What is “natural” in our countryside? What is our countryside for? How do we preserve what we want and/or need? What conflicts result?
It may seem that, like aging, the countryside just happens; that it is the result of existing landscape, farming, weather and so on. But all of our landscape has been influenced or managed in many ways. “Natural” and “authentic” are terms that encourage tourist income; there are research papers examining our attitude to these concepts, for example here.
Our Malvern Hills Conservators are felling trees “to restore grassland”.
The Hills, once bare, grazed ridges, have become overgrown with scrub that is becoming full woodland on the lower slopes. Watching Monitor 100: Elgar on iPlayer it was immediately obvious how much the Hills have changed since 1962 when Ken Russell filmed here. Even fifty years ago, well after Sir Edward’s demise, donkeys trotted across open grassy slopes.
In the past there have been letters to the local paper complaining that the hills are overgrown – where are the views, the skylarks, the kestrels, that Sir Edward Elgar would have enjoyed? OR why are The Conservators wasting our precept moneys on wanton destruction of “wild plants”?
A comment on the first point of view is that the hills need to be grazed quite heavily to keep them clear of scub. That can cause erosion and – something tourists are not terribly keen on – poo. At present the sheep and/or cattle tend to be fenced. That also causes problems (especially when walkers accidentally – or deliberately – leave gates open). Another problem is the number of dogs walked on the Hills, a minority of which are going to be a) uncontrolled and b) inclined to chase livestock.
My comment on the second point of view is that our regeneration is not exactly “natural”. Once upon a time it is quite likely that the Hills would have been wooded but even by the time the Doomsday Book was compiled much woodland had been felled. Original woodland is probably non-existent in Britain today. It’s all been farmed, felled, coppiced or planted. Regeneration here lacks original native species such as small-leaved lime (now rare) and hazel, includes native oak and birch and adds introduced species such as sweet chestnut, sycamore and pests like cherry laurel.
We could just let people – and time, and weather – do as they will with the landscape; more roads, more car parks, quarrying, business parks. Or we could shut everything down, suggest no modernity whatsoever, wear medieval garb and dance for the tourists, forsooth.
As usual, I shall sit on the fence and say it needs to be somewhere in the middle. Each decision needs to be made with as much information and foresight as possible. Pick a period, a landscape, and stick to its management needs.
The Conservators have to balance the good of our landscape with resources available. Last year they embroiled themselves in wasteful litigation over the tenancy of St Ann’s Well. I have also been told that, years ago, they extended a ban on vehicle access to the hills to the farmers grazing stock up there; consequently the farmers gave up. Perhaps they could do with a blog or even FaceBook page to interact and explain their methods to their local tax-payers. Some of the locals might also be able to offer more help. Meanwhile, hopefully the new regime of sycamore-felling and grazing will recover Elgar’s landscape and larks.