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Nature Contested: environmental history in Scotland and northern England since 1600.
T. C. Smout.
Edinburgh University Press 2000. Pb £14.99, Hb £45.

The subtitle of this book might suggest that its main interest is to specialists. However, it is based on the author’s Ford Lectures at Oxford, and these are public lectures. I found the book fascinating.

A major theme of the book is the contrast and conflict between two aspects of the human attitude to nature, Use and Delight (the title of the first chapter). This raises the question of who is using the land and for what purpose, and who is taking delight and what in.

Defoe, journeying in the 17th century, thought that in the Lake District “all the pleasant part of England was at an end”, while our present attitude owes much to Wordsworth and the Romantic Movement. But the Wordsworths opposed the extension of railways to the Lakes, arguing that, while the working classes might desire access to the countryside, “a greenfield with buttercups would answer all the purposes of the Lancashire operatives.” The author remarks that our positive attitudes to wildness are such that a major reason why the South Downs and the Norfolk Broads were not included among the National Parks was the opposition by Tom Stephenson, leader of the Ramblers Association, who considered that they were not wild enough.

The ‘right to roam’ has not yet been fully established, although the campaign has been going on inside and outside parliament for over a hundred years. A hundred and fifty years ago, John Stuart Mill wrote “When land is not intended to be cultivated, no good reason can in general be given for its being private property at all.” Canon Rawnsley, one of the founders of the National Trust, wrote in 1886 that we should not “look upon a piece of property in land much as one looks at the possession of a piece of china.”

The author says that “the countryside must recognise that the town has a perfectly legitimate interest in the countryside, encompassing a right of access (however defined) and a right to find the countryside beautiful and full of diverse wildlife. It needs to be recognised that this land is indeed our land, and that owning landed property is indeed not like owning a chair. Secondly, the town — in this context both the wider public and the narrower environmental movement — must respect that the countryman needs to use the land …” (pp 170–171). He concludes (p. 172) by saying that “[U]se of nature and delight in it need to be reunited, seamlessly and quickly. If we ignore the claims of the public on the wider countryside — their right to find it beautiful and full of natural life — and simultaneously ignore the economic plight of farmers who will be forced by circumstance either to abandon the land or to use it so intensively that it becomes a greater desert, there will be little delight left for our children’s children.”

Within this general theme, there are detailed chapters on wood, waters, hills, and one on making and using the soil, a matter I was totally unfamiliar with. In these chapters there is a mass of significant detail. For instance, I learn that the concept of “the Great Wood of Caledon” is largely a fiction. He says (p. 46) that “there was once a vast wood covering Scotland — but that was 5000 years ago, not in Roman times or since. I agree that there was substantially more ancient or semi‑natural wood at the end of the Middle Ages than there is today, but not that Scotland, even in the Highlands, was then a notably wooded country by European standards. I also agree that this remaining wood has declined severely and continuously since 1500, but not that the decline has been concentrated since industrialisation.” He tells us (p. 64) that what is needed from soil is “two qualities, good structure and content, but those of modem agricultural soils are, to a degree seldom appreciated, consequences of past human action as well as of natural endowment.” We may be aware of how much the prosperity of Europe has depended on Third World labour. He points out that cattle dung used as manure may have come from imported foodstuffs, and so “Nutrient transfers were now between continents, not just between one field and the next. Sustainability at home now rested upon access to the fertility of the Third World.” (pp 76–77). The draining of marshes is often seen as a great triumph of engineering, but he reminds us that wetlands had economic value to local people, both for ducks and other birds for food and for hay for winter fodder. Their draining made a transformation from communal use to private property. He distinguishes between the effects of sheep‑farming on soil and plants and animals in different areas; “By choosing the roots of young heather on acid ground, high densities of sheep facilitate the spread of [tussocky] Nardus and Molinia grasses. [These] are less nutritious than alternatives … On English chalk or limestone and where there is lower density there is no such effect: on basic soils, greater floristic variety may result from grazing sheep destroying invasive thorn scrub or tall herbs.” (p. 126)

This combination of general arguments and very detailed discussion provides an important source of information for anyone interested in the environment of these islands.

Wood and Water 74, Spring 2001
© Daniel Cohen


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