The Robin Hood Syndrone

Itís always depressed me that UK agriculture is dominated by livestock and cereals. I can travel the 270 miles down to the south coast of my origins and not see a single field with any recognisable food growing in it. Even without the distorting effect of EU subsidy, our countryside is mostly pasture, with the next largest category being cereals (whose growth is deliberately stunted by chemicals so that they are easier to harvest Ė the recent identification of the gene for dwarfism in grasses may mean an eventual phasing out of these chemicals). Closer to my home in semi-upland UK, I am surrounded by a meat and milk agriculture, creating a drab, uniform and uninteresting landscape where the lowest common denominator rules. Some figures for you: 76% of all UK land is classed as agricultural. Of that agricultural land, two-thirds is grassland (and thus half of the UK is grassland). Next comes crops at a quarter, and the last 7% is made up of set-aside (a valuable crop!) and woodland.

Lets look at that area of crops. Nearly 70% of it is down to two cereals, wheat and barley (only 30% of the wheat is milled into flour and 40% of the barley goes for animal feed). Oilseed rape (9%) peas and beans (4%) sugar beet (4%) and linseed (1%) take up another 18% with potatoes (3%) oats (2%) and other (5% - who knows?) making up almost all the rest. That leaves only 4% for vegetables and fruit. Even if we add in the potatoes, we get a figure of 7% for food that we can recognise from growing ourselves (forget the peas and beans as they are grown for animal concentrates) which means that of all the agricultural land in the UK, only 2% is used for people food. And for all UK land, that drops to 1.5%. Was it always so?

If we go back to 10,000BC, we would just see the end of the last ice age. The UK would have been plant and animal free, people-less and still attached to continental Europe. Thus there was a clean sheet that nature and a few pioneering people could shape. Over the next 5,000 years, trees came to dominate the landscape of the UK with what are considered our native trees actually being returnees from a northern European habitat. Those early settlers may have brought some food plants with them, but they were not farmers, just opportunistic foragers using the biggest temperate forest garden of all time. At around 5,000BC (donít hold me to these dates) two significant things happened: the English Channel appeared, and with it the cut-off point for what are considered to be the native plants of the UK. Farmers arrived, bringing with them animals and also seeds from selected grasses that had been successful crops in the dry open steppes of the Near East, where agriculture began. These Neolithic people set about destroying the wildwoods of the UK so that they had land for grazing and for growing early cereals like emmer wheat. You can date humankindís slavery to work from this point.

What is astonishing is that in the next 3,000 years, these farmers virtually destroyed the woodland cover of the UK. Forget about some romantic notion of shipbuilding for an Elizabethan navy being the cause, it was gone millennia before. How did they do it? To destroy temperate woodland, you have to pull out the stumps as well, since trees can regrow after cutting down (i.e. coppicing). It couldnít have been by slash and burn either as temperate woods are almost non-imflammable (except for pines, but they were mostly in the central highlands of Scotland). Undoubtedly, the grazing animals had an effect, but with so few people and simple tools, it remains a mystery.

Mystery or not, I am very sad that there is no real wildwood left in the UK. It could be the Robin Hood syndrome as I have this longing to live among the trees. I canít help wondering whether we would have lost so much of our woodland if the pea, carrot, cabbage and potato had been around 7,000 years ago? I also wonder whether we would necessarily have ended up with overcrowded towns and cities when our countryside has become so depopulated (20% of our population enjoy nearly 80% of the space, only 2% of the workforce employed in agriculture, 800 rural hamlets lost in the last 1,000 years). And no, Iím not a vegetarian, but even I can see how ludicrous it is to have the cow as the pinnacle of UK agriculture.

Mark Fisher, 7 December 1999