Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Preserving our meadows - UK and Poland

I was watching on the BBC a news item about Prince Charles marking the 60th anniversary of his mother coming to the throne with a campaign to promote meadowland in the UK. Across the counties of England, 60 ancient meadows have been selected for their natural biodiversity, wild flowers and plant life. According to the two biologists interviewed, England has lost 97% of its meadows since the 1930s.

What I wanted to know, and what the BBC failed to say, was about the structure of land use and how it's changed over the past 80 years. Today, with arable set-asides paid for from the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, farmers have, I understand, financial incentives to leave land fallow and to let formerly cultivated land return to its natural state.

I remember one lovely summer's weekend back in the early 1990s cycling the South Downs Way in Sussex . I returned home to find my legs scored with long blisters where crops growing adjacent to the cycle path had grazed my skin, and the chemicals used on them had reacted this way. England's field, I thought, had turned into one great intensive farm-factory; never mind health or taste, the aim was to maximise crop yields.

Every acre of land has been turned over to some economically fruitful use. Meadows are neither a leisure amenity, nor do they produce marketable crops. But they are essential in holding together the fabric of our landscapes.

When I was a student, Save the Whale was the slogan, today it's Save the Bee (yes, I saw a poster to this effect on the train from Luton Airport into London yesterday). Bees are facing mass colony extinction because of over-use of pesticides, the loss of wild flowers and development.

The situation in Poland is much healthier. Meadowland is plentiful, especially along flood-prone riverbanks, and bee colonies are less threatened. In the local shop round the corner from my office, you can buy single-flower honeys (acacia honey being my particular favourite). This is a niche market not yet filled in the UK (where it's generally either Manuka honey at outrageous prices or ordinary mixed-flower honey for around £6 [30 złotys] per kilo).

Let us hope that Poland does not follow England in dash to intensify farming. Farmers are stewards of our land as well as businessmen running commercial ventures. If the CAP has done anything to benefit Europe, it has been to recognise this by introducing (clumsy, bureaucratic) measures to support local production of artisan food and land set-asides. Although this looks like 'paying the farmer to produce nothing', it does have its upside in terms of rural preservation.

Meanwhile, in London the sun is shining gloriously and I am revelling in the colours of my parents' garden!

This time last year:

This time two years ago:
Cara al Sol - a short story

This time three years ago:
Pumping out the floodwater

This time four years ago:
To Góra Kalwaria and beyond

This time five years ago:
Developments in Warsaw's exurbs

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