The Field

Howard’s way

What have a Lou Reed record and beavers got in common? They would make perfect Christmas presents for our political leaders, as Philip Howard explains


If I asked you to provide me with three interestin­g facts about beavers, could you? And let’s keep Boris Johnson and Donald Trump out of the answers. Here are my three. firstly, they are herbivores, so they don’t eat fish – riparian owners, often their most vociferous protagonis­ts, please note. Secondly, like the Bee Gees, their front teeth never stop growing. And, thirdly, it was estimated that just 100 years ago there were more than 60 million American beavers. Currently, the figure is less than 12 million. The cause of their destructio­n: man. We have killed them for their fur and destroyed their habitat for our own pleasure and commercial gain.

A friend of mine in the North of England is looking into reintroduc­ing the beaver as part of a post-brexit rewilding project. He wants to remove sheep from a large area of fell land, eliminate fertiliser­s and sprays and take out 22 miles of fencing. The aim is for the land to revert back to a more balanced environmen­tal state. A similar condition, he told me, to what it was in 1947. That was when his father was offered similarly large government incentives to achieve precisely the opposite. Then, the future panacea, understand­able for the time, was a headlong rush to modernise and produce food for post-second World War Britain. frankly, this was land that never should have been intensivel­y farmed.

But my friend is also looking to plant up large areas of commercial forestry, create tourism opportunit­ies and add infrastruc­ture into the community. He is restructur­ing all of his estate to try and produce something sustainabl­e with separate sources of income that do not just depend and rely on the agricultur­al subsidies. He might well succeed because he has vision but, most importantl­y, he has scale. But, ultimately, he realises that the future for farming and the environmen­t cannot be based upon the current style of Common Agricultur­al Policy (CAP).

for most of my working life I have tried to manage land with which I have been involved sympatheti­cally. But, inevitably, I ended up playing the subsidy system and have prospered financiall­y. Sadly, I cannot ignore what I have witnessed over the past 45 years. Decimation of numbers of all sorts of wildlife species, from waders to songbirds to birds of prey, and the transforma­tion of diverse habitat to sterile, managed monocultur­e.

Of all the disastrous consequenc­es of the 2016 European referendum the worst has been the paralysis of the political process. Instead of working together to create a raft of new, bold and balanced environmen­tal policies, all that has happened has been squabbling and recriminat­ion. Occasional­ly there is discussion about animal sentience, plastic bottles and coffee cups. Worthy topics but all irrelevant unless we address the fundamenta­l problem created by the current policy system. We have chained and shackled both agricultur­al policy and its producers, Prometheus-like, to a huge, immovable, granite CAP boulder. That has to change.

Our society has become increasing­ly risk averse. I recently read a fascinatin­g piece by Daniel finkelstei­n outlining a piece of work by an American academic called Troy Campbell. Campbell’s conclusion­s were that people are motivated to deny problems when they are averse to the solutions despite scientific evidence supporting their existence. He called it solution aversion theory. Of course, solutions almost always require change. If Campbell is right with his solution aversion theory, then we have our work cut out. It certainly explains ‘fake news’ and the increasing polarisati­on of views in a time of worldwide flux and change and speed of informatio­n exchange. We are now living in the ‘Me Me’ moment, in which people only appear to listen and respond to what they want to hear. No wonder there is so much frustratio­n and discontent, especially from the young.

So, my virtual Christmas presents to Theresa and Jeremy are a homeless, habitat-less beaver and a Lou Reed record. Put the record on, play it and turn it up loud. Be naughty, really naughty – naughtier than even running through wheat fields and allotments. find a home for that beaver. Go on T, take a walk on the wild side.

We are now living in the ‘Me Me’ moment… no wonder there is so much frustratio­n

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