Countryside calling

The shooting of Britain’s last wild wolf in 1743, following claims it had killed two children, epitomises our complicated relationship with the countryside. To what extent are we at war with nature; to what extent at one? The countryside encompasses more than fields, forests, waterways and wildlife. It embraces tight-knit rural communities with workers tending to the land and local businesses, hard-pressed farmers, and country publicans hopeful of better days post Covid. Green Britain embraces town-dwellers too: it’s the Arden we escape to for rest and recovery, or just to feel actual earth beneath our feet. Amidst all this ecological and cultural complexity, the debate also rumbles on around the phenomenon of rewilding: what does it mean? How far should it go? Can Homo Britannicus live peacefully alongside other, untamed, predators, such as lynxes and wolves, as their fellow humans do in other parts of Europe? Here we offer the perspectives of four writers through personal snapshots of rural life.


The wolf without is the wolf within

Sarah Hall

It isn’t usual to grow up in England with wolves on the doorstep. It’s taken decades of literary cross-examination and lifestyle discussion, during which I’m labeled “feral”, for me to appreciate this. I was raised in Cumbria’s Eden Valley and was used to animals and birds – golden eagles, semi-wild fell ponies, trout, hares, deer; all manner of creaturely neighbours. A few miles from our cottage there was a wildlife park – part of the Lowther estate. In the park were boar, otters, flamingoes, peacocks and exotic owls, and in one of the largest enclosures there were wolves.

The sheer thrill. I don’t think it’s possible to over-emphasise childish awe when confronted – even through a robust fence – with that penetrating citrine gaze, the big, pre-dog shape and black-pleated, closefanged jaw. Tonal grey fur, long durable legs, the short rough mane. They are so perfectly made. Some primitive part of our brain immediately apprehends an apex predator, and the red warning light flashes on. Even a habituated wolf is exotically, beautifully lupine, and does not look tame. Lowther Park’s were no doubt bored, frustrated and curious; they were keen on running up and down the fence alongside the running children. I don’t recall if they had names, which makes them wilder in my memory.

Fast forward 30 years and I would find myself writing a novel about the reintroduction of wolves to Britain; perhaps no surprise. In between, I lived in America, and spent time in the Pacific Northwest, home of several high-profile rewilding projects. But I’ve always been interested in UK conservation and ecology, especially debates around the Lake District National Park, its purpose, its health and trophic levels, its artifice. Romance versus realism, perhaps. The novel’s premise is a stretch; it imagines a Cumbrian estate far bigger than any existing, which hosts a self-sustaining wolf project. The book is about power – natural, land-related and political. It’s about human and animal societies, what might constitute successful relationships.

Stretch. That word, the concept, is important. I’m aware of the gift of my upbringing: its proximate intonations of wilderness, the expanses outside and inside my mind. It has encouraged my sense of imaginative range. Wolves were possible, and they are possible: on the page, on the moors, and in the forests of the future.

I leave it to the experts to make the scientific case for reintroduction of big predators. I could have chosen a different creature for the literary proposition – lynx or bear. But the wolf is supreme and emblematic. Even long-gone from Britain, its brute elegance and dominance elicits our ambivalence, haunts us and inspires us. Throughout history and the world, the wolf has been divisive, hunted and revered, misapprehended, mythologised. It is the most distributed, intelligent, and versatile animal beside humans – perfect, of course,
for the drama and intrigue of a novel. And I was very lucky; the wolf was in me from the beginning.

Sarah Hall is a prize-winning novelist and short-story writer. She’s the only author to have won the BBC National Short Story Award twice. Her sixth novel “Burntcoat” will be published by Faber & Faber this October


He Sings Each Song Twice Over

Sir Andrew Motion

It might be Holkham beach in one startling case,
with that wide flat glimmering blade of sand
slicing my heart in two while pine trees hum their approval.

Or Charing Cross Bridge on another
and London grey in the dangerous current
where I would willingly scatter my dust
when the angel jumps from St Paul’s and says

it’s time to go. But mostly neither of these
and with next to nothing to show: a ditch
of frost-burned brambles where winter sun
happens to strike a peculiar angle

that breaks their tragic tangle and so
makes light of the adder sleeping below.

Andrew Motion was Poet Laureate of the UK from 1999 to 2009. He is now Homewood Professor of the Arts at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore


Our pubs are our community

Laura Thompson

I grew up in the rural Home Counties, encircled by a trio of villages that fairly abounded with pubs – I can remember at least twelve. A couple of these were delightful. The one run by my grandmother, for instance, was the very image of a country inn: stone fireplaces, beamed ceilings, garden tables sticky with R White’s lemonade. Although, as with any proper pub, its atmosphere always held something alertly urban. Others were less lovely, serving white wine that tasted like dusty sugared water and patronised by a sulky scattering of lesser Starkadders. Yet they all had their place, like the village green and the church; my eye would have missed them had they not been there and so, more obscurely, would my heart.

Then, from around the start of this century, it seemed that every time I returned to the area yet another of these pubs – these “locals” – was standing ghost-like and shuttered. At the start of 2020, just three of them (including my grandmother’s) remained. There were then around 47,000 pubs in the UK, a figure that had dropped by more than a quarter in the preceding 30 years.

In other words, even before Covid-19 too many pubs were fighting for survival, with beleaguered managers battling astronomical business rents and praying that Sky Sports and chalkboard menus would work their miracle. Only the prettiest, the best-situated, the ones with five types of olives and reading rooms, were assured of survival. Now it has been suggested that another 12,000 might never re-emerge from the destructive spell of lockdown. Is the inference therefore that the pub – as we understand it – is doomed?

It is changing, for sure. My grandmother would never replicate her great landlady success today, given her contempt for food and outrage at the smoking ban; but pubs have always evolved, that is their story. And the best of them, whatever their chichi accoutrements, retain the mysterious pub essence – a quality that has become all the more intensely valued for being withheld. People who, pre-virus, swooned to the thought of a communal pint yet cleaved to their sofa and Netflix, now hold an earnest longing for reality. They want to go to the pub. It is an age-old need within our national soul, which from the time of the medieval alehouse has embraced that simple complex thing, the home that is also an escape from home: the Public House.

Hence the trend, much accelerated throughout 2020, for village residents to club together and run their own local. A wonderful response and the clearest possible sign of how much people still care about these establishments – although the term “community pub” is, to my mind, a tautology. A pub is a community. It is also a sanctuary, a shrine to the ordinary, a soft-lit beacon of sanity in a world increasingly inclined to hysteria. It is not necessary, as such; we will survive without our local. Yet it seems to me that we have never needed it more.

Laura Thompson’s homage to the pub, “The Last Landlady: An English Memoir”, is reissued in April by Unbound. Her group biography, “Heiresses”, will be published in September


Does Brexit spell the end of family farms?

Laura James

If I close my eyes and imagine the countryside, I’m immediately back in Darrowby, where dishy vet James Herriot cares for a menagerie of creatures, from a milking cow called Daisy to a pampered Pekingese called Tricki Woo. I’ve never actually been to Darrowby, of course, and neither the village nor Herriot (a penname) actually exist. But All Creatures Great and Small, which has been serialised on TV twice, was based on real 1930s life in a real place, the ruggedly picturesque Yorkshire Dales.

Small family-run farms were the lifeblood of Darrowby, as they remain of most actual rural communities. For most of us city-dwellers, farmland of this kind is broadly synonymous with “the countryside”, hardly surprising given farms occupy more than 70 per cent of Britain, and the vast majority are family-run affairs with an average size of just over 200 acres. Many of these families have been custodians of the same acres of land for hundreds of years – acting not just as farmers, but also as environmental stewards, maintaining the hedgerows and nature corridors essential for the UK’s biodiversity, and protecting its unique landscape.

The days when farmers sold most of their produce close to home, however, are long gone. Prior to Brexit, 70 per cent of our agri-food exports were to other EU countries. Farmers were also heavily dependent on EU subsidies, which prevented many from falling into poverty, but were criticised by some – including farmers themselves – for encouraging “lazy” and “out-of-date” farming practices, whilst non-subsidised competitors were rapidly improving productivity and boosting their export volumes.

So when January saw farm exports to the EU fall to their lowest levels in 20 years, with a 60 per cent decrease in normal volumes, it not only came as a rude awakening for many British farmers, but exposed the ugly truth of what Brexit might mean for the countryside. Many farm products will find a home in the local market, but this realignment will undoubtedly put pressure on British farmers to match the demands of increasingly price-sensitive consumers. National Farmers’ Union President, Minette Batters, has argued that the new payment scheme, which will replace EU subsidies, will see livestock farmers lose 80 per cent of their income by 2024. With the old subsidy system to be phased out over seven years, many smaller farmers will have little choice other than to sell up. Tellingly, the new scheme includes a lump sum exit option, opening the door for further expansion by large-scale corporate agri-business concerns.

The new payment scheme is designed to reward farmers for sustainable practices, creating space for nature on their land, enhancing animal welfare and reducing carbon emissions. Only time will tell whether these new corporate stewards can be relied upon to maintain sustainable farming methods, as they seek to turn a profit. What seems more certain is that as small, family-owned farms disappear, the shape of the countryside will change, and there will no longer be cows called Daisy.

Laura James is a farming and food writer who lives in London. She shares her life with a Pekingese called Tricki Woo

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