A focus on food production and protecting biodiversity should not be at the expense of a third key function of the countryside, access to it by the people.

“One in ten young adults thinks eggs come from wheat!”

“15 per cent of adults think cows’ milk comes from male cattle!”

Poking fun at the sensationalism of right-wing newspapers like the Daily Mail is something of a national pastime for those in the UK whose politics lean more to the left.

But behind the headlines lies a serious issue of disconnect between sections of the public and the countryside that manifests in a lack of knowledge of nature as well as our food chain.

While negotiators working to shape the future of EU agriculture policy will understandably prioritise issues of food security, climate change mitigation and nature conservation, reconnecting the European population to rural areas must also be on the agenda. A first step to doing so is to ensure that citizens of all Member States have the opportunity to get into the countryside and experience it at first hand.

The public at large will better appreciate the case for environmental controls if they feel they directly benefit.

Some readers may ask why we should be concerned about facilitating visitors to the countryside as long as rural land plays its main roles of producing food and providing habitats. It can be argued that both these functions can be supported by providing access opportunities for leisure visitors.

Other contributors to this edition of the GEJ will make the case for improving both the quality and sustainability of the food we eat in Europe and the conditions under which animal products in particular are produced. These important objectives are undermined by lack of public knowledge of where their food comes from.

Information that is crucial

While the recent horse meat scandal in Europe may cause some individuals to think more carefully about where their food comes from, the fact is that someone who does not know that the milk they are drinking comes from a cow or that the egg they are eating comes from a hen is unlikely to be in a position to make an informed judgement as to the quality or ethics of their food, even if they wanted to.

Even those who know in general terms where their food comes from may have in their heads an image of a rural idyll populated by happy cattle in rolling meadows, chickens pecking for food along hedgerows, that may be completely at odds with the factory-farmed meat, eggs and dairy products many of us eat. The features that make an attractive countryside for visitors are often associated with traditional farming practices that give animals a more natural existence and leave more space for nature.

Striking a better balance between agriculture and nature is, of course, a stated aim of common agriculture policy reform. Within agriculture, as in other industries, environmental regulation has often been depicted as an unwelcome burden that prevents the real experts (farmers) managing their land as they see fit and creates extra costs for producers and consumers alike. However, there can be no doubt that although farming is directly responsible for the creation of many of our most prized landscapes, intensive agriculture also poses a potential threat to scenery and biodiversity alike and must be regulated accordingly.

Regulation can be justified in general, abstract or scientific terms. But the public at large will better appreciate the case for environmental controls if they feel they directly benefit. Two of the UK’s largest environmental NGOs argue strongly that, unless public access would fundamentally undermine conservation objectives, protected sites should be open to visitors so that they can experience for themselves just what is being protected and enjoy the exposure to nature. This model is now being applied to some extent in England, where more than half of all open access land falls within sites of special scientific interest, although it is argued that much work remains to be done before the public feels truly reconnected to nature.

The arguments in favour of increased access to the countryside do not end there. With small farmers across Europe facing difficulty in making ends meet and ever higher numbers of villages transforming into dormitories for commuters, countryside recreation offers a golden opportunity to inject money into the rural economy. Visitors to rural England have been estimated to spend £6.14 billion (€7.25 billion) per year and support some 245,000 jobs, while every pound invested in the upkeep of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path is said to result in gains of £57 to the Welsh economy.

As negotiations on reform of the common agricultural policy continue, the time is ripe to consider how public enjoyment of the countryside can be placed on the European agenda.

The endless benefits of access to the countryside

Enjoyment of the countryside can also make a major contribution to addressing the health crisis affecting many developed nations. In Northern Ireland, a small region of fewer than 2 million inhabitants, the economic cost of obesity and physical inactivity has been estimated at £500 million (€591 million) per year – it is impossible to put a price on the human cost. With “performance sport” lacking appeal among a large section of the population, the public bodies responsible for sport and leisure view the promotion of non-competitive outdoor activities as one of the best means of improving public health and wellbeing.

At present, different EU Member States – and even different regions within states – take very different approaches to recreational access to the countryside. Some, including Sweden and Germany, have preserved an extensive traditional ‘right to roam’ on unenclosed land. The UK has seen a century and a half of campaigning, and sometimes open conflict between ramblers and landowners as the urban working classes sought to assert their right to escape the ‘satanic mills’ of Greater Manchester and Yorkshire. Finally, Scotland and to a slightly lesser extent England and Wales introduced a statutory right of access to large areas of rural land at the start of the 21st century.

Other states, including the Netherlands, France, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland take a much less liberal approach. Legal access rights in these countries are confined to a sometimes extremely limited network of public rights of way (only 313km in Northern Ireland) and some additional paths created by contractual agreement, usually for a limited number of years, with landowners. Recreational users are only able to visit many prized areas through trespassing or informal tolerance on the part of landowners.

As negotiations on reform of the common agricultural policy continue, the time is ripe to consider how public enjoyment of the countryside can be placed on the European agenda.

The UK’s attempts in the 1990s to open up more opportunities to access set-aside through agri-environment payments were notably unsuccessful. However, the High Court’s ruling in 2007 that it is permissible to include direct payments under CAP conditional on non-obstruction of existing public rights of way under cross-compliance rules may point to a way forward.

Tying an element of the financial support the EU provides to farmers to the preservation of existing rights to countryside recreation, with further incentives for the provision of further opportunities, could have a very significant impact on the ability of the public to access the countryside.

Perhaps then, in time, headlines about people’s lack of knowledge of where their food comes from will become a thing of the past.

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