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Should our rural landscapes be on a war footing?

By Ruth Slavid

Photo: Agnese Sanvito

When you look at the black and white photographs of British agriculture during World War One on pages 40–45 they are obviously charming yet seem scarcely relevant to our current concerns. But that is not so. One of  the effects of war is to lead to massive changes within a short period of time.

In World War One (and also in World War Two of course) this meant a drive to produce more of our own food and, with mechanisation, a pressure to make land more productive and efficient. We have had a century of this ‘efficiency’ and it is salutary to see where the origins lie. Because, as Lyndis Cole of LUC pointed out in the Landscape Futures debate in Bristol earlier this year, we have been seeking the wrong kind of efficiency. The countryside that most people love has been disappearing and becoming what Cole dubbed ‘the factory floor’ in the pursuit of greater production.


That has been known for some time, and there are many who understand that the energy input which  intensive agriculture demands will be neither affordable nor justifiable in the future. But the floods of the past winter have also been a wake-up call.

The harrowing stories of farmers and homeowners in the Somerset Levels and elsewhere experiencing depths of floodwater that were hitherto unforeseen are a harbinger of something we are likely to see more often with global warning.

If we are to mitigate the effects it won’t just be with localised dredging but with consideration of the entire water course as the open letter to the prime minister from Sue Illman and others pointed out. Cole’s lecture took this one step further, by talking about multi-functional landscapes which can, at the same time, offer biodiversity, improved soil fertility and enhanced amenity – plus providing and maintaining the sort of landscape that we love and enjoy. Landscape is a finite resource and we can no longer afford to have it serve a single purpose.

Achieving this will take planning and this may be where we can learn from wars. Rather than saying that we cannot afford to invest in landscape we must realise that we cannot afford not to. The phrase ‘war on...’ is a hackneyed one, frequently misused or the excuse for ill-judged initiatives. But the kind of centralised thinking that war demands is just what is needed to make our landscapes work harder – not with the single-minded vision triggered by immediate food shortages but in an understanding of the battles that a changing climate will bring.

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