain reach its emissions target.
It seems likely the government will introduce measures to do this as part of its new farm policy, due for roll-out in 2024. But this is far too slow. The climate crisis demands urgent action. Now's the time for communities and businesses to step up and help set the countryside on a new course. Next time I'll look at how to do it. And how The Archers, which once led the country into intensive chemical farming, can help us get back our 'green and pleasant land.'