The much-anticipated Intelligence Squared debate on ‘The Fight for the Countryside: Britain Should Rewild its Uplands’ saw the environmental commentator George Monbiot and naturalist Mark Cocker going up against NFU President, Minette Batters, and Rory Stewart MP. In attendance was a wide range of people, from young environmentalists, to a few dozen farmers (including five upland farmers) and even Michael Gove MP, the Environment Secretary. It appeared from the start that it was going to be an uphill battle for Rory Stewart and Minette Batters, who were arguing against the motion. When the predominately London-centric audience voted at the beginning of the evening – 61% in favour, 13% against and 26% were undecided on the motion.
The debate began with each side setting out their stall for what was going to be quite a fiery discussion on the future of Britain’s uplands. Monbiot was in his element as he played to a supportive audience, launching into a lyrical tirade that bemoaned the damage sheep had done to the UK’s natural environment and the waste of taxpayers’ money that has propped up unproductive and uneconomic sheep farming. Despite his impassioned opening remarks there was a distinct lack of detail on how he would implement his policy for a rewilded Britain. Mark Cocker did not add any more detail to Monbiot’s proposals, and used his allotted time to echo Monbiot’s point about farm subsidies and raised the issue of falling biodiversity across the UK.
In response Minette Batters focused her opening statement on the important role upland farmers play in maintaining this cultural landscape and supporting upland communities. Minette made clear that this debate was about livelihoods and that we should recognise famers expertise of the natural environment and support them to create the environment that we want, arguing that “farmers are the solution”. Rory Stewart directed his response to challenge the comments made by George Monbiot and Mark Cocker regarding the perceived destruction of the British landscape and made specific reference to the fact that tree cover in the UK has increased from 3% in 1900 to 13% today. Rory Stewart furthered the point that the uplands represent a cultural landscape that “is central to our identity”, noting that this environment has been shaped by early Britain’s since the Neolithic period, and therefore we should consider this “human landscape” as precious as Westminster Cathedral. He concluded with a proposal to consider rewilding lowlands (specifically the green belt around London). He argued that this area of fertile land is better able to support a diverse range of species and vegetation, would help to improve air quality around urban areas and would be geographically easier for the population to access and enjoy.
It was an entertaining evening. Minette Batters and Rory Stewart argued well against the motion ‘Britain should rewild its uplands’ taking a moral victory after an 18% swing in the audience vote (52% for, 39% against, 9% undecided). Ultimately you can’t help but feel that this debate involves the wrong people, in the wrong place, arguing about the wrong subject. There is a broad consensus that more needs to be done to tackle Britain’s biodiversity crisis as well as an appreciation that CAP needs revising to help support farmers in protecting our natural environment. But the danger with giving a platform and debating the extreme views of people like George Monbiot is that the voices of sensible environmentalists and farmers are drowned out by hyperbole.