Variations on a Theme (Park)

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.



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2 Responses to Variations on a Theme (Park)

  1. J Oxenholme says:

    Firstly you are always unfair to the lovely cherry laurel. It has the power to send vixens demented with one waft of its lovely leaves. We need more for the entertainment value at least!

    Secondly, what a lovely dog, path-surfing the Malverns there.

    Thirdly (Turdly?) Yes of course the competing tensions of modern land-users have to be balanced and whatever those in-charge do they will be attacked from some quarters (which, of course, does not mean we should sit back to allow them to work: they will err at times in the view of right-thinking people (i.e. those who agree with those disagreeing at the time).

    You are absolutely right: the British countryside is very close to (if not) 100% man-shaped. (Should I rephrase that, especially for those dwelling in Cern Abbas?)

    It is really a question of which version of natural we wish to impose on our imposing landscapes. Personally I am a big woodland fan and prefer it to completely open spaces. However, I love moors and down, too. I would suggest the “best” approach from my perspective is not to have all woods nor all moors but a mixture. Sure, hack some woods down and return certain species where views are affected but, in other places, have woodland and that environment’s particular slice of biodiversity.

    We might as well manage primarily for visitors – local and tourists alike – because that benefits the economy and personal welfare / well-being. But that need not be at the expense of certain landscapes nor their biology. Mixing with regard to these twin aspects – people and fauna / flora – will preserve people’s interest and thus their stewardship for future generations.

    Let us not become hung-up on a particular historical snap-shot of what the landscape was like in Elgar’s time nor Caratacus’s. Of course us archaeology and history to inform our choices. However, let us manage it for today and tomorrow. That way we will love and cherish it, rather than have the disastrous situation (to quote Joni Mitchell):

    “They took all the trees and put ’em in a tree museum
    And they charged all the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em

    Don’t it always seem to go
    That you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone…”

    NB: Of course dogs should be kept under reasonable control but one notes that dogs have never done even a minute percentage of the damage to the environment that humans have. Perhaps they ought be the final arbiter of good practice?

    Off to dance in the forests, clad only in cherry laurel but avoiding the sheep dung. Or shall I pop for a pint? Choices…

  2. Myfanwy Fox says:

    Hi J, welcome back.

    I know you know how much I detest cherry laurel – it’s toxic, invasive and our next door neighbour has a garden full of it that constantly encroaches into our garden. I reckon I chop about a (large) skip-load a year, if not more. I shove it back over the fence into their wasteland as it is too toxic to safely shred or burn. Where you live it may be a pleasant hedge but up here it’s vegetation non grata.

    Cerne Abbas – fantastic site.

    Terribly true re the Joni Mitchell lyrics. Actually, we do need to think – for any local area – what vegetation and wildlife we are “conserving” (Elgar? or Caractacus?), so we can manage the farming, coppicing and so on appropriately; some habitats are very specific. My own preference is to maintain as many types of habitat as possible as we don’t know what we will need in the future. There is also the spiritual / mental health aspect of wild spaces – now being recognised as remarkably important to wellbeing. It is possible to mix humanity and nature. But what we must not do is make it the preserve of the wealthy which is the way it seems to be going at the moment.

    Kassie says “wuff”. Which might mean thanks for the complement but more likely means she wants a biscuit.

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