The countryside of Britain is well known for its beauty and many contrasts: its bare mountains and moorland 1, its lakes, rivers and woods, and its long, often wild coastline. Many of the most beautiful areas are national parks 2which are protected from development. There are many threats to wildlife in such a densely populated and highly industrialized country as Great Britain. It is a comparatively small country. Because of these factors, its forests, fields, moorland, and even cliffs on the coast, are in danger of being swallowed up by industry: more than 3,500 million tons of industrial waste is pumped into the North Sea every year. It is to preserve the health and beauty of the land for the future generations that the national parks were created in many parts of the country. A national park doesn’t mean that it becomes public property. In Britain the land is mostly in private ownership. But it does ensure that the areas of natural beauty will not be turned into farmland or built over.
In the mountainous regions of Great Britain the vegetation is represented by coniferous and mixed forests with the predominance of pine, oak and birch. Many parts of highland Britain have only thin, poor soils. In most areas of Scotland and Wales the farmers have cultivated only the valley lands and the plains where the soils are deeper and richer. Most of countryside England is agricultural land, about a third of which is arable, and the rest is pasture and meadow.
The charm of Britain lies in the variety of scenery. The variety of scenery in Britain is a reflection of the complex geological history of the islands. Geologically, Britain is a museum model. Successive ice ages brought polar ice down to cover most of the British Isles. The south of England escaped altogether; the middle of the country was covered by ice 300,000 years; the north and west, including Scotland and Wales, were affected just 18,000 years ago.
A typical English countryside, one of the most designed landscapes in the world, is divided into small fields, hedged with natural solid visible boundaries. It has become a comfortable and friendly place. Small fields separated by hedges or walls were first created in the Middle Ages and the process continued into the 19th century, mostly for the benefit of rich landowners, who wanted to keep the poor off their property. Common land, which used to be free for everyone to graze their sheep and cattle on, was made private by a long series of new laws. By 1860, half of the land in England was enclosed. In Scotland landlords burnt the homes of the peasants to make room for sheep.
Left untouched, Britain would be almost entirely covered by forest. At one time it was possible for a squirrel to leap branch to branch from the south of England to the north-east of Scotland without ever touching the ground. But deforestation has been going on for a long time. Five thousand years ago, humans started to cut down trees to make room for farms. They also used wood for heating and cooking. Over the last millennium, other uses of wood have increased, especially house and shipbuilding. From the 16th century, the huge British navy required lots of oak. Today, less than 10 per cent of the land is forested, a lower figure than in any other European country except Ireland. The greatest density of woodland occurs in the north and east of Scotland, in some parts of south-east England and on the Welsh border. The most common trees are oak, beech, ash and elm, and in Scotland also pine and birch.
The mild climate of Great Britain is favourable for plants and flowers. In the meadowlands wild flowers grow, from common daisies to rare lilies. From early spring the woodland glades are bright with flowers too. Especially numerous are primroses, the English symbols of spring. The wild rose, the badge of the Tudor kings of England, grows at the sides of woods. By the waterside, there are white and yellow water lilies, blue forget-me-nots, purple and yellow irises.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, about 20 million British people will leave the towns and cities and visit the countryside. The most popular activity in the countryside is simply walking through it. Many people associate the countryside with peace and relaxation. But where can they walk?
After hundreds of years, there is hardly any common land left. Every field, every moor, every river and every forest is owned by someone. In 1949, the Labour Government tried to change things radically with the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. As a result, seven lovely, but quite small, National Parks were created in England: five in the north (Lake District3, Peak District4, Border Country, Yorkshire Dales5, and Yorkshire Moors6) and two in the southwest (Dartmoor7and Exmoor8). The first national park was set in the Peak District,at the southern end of the Pennine Chain, in 1949. In addition to the national parks, there are seven forest parks in Great Britain: Snowdonia9in Wales, Queen Elizabethand Argyllin Scotland; Dean10, Border,and New Forest11in England. The rules of a forest park are less strict. It is prohibited for the motorcars to enter national parks, while in forest parks special caravan and camping sites are provided. However, there is limited access for walkers, with a large number of fences and Keep Out signs.
For the last 50 years, there has been a cold war between the Ramblers’ Association (rambling means country walking) on the one side and the Country Landowners’ Association on the other. The ramblers want the legal right to walk everywhere, as long as they do no damage. The landowners say that all these townspeople will destroy crops and frighten animals. Far from compromising, landowners are actually trying to reduce the limited access which currently exists: there are many thousands of kilometres of ancient paths, legal rights-of-way across properties, but more than 50 per cent of these have been hidden or obstructed by landowners.
There are still some very big estates, and a few thousand families still own 95 per cent of the land in the country.