A Privileged Source of Information

Rural Renaissance - Building the New Eden

Elisabeth Holmes


There's a revolution going on in the English countryside, so quiet that to date it has made little impact on the general psyche, but when the future looks back at us it will stand out as radical and significant. It starts as a tale of bone-chilling Cold War tension, the rape of the countryside by the god 'Profit', and ends with hope.


I live in Suffolk, on the East coast of England. It's only a couple of hours by car from London, but it is remote, beautiful and empty, in 'acronym-speak' it is an AONB, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Orfordness is one part of that - the longest shingle spit in Europe and as such a hugely valuable habitat for marsh and sea birds. It is bleak and windswept and you probably won't have heard of it - but it witnessed some of the most important advances in military technology of the last century.


For over seventy years Orfordness was owned by the Ministry of Defence. Public access was forbidden and only government 'boffins', sworn to secrecy, would be ferried across the Ore estuary, to scurry about in underground bunkers testing weapon ballistics and navigational aids. A strange black beacon sprung up, eerie pagodas and radio masts were visible from the quay at Orford. Dark tales of secret weapon development and far-fetched rumours spread (entertainment for those long dark nights in the Jolly Sailor).


In 1935 the military research station was used for a new project - the detection of aircraft using radio waves. It was here that RADAR was born. Other projects came and went and it is then that the cold seeps into the bones. The station was taken over by the AWRE (Atomic Weapons Research Establishment) in the 1950s and became one of a handful of sites in the world testing components for nuclear weapons. The area became a genuine military target and I remember seeing the heads of nuclear missiles rising up above the sea wall just down the coast from Orfordness. The spirit of Cold War was palpable.


In the meantime something equally bleak was happening in the surrounding farmland.


Let's start at the beginning. During the Second World War effective naval blockades meant that Britain needed to become self-sufficient in food production, we had to 'Dig For Victory'. Mechanisation and increased production were the mantras. By the 1970s Agri-business was flourishing. Farms in this part of England often became huge holdings, hedges were ripped out, a tree or coppice that had stood for centuries in the centre of a field had to go (straight lines were in). It worked, production was so high we could export, dump and store the excess in virtual mountains. Emerging problems with soil structure were to be solved by science - agrochemicals and GMOs helped maintain production rates on increasingly poor soil.


Then the Cold War ended. It was as if a calm, warming breath had allowed us to relax, as if a collective madness had lifted. At the same time, wide-reaching practical steps began to be taken to halt the destruction of the environment both at government and local level - stewards of the environment for future generations.


I spoke to Paul Smith, an independent consultant employed by DEFRA (Department for The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to help implement a major new EU-wide environmental protection programme.


'Looking back at our attitude during the last half of the twentieth century, it would not be an exaggeration to say that it was wanton destruction. Any archeology, like a bit of Roman wall, that got in the way, anything that could reduce the efficiency of the agri-machine was removed. Rotational crop schemes became so compressed that the ground never had time to recover. Massive downward price pressure from the supermarkets was a major contributing factor and farmers have seen a huge drop in income. All of this meant that the environment was coming under sustained attack.'


'Then something quietly started to change. Under increasing awareness of this destruction we started to protect small pockets of woodland, marshes and so on. Organic farming started to kick in. And with all this the first signs that the wildlife was recovering. Many granular and finite schemes were put into place which have developed into this latest long-term EU plan.'


'So farmers are now able to apply for money for example to improve soil structure by buying in silage to spread on the fields. The government will also pay farmers to keep footpaths clear, trim hedges, but within strict guidelines to protect wildlife, ie not in the spring when the birds are nesting.'


'A kind of despotic enlightenment?' I ask.


Paul Smith grins, 'I guess you could call it that. But the real change comes in a less frantic approach. We are beginning to manage our natural resources and not rely on crisis management.'


'The plan is mainly divided into ELS (Entry Level Schemes) which anybody with a minimum of 1 hectare can apply for. It encourages improved hedgerow management and the introduction of 1, 2 and 5 metre 'buffer' strips where crops are not planted right up to the field boundary. This provides a vital wildlife strip. The real differences will be seen in the HLS or Higher Level Schemes for the larger holdings.'


'One of first steps is to find make an accurate national rural land register, where individual parcels of land are numbered, and ownership established, a bit like the Domesday Book.'


The Domesday Book was a comprehensive survey of property in England conducted in 1086 - the idea of William I, our Norman conqueror. I could see the enormity of the twenty-first century version of this task.


'The larger schemes (HLS) require a technical survey of the land,' Paul Smith explains. 'It is at least 60 pages of information and most farmers or landowners employ an agent to help them. 1.6 million hectares are currently under the scheme. The whole project represents a massive mindset change from the last 50 years or so. Our use of the environment is no longer being driven by profit - we have woken up to the fact that it cannot be. The days of the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) are numbered, although of course no one will admit that openly. We even have a newly appointed Minister for Biodiversity.'


Granular and finite was becoming fluid and far-reaching.


'To implement this whole programme most EU countries bought off-the-shelf IT programmes but in England we have a breed of bureaucrat whose main purpose in life is to turn 1 page from Europe into 47 here! We have a very complicated IT programme and this has impeded suppliers' ability to deliver, so we are a few months behind our European neighbours in this. But this top heaviness probably won't be wasted.' That sounded more like a vain hope than actual prescience?


'We are at the very beginning of this process and for the time being the main aim is to stop the rot.'


So that was the view from the top. How I wondered was all this paper (with the irony not lost on me) possibly going to turn into hedgerows and woodland and bring about a wildlife revival?


I spoke to one of the local agents whose task is to help farmers become part of the ELS and HLS schemes. Henry Walker is a young and enthusiastic employee of FWAG (the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group) based in Norfolk, an hour's drive north of here.


'We at FWAG talk farmers through what can be achieved. We help carry out a Farm Environment Plan and it is a lengthy process. The initial outlay is expensive for the farmer in terms of time. No one was prepared for just how expensive it was going to be. Indeed, there is at times dismay at the amount of information you are required to give.'


'But the whole idea is very popular with farmers. Most of the ones I deal with have come to the end of their working life, a generation who have grown with intensive farming. Now they can see how short sighted that approach was, they want to put back into the environment what they have taken out, undo the damage. We work towards more sustainable environmental management, more akin to the methods of the past. More specifically we are making the conditions right for breeding waders and wintering wildfowl.'


'The whole idea of the scheme is in a way to compensate farmers for a potential loss of income?' I ask.


'Yes, from limits imposed for example on stocking densities or to pay them for the work they do on maintaining water levels on the marshes. We have schemes where footdrains (shallow ditches) are placed between strips of extensively grazed short sward. This means that ground-nesting birds such as the rare lapwing have nesting sites with a nursery area in the footdrains for the young to grow. One of the other main objectives of this type of plan is to preserve below-ground archeology, from prehistory to medieval, for future generations.'


'The projects were met with initial excitement, but the dismaying amount of paperwork means that that enthusiasm is tested. However, it is possible to maintain a long-term view and see the benefits of all this work stretching out into the future. All these changes are seriously enhancing our landscape it isn't just hot air and money. The farmers I work with are incredibly willing to go that extra mile down this route and I have been pleasantly surprised at how flexible farmers really are on this.'


'In Norfolk we are using Faden's maps which were published in 1797 to try to restore the landscape to something much more like that. There already is a tangible difference, wildlife is returning to the restored marshes and grassland.'


Using the past to change the future? It was all starting to sound suspiciously like wisdom to me.


We were starting to protect and revive the hinterland, but what was happening on Orfordness? The military left Orfordness in the 1980s, their legacy - decaying buildings, chemical contamination and a lot of unexploded ordnance. Grant Lohoar is a project manager for the National Trust, current owners of Orfordness.


'The area was not in a good state when we took it over. But if it hadn't been for the MOD (Ministry of Defence) we would probably be looking at an industrial gravel working by now!'


'We implemented our main habitat scheme in 1999. Its aim was to establish 'managed retreat'. Let me explain...the sea defences were in a very bad state of repair. As you know, we face a serious threat with coastal erosion along most of the coast of East Anglia. (Over the centuries entire towns and villages have been washed away.) What we have done on Orfordness is to create a salt marsh habitat as a 'soft' sea defence, as opposed to 'hard' sea defences such as concrete, and the whole project is going very well.'


'The scheme starts with a process called 'warping up', as each full tide comes in through a breach in the sea wall it deposits silt. Land behind the sea wall has gradually dropped to below sea level and in order to create new salt marshes we have to raise that. This usually takes place in three stages, low, mid and high. We are already seeing large areas becoming re-populated with low salt marsh plants, which are more resistant to salt and in some areas mid-level plants are returning.'


'Fragile environments like salt marsh are vital for rare wintering wildfowl and waders and as the vegetation increases other birds come in.'


'We are relatively unusual here at Orfordness in that we practice extensive management. This is partly due to limited resources but has long-term benefits. There are large areas of the ness where we let nature take its course. We also have areas where the land was used for intensive arable farming which we are returning to traditional marshland, both freshwater and brackish. One of our main management tools here is grazing cattle who maintain and enrich the close-cropped short sward ideal for ground-nesting birds. This year for the first time we are using a traditional Suffolk breed called Red Poll. The main benefits of all this has been in seeing increasing numbers of wildfowl, such as teal, wigeon and pintail, but also in breeding pairs of redshank and lapwing whose numbers had dropped significantly. We have also recreated reed marsh and have seen Marsh harriers return.'


'We still have some unexploded ordnance and chemical spills, but we have dealt with most of these problems and there is now controlled public access here. Our projects are going very well.'


To the casual observer not much seems to have changed so far in the countryside, but it feels to me as if we are beginning to cancel the errors of the past. Experts like Grant Lohoar and Henry Walker are keen to stress the success of the schemes and projects they are delivering - this is tangible rural regeneration.