Sheepwrecked or wheatwrecked? Towards a Wessex pastoral

In my last post I began setting out a vision for a neo-peasant agriculture in southwest England (or the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, as I’m calling it). My starting assumption is to keep agricultural land use roughly the same as it presently is, which relative to the rest of the country means there’s more permanent pasture for ruminant grazing and less cropland for arable and horticultural production. That prompts me to briefly hit the ‘Pause’ button on the neo-peasant vision, and to think – ruminate, even – a little more about livestock.

A loose confederation of animal welfare activists, human health activists and environmentalists have popularised the view that globally we need to produce less meat and livestock, and it’s not a view I’ll quarrel with for the most part. If you look at the world from a global land use perspective, the way humanity produces meat is scandalously cruel, polluting, bad for our health and inefficient. On the other hand, if you look at a given small agricultural land parcel from a local self-provisioning perspective, as my Wessex neo-peasants will be doing, then including livestock is a no-brainer from an efficiency point of view, and possibly from a health and pollution point of view too. Simon Fairlie has set out all the issues in great detail and with no little aplomb in his excellent book Meat: A Benign Extravagance, so I won’t dwell on them here. Essentially, everything turns on adopting what Simon calls ‘default’ livestock strategies – that is, using livestock to complement rather than compete with the production of food for direct human use on the farm.

In the case of animals like pigs and chickens, the default strategy is fairly obvious and makes perfect sense unless you’re a DEFRA bureaucrat – get them to eat waste human food and thus get a second bite of the cherry, so to speak. In the case of ruminants like cows and sheep, the issue is more complex. Ruminants eat grass, which humans can’t eat directly, and in that sense are default animals par excellence (so long as they’re not sneakily boosted with grains and legumes). But you don’t get a whole lot of meat (or milk) per hectare of grass. In some situations – upland grazing, for example – you might be inclined to accept whatever meagre gifts the grazing offers (but then again, you might not – see below) because although you don’t get much meat per hectare you’ll get a lot more of it, for less work, than any other food you might try to produce there. Actually, that point also holds true for lowland organic farming. If you’re not fertilising your crops with exotically-produced synthetics, you’ll probably need to build a generous amount of temporary grass-clover ley into your crop rotation, which won’t produce any food for you in itself. So getting some ruminants in to graze your ley commends itself as a default livestock strategy, which adds to your productivity. Nevertheless, you might come to the view that there is too much grass and too many ruminants in your farming system overall, and seek to adjust those parameters downwards.

But why would you come to that view? I can think of seven possible reasons, and here I’m going to whizz through them briefly by way of an introduction to my neo-peasant theme.

1- Animal rights: you might take the view that it’s wrong to domesticate animals, keep them in captivity and then kill them in accordance with your own personal agenda. It’s a view that I grudgingly respect, but don’t share. It’s also a view that has had virtually no plausibility in any historic peasant society anywhere (India included, albeit in interesting ways), which perhaps is worth bearing in mind. But whatever the rights and wrongs of it, it’s an essentially ethical stance which is independent of my present theme of farm system productivity. Therefore I’m merely going to acknowledge it as a consideration and move on.

2- Human health: you might take the view that animal products are bad for human health, saturated animal fat having been a particular whipping boy in this respect in recent years. I’m going to come back to this issue in another post, so I’ll leave it hanging for now. It’s worth mentioning though that in northerly climes such as Britain there have been no local sources of dietary oil or fat other than animal ones until the very recent advent of oilseed rape (canola) as an arable break crop.

3- Carbon emissions: ruminants, notoriously, are significant emitters of methane as a result of the extraordinary fermentation vats contained in their digestive tracts, and have therefore been regarded as climate change culprits. But then again, unlike tilled cropland, permanent pasture can be a net carbon absorber. But then again, well established permanent pasture is typically in carbon equilibrium, or worse – finding uses for it other than the slim returns from ruminants would probably be more climate-friendly. But then again, including a few ruminants in a default peasant livestock silvo-pasture system could well be one of those more climate-friendly uses. And so the debate rages on. My personal summary of the issues would be this: the science of soils, woodlands, grasslands, ruminants and carbon is bafflingly complex, but what seems clear is (1) It’s a bad idea to clear established wild forest or grassland in order to grow fodder for animals (probably human animals included), and (2) Climate change is a huge global problem because we have an unprecedentedly high-energy global economy based overwhelmingly on the combustion of greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels, not because small-scale farmers keep ruminants on existing grassland. Next.

4, 5, & 6- the Monbiot critique: They’re coming thick and fast now. 4 is biodiversity. 5 is ecosystem services. 6 is land use preferences. I’m lumping them together because these all feature in George Monbiot’s influential critique of what he memorably calls the ‘sheepwrecked’ British uplands. In a nutshell, Monbiot’s argument is that excessive grazing of sheep in the British uplands has created a treeless and ecologically impoverished wasteland of poor soils, rough grasses and heather which is dreary to look at, provides slim pickings for wildlife, and contributes to flooding downstream by quickly releasing surface water runoff rather than holding it up, as a diversely treed natural landscape would. Compounding these considerable disadvantages, in Monbiot’s view, is the fact that upland sheep farming is so unproductive, being largely propped up by farm subsidies. In his words, “Wales imports by value seven times as much meat as it exports. This remarkable fact suggests a shocking failure of productivity”1.

I’m sympathetic to the Monbiot critique, but not yet 100% persuaded by it. Taking his quotation, I’d  begin by observing that agriculture in its entirety is so befuddled by economic perversities that few sound inferences are possible when comparing the money values of any given agricultural commodities. But what that import-export disparity most strongly suggests to me is that the people of Wales like to eat more meat than their local landscape can sustainably provide – which is fairly typical of people in wealthy countries, and is not a failing of the upland sheep industry per se. If the people of Wales, like the people in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, had to furnish their requirements for meat (or, more to the point, for fat) from their own local resources, then we can be pretty sure that there’d be a lot of sheep in the uplands. Or, to put it another way, the apparent ‘unproductiveness’ of upland sheep farming may be an artefact of how you go about comparing farm systems.

We can push that last point in several directions. For one thing, it’s worth mentioning that much upland sheep farming isn’t geared primarily to producing meat but to producing purebred bloodstock, which are integrated with meatier lowland breeds in a variety of ways that increase the efficiency and resilience of sheep farming in Britain as a whole. In that sense, it’s misleading to look at upland sheep farming in isolation. A more holistic view reveals an efficient default livestock system – the so-called ‘sheep pyramid’2 – operating nationwide that optimises the agricultural potential of the country’s different landscapes.

Or perhaps we might ponder at more length the putative ‘failure of productivity’ that Monbiot detects in the Welsh meat trade imbalance. In Britain (and presumably in Wales too) we eat around ten times more chicken and pork meat than sheep meat. Chickens and pigs are fed mostly on crops from arable farms that could otherwise be serving human needs. We also eat around three times more cattle meat than sheep meat, and there’s more arable-based concentrate in cattle diets than in ovine ones. So in default livestock terms, upland sheep meat is arguably more, not less, productive than these non-default counterparts.

To press the point further, I’m inclined to question whether the ‘productivity’ of land is relevant to the issue of its agricultural ‘wrecking’. There’s no doubting the far greater agricultural productivity of the North American grasslands (or for that matter the East Anglian flatlands) than the Welsh uplands, but could we not say that these places are ‘wheatwrecked’ or ‘cornwrecked’ in the same way that the British uplands are ‘sheepwrecked’? And surely a case could be made that New Zealand is also sheepwrecked, even if it produces lamb at lower carbon and dollar prices, given that it had no resident mammals of any kind prior to European colonization? In his book Feral, Monbiot describes his disappointment in moving from the overpopulated English lowlands to the wild Welsh uplands, only to find his new home much less wild than he’d anticipated – a landscape, in fact, moulded by human agriculture for almost as long as the lowlands. Much of Monbiot’s critique of the contemporary agricultural practices and policies compounding the problem is (quite literally) on the money, but I think the intuitive appeal of his rewilded upland anti-pastoral draws in good measure from a set of somewhat naïve homologies: mountain:lowland – wild:tame – beauty:ugliness – good:bad. As James Rebanks points out in his book The Shepherd’s Life, visitors to the mountains are often oblivious to the human landscape generations of its inhabitants have made – or if not oblivious, then perhaps actively hostile to its putative poverty, destructiveness and inefficiency. This is the same argument that’s always used to clear peasants off the land. There are many forms of enclosure, and some of them point towards the abolition of agriculture to benefit the wilderness rather than the ‘improvement’ of agriculture to benefit society. What’s usually lost along the way is local appreciation of agricultural carrying capacity. In the globalised modern world, preserving our local wildernesses usually equates to wrecking a wilderness somewhere else that’s lower in the global pecking order.

I can see the force in the argument that it’s better to wheatwreck the prairies than to sheepwreck the Welsh uplands because at least the prairies are feeding a lot of people. Thus speaks the voice of the rational-bureaucratic planner, of whom I wrote in my recent review of George’s new book. But I still prefer the voice of the autochton: if there’s wrecking to be done, it’s best to wreck your own habitat for your own food, because otherwise there’s little chance of bringing the wreckage under long-term control. And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it seems probable that the semi-arid continental grasslands – a basket into which humanity has been cramming an increasing proportion of its collective eggs in recent decades – may well become agriculturally wrecked soon enough. Wiser, I think, to look first at one’s own local agricultural resources.

Still, what’s surely better than wrecking is trading off the various potentialities of the uplands – for meat (and the other nine useful products derived from sheep), for wildness, for biodiversity and for watershed management. I don’t see that this is a case for either sheep or watershed management, either sheep or biodiversity. But I’d appreciate input from anyone reading this who has more expertise than me in these matters3. One study I’ve read suggests that planting small strips of trees on upland slopes can reduce flood peaks by 40%, an approach that’s surely compatible with upland sheep husbandry in a silvo-pastoral system4. I’d like to see the Monbiot critique develop in this direction: assuming a national or sub-national food economy that’s largely self-sufficient, and will probably therefore have to take advantage of upland sheep and upland grass, but assuming too the need for sensible, whole-systems thinking about wildlife and watershed management, what kind of mixed land use policies best commend themselves in the uplands?

That’s a lot of assuming, of course. Current government policy does not assume national food self-sufficiency or holistic wildlife and water management. Instead, it crowds shoddy (to coin a pastoral term) new-build houses onto lowland floodplains and supports a dysfunctional agricultural subsidy regimen whose major beneficiaries are not upland sheep farmers but mostly consumers and retailers, secondarily large-scale landowners, with active farmers coming well down the list. Writers like Rebanks show how upland sheep farming communities in Britain come about as close as we currently have to a peasantry. And if there’s a battle for political influence over upland land use between the upstream peasantry for grazing rights and the downstream urbanites for flood abatement and rambling rights, it’s pretty obvious who’s likely to win. But in the long term I think we’ll need to devote some effort to protecting our uplands for farming and protecting our lowlands from farming. The Monbiot critique is a good starting point for more holistic land use policy, but it’s only a starting point, and it’s a bit too black and white.

7- Meat for Mr Malthus: well-raised meat is a concentrated source of good nutrients, and many people like to eat it in preference to most other things. But it’s a land-hungry way of producing human nutrition. So if a society discovers that it’s struggling to produce the meat it wants from the land it has available, this can act as a useful early warning that resource limits are looming. There are all sorts of ways of responding to the signal, some better and some easier than others – limiting meat access just to the wealthy, trimming back human population, applying more human labour to more intensive forms of livestock husbandry, hoping for technical innovations that will produce more meat on less land, increasing the proportion of cropland relative to pasture or rangeland, increasing the total amount of farmed land (perhaps through colonial land-takes) and so on. I think a sensible approach is to treat it as a warning shot across the bows and downsize. People often make the point that Britain is not self-sufficient in food, as if this is some fact of nature. The likelihood is, despite its unprecedentedly large present population, Britain could easily be self-sufficient in food if that was something that we collectively wished to prioritise. We are nowhere near any kind of Malthusian crisis (though climate change could force a rapid reassessment…and of course our present enormous agricultural footprint has imposed a Malthusian crisis on other species).

Still, I doubt we could easily be self-sufficient in food at current levels of meat consumption. So perhaps the time has come for us to trim back, proportionately or absolutely, our permanent pasture (and the ghost pasturages we use in other countries) and tie it more specifically into mixed organic farming systems which primarily grow crops for direct human needs. In a relatively closed agricultural system, there are always going to have to be short run adjustments between cropland and pasture, and it’s no disaster for us here in Wessex (and the other wealthy countries of the world) to eat a bit less meat. This does raise interesting questions about localism, agricultural specialisation and land use efficiency: the wet and grassy west of Britain was exchanging meat for grain long before the absurdly amplified trade imbalances of the present global agrarian system. I’d argue that a neo-peasant agriculture probably has to trade off a degree of land use efficiency for local self-reliance, though it’s worth pondering that equation in detail – how local? how efficient? how self-reliant? Too much emphasis on land use efficiency at supra local levels leads to sheepwrecked mountains and wheatwrecked plains.

At least here in the claylands of Wiltshire and Somerset there are traditions of more localised pastoral farming to draw on, as described by the disapproving John Aubrey in the seventeenth century,

Hereabout is but little tillage or hard labour, they only milk the cowes and make cheese; they feed chiefly on milk meates, which cooles their braines too much, and hurts their inventions. These circumstances make them melancholy, contemplative and malicious4

Sounds good to me. Arable farming indeed is the agriculture of hard labour – of landowning elites and overworked, politically powerless, malnourished workers. Most likely, modernity and globalisation have only bought a temporary reprieve from that historic truth. Give me Abel over Cain, milk meates and coole braines over inventive tillers.

So ultimately I think I’d opt for the omnivore’s argument over the vegetarian’s: the problem isn’t that there are too many ruminants; it’s that there are too many people. Probably the best (the most humane) long-term way of solving this problem is to allocate agricultural land fairly among the existing population, and let individuals figure out for themselves how best to balance their taste for meat with their desire for enough food on the table, and their desires and needs to reproduce. Such, at any rate, might be the policy framework adopted by the enlightened rulers of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex.

~~~

All that has taken us a long way from my point of departure, which was asking how much permanent pasture it’s appropriate to have on a lowland neo-peasant farm, and how much mountain grazing it’s appropriate to have in the uplands. And the answer I’ve come to is this: as much as possible, subject to the needs for sufficient calories to feed the population, for holistic landscape management, and for space for wildlife and biodiversity. How marvellous that someone’s finally come along and cleared that issue up once and for all, huh?

Notes

 

  1. Monbiot, G. 2016. How Did We Get Into This Mess, Verso, p.121.
  1. See eg. Walling, P. 2014. Counting Sheep: A Celebration of the Pastoral Heritage of Britain, Profile.
  1. One issue that I’d like clarification on is the relative balance between sheepwrecking and natural biogeography to explain the treeless uplands. I notice on my forays to Snowdonia how at higher elevations the few straggling rowans hunker in sheltered streambeds, while stands of ash, hawthorn and other species grow more abundantly lower down, despite the presence of sheep throughout.
  1. Jackson, B. et al. 2008. The impact of upland land management on flooding: insights from a multiscale experimental and modelling programme. Flood Risk Management, 1: 71-80.
  1. Quoted in J.H. Bettey, 1977. Rural Life in Wessex 1500-1900, Moonraker Press, p.16.

21 thoughts on “Sheepwrecked or wheatwrecked? Towards a Wessex pastoral

  1. Interesting reading. What you term the default strategy makes great sense to me. The very clear divisions we have in land use (arable in East Anglia, dairy in the SW etc) are, as you point out, untenable in a world in which fertility can’t be bought in in sacks.

    What I’d like to know more about is how ruminants would fit into the agriculture of the neo-peasants you’re imagining. If each has just an acre of so on which to farm they might keep a pig and some chickens but they’d not have grazing for cows or sheep. I shall keep following along.

  2. Part of the logic of having larger shared holdings is to help with keeping ruminants – particularly dairy cows, since dairying is the most efficient way of getting food from grass via ruminants, but it’s a lot of work and a single cow probably provides more than a family needs. The alternative is to have small family holdings with additional common grazing for cows – a tried and tested method historically, albeit not without its challenges.

  3. I’ve only just realized how awkward agroforestry concepts must be for decision-makers who come across them.
    To accept that they don’t allow for either-or games to be played is one thing, but to effectively have nothing to scrap, only things to allow to become more complex (as opposed to complicated), well…
    A bureaucrat needs things to be removeable, replaceable, and for them to be presentable as new (i.e. nothing like the old) after his intervention.
    If he gets told that a landscape can be this, that and also the other, it ceases to be his domain at some point.

    • That rings true. Back in the heady days when I used to get an EU subsidy, explaining how I was growing trees AND grazing sheep on the same bit of land was way too complex for the system to cope with.

      • That surprises me. There’s a lot of EU interest in and, so I understood, financial support for silvopasture systems, community forestry, agroforestry etc

        • Well, it does partly depend on how much land you have, where it is, and how good you are at negotiating your way around the subsidy regimen. In my case, the answers are not much, nowhere special, and not very. But it may turn out differently for someone else. Still, I’m not convinced the UK government is currently properly switched on to the possibilities for upland silvo-pasture.

        • Thanks Bruce, that’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to me for ages. However, I fear you’re right about the government.

  4. Are you familiar with Will Bonsall, Chris? Your discussion of the role of livestock on small farms brought his recent book to mind (Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening).

    • Ernie, sorry I somehow missed your comment in the moderation queue. No, I’m not familiar with Bonsall’s work though I think others have mentioned him on here recently. Yet another one for the in-tray, I fear…

  5. Chris,

    I’d see this post as helping define the scope and desirable outcomes of your project. As per your query in response to my comment on your last post, I started writing something about technologies but pulled up when I realised that to keep my reply tractable I was going to have to make a load of assumptions about what you see as the desirable goals for PROW. Perhaps something useful at this point in the PROW project would be to spend some time on scope definition and what you see as desirable outcomes of the project as measured by, for example, nutrition produced per worker. As an example, you might say what mix of human muscle, traction animals and internal combustion engine/battery systems the PROW wardens would countenance. This would have major impacts on trade required between PROW and other political entities, what industries and trades PROW would require internally, dependencies on technology systems elsewhere, labour available for other pursuits beyond agriculture and so on.

  6. Chris,

    I took my 3 sons to Minehead yeaterday.

    The journey from Frome, first by car via Shepton Mallett, Glastonbury & Taunton to Bishops Lydeyard where we got the train in effect was a transect across Somerset.
    On the way home – behind 53808, which spent its entire working life in Wessex, partly inspired by you I took some time to look at what was going on alongside the tracks. Along the coast there were fields of wheat, maize & oats, but as we left Williton and climbed towards Crowcombe Heathfield it was almost all grass or woodland. Many of the fields were quite steeply sloping and probably unsuitable for anything other than grazing.

    In the same way, I assume that the Somerset Levels are not suitable for anything other than grass.

    So if we give up meat a pretty large chunk of the land we passed through is no longer farmed for no other reason than it isn’t suitable for cropping and we lose the protein/fat/leather/wool that it might otherwise have provided.

    Doesn’t look like a winner to me

    • Not to mention the hooves, horns, intestines and whatever else is missing from the list. Of these other, less common products from sheep, how feasible is it for a farmer to get a price for them?

  7. No rabbits? Small critters fit small scale farming better than big ones. You can have year round production, they will eat grass, their droppings no more difficult to manage than any other livestock, and the hides make great slippers 🙂

    And if rewilding is also on the table, what better to kick start a fox population than turning loose any excess bunny rabbits?

  8. Sorry for the delay in replying – I’ve had to slip into the cloak of my bureaucracy-busting alter ego Spudman over the last day or two.

    David – I take your point about defining some energy parameters. I’m slightly reluctant to go down that path because I want to avoid getting into a futurology mindset where I start minutely specifying a future societal blueprint. And I suspect that I’ll invite the further ridicule of the doomers over on Resilience.org if I suggest the availability of anything much more than human muscle power. But I think I do need to grapple with this issue one way or another, so I’ll think about it…

    John – yes, there’s a lot of land around here best suited for grazing. And there’s a lot to be said for keeping it that way as a starting assumption in future agrarian projections.

    Clem – farmed rabbits? Maybe… Though that’s what the Romans were up to, and now look at the mess we’re in.

    Simon – virtually no price at all, I’d say, for any sheep products other than breeding stock, meat and cheese. Scarcely wool. But if you’re a neo-peasant, you don’t need the price…

    • I meant a wider definition of scope, constraints and desirable outcomes than just energy.

      For me that would take this project beyond an interesting and very informative discussion about non-standard economics, agriculture and political systems – all good stuff! – to something perhaps a bit more concrete. But that reflects my bias towards defining (and delivering) a quantifiable outcome. Its your project!

  9. What about wild rabbit? I am sure that the Civil Engineers would be just as pleased as the farmers if that became popular again

  10. Reading Paul Richards at the moment. He mentions the shift from the Carribean to the Indian model.

    Switching to more refined forms of exploitation once your slaves begin to die is a white man’s burden – the real fun starts once the proverbial white man realizes than he’ll only have himself left to experiment on when even his denuded landscapes have given up on providing sufficient numbers of floral and faunal victims.
    A very special ‘end of progress’.

    • Nicely put. Perhaps ecomodernism can be viewed as the latest manifestation of the white man’s burden, allowing western technophiles to chastise their critics for scorning their civilizing mission and consigning the wretched of the earth to languish in want and misery. I suspect with the result that you predict.

      Which is the Paul Richards book? Is it the Paul Richards who wrote ‘Indigenous Agricultural Revolution’?

      • As per your recommendation, yes.
        He mentions that 10-15 years had elapsed since the beginning of the Green Revolution.
        If he’d foreseen a time when computer nerds and nuclear scientists would compete on the biggest stage to see who could make the most outrageous claims about agriculture…but then he’ll have watched Live Aid while the book was printed. Experts galore.

        Some lovely vignettes in that book. The one I like best is the one that could be summed up as ‘peasant, unduly laid back in times of emergency!’

        Funny to think about how in the near future, western experts who spent decades chastising poor African peasants for failing to recognize the “complexities” of modern agriculture and globalised commerce will have to deal with a double whammy of rapidly deflating global bulk trade and rapidly proliferating complications at the intersection of agriculture and climate in their own backyards.

        In case they want to re-learn something about complexity, there are probably some African farmers who might provide them with a general overview of traditional problem-solving on the ground.

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