Environmentalist George Monbiot recently wrote an article for The Guardian claiming that “English landowners have stolen our rights”, and that “landed power, based on theft, slavery and colonial looting crushes our freedoms”.
Strong words, even by Mr Monbiot’s ardent socialist standards. He believes all Britons should have the right to roam the countryside, and trespass should not be criminalised.
Meanwhile, prime minister Boris Johnson has got into a spot of trouble for exercising his right to roam while on holiday in Scotland, climbing over a fence without permission from the farmer (a confessed nationalist) to put up a tent and make a bonfire from what looked like old fence stakes.
Within hours the tabloids swooped in, forcing Boris to cut his summer holiday short for safety reasons.
What would it mean for farmers in England if Mr Monbiot got his way and everyone could behave like Boris, putting tents up where they please, walking, kayaking and even rock climbing in any spot that appeals to them? Some farmers may feel like they’ve already had a taste of this during lockdown.
Ownership and power
However, Mr Monbiot’s argument is not just about access to the countryside, but ownership and power. He claims that “if you own large tracts of land, a great weight of law sits on your side”.
I’d counter that a great weight of responsibility sits on your shoulders as well.
More than ever, farmers are under an immense burden of environmental and regulatory pressure, not to mention financial pressure in a volatile marketplace.
The “public goods” of recreation and environmental management are important, but high-quality, affordable, domestically produced food is in danger of being side-lined in the push towards greater public access, with “rewilding” the holy grail of conservation.
Not all farmers are shotgun-wielding stereotypes shouting “Get off my land!”.
Many are delighted to welcome visitors and demonstrate the care they take of the countryside.
Public money for public goods may enable those who choose this path to be rewarded for doing so.
However, the latest incarnation of the Environmental Land Management scheme suggests farmers will only be paid for income foregone plus expenses, rather than the value of the services they provide, which seems unlikely to provide a strong incentive.
The £3bn of subsidies that Mr Monbiot decries were designed to support food production, not just a free handout for those who own land and, rightly or wrongly, will soon disappear.
Without them, farmers will have to weigh up even more carefully their responsibility to care for the land they farm with their responsibility to provide affordable food, while attempting to make a profit.
Rewilding may be the latest buzzword, but it won’t feed the nation. I doubt hydroponic pods in urban basements are likely to solve the problem either.
The unintended consequence is that we will end up importing more food from countries with lower environmental standards, pushing the impact of our cheap food on to distant shores. Out of sight and mind.
In my opinion, this is just as bad as the colonial pillaging of other countries’ resources for our own benefit in the past.
Our landscape has developed over millennia as a farmed environment, and I think we do a good job of balancing food production with public access via more than 140,000 miles of public footpaths.
It seems that Mr Monbiot wants everyone to have access to the countryside, but without any sharing of the responsibility.