It has to be admitted that living just south of the Lake District, I’m in a really beautiful part of the world. Furness itself with the fells, lowlands, beaches and sea takes a lot of beating, and what’s more the rather ostentatious charms of the Lake District make sure the tourists swarm round the honey pots to our north and don’t clutter up our area.
But yesterday I had to go into the Lake District and due to a road being open which was supposedly still closed; I arrived an hour early for a meeting so just headed straight up onto the fells.
Even in February they’re stunning. Personally I feel that they’re especially stunning in autumn and winter, when the mists and cloud hang heavy and the becks run silver and the whole place is so atmospheric. Not only that but there aren’t all that many visitors. Well not compared to summer anyway.
Now there’s a lot of discussion about how we support these areas. Leaving the EU means that, at last, we can have the debate. One of the strands of the debate that has come to the fore is ‘public payment for public goods.’ This is where support is actually to pay farmers for those things that they produce which the public don’t pay them for.
These can either be tangible, but difficult to assign to individuals, things like clean water, clean air. Or they can be things that are intangible, like the view, the community, and the way traditional practices keep the community together and continue to produce the view. The argument is that farmers are under constraints because of the fact that they’re producing these things, but the public doesn’t pay for them.
Then you have to consider social and cultural capital. These are not particularly well understood. Social capital is the glue that holds society together. It’s what stops a community flying apart and becoming a collection of isolated households who interact only with their phones and don’t know who their neighbour is.
Cultural capital is also tricky. It can be the architecture, (so some of the grand villas in the Lake District come into this category. Nobody would ever be allowed to build anything like that again, but they’re just fabulous and fit the landscape.) It can be the culture of the people, the knowledge and skills that the local people have which enable them to survive in their area. So the ability of a hill farmer in Cumbria to keep on farming is due to a mixture of cultural capital (the skills the family have, the buildings and walls that mark out their land, the work of the generations who have gone before) and social capital, which means communities almost automatically pull together when it’s time for gathering, or other occasions when every spare person and dog is needed.
But it’s not just the traditional skills. In Cumbria there are farmers who have a suitable tractor and they have a contract with the local authority highways. If it snows, they’ll go out on their tractor, with a snow plough mounted on it, and keep a particular length of road open. The council provides the snowplough and makes a small payment to ensure the farmer always has the fittings on his tractor so he can use it. Then when it does snow, they’ll pay him while he’s actually working for them. It’s a good system; it means that the council has snowploughs all over the place.
Similar things happen unofficially. During the last big floods I know one village where as the river was overflowing its banks, local farmers arrived with tractors, diggers etc and went straight into the river. There they cleaned out all the gravel that the appropriate government agency should have been cleaning out on a regular basis for years; but had somehow found excuses not to. The farmers left the river so that it wasn’t going to flood. In most cases they weren’t doing it to protect their property, they were really doing it to protect the houses of their neighbours, and even the properties of second home owners. They did it because it’s still a community and that’s what communities do.
Now, at last, it seems that even government is beginning to realise that cultural and social capital are important. So one of the public goods that they’re going to have to take into account is the need to help the community survive and thrive. They want a community that’s resilient enough to cope with whatever mess nature dumps on it. Basically, in Cumbria, there is too much county and not enough ‘infrastructure’ to allow the local authority or government agencies to ‘ride to the rescue.’ We have to do it ourselves. So we want communities with decent jobs available so that our children, when they start working, have a hope of buying a house nearby if they want to. That way we have communities with all ages, not just retirement ghettos.
Similarly we can cope with a poor or negligible bus service if there are enough people with cars who can run an elderly person the sixty mile round trip to the hospital for their appointment. Because you do that for neighbours you’ve known since you were a child.
And we need an agriculture that is prosperous enough to be able to farm using traditional methods to maintain the landscape, and still offer opportunities which encourage the next generation to go into the industry because they know that they can afford to marry, have a home, start a family.
And of course, an industry that is part of the community and can turn out to do what needs doing when the weather gets out of hand.
The alternative is that the government doesn’t provide the support for this sort of thing and ends up trying to manage it using rangers to move the grass, and communities dwindle to because collections of second homes which stand empty for much of the year. But it’s going to be awfully expensive to pay state employees to manage the countryside when the peasantry will do it for less than the minimum wage, no paid holidays and no pension scheme.
There again, what do I know? Ask the dog.
As a reviewer so helpfully commented, “Another excellent compendium of observations from the back of Mr. Webster’s quad bike in which we learn a lot more about sheep, border collies and people. On the whole, I think the collies come out of it best. If you fancy being educated on the ways of the world, with a gentle humour and a nice line in well observed philosophy, you could do a lot worse than this.”