Britain is being shagged by sheep, but hardly anyone dares say so.Sheep strip uplands of vegetation that might otherwise prevent erosion, landslips, flooding and droughts:
Deep vegetation on the hills absorbs rain when it falls and releases it gradually, delivering a steady supply of water to the lowlands. When grazing prevents trees and shrubs from growing, and when the small sharp hooves of sheep compact the soil, rain flashes off the hills, causing floods downstream. When the floods abate, water levels fall rapidly. Upland grazing, in other words, contributes to a cycle of flood and drought. This restricts the productivity of more fertile lands downstream, both drowning them and depriving them of irrigation water. Given the remarkably low output in the upland areas of Britain, it is within the range of possibility that hill farming creates a net loss of food.
Sheep have reduced most of our uplands to bowling greens with contours. Only the merest remnants of life persist. Spend two hours sitting in a bushy suburban garden and you are likely to see more birds and of a greater range of species than in walking five miles across almost any part of the British uplands. The land has been sheepwrecked.The farmers have an excuse, of course:
Farmers argue that keeping sheep in the hills makes an essential contribution to Britain’s food supply. But does it? Just over three quarters of the area of Wales is devoted to livestock farming, largely to produce meat. But according to the UK’s National Ecosystem Assessment, Wales imports by value seven times as much meat as it exports. This remarkable fact suggests a shocking failure of productivity.And this unproductive industry is kept going only by massive EU subsidies:
Do we really believe that keeping the hills bare, wiping out wildlife, helping to flood homes and farms and exacerbating landslips is a good use of public money?How do the sheep farmers get away with it? What ultimately protects them is an enduring romantic image, which is at complete odds with reality:
I blame Theocritus. His development in the third century BC of the pastoral tradition — the literary convention that associates shepherding with virtue and purity — helps to inspire our wilful blindness towards its destructive impacts. His theme was embraced by Virgil and the New Testament, in which Christ is portrayed both as the Good Shepherd and as Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, ‘who takes away the sin of the world’. The Elizabethans revived the tradition, and the beautiful nonsense Marlowe, Spenser and others published about the uncorrupted pastoral life resonates with us still. Their eclogues and idylls, bucolics and mimes persist today on Sunday-night television, through which we wistfully immerse ourselves in the lives of hunky shepherds and adorable lambs, sheepdog trials and market days.
This tradition, coupled with an urban cultural cringe towards those who make their living from the land, means that challenging the claims and demands of hill farmers is, politically, almost impossible. Instead we throw money at them.That’s the way urbanisation harms the rural environment – not so much by building on green land, more by fostering an urban population that is ignorant of the countryside and will swallow any old sentimental codswallop about rural life.