There is a crisis in Britain’s countryside.
With the collapse of the beef industry due to “mad-cow disease” and the current threat of the same disease affecting sheep, as well as other factors, the family farm is an endangered species.
And the decline of farm income directly — and negatively — affects the traditional economic livelihood of rural Britain.
Combined with downward-spiralling farm incomes are a variety of other pressures which resonate with us here in the Pontiac.
One pressure upon British farms is the traditional public right of access to farmer’s fields through a network of public paths. This sees horses, bikers, ATVs, dirt bikes, bird-watchers, walkers (called “ramblers” in the United Kingdom) and hikers accessing the immense web of historic trails linking the countryside to urban spaces.
Another pressure has been the destruction of habitat for wildlife, as new-technology (i.e. heavy machinery) and “economies of scale” have conspired to encourage farmers to rip up hedgerows and create large fields for crops and grazing land. The up to two-metre wide hedgerows, felled copses of trees and drained wetlands that are a boon to large-scale farming are a death-knell to wildlife.
A third pressure upon Britain’s countryside is the influx of residents from urban centres who want to live a less-stressful “country life.” As city folk purchase rural homes and start commuting to their jobs, the countryside alters. Commuting means more traffic along Britain’s sometimes infamous yet always picturesque narrow roadways. It means homes that are “bedrooms” for commuters. And it too-often means that families spend their money at the increasing number of “big-box” or American-style shopping centres.
What is at risk? Traditional rural life.
Now, one could argue that such is life, and that Britons must hold their noses and realize that this is the way of the world.
But does it need to be? Do Britons want to lose the family farm and rural quality of life?
Enter a new consortium of nine organizations who are intent upon fostering long-term public debate upon the future of Britain’s countryside. Associations involved include the Women’s’ Institute, Friends of the Earth, The National Trust, The Small and Family Farms Alliance, Organic Standard Soil Alliance… and the largest conservation group in Europe, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Called Rural Futures, the consortium’s website (found at www.ruralfutures.org) outlines their goals. It also describe the climate of discontent and pressures which spawned their creation.
“When we talk about rural issues what immediately springs to mind? Angry farmers, livestock (diseased and banned), banks and post offices closing, outraged fox hunters and righteous ramblers. These sharply-focused anxieties, mixed up with more pastoral views of a traditional lifestyle reeling from the pressures of mechanization, indicate that all is not well by a long chalk in rural Britain.
“But if we are to seriously engage in addressing this ‘malaise of the countryside,’ there is a pressing need to look into its underlying causes. To diagnose and then set out a treatment regime for the deep-seated illness rather than prescribe yet another remedy for the surface symptoms.”
The actual impetus that created Rural Futures was a response to the Labour Government’s impending release of two key reports: the Urban White Paper and the Rural White Paper, both of which purport to be government discussion papers that will help form the basis for development of urban and rural life and economics for the future
The nine organizations forming Rural Futures share deep concern that bureaucrats and politicians will not ask the right questions and hence not develop a sustainable future for the countryside, its people and wildlife.
Jaqui Cuff, Rural Development Policy Officer of the RSPB says of Rural Futures, “We are not offering solutions. The starting point for all this has to be in our questions and our analysis. If we spend our time trying to answer the wrong questions the future we generate will be the wrong future.” (Quote from The Daily Telegraph, Monday, October 30th, 2000)
Accordingly, Rural Future has presented a series of eight questions they feel are critical. Each is intended to address one of the main issues affecting the countryside: that is, to discuss and define the role and significance of farming to Britain’s countryside. Because agriculture and the food processing industry are the nation’s largest industries, the future of rural life and livelihood cannot be discussed without addressing exactly how farming must be treated in the future.
The eight-point plan that Rural Future wants Britons to debate are:
1. Do we want Britain to remain a seriously capable food-producing nation?
2. What is the countryside for?
3. Who is the countryside for and who is responsible for its well-being?
4. How can rural Britain be protected from the negative impacts of global economic forces?
5. What services and infrastructure are needed to build sustainable rural communities and how can these be best delivered?
6. How can rural communities be engaged best in processes which involve wider economic and political perspectives?
7. How should urban and rural interests be reconciled?
8. How can the loss of biodiversity and valued wildlife and their habitats be reversed without damaging the social and economic development of rural communities?
These are pertinent questions for Britons, particularly due to Britain’s inclusion into the economic buying power, influence and competition posed by the European Union. The website invites the public to respond to these questions and also posts papers and articles by a variety of university professors as well as other authors.
Not surprisingly, these issues are also pertinent for us, here in the Pontiac, Québec, Canada and North America to deliberate upon as we strive for a sustainable future for our rural and so-called “wilderness” spaces.
Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer based in Quyon. She has recently returned from three weeks spent mostly in rural Britain where she stayed on farms, in village B&Bs, and her relative’s rural and town homes. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org