The rural timebomb – Colliers International

James Edwards from Colliers International in Bristol is widely regarded as one of the West’s foremost commentators on planning and heritage issues.

Here he argues that the ever increasing pressures on Somerset’s dairy and fruit producers could see our traditional rural landscapes lost , with an ever increasing pressure to adopt the sterile factory farming practices often seen in the Netherlands.

He argues this could have catastrophic results not only for bio-diversity but our vital rural heritage and our own  fundamental enjoyment of the countryside.

The increasing popularity of cider on Britain’s supermarket shelves does not appear to be helping Somerset’s historic apple orchards – which continue to be uprooted at an alarming rate.

And the pressure to continually improve productivity risks turningSomerset’s traditional green and pleasant landscapes into sterile, continental style factory farms, according to Colliers International’s   James Edwards.

Farming pressures

The Bristol-based heritage expert said the pressures on dairy and fruit farmers in the county were having an enormous impact on our countryside and what we, and indeed foreign visitors, perceive as our traditional rural landscape.

He said: “Although our so-called summer may have temporarily stoppered ongoing increases in cider sales this season, producers are continuing to find ways of boosting production.

“This will inevitably lead to the use of more intensive farming methods completely at odds with the traditionalSomersetscene. The iconicSomersetorchard with gnarled old trees under grazed by livestock is at risk of being lost forever.

“The fact is since the early fifties we have lost more than 60 per cent of our traditional orchards and this has transformed large swathes of farmland across the county.”

“Traditional orchards should be seen as much a part ofBritain’s historic rural landscape as churches, village shops and even the humble red telephone box.”

National Trust report

Reports issued by the National Trust in 2009 and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species  in 2011  highlighted the plight ofBritain’s historic orchards and the importance of  trying to keep them relevant in  changing times.

“The increasing pressure on milk prices and  farm production has reignited the issue of how farming has changed our landscape and it is important we maintain the momentum  they  generated.”

He went on: “There has been a marked change in the appearance ofSomerset’s farmland compared with what it looked like just thirty or forty years ago.

“The orchards, we remember from our childhoods were great for bio-diversity, often comprising of different fruit trees and have an even more important role presently with the decline in bee populations.  

“I wonder whether the intensive farming methods being used today will end up with Somerset looking like our continental cousins – where  factory farms have transformed the landscape and both dairy and beef cattle are housed all the year round in ever-larger sheds and barns.”

Agricultural re-adjustment

He said the agricultural sector had successfully re-adjusted following the move away from battery farmed egg production and consumers were clearly prepared to absorb limited increases in prices in order to support wider environmental issues.

“As consumers we have managed to absorb the increased costs caused by the decision to outlaw battery farming, which led to a small increase in the price of eggs. Many people have even turned their back gardens into sanctuaries for  ex-battery hens, so I am confident the public would show the same appetite for preserving our orchards.

“Orchards take hundreds of years to grow but can be uprooted in hours. We must encourage their retention   and, importantly, support those small scale producers who still have  traditional orchards, to ensure that we secure the future of so much more than just a fruit tree.

“There is a lot more at stake, not least our rural heritage, bio-diversity and local livelihoods.  If we don’t do something to halt the decline in our more traditional, natural  landscapes Somersetis in danger of losing one of the essential cornerstones of its identity.

”There could be serious knock-on effects if we lose the structure of the countryside particularly in respect to how we use, and perceive, the space around us.”

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