As they disappear, the basic structure of rural life is being undermined: farmhouses are converted to expensive homes in empty valleys, where it is increasingly rare to see a farmer in a field.
We are losing the children who kept local schools open. We are losing the farmers’ work, their memories and their intimacy with the land. We are losing the humans who gave much of the life and interest to rural Britain, for offcomers as much as locals, and we are failing to protect them. This is, in part, the result of an increasingly narrow, reductive, theoretical approach to markets and the environment, which is the antithesis of conservatism.
All the government policies and subsidies on land use, and the messages of every political party for the past 20 years, seem to have been narrowed down to “the market” or “the environment”. These two slogans define the rules and subsidies; they are the “two pillars” which prop up the multi-billion pound Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union. Such policies propagate a context (a version of which already exists in the United States) in which land becomes either an industrial factory for the production of the maximum food at the cheapest price, or a national park almost devoid of human cultivation.
Of course, any number of policy-makers will insist they have nothing against small farms. They point out that a well-developed marketing strategy can provide a premium for specialist, local produce; and that a flexible and innovative co-op could increase reach and leverage for small farms. But, in practice, these successes are the exception, the figures show farms getting larger and larger all the time.
One reason is obvious. If a single farmer has 60 cows, they are tied to them every day of the week, twice a day. But 20 times as many cows might only need five times as many people, and people are expensive. Scale makes it possible to build up the reserves to ride out fluctuations (sheep or feed prices can half or double within a year), allows diversification and economics of scale and increases leverage with buyers.
Environmental policies also often work against small farms. Biodiversity and carbon capture targets require that wetlands and mires increase, mosses and ferns re-emerge, and that ground cover, peat and tree cover expand to sequester carbon.
This means fencing off some areas entirely from stock, reducing the overall number of sheep per hectare, sometimes to a quarter of what the land once held, and reversing the draining, cutting, grazing and moorland management necessary to support heavy flocks.
Environmental subsidies were, of course, introduced to compensate upland farmers for the income foregone from their sheep. But, as flocks diminish, shepherding skills have also been undermined and much of the pasture degraded.
Increasingly farmers will cease to be sheep farmers, or to see any way to make a living from sheep should subsidies cease.
The enterprises best able to breed sheep on a significant scale, and ride out the fluctuations in the market, are now the large estates which can allow small numbers of sheep to wander freely with little care or supervision. Those estates are also those who have the resources: the staff, the time, the agents, to put together the most complex and ambitious proposals for extra environmental subsidies.
Officials do not state what is happening. Instead we hear reassuring sounds about the upland farmers’ role in creating and maintaining the network of dry stone walls, the barns, the environment and “rural services”. But no agency is tasked to measure or record the impact of government policies on small farm numbers.
Privately, the free marketeers mutter, “these family farms are too small, their land is too marginal, it is inevitable that they will fold”, and dominant environmentalists quietly encourage farmland to be handed directly to the RSPB, or planted with trees, and the National Trust allows water to ruin the lowland pastures of its small tenant farms, apparently on the advice of the Environment Agency.
The philosophy underlying this approach to the land is profoundly at odds with the conservative tradition. At times it is even what Yeats calls “whiggery: that levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind that never looked out of the eye of saint or out of a drunkard’s eye”. It is an approach that is, firstly and indubitably, narrow. It acknowledges essentially only two values, perhaps because they are those which can most easily be measured: profit, and biodiversity, ie how to maximise the income, or the species numbers, on a given patch of land.
Second, it is reductive. When it acknowledges other aspects of the landscape, it presents them as the means towards the achievement of those market or species’ objectives. Thus, if small farmers are valued, it is in terms of their productivity, or their contribution to environmental stewardship.
Third, it imagines, to paraphrase a hundred seminars and strategic plans, that “with the right approach there need be no conflict between different objectives”.
Fourth, it builds an intricate architecture of universal economic and biological arguments, and incentivises officials to develop abstract models, and standard metrics.
Conservatism, by contrast, should emphasise the multitude of values that exist in the landscape: including history, archaeology, beauty, past perceptions of that landscape and the continuing life and memories of its inhabitants. It should approach these features as independently valuable: as ends in themselves, not simply as a means towards some larger financial or biological objective. It should highlight the deep tensions and conflicts between these values and emphasise that policies on species, productivity and cultural heritage involve often tragic choices and, at best, fragile compromises.
Nor is this simply a philosophical stance. Concrete conservative policy alternatives exist. France and Japan have already put policies in place to support small farms, because they acknowledge their intrinsic value for society. British politicians may not yet be ready to go that far, but we could at least begin to count the number of farms we are losing and ask officials to assess and reveal what impact their rules, policies and subsidies are having on small farms.
We could ask national parks to provide detailed predictions on what they expect their hills to look like in 50 years’ time, to clarify not in the abstract but, specifically, valley by valley, what landscape they are seeking to create. We could ask charities like the National Trust to make the interests of small tenant farmers a priority equal to their environmental targets. We do not need more agricultural subsidies but we could target more of the existing billions, not on wolverines, or vast estates, but on preserving small upland farms.
And the public understands that this matters. They do not need to accept a definition of conservatism, still less call themselves conservatives: they simply need to embrace the human in the landscape.
• Rory Stewart is the Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border who has written an essay entitled Green conservatism: protecting the environment through open market for the Green Alliance. This is an edited version.