Rory Stewart says that British countryside diversity must be protected

Diverse traditions but one countryside – let’s try to keep it that way in future

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 18, 2015

Rory Stewart, Environment Minister in Afghanistan. But he writes of the need to protect the diversity of our British countryside

Last week, I climbed from my cottage on to Knipe Scar. The Swaledale flock and their black droppings were scattered across the fl floodplain.

I worked my way around a drainage ditch, pushed aside the nose of the Icelandic pony (when I paused on the river-bank, it nipped my thigh), and climbed the fellside. Gorse gave way to bracken, and bracken to grass, and finally at the crest to a bare flat top of wormholed dry white calcium, in which was hidden (though I could not find it) the traces of an Iron Age settlement.

I sat on the small brass plate at the peak, and pulled my knees up against my chest and looked at the land beneath. Far below on the valley floor I could see the plants, which I had passed on the way up the hill.

In the hawthorn hedge, Angelica, bettany, Yorkshire fog, butter cup, lady’s mantle, birdsfoot trefoil, and tufted vetch; and beneath the ash trees, yellow hammer, blackbirds, chaffinches, song thrushes, and dunnocks. These were species that could be found in many places.

Only perhaps the plain mother ring-ouzel, battling the wind beside me, revealed that I was in Cumbria. But it was the human species above all which defi ned the genius of the place.

For six thousand years at least, men and women had sat where I was sitting, and looked down at settlements beside that same river.

As Environment Minister, I want our families to be able to enjoy that same view – the fresh air, unspoilt woodlands, clean rivers and beaches, and my mission is to protect the beautiful, varied and natural landscapes on our doorstep. What did our ancestors make of Cumbria? A great amphitheatre of twenty million river stones, three miles away, hinted at the imperious ambition of the Stone Age; pollen samples, deep in the peat, showed the first clearance of the forest in the Bronze Age; a dry-stone wall, excavated a mile away, illustrated Iron Age stock management.

The first voices that survived, however, were in languages we no longer speak, and they were not agricultural. In a corner of a Welsh medieval manuscript was a 7th century lullaby in the ancient Celtic language of this place, “pan elei dy dat ty e vynyd dydygai ef penn ywrch”.

(…)The very first words, however, are on a piece of 2,000-year-old birch, preserved in a bog: “mittas mihi plagas…fortissime…frusta exercias”. It is a draft of a letter from a Roman officer here on the frontier. “Send me some hunting nets… Weave the pieces very strongly together.” Now, 60 generations later, I can still lie and watch the high fellside – an iconic landscape which we rely on for our health, wellbeing and prosperity.

From a distance, it was a russet blur of reeds, peat and thin grass – treeless, and apparently empty of humans. But then I saw on the ridge, the silhouettes of horses in an endurance race, cantering past mountain-bikers.

I spotted John, rounding the heart-shaped wood, exercising the Ullswater fell-pack. In the village hall below, I knew farmers were arguing with water companies, flood experts, carbon-sequesters and wetland enthusiasts about how many sheep to keep on the fell.

Nearby an ecologist was examining with delight a circle of moss, floating on a 30-foot column of water, which was once a glacial ice-plug. And in the fi elds, far to the North-West, I guessed Willie – more for show than anything else – was still counting his Herdwick sheep in Cumbric. They tumbled past him, black, chocolate brown and silver, with the hint of a grin on their wide mouths as he chants in a language that no-one has spoken for a millennium, ‘Yann. Tann. Tethera’.

It’s a small valley, in a small island, containing a thousand individuals of the single human species, and a thousand other species too. The different colours and uses of the land form the patchwork of Britain.

The dry-stone walls hold the lines between pasture and meadow, fell and fi eld, sport and field-sport, food and nature. But even the prodigious architecture of those walls cannot contain all the tensions of different human values and imaginations. Those very first Dog Latin words in the peat, however – fortissimo frusta exercias – instruct us to knit “very strongly” our fragments into a single web. And it is because, for generation after generation, we have managed to tease out the differences between our traditions, accept them, repair them, and weave them together, again and again, that this landscape has survived – and remains – the most beautiful place on earth.

I want us to continue to protect our treasured natural assets in the environment, for future generations to enjoy.

Rory Stewart, Environment Minister, has written the piece below for the next edition of the Countryside Alliance magazine on the subject ‘my countryside’.

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