• # 25 George Monbiot, Value and Balance

    On Friday last week we sat with around 80 farmers to listen to George Monbiot speak at the AGM of the Federation of Cumbria Commoners. I heard he had been nervous the night before – indeed he opened his talk by saying that when he woke up he did consider jumping on a train and heading back down south. But, to his credit, he’s open to debate and open to discussion, and he stood up and shared his views. He didn’t start well, with his (now frequently quoted) phrases about the Lake District looking like a post-apocalyptic landscape, sheep-wrecked and depressing. But he soon steered his talk away from utter negativity by emphasising that he wasn’t calling for all farmers to take sheep off the fells or asking anyone to do anything they didn’t want to ...

    What puzzles me is that George Monbiot even is, or thinks he is, in a position to call for anyone to do anything. He is an ecologist and a much respected one, and has a considerable amount of knowledge. He is not, though, a policy maker or a landlord, but somehow his voice in the debate regarding the place and value of sheep farming in the Cumbrian uplands has become disproportionately loud.

    Monbiot shares his view that eco-tourism would be far more lucrative than sheep farming, and farmers should be given proper incentives to do this – something he sees as a real choice. I can say with certainty that there are very few farmers out there who’d prefer to sit back and tend hotels for tourists. One joked on facebook that he’s not here to farm tourists. I would also say that eco-tourism is not long-term sustainable. Quite apart from either of these arguments, Monbiot’s logical reductions completely miss the consideration that a human being, or a community of human beings, might have passion for what they do, knowledge of the land and stock, and a deep even spiritual connection with the land; or what these qualities lend to the local and national community and landscape. He seems to think in terms of pounds and euros.

    To his credit, Monbiot admitted that he knows very little about Cumbrian hill farming (although this didn’t stop him from suggesting the best way to live in and work this landscape). Apart from his observations of the land here, his arguments are based on ‘facts’ he has gathered in connection to research in Wales and reflections on what has happened in the Amazon. He said he would like to learn more – I say why not come here and spend a year, or more, with one or more farmers, and see how it FEELS to be in and with this land; and get to know the land at least enough to have a more realistic context for his ideals of wilderness and rewilding.

    Julia Aglionby, Dave Smith, George Monbiot, Will Benson, Will Rawling: open debate

    Monbiot also said that he would be keen to see farmers learning more from him. Unfortunately, he told us, he has a tendency to rub people up the wrong way so I’m not sure this would work. But his call for mutual exchange of information is a valiant one, and it’s not the first. This is already happening between commoners and representatives from Natural England, Friends of the Lake District and other bodies. In fact, right there in that room, after Monbiot had left, Pete Leeson from the Woodland Trust and Hannah Dickinson, from Brockstones farm started talking about getting together to discuss the kind of tree planting that will work best for her (she has to plant 3000 trees as part of her stewardship agreement). Pete told me that he’s really busy – and word is spreading as he works with one farmer, and then the neighbours ask to meet him. This is one kind of partnership that is really beginning to show results.

    I don’t think we need provocative or extremist views from people like Monbiot to bring about change. Thanks are due to him, for coming and facing a community that he had angered – they welcomed him cordially. And do you know what? Underneath all the journalistic wrangling and the occasional tongue wagging about his views, few farmers really spend much time thinking about George. What’s of greater value is for the farmers’ voices and views to be heard more widely and if there is anything Monbiot has been good for, even if this is entirely the opposite of what he has intended, it is that he has raised awareness of the hill farmers and their value.

    On this subject, it was well timed perhaps that the article Rob and I put together for the Telegraph 'Hill Farmers Fighting for their Livelihoods' came out the day after we met with Monbiot. I wonder if he’ll read it and think back to the faces and passion of the farmers he met on Friday.



    • 1. Mar 10 2014 1:02AM by Malcolm Weir

      One of the key things that I've taken away from George Monbiot's writings/speaking seems to be getting lost under the headlines. I feel the core issue isn't whether a farmer should be "farming tourists" or farming sheep or native cattle, but how the subsidy/incentive scheme can result in possibly unintended side effects.

      If, as Monbiot suggests, the EU rules on the Single Farm Payment requires that the land must be clear of "unwanted vegetation", and if that "unwanted vegetation" includes (as he says) trees and scrub that serve to trap water in the hills (etc), then surely the issue is not to turn farmers into hotel keepers, but into broader stewards of the land (which, of course, most of them already are, however informally).

      Of course, to some degree this is happening -- you reference a stewardship agreement requiring the planting of 3000 water-anchoring, carbon-eating trees. But it would seem that a worthwhile discussion to have would be whether we should modify the rules on the SFP to include, say, explicit regulation to maintain some land uncultivated for the greater benefit of watershed management and carbon absorbtion.

      Oh, and tourists.

    • 2. Mar 10 2014 8:44AM by somewherenowhere

      Thanks Malcom

      As always, it comes back to a question of balance – there is room in these hills for a variety of uses, including some areas given over to vegetation and some to grazing. The vast majority of farmers agree with this, and many are keen to learn more about how to move forwards to increase vegetation without disrupting hill farming. George Monbiot has a good point in calling for changes to the way stewardship schemes are managed, and the way environmental bodies monitor and deliver their policies (he didn’t have much good to say about Natural England as it happens). And he’s joined in this view by many others – local and national policies on agriculture, like policies in so many other areas, do need to be scrutinised and debates are rumbling on about the fairness and practicality of payments related to moorland, stewardships, and Single Farm Payment (SFP). Your point about the details of SFP is well made.

      Sometimes, however, upland farming is not clearly understood, and the general public think of ‘farming’ as a single, catch all thing, with images of fields of sheep and cows, eating fertilised pasture, fenced in. Upland farming is entirely different, and very distinct, particularly where it involves commoning. In England, 3% of land is common land; in Cumbria 16% of land is common; and in the Lake District National Park, the figure is 28%. What happens here is phenomenally important – the commons deliver so many public goods and are the heartland of a distinct farming community. As you say the people of this community are already stewarding the land. In most cases they do it very well. Our small part, through Land Keepers, in raising awareness of this is beginning to bring some pleasing feedback – many, many people are thanking us as they learn things they never knew. I think this is a good step, as I believe that effective and positive change most easily comes when it grows from a place of understanding.

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