Who will look after our countryside?

AT the beginning of a recent talk on the plight of Britain’s wildlife, I projected a photo of a song thrush and asked if anyone knew what it was.

Of the hundred or so teenagers and young adults in the audience, only one raised his hand. 

‘So,’ I said, ‘if they were to disappear from our countryside, how many of you would notice?’

Having taught Biology for 34 years, I was not surprised by this appalling ignorance – fewer than one per cent of my students throughout my entire teaching career had anything but the sketchiest knowledge of their local flora and fauna. 

Equally worrying was their lack of awareness of agriculture and its importance to the UK economy. However well-educated they may be in the usual academic subjects, young people today still know very little about farming and its connection to wildlife and conservation. Is this a problem? I firmly believe it is – to the extent that I left full-time teaching for seven years to set up a project to address the issue. 

Around 70 per cent of the UK land area is under agriculture and its wealth of wild plants and animals combine with this farmed landscape to make the British countryside one of our most treasured possessions.

In the recent Brexit furore surrounding the possible effects of low tariff imports on UK agriculture, the Shadow International Trade Secretary, Barry Gardiner, observed that, ‘as you affect farming, so you affect the way our country looks. That means you also affect the tourist trade’. I would wholeheartedly agree with this, but more important still, surely, is the effect that decades of ignorance are likely to have on the stewardship of our wonderful natural heritage in years to come. 

When my father-in-law started farming in the early fifties, he employed 22 men on 500 acres of Norfolk arable land. They and all their dependants had a deep understanding of the countryside and agriculture and could put names to common plants and animals.

Nowadays, with the advent of modern technologies, the average number of full-time workers on arable farms has dropped to just one and even he – or she – has little need to leave the comfort of the tractor cabin.

Add to this the worries of health and safety, the tendency for children to sit glued to their screens, rather than play outdoors, and the imposition of a National Curriculum that leaves little room for adventure…

Is it any wonder, then, that Britain’s children are increasingly detached from the countryside? Only those with an empathy for the complexities of our beautiful farmland and its wildlife are likely to care for it in years to come. Brexit offers a golden opportunity to fix this vacuum by putting farming and biodiversity firmly into the educational spotlight.