If firstly, we glance around us, and then secondly into history, we’ll not escape the problems of sheep. As far back as the Reformation, as Thomas More accurately said, sheep devoured the people. Today, environmental subsidy schemes and national parks protect semi-lifeless, treeless pastures and repel people, wind turbines, houses, forests, forestry and productive agriculture from the land.
Why so many are intent on preserving the anachronistic and unpleasant historical landscape of violent enclosure by depraved aristocrats and yeoman farmers is a mystery. Preserving landscapes in the form we see in Peaks, Dales, Downs and so on is a memorial to desperate rural poverty, brutal dispossession and the creation of the refugee encampments, which we’ve come to call city slums.
National parks, in repelling wind turbines and (in some cases) solar panels have become the most economically-retrograde and ecologically-destructive landscapes of Britain. They are exclusively dependent on imported coal, gas, oil, and forest biomass. Where forest should be we find desolate grouse moor and purposeless sheep. Where blossoming, fruiting hedges should run through humming bees and birdsong, we find the flail hedge cutter, very dry stone walls and wind bearing a lamb’s cry to its mother, through bleak silence.
For myself, I am guilty – I’ve kept and lived by sheep for forty years.
It is ironic that wool, which now barely pays for the shearer’s gang, was the cause of all this – wealth for a very few and poverty for the rest. For myself, I think wool will regain value as oil-fibres enter history and that sheep’s meat and sheep’s wool will again form an integral part of agricultural rotations. As in the Norfolk four course rotation sheep and corn can work very well together.
However sheep cannot replace woodland. Those preserved upland pastures are unnatural pastures. They’d be far, far more productive (economically) in their natural state – that is as woodland. They’d be incomparably richer in both biodiversity and biomass. With regards to climate change, reversion to woodland could set economies on their way towards (I only say towards) a photosynthetic balance.
That is not to say that a new upland woodland culture cannot have some pasture among the trees – for meat, wool, hides, milk, butter and cheese! Of course it can also have cultivated varieties of apples, pears, plums, nut trees and vines. It can have some wheat, barley and oats. It can have intensive market gardens. What am I describing? – a landscape which was sacked by the opportunist depravity of the Reformation. What do the National Trust, national parks and environmental scheme managers preserve? – The depravity. They celebrate the sack of church and monastery, a new rentier economy, rising wealth of elites, a refugee crisis, starvation, city slums…
Those “environmental” organisations preserve an oil-powered deserted lowland, complemented by “natural” sheep-grazed equally deserted upland and the natural consequence of both – over-populated Desolation Row, where even the community of corner shop, pub, baker, butcher has mutated into weary trolleys of debt on Sainsbury Street..
I’ve heard sheep farmers boast of feeding the world by the sweat of their brows, while ignorance of town-life swans on… But they’ll feed no worlds with sheep. I’ve heard friends of mine boast of “pasture-fed” and of the carbon sequestered beneath their virtuous feet… How nice it is to have some fields. For myself, I’ll claim no virtue for land enclosure. The landless settlers of Desolation Row can claim no virtue – so the sequestration claim is the claim of privilege. There’s no virtue in owning or controlling land – only in husbanding it well.
To be sure feeding grass to ruminants is the proper and natural thing and feeding them arable crops is not. But herding sheep and cattle on grass that would be natural woodland cannot claim virtue for carbon sequestration, biodiversity, biomass, crop yield, economic integration, ecologic integration, balanced cuisine…
To be sure again, mob grazing works, where we need grazing. It produces deeper soils and a more vivacious soil-life. That does not change the both economic and ecologic truth that much upland grass should be returned to trees.
Much lowland grass from dairy regions can be turned to ley farming with arable rotation and to horticulture, orchards and of course, trees.
Meanwhile those exclusively arable regions (and potential dust bowls) could do with a lot more grass (sheep & dairy) in rotation, plus high hedges, copses…
As we focus more on the atmospheric effects of our terrestrial techniques, so an enthralling re-focusing of husbandry lies ahead. Some possibilities emerging are perennial cereal varieties and lane cultivation amongst fruit, nut and timber trees.
As oil departs, so people must flood back to the countryside. That is a delightful thing – the germ of a renewable agriculture and the end of Desolation Row.
Photo credit: By Dougsim – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37790329