The title of this book, How to Value a Skylark: The Countryside in a Time of Change, sets out two themes which run throughout the text. There is firstly an increasing understanding that all is not well with the countryside and nature in Britain; and secondly that we urgently need to think carefully about how we value green space, landscape, and nature. The central questions in the book therefore are: What do we expect from the countryside? and How do we find a balance which will have public support?
However, the book is by no means another tale of woe, which looks back to a vanishing countryside. The author explores how we begin to move to towards a rational public debate on finding a balance. The health benefits of access to the landscape were made very clear during the pandemic and policy makers are now struggling to catch up with public demand for access to the outdoors.
The book takes a step-by-step approach in describing the mounting pressures which are now being placed on the land, beginning with a chapter on agriculture, food security and trends in the public awareness of food in general. The aim of the book is to provide readers with a basis to keep pace with the rapidly changing policy, trends in thinking, and the surge of environmental initiatives.
Additional chapters discuss trees in the landscape; the likely impacts of climate change; how we maintain a viable and sustainable rural economy and at the same time make space for nature. All the countywide changes have taken place against a background of a remorseless decline in biodiversity across Britain. News reports continue to point out that the UK is one of the most nature depleted counties in the world. The public are aware of this and not happy that we are responding quickly or adequately. These options available are not clear cut. Changing climate and the determination of government to reach a net zero target for carbon emissions by 2050 further increases the pressure.
Many questions are posed and also suggestions as to how to achieve a balanced outcome. Change is inevitable and there are opportunities, if only we can decide what we expect from our landscape. There is an ethical and moral dimension here, well summed by the question: how do you value a bluebell wood, or perhaps a skylark?
The text is illustrated by colour images throughout and is supported by comprehensive notes on sources. There is useful index.
Number of pages: 242
Weight: 440 g
Dimensions: 229 x 152 x 17 mm
11th October 2021 At the CPRE Bedfordshire AGM this month we welcomed local author Brian Kerr who gave a fascinating talk based on his latest book, How to Value a Skylark: The Countryside in a Time of Change. The central premise is that how we use land matters but the big question is how do we decide on what we do with it? The topic is rife with divided opinions from developers to conservationists, politicians to farmers, and landowners to the general public. The book considers the way in which the government narrative has changed towards public funds for public goods i.e. spending money in ways that are in the public interest. This might include ways in which the countryside can help to tackle climate change but also leads us to ask questions such as 'What do we expect from the countryside? How do we decide priorities and make value judgements?' What balancing acts do we need to perform? Both the book and talk covered a wide range of themes including, food insecurity, environmentally friendly farming, (re)wilding, soil quality, tree planting- the right tree in the right place, protecting ancient woodland, hedgerows, flood prevention measures, habitat restoration, climate change, coastal erosion, flooding, temperature rises, drought, mental health and wellbeing, access and biodiversity. Kerr engages with contemporary writers to consider these themes, such as Isabella Tree (Wilding, her account of transforming the Knepp Estate in Sussex for wildlife) and James Rebanks (English Pastoral / The Shepherd's Life, which both discuss his life and work as a Cumbrian hill farmer) alongside reports from government and organisations like CPRE and the Wildlife Trusts. One interesting chapter looks at heritage and cultural landscapes, using the Greensand Ridge / Greensand Country in Bedfordshire as a particular example. The rebranding of Ampthill Park as Ampthill Great Park builds on associations with Tudor England and royal hunting parks. There is an increasing interest in looking at the value of whole landscapes (e.g. the Lake District) and smaller, more locally focused places. How can we use landscapes to tease out local stories and think about what makes a place distinctive? One of the questions cutting through the book is can we put a monetary value on any of this? We can calculate the cost of flooding via insurance claims and so on and therefore estimate the value of natural flood prevention systems but what meaningful value can we put on a hedgerow or the song of a skylark? There are no easy answers but plenty of things to think about. Review 2 "Nice summary of the changes affecting the British countryside today" by Sarah Passey In How to Value a Skylark, Brian Kerr discusses the issues that are affecting the countryside in Britain at the start of a new decade in 2020. Kerr weaves a common thread through his book, with farming, climate change, land use, flooding, tree planting, and food security referred to repeatedly, tying the chapters together nicely. Written at the end of 2019 and completed in 2020, in his book Kerr is also able to look to the future and consider how the COVID-19 pandemic might affect the countryside. Although these are complex issues, Kerr writes skillfully, making the subject accessible to a lay reader. Kerr begins by outlining the politics surrounding countryside issues as they relate to Britain, in particular how funding for farmers has changed since Britain left the EU. The topic of farming is revisited later in the book too, with Kerr discussing the rise of the mega farm as Britain looks to improve food security, which has relevance in view of the empty shelves seen at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and some shortages after Brexit. It was interesting to read how tree planting had been made into a political issue, with candidates in the general election campaigning on promises of new woodlands and preserving those existing. Politics is brought up again towards the end of the book, as Kerr discusses future schemes for conservation, to increase jobs in the countryside, provide funding with grants, and how the UK Government is reassessing priorities after the COVID-19 pandemic. In what might seem blindingly obvious to some, but an awakening of knowledge to others, Kerr presents the value of trees to the countryside, highlighting their commercial, natural, cultural, and climatic value. Trees are used for timber, as a habitat for wildlife, for recreation and mental wellbeing, and as flood prevention and carbon stores. It is unsurprising they have become part of political manouvres. Hedgerows were highlighted for their benefits to wildlife and because they are part of the landscape of Britain and should be protected. In emotive chapters, Kerr highlights how access to greenspace is important for our mental health and wellbeing. This is so timely as we recall the early lockdown days in 2020, when the weather was good and people stuck at home had only a walk in their local area to look forward to. Kerr reminds us that we have a connection to the land, it gives us a sense of place. The countryside is also important for tourism, with British landscapes marketed in National Parks and Areas of Natural Beauty. In an interesting chapter on land surveys and development, the most famous of all surveys was mentioned, the Domesday book, and post-war surveys of land for food supply, since food security was so important. This has relevance in the present day too, with Britain needing to consider its own welfare more closely after Brexit. The effects of the high-speed rail project, HS2, are highlighted, as this has led to concerns about loss of ancient woodland. Again tying together the book's themes, this chapter on land surveys discusses the importance of tree planting (in the right places) to mitigate the effects of HS2 and other development, for flood prevention when considering planning for house building, and for cultural and ecological services. In How to Value a Skylark, Kerr has very nicely summarised the key issues affecting the countryside in Britain at the present time. It will be interesting to review this book in 50 years time and see how things have changed. As an aside, it was nice to read this book as a resident of Bedfordshire, since Kerr uses local examples and illustrations throughout his book. However, this book will be of interest to anyone who cares about where they live and the future of our land. I received a free copy of this book to review, but my review is unbiased and my own opinion.