My sister lives in Australia, and a few years ago we visited her there, spending part of the time in Victoria where she lives, and part of the time travelling round the South Island of New Zealand. Both Victoria and South Island famously contain some rich and unique landscapes, but in both countries I was struck by the way that, in many places, native vegetation had been entirely stripped away to leave a monoculture of grass and sheep. There was a kind of dreary banality about these smooth shaven hills. When you have also seen some of the strange rich bush and forest that would have existed in these places beforehand, it is difficult not to feel that you are looking at the aftermath of an act of vandalism.
But of course the hills of Britain have been stripped bare in just the same way. As George Monbiot recently pointed out, the bare hills of the Lake District which we’ve learnt to revere so much, and to see as a kind of wilderness, would be covered in forest if they had not been deliberately cleared for sheep farming many centuries ago, and had not been kept clear ever since by grazing. We might see these landscapes as a place to escape to from the more obviously managed landscapes of lowland Britain (such as the Fens of Cambridgeshire, where I live, which are only dry land as a result of water being constantly pumped off them into the dyked and canalised rivers), but they – the Lake District, Snowdonia, the Scottish Highlands – are actually equally articifial creations.
I spent last week in the Yorkshire Dales. The hilltops are bare moors grazed by sheep and managed for grouse shooting, and the dales are entirely given over to pasture for sheep and cattle, criss-crossed by those famous grey dry stone walls, and dotted by barns built in the same grey stone, each one almost identical to all the others. I enjoy the spectacle, and I don’t take the view that there is necessarily anything intrinsically superior about a landscape untouched by humans to one that humans have shaped. (We are, after all, part of nature). But I found myself noticing, in a way that I hadn’t before, that this is a landscape that has been plucked and shaven almost bald, just like the landscapes I disliked in Australia and New Zealand.