Can we regenerate nature by taking land back from the 1%?
Three centuries ago, a third of the English landscape was taken up by common lands, where the landless could graze their livestock and collect firewood and forage. But then came a massive land-grab, in the form of a series of Enclosure Acts – more than five thousand of them in total – and the commons were fenced off and handed over for the exclusive use of the landed gentry. The countryside saw massive depopulation, with people forced to emigrate or move to the cities. What resulted is the English rural landscape that we see today, where the overwhelming majority of the countryside is heavily farmed, turned to monocultures, and inaccessible to us.
For my latest book, The Circling Sky, I spent a year roaming the New Forest in Hampshire. This is a landscape I knew well as a child, for many of my family originated from there. The forest is two hundred square miles of open woodland, lowland heath, and valley mire, over which graze thousands of New Forest ponies, cattle, donkeys and pigs in season. It is by far the largest working commons that remains, at least in lowland Britain. In effect it functions as one huge communal fenceless farm.
And yet, although this is not an entirely natural landscape, it throngs with life. It is a place of last resort for so many species of plants and insects and birds that have been almost completely lost elsewhere, and in some cases entirely so; there are numerous species in the forest that are found nowhere else at all. It is an environment that amply demonstrates that human use of the land need not automatically be a trade-off with biodiversity. The question is how we choose to use the land. As I roamed the heaths and ancient woodlands of the forest, I could not help but think that by rights much of our country should look a lot more like this.
When it comes to rewilding, we need to think bigger. It is not enough to just carve out tiny pockets of managed wilderness. And it is not enough to rely on the goodwill of a handful of forward-thinking landowners, for we know that the vested interests that control ninety-five per cent of our country are never going to willingly do anything that jeopardises their control of the land and its profits.
We need to reset the way we think about the land. The world is effectively one huge commons, a space that we have to share with the rest of nature. The land does not belong to us; we belong to the land. If we are to be custodians of the planet, we need to recognise that we have a shared responsibility, and shared rights, and it cannot be considered normal and appropriate that the way the land is used is in the exclusive control of a fraction of one per cent of the population, who have effectively stolen the land for their own benefit.
I am not suggesting that there is a simple solution. I am saying, rather, that this needs to be a part of the conversation, rather than us always being so accommodating to the way that we have been tricked into believing things have always been. Perhaps we should be talking about land rights in the way that indigenous peoples talk about land rights, for we are all ultimately indigenous inhabitants of a shared world. Perhaps we should be talking about reparations.
The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell (Tinder Press, £18.99)