Green and pleasant land
6th May 2023
I have recently spent a few days away in Settle in North Yorkshire. Settle is a small and active town, located on the Settle to Carlisle railway so easily accessible by train. Whilst here we have enjoyed exploring the local area follow some of the numerous footpaths. The Yorkshire Dales are traditionally appreciated as vast expanses of open moorland, green fields crisscrossed with dry stone walls, and sheep! And that is certainly what you find here. Being spring, the fields are full of lambs – gambling about in pairs but still keeping in close proximity to mum.
But it hasn’t always been so. In the past farming was more diverse and included beef and dairy cattle, poultry, and arable crops, as well as the cultivation of trees such as willows for basket making. Diversity in farming lends itself to diversity in the environment. One writer commenting on current biodiversity in the Yorkshire Dales, noted that more diversity is to be found along the roadsides and verges than in the fields. From my observation that is true – on a roadside I might count as many as a dozen plants (I am no expert) in few meters, whereas in the fields I was seeing just the occasional dandelion and celandine amidst the short cropped grass. Sheep do eat everything! Even more rewarding where the sections of footpath, river and railway banks where all grazing animals had been excluded. Here there were bluebells, primroses, cowslips, violets, lady’s smock, buttercups, daisies, and wood anemones – and in large number!
Sheep farming has become a monoculture form of agriculture and it is to the detriment of biodiversity. In some areas, tree planting is happening which benefits biodiversity. Over the couple of days we were walking we saw only one pair of buzzards and they were circling above a copse (which may have been coincidental). Elsewhere we came across a notice telling us that trees had been planted on the banks of the Ribble to shade the water to mitigate the effects of rising temperatures. If water temperatures rise above 22C for a week or more fish die! The Ribble is currently still home trout and salmon.
Without sheep the landscape would return to a mix of grass and woodland – and would therefore also be a greater storer of carbon. Such a landscape would be as attractive for walkers. Walkers and tourism is an important part of the local economy, but can it bring in enough money to support a rich and diverse local economy? One of the things that sadden me as we walked, were the disused barns and farm houses. The smaller farms may have ceased to be economic some while ago, and equally with a shift from mixed farming to sheep farming with bought-in animal feed, many of these buildings are surplus to requirement and inconveniently placed vis a vis roads and services. Could they become homes for people who prefer to work remotely? This is apparently one way in which remote islands are gaining an influx of younger people. Or should we accept their decline as part of the natural cycle and see them as potential new habitats in the same way that dead trees support an ongoing stream of life as they decay into their locality?
Should we, as tax payers, pay farmers to become nature wardens? They could enable the rewilding of greater parts of the landscape, repair the dry stone walls – which are as a valid part of our heritage as ancient castles – maintain pathways and mark them at regular intervals to encourage people to use not just the well-known routes but the lesser used ones too. In essence such people would be employed to maintain the health of our environment and be as important as those in the NHS who maintain people’s health.
My husband is a railway enthusiast so we took the train to see the Ribblehead viaduct. Now embedded into its moorland environment, where the grasses and mosses have covered over any remaining marks of the building site that enabled its construction, it is a thing of beauty. It is an industrial artefact that has come to lend grandeur to an otherwise commonplace wild landscape. It is probably as much photographed as the nearby Three Peaks. I wonder if this windswept area could also absorb into its identity silvery white turbine blades. Wind farms could generate energy to support the local economy – and maybe too, an electrified railway line.
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