The edible dead
The glory that was York
Town of tin
Editor Simon Denison
Farming in crisis (again)
George Lambrick on the effects of foot and mouth disease on the historic environment
The present crisis in British farming is, in some ways, nothing new. Most rural archaeology is the product of earlier periods of boom and bust in agriculture. The remnant Bronze Age field systems of Dartmoor, the flattened Iron Age and Roman cropmarks of the Thames valley, the deserted medieval villages and ridge and furrow of midland England, the abandoned shielings and crofts of the Scottish Highlands - all these speak of past social and economic crises.
So what will be the legacy of foot-and-mouth disease and the present agricultural crisis? A third of farmers affected say they want to abandon or scale down their farming enterprises. In some areas, farms may be amalgamated, with some traditional buildings going out of use. Other farms may get a new lease of life through Government-assisted diversification. Any reduced stocking levels will help to conserve archaeological sites.
Shift to arable
But in other areas there may be a shift to forestry or arable farming, resulting in more damage to archaeological sites. Current agri-environment schemes offer little protection to archaeology in arable. The situation is made worse by the Government's failure to implement an EC requirement for environmental assessment of converting permanent pasture to arable.
Foot-and-mouth may have already caused irreparable archaeological loss. MAFF and the Environment Agency have tried to consult archaeologists about the location of burial sites and pyres. For example, a Roman settlement damaged by a massive burial pit in Worcestershire has been recorded, while in Powys a 14th century cruck-built barn is rumoured to have been demolished on the grounds that such old buildings cannot be disinfected as they absorb the virus. It will be some time before the full impact becomes clear.
Museums have seen visitor numbers tail off, while the National Trust, English Heritage, Historic Scotland and Cadw are facing losses running into millions. With some of these agencies already subject to reduced budgets as a result of last year's decline in visitor numbers and other factors, any more cuts could further undermine their conservation and advisory services.
Foot-and-mouth has shown that intensive farming is no longer the backbone of the rural economy. Tourism is. Yet farming remains the only means of sustaining an attractive countryside that produces healthy food, attracts tourism and protects the environment. Last year the Government embarked upon an important (though as yet too modest) shift of agricultural policy away from production support (running at £24bn across Europe) towards more integrated investment in the rural economy and environment (currently a mere £2.6bn). Under current CAP rules such shifts require matching funding from national Governments, and so far Britain's response has been very modest (a projected 4 per cent shift in the balance). Nevertheless, there are now some encouraging signs of a more radical move towards less intensive farming that is environmentally more sustainable. This is the so-called silver lining of the farming crisis.
Agri-environment schemes under CAP come up for review in 2003. With EC enlargement looming, there may be a chance for reform of the whole policy as the costs threaten to spiral and some net recipients of CAP largesse (like France), who have opposed reform, become net contributors.
All this offers potential for major improvements in rural conservation. But if the historic environment is to benefit, the Government must start treating the historic environment as a mainstream rural conservation issue. Even after recent improvements in what it does in this area, MAFF still has 10 times fewer archaeological advisors than ecologists. Unsurprisingly, opportunities for archaeological conservation are regularly missed.
There are lessons here to be learned from the Welsh Tir Gofal agri- environment scheme, which has many advantages over its English equivalents. With MAFF itself now threatened with culling, the challenge is to get the historic environment properly recognised by whoever pushes forward the new rural agenda.
George Lambrick is Director of the CBA
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005