Am Bratach No. 304
February 2017

‘The hills are dead’

Environmental activist George Monbiot aims to better “the terrible legacy of European farm subsidies” with a post-Brexit world in which “rewilding” benefits from the support hitherto given to hill farmers.

In a submission to a House of Commons environmental audit committee inquiry, Mr Monbiot sets out his case for an alternative system. His premise is that “our bare hills are an artefact of three principal activities: sheep farming, deer stalking and grouse shooting” and that sheep in particular “are a fully automated system for environmental destruction.” The blame for this desert is laid at the door of European subsidies. He claims that “without farm subsidies, there would be scarcely any hill farming in Europe” — a good thing, in Mr Monbiot’s view.

David Forbes, a crofter from Rhivichie, Rhiconich, takes issue with some of Mr Monbiot’s conclusions, particularly their relevance to Scotland. Here, he points out, “the actual split of farm subsidies is 4% to the poorest, category 3 hill land, occupying one third of the area of Scotland, and 96% to the better land elsewhere. A shift, as happened in the other UK countries, of money ‘up the hill’ would have given a vibrant rural hill agriculture here, but sadly this has not happened, despite it being a target of the EU funders themselves. This is due to powerful lobbying by the arable sector of the Scottish National Farmers’ Union.”

What of the human impact of removing farming subsidies? Mr Monbiot is vague on this point, asserting that “claims to be preserving a cultural landscape tend to reflect the interests and practices of particular, dominant interest groups.” His alternative to the current system is “rewilding”, which he defines as “allowing trees and other rich vegetation to return to some of the places in which farming is an unproductive land use.” Ominously, over 85,000 acres of Sutherland are currently owned by the rewilding enthusiast and Danish billionaire, Anders Holch Povlsen.

Mr Forbes points out that “just because the land is poor, it does not mean that it should be a monoculture of trees. Land can help support many families given the chance.” He believes that “balance and variation of future land use would be most acceptable to most people” and that the political fad surrounding trees has its own follies.

What about the tourism argument? Mr Monbiot claims that “if an area became more attractive to visitors as a result of its richer wildlife and ecosystems, those who are not employed in farming are also likely to benefit.” While conceding some financial benefits, as seen in the success of the North Coast 500, Mr Forbes sees the case for environmental tourism as “too simplistic, as there are knock-on negative effects. More people, more problems with roads, toilets, erosion.” And while Mr Monbiot asserts that taxpayers may be more sympathetic to “such obvious public goods as functioning ecosystems and magnificent wildlife,” his submission contains one obvious flaw. Nowhere does he address the most obvious function of farming — food production – and how a return to wilderness is going to balance out that loss. 

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