Britain After Farming (2001)

Four satirical land use scenarios by Hari Kunzru and James Flint, illustrated by Catherine Story.


After the final demise of upland farming and the consolidation of Britain's remaining food production into the East Anglian prairie belt, large areas of Scotland, Wales and the SouthWest are designated official government wilderness areas (GWAs). Grand plans are devised to mould these areas of underused land into national parks recreating, as far as possible, conditions before the first major Bronze Age interventions into the landscape. "It will be," announces the Department of the Environment, "as if the Wellington Boot of man had never been felt on this green and pleasant land."

The decision causes huge protests by the remaining population of the GWAs, many of whom object to the imposition of this 'ahistorical' form of management on the landscape which their crofting and hill-farming communities have shaped through agriculture. "Britain's countryside is an artefact of rumination," insists the head of the National Farmers' Union. "Sheep and cows give this land its unique appearance." A brief occupation of the Cullain GWA by Gaelic-speaking activists, protesting at the 'New Highland Clearances' is put down by a mixed force of police and park rangers.

Private infrastructure providers see which way the wind is blowing and gradually withdraw transport, communications, health and leisure facilities, accelerating the depopulation of the GWAs. This is followed by the catastrophic recession of the 2030s which devastates the global economy. Hard-pressed to provide basic services for major population centres, government wilderness management schemes are first suspended, then abandoned altogether. The GWAs become unmanaged areas, land no one either wants or can afford to use.

Officially designated as 'commons' but under nominal regulation preventing legal building, farming, mining or other 'non ecological uses', the GWAs fall out of public consciousness, used only by a declining number of walkers and climbers. The usual twenty-first century demographic factors (declining birth-rates, carcinomas, immune system diseases, fast-mutating eurovirii and acute food allergies) reduce Britain's population to a third of its former size, and further informal wilderness areas are added to the official GWAs which, in their unmanaged condition, become colonised by bracken and heather. In the absence of government control, a semi-nomadic population of travellers, survivalists, millenarians and outlaws begin to eke out a living in these places, occasionally holding up intercity bus services or making food raids on the fortified shopping centres of border towns. Gradually, in some areas, deciduous oak forests, bluebell meadows and wetlands slowly re-establish themselves. Other areas are blasted heaths and dumping grounds, toxic empty spaces that are shunned by decent TV-fearing folk, who scare their children with stories of what happens up there on the moors. -HK


An historic third Labour term in 2005 and a long-delayed referendum on the Euro in 2006 (with 51% voting in favour) begins the long vaunted economic amalgamation of the UK with Europe. This, combined with a complete overhaul of the crop quota system and a scrapping of subsidies in the wake of the 2001 Foot and Mouth crisis, leaves the farming community unable to re-establish its export markets. By 2008 all but the largest and most industrial of agricultural operations have completely collapsed. An immediate and effective response is sought and, for once, not only found but implemented: the subsidies paid for switching arable or grazing land to maintained woodland or renewable plantations are tripled.

Farmers switch to being foresters in droves; those who don't, sell up to landlords who include foreign logging interests and the Crown. As patterns of changing land use emerge, zoning is introduced and encouraged by new international subsidies for the production of carbon sinks and 'planetary lungs', a wide corridor of woodland emerges around the river valleys of the Avon and the Trent, stretching all the way from Dorset to Nottinghamshire. As the rural population leaves the area in ever greater numbers, mainly relocating to the megacity that threatens to completely urbanise a triangular region in the SouthEast of England (cornered by London in the north and Southampton and Brighton in the south), rural villages and even isolated towns decline and die. Grazing land is, after all, no longer needed, most meat by now being grown headless and legless in arrays of bio-vats.

In its new role as one of the most powerful sectors of the government, the Forestry Commission pushes for a serious wildwood policy to be implemented and the government agrees to a series of compulsory land acquisitions and road demolitions, the effect of which is to turn the backbone of England into one vast forest, a sea of trees lapping at the shores of the island-like urban centres of Birmingham, Derby and Reading. This is the new 'Wooden Heart of England', and by 2040 it is once again possible (or it would be if it wasn't for the intervention of several large motorways) for a squirrel to travel between the mouths of the Humber and the Severn without ever having to set foot upon the ground.

Around the forest, of course, the culture changes too. With the country looking increasingly lizard backed, Mayan philosophies take hold. A whole new industry of wood crafts springs up, and Britain becomes a centre of excellence in the manufacture of hand-made furniture, wooden toy trains, bagpipes and assorted 'traditional' items. Arborocentrism grips the nation. Where there aren't woodlands there are orchards, and cider replaces beer as the national drink. Wassailing undergoes a grand renaissance; tree-houses become highly sought after; Druidism overtakes the Church of England as the leading religion. Political malcontents identify ever more strongly with the figure of Robin Hood, and football is banned, replaced by archery. By 2050 it is judged that up to half a million people may be subsisting illegally in the forest, though it is argued that they in fact cause less damage than those parties of rich businessmen who are reported to pay up to £100,000 to participate in illegal and notoriously dissolute wild boar hunts. -JF


In the wake of the BSE, Foot and Mouth, GM, munce-rot and neosalmonella crises, the climate of public opinion turns against farming. Perceived as dowdy, dangerous and frankly unfashionable, it is decided that Britain's countryside would yield most revenue through intensive high-end tourism, the experience of the West of Ireland and America's Blue Mountains having shown that post-agricultural landscapes could generate huge visitor numbers, as well as providing employment in the service sector for many of those sidelined by mechanised agriculture.

The subsidy system is abolished and arrangements are made to serve the nation's food needs with a two-tier system of dirt-cheap agricultural imports and organic show farms, the latter catering to the specialist produce needs of the urban elite. International studies on tourist satisfaction requirements produce a national plan based around the construction of ViewNet, a public-private partnership infrastructure of 'WideAngles' and 'Heritage Nodes'. The former are scenically located coachparks, the latter retro-styled population centres devoted to the production and retail of handicrafts, locally-themed refreshments, outdoor supplies and countryside activities, both types of site being linked by a well-maintained network of dual carriageways. ViewNet's aim is to make 85% of Britain's post-agricultural wildlands accessible on a day-trip basis to the cash-rich grey market of scenery-hungry retirees, who require low gradient walks, good toilet facilities and easily-available CPR. This aim is achieved within ten years of ViewNet's inception, the so-called Cream Tea Revolution thus successfully transforming Britain's failing rural economies into economic powerhouses, propelling the Social Mediocratic Party into a record breaking fourth term.

It is generally accepted that Britain (whose landscape has been continually altered since Neolithic times) has no true pristine wilderness areas, and that man-made structures such as dolmens, sheepfolds, ruined bothies and thatched cottages are a major tourist draw. The principle of the acceptability of human intervention opens the way for Britain's world-beating programme of wilderness landscaping, in which celebrity gardeners are given vast areas of wildland to improve. Dell-turfing, the dynamiting of new crags, the mass construction of gazebos and reflowing of rivers to create spectacular waterfalls results. The Suffolk Glen, the Cotswold Rose Fields and the acclaimed Windermere Water Feature are among the lasting legacies. As demand for heritage skills balloons, the country experiences a national shortage of drystone wallers, tartan dyers, lace makers and other traditional craftspeople. At the same time competition from national tourism schemes in Europe and Asia threaten the new countryside renaissance. The government responds with a series of radical measures, ranging from the coaching-inn quotas and shortbread laws to local ordinances enforcing the wearing of folkloric costume within five miles of ViewNet nodes. National Folk Colleges in Inverness, Aberystwyth and Saint Ives now produce smock-wearing graduates who tour the country, advising on local custom revenue streams, new folk skills and the correct management of heritage show breeds like the Shetland Pony and the Blackfaced Cheviot sheep. A pioneering scheme arranged in consultation with film producers in Los Angeles and Bombay has created UltraHighland, the super-pristine area to the North of Fort William reserved for elite media use: UltraHighland's newly landscaped upland forest panoramas boast some of the greatest depths-of-field in Northern Europe, as well as the Rob Roy croft'n'castle complex, so popular with film-makers that it has to be booked up to five years in advance. Such is the success of the scheme that Cornwall is to hold a referendum on whether to return all settlement patterns and visual phenomena to their 1790 state in response to the new vogue for piracy and smuggling epics. -HK


Having made no headway in improving public services and faced with the possibility of a country v. city civil war as tensions in the countryside between disenfrancised farm workers, crazed aristocrats, confused hunt protesters and belligerent petrol lobbyists threaten to explode, the Labour party is ushered from office in disgrace in 2007. It is replaced by a revitalised Tory hardcore intent on separating England not only from Europe but from a fully devolved Scotland and Wales as well (though not Northern Ireland).

Clinging hard to a dead currency, a dead culture, a stringent immigration (and emigration) policy and a resurgence of nationalistic attitudes last common during the reign of Henry V, Fortress England is (still)born. Anne Widdecombe, the new Prime Minister, cuts ties with Europe and takes the country into NAFTA, exchanging US rights to all English military bases in perpetuity for a series of farming protectionisms and subsidies which are used to prop up an agriculture based entirely on the small-farming model.

Traditionalism is encouraged throughout the shires as Widdecombe's Tories attempt to recreate a rural idyll that recalls the countryside of yore. In a surprise concession to the organic lobby, while advances in the manipulation of the human genome are exploited and encouraged, biotechnology on crops and livestock is forbidden; England is to be a pure example of organic farming, a beacon to the world. A fashion for cart-horses and hand-ploughs develops. But alas, the dream of a traditional English agriculture replete with reinvigorated Christian/pagan festivals and young children taking time off school to work the land has reckoned without the factor of global warming.
As the new agriculture takes shape the climate begins to change, ambient temperatures rising by five degrees in as many years. With the Mediterranean a burning cauldron the shores of which are rapidly turning into desert, English farmers begin to cultivate vines, olives, almonds and other, formerly more southern, crops. By 2050 their vineyards and olive groves have started to mature and the die-back of traditional British flora has turned the English countryside into something more closely resembling Tuscany than any landscape by Constable. French and Italian media types buy abandoned village schools and convert them into luxurious second homes, bases from which they wander through picturesque local markets sampling the many and varied cheeses produced by hippy farmers. Many such producers have gone as far as to reject the pound, preferring to conduct business exclusively in groats. All seems well and good until in the accidental misfiring of a Chinese warhead targeted on the radar station at USAF Fylingdales. Fortunately for the now fully established US Star Wars program, the warhead goes astray; unfortunately for English small-holder farming it lands on Warwickshire, destroying Coventry and spreading a radioactive plume across seven counties. Once again, English agriculture must go back to square one. -JF

this story originally appeared in Mute 19.