A few months ago, someone won about £100 million on one of the lotteries. I have no idea who that was, or whether his (or her) use of the monies won will go beyond the usual and indeed banal new house, new car, holiday in the sun scenario, but that massive win led me to thoughts beyond the determination to buy more tickets myself.
For example, £100M would buy somewhere around 10% of the land area of the Isle of Wight (along with country houses, farmhouses etc). Alternatively, a fairly large part of Scotland could be bought (multi-thousand-acre Highlands or Islands estates now selling for, in some cases anyway, only a few million pounds).
The above thoughts led me in turn to consider how the UK countryside could be changed for the better under a different kind of state. A ban on hunting, certainly; a ban on commercial shooting too. Along with those, there would probably have to be a reordering of rural land ownership. There would be, to start, a cap on the acreage any one individual, company, trust or family could own. This is not the place to get exact about figures, but the maximum land acreage held would obviously have to differ in different parts of the UK: a thousand acres in the Scottish Highlands is not to be equated with the same amount in Surrey.
The subject of farming subsidies has to be addressed. The present situation which (in essence) rewards landowners simply for holding (owning) land is unjust, achieves little and is a waste of public monies. It transfers monies from people in general to those who, in most cases, are already wealthier. It also has poor ecological or environmental results.
George Monbiot, the writer and environmental activist, has raised the issue of the present system of subsidizing hill farmers to own land (on which they usually produce sheep). Withdrawal of subsidy would mean that most such small and relatively poor farmers would go out of business. However, that unfortunate fact should not be the determining factor. The hillsides can be allowed to revert to forest, either by simply leaving the hills to rewild, or in a more controlled way, by selective planting of trees and other plants. This would have several benefits, including upstream flood control.
There may be some scope for limited subsidy on the basis of farmers setting aside areas for nature (this was once part of the UK farming subsidy scheme). There should also be a wildlife grid consisting of strips and blocks of (in many cases) privately-held and maintained wild or rewilded land, organized however by a state commission. The idea of the wildlife grid would be to allow animals and birds to travel easily across the country, free from interference. The grid would interface with areas already given considerable protection, such as the existing national parks.
There may be the opportunity to experiment with less-usual forms of land-holding, such as collectives of “New Age” or other persons, to be given leases by the State (as freeholder) for various terms of years. The average age of a British farmer is now 59. There must be ways found to rejuvenate the personnel in agriculture.
There would be the possibility, under a different governmental philosophy from that now dominant, to encourage production of fruit and vegetables and to discourage the production of meat, particularly under harsh industrialized conditions.
There could be State encouragement of very small scale horticultural production, e.g. by giving tax relief for people giving over part of their house gardens to the growing of fruits and vegetables. It is estimated that, in the UK, agricultural land amounts to some 42 million acres; however, private gardens and small parks amount to about 10 million. In past wartime situations, part of that acreage has been intensively cultivated: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victory_garden
The Soviet Union in the 1970s permitted private plots of up to (in some Soviet republics and toward the end of the Soviet period) about 5 acres, though the usual limit laid down in 1935 was around an acre (2+ acres in “special districts”, particularly in countries like Georgia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Household_plot. In the 1970s, the private plots were about 2% of all utilized agricultural land, but produced 40% of the produce of the Soviet Union. Instructive.
Another area where there could and should be huge improvement in the UK is the production of nuts, particularly those suited to the prevailing climatic conditions: chestnuts, walnuts, hazelnuts. In fact, those upland areas no longer farmed for sheep by subsidized small farmers would be ideal for such trees on the large scale. In Kyrgyzstan, there are natural walnut forests. Why not in the UK too?
So we see the possible future take shape: a UK with greater forest cover, with greater wild or rewilded acreage, with many private householders cultivating part of their gardens, perhaps using small greenhouses too. In the rural areas, traditional farming being supplemented by new collectives of cultivators. A wildlife grid to make the natural world safer and more prolific. More small-scale hydropower and solar-power schemes. More vegetable, fruit and nut production, not so much emphasis on meat and dairy produce. Greater linkage via the Internet.
It is clear that, in the countryside as in other areas of national life, change must come.