It must be terribly difficult being the Prince of Wales – but perhaps a little less difficult than being many of his potential future subjects.
HRH writes in Country Life magazine this week about why we must put a value on the countryside. It is in these wide-ranging thought pieces that HRH seems least thoughtful and most muddled, but also most endearing and least convincing, it seems to me (off with my head!?). Whereas I rather enjoy his rants about GM crops or modern architecture, without necessarily agreeing with any of them, it is when the Prince, our potential future monarch, deals with several subjects (topics, rather than we voters) at once that he tends to appear a little ‘u n j o i n e d u p’.
There is plenty in this article that I like (although quite a lot of it is an advert for the Prince’s own Countryside Fund. He does highlight the fact that the Farmland Bird Index, ‘widely regarded as a good environmental indicator’, is at its lowest ever level, and is 55% lower than at 1970 even though some of its constituent species (eg the Wood Pigeon) have increased in that time. Farmland specialist species such as Skylark, Yellowhammer and Lapwing have all declined by 70% even though these species would ‘light up any country walk‘. Those bits are super – I liked them.
I also liked the fact that HRH recognises the ecosystem services (the value of carbon storage, water cleansing and flood alleviation) carried out by habitats but doesn’t think that this argument is the be-all and end-all of why we should protect nature.
But then he gets all soppy about farmers. Apparently if we had no farmers, we would have no beautiful landscapes. I don’t think so. We might have rather little food, but we would have some spectacularly beautiful landscapes. The idea that farming and farmers have created beautiful landscapes is partly true – it’s about as true as the fact that farming and farmers have destroyed beautiful landscapes too. Too often, land owners want to claim the credit for the good they have done, and blame the harm on others. Where did the heather go that Prince Charles praises – mostly into sheep farmers’ sheep? Was it the townies that came out and ploughed up the meadows that we all miss – no, a farmer did that off his own bat? And where did all those Skylarks and Yellowhammers go? And turn to the letters pages and a resident of Lanarkshire complains about the local farmers sticking wind turbines everywhere. It’s a bit more complicated than if we had no farmers we would have no beautiful landscapes, isn’t it?
The average hill farmer apparently earns £8000 a year. That might be right but we should ask what the average capital value of their land is? And we should look carefully at whether their farmhouse is part of their business or whether they need to pay for it out of that £8000. And their vehicles – a business expense? Such figures are quite misleading taken at face value. Many farmers are certainly income-poor, but some are capital-rich, and that puts them in a very different category from a student nurse or the job-seeker in Brixton. When a farming family sells its land it is usually through choice – it may be a difficult choice but the outgoing farming family gains from land prices, kept high by public subsidy payments, that are higher than ever before.
And what is the average payment from the taxpayer to these farmers? I reckon it’s more than £8000 a year. So where is the value in that to the taxpayer?
Prince Charles seems to think that farmers are wonderful and an endangered species. Any loss of the number of farmers in the country is, he seems to think, a bad thing. Personally, I’m not too bothered about how many farmers there are, I’m more worried about what they do, than how numerous they are. And why should we care that the same amount of farming, producing greater yields of food, is achieved with a smaller number of bigger landowners? Most would call that an efficiency gain in food production.
I would agree with HRH in his ‘old-fashioned belief’ (that I think is actually quite modern too) that farming ought to be practised as ‘a partnership between mankind and Nature’ – although I think he chooses different words from the ones I would prefer. The loss of farmers is not a loss of farming. And the sustainability of the farming we have is not that dependent on how many farmers there are – it depends more on what they do. Large and small farmers can farm sustainably or unsustainably.
And anyway, we are all farmers now as we all invest heavily in subsidies and incentives to farming. I support that system in principle (much of it) but it is poorly implemented in practice.
And HRH has swallowed the argument that we need to keep all land in agricultural production because the world population is growing. Let’s not get into that here but it is the laziest of thinking.
I suppose that where HRH is coming from is the same place as many of us: we want a pretty countryside, providing lots of food, happy farmers, full bellies, cheap food, Skylarks in every field singing tunefully, flowers and a long list of other things.These are no longer individual choices by individual land owners – they are societal choices by taxpayers and policy makers.
One of Prince Charles’s worries is ‘the extent to which the majority of the population has lost any real connection with the land’ and I agree with that – particularly because we are all paying for what happens in the countryside. Our money flows to the countryside but our views do not impinge on it too much. We are all farmers now and we ought to make our voice heard a little louder about what sort of countryside we want.