AT this time of year, particularly with snow thick on the ground and the skies a leaden shade of grey, the countryside can seem rather unwelcoming. Better, surely, to turn up the radiator, slip on an extra jumper and curl up in front of the TV. And yet, getting out of the pre-Christmas bustle of the town or city centre can actually be more rewarding now than at almost any other time.
Last year, freshly back to Leeds from London for Christmas, I walked just north of the city above Arthington, and delighted in a picture-perfect winter scene. The snow was thick and largely undisturbed, and edged every tiny twig and blade of grass, giving the whole landscape a sharpness of definition under a clear blue sky to have any photographer or calendar-maker in raptures.
It was the kind of scene that reminds you it's good to be alive, and that we can all be enriched by beauty, tranquillity and the variety of nature.
All a bit too poetic? Well, one of the things that got me thinking about that scene was the Government's recent announcement that they intend to publish a "happiness index" to measure what matters to us beyond the economic growth (or lack of it) that dominates the headlines.
David Cameron has suggested that other things, including the quality of our environment, might affect how we feel – our "quality of life", to use the current political buzz-phrase. At the same time, this Government is trumpeting its desire to be the "greenest ever", and has embarked on a comprehensive re-writing of policies affecting the countryside and wildlife.
Many of you may be thinking that this is the kind of hot air that, even in the grip of a mercilessly cold winter, we could do without. And you might also be wondering whether any government should be talking about the quality of the environment at a time when many people are worrying about their jobs and homes.
Undoubtedly, what matters most to people is that they have a good standard of living and security for themselves and their families.
That should be the first focus of any government. But I and my colleagues at the Campaign to Protect Rural England feel passionately that other things – including our countryside and its unique landscapes – matter too.
One reason for measuring how easy it is to find tranquil countryside, how many miles of hedgerow there are or how populations of birds or bugs are faring, and making such things part of an indicator of how "good" our lives are, is that politicians will start worrying about whether the graphs are going up or down.
We know from the many millions of people who are members of conservation and wildlife organisations, or who walk in and visit our countryside, that huge numbers of us care about nature. We also know that getting out into the countryside, or just enjoying green spaces in our towns and cities, makes us feel better and more relaxed.
But we need to measure these things better, and be better at saying what they mean to us, to persuade our political leaders – pressured from every side to do many different things – to fight for them when it comes to a choice between, for example, a new road and a pristine area of rolling countryside. So I think we should swallow our cynicism and applaud the idea of measuring happiness.
Unfortunately for the Government, doing the measuring is, in some ways, the easy bit. Ensuring that all the trends are going in the right direction will be the hard part, and saying you're "the greenest g overnment ever" is a whole lot easier than actually being it. That is where the current re-write of environment policy – the not very excitingly named Natural Environment White Paper – comes in.
The Government will publish this White Paper in the spring, and is billing it as an ambitious and comprehensive new environment policy for England. The consultation paper certainly was ambitious, but it comes against a background of deep cuts – almost 30 per cent over the next four years – in the budget of the environment department.
Can Ministers protect our environment much better on much less money?
Will they be able to improve the whole countryside, not just individual sites, when the purse-strings are so tight?
And can the Government really claim to be the greenest ever when environmental departments took some of the heaviest blows from George Osborne's public spending axe?
It's too early to answer these questions, although we'll have a better idea when we see the White Paper. CPRE has let the Government know what we want it to do, including valuing beautiful landscapes and tranquillity as much as wildlife, expanding and joining up our protected natural sites and ensuring all Government departments make the environment a key priority.
Now if they did that, I really would be happy. In the meantime, I'll just have to pop on the extra jumper and a pair of sturdy boots and head outdoors for those last glimmers of winter daylight.
Ben stafford is head of campaigns at the Campaign to Protect rural england