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Sustainability at H ig h g ro v e .

IAGREED TO the BBC Natural History Unit’s request to film at H i g h g r o v e t h r o u g h o u t an entire year because 1 hoped it would help to illustrate to the viewer what an intricate and delicate tapestry the countryside is. Above all, it is im p o r ta n t to u n d e r s ta n d what, in my view, H ighgrove represents. It r e p r e s e n t s an a t tem p t to repair, r e s to r e a n d r e c r e a te s o m e th i n g of what has been lost, o r abandoned, th roughout Ilie twentieth century: a century which has seen the persistent unstitching o f that delicate tapestry — all in the name of ‘progress’.

And yet, is it actually ‘progress’ to have lost, for instance, over half our ancient woodland, or 90% of chalk downland, o r to have seen the traditional hay m eadow — one o f the m o s t c h e r i s h e d o f h a b i t a t s — r educed to ju s t 2% o f its original area? These meadows were home to an astonishing variety o f beautiful wild flowers with such b eguiling n a m e s as s a w w o r t , k n a p w e e d , a d d e r ’s t o n g u e f e rn a n d g r e e n winged orchid. Sadly, such sights are now a real rarity.

Is it ‘progress’ to witness the near extinction, or the actual extinction, o f native breeds o f sheep, cattle, pig, horse and poultry — all o f them intimately connected with the counties o f this country and all o f them a vitally im portant repository of genetic diversity, disease resistance, climatic and geographic adaptation? In the 1960s it was discovered that tw e n t y b r e e d s o f l iv e s to c k h a d become extinct since the tu rn of the century and it was feared a further forty would be lost by 2000. Since th e e s ta b l ishm e n t in 1973 o f the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, o f which 1 am patron, no breed o f farm animal has been lost.

Likewise, is it ‘p rogress’ to lose th e r a r e r v e g e ta b le s a n d f ru i t s , which are also an im po r ta n t gene bank, representing what should be part of the insurance policy for our d e s c e n d a n t s ? D id you know, fo r example, that during the past thirty y e a r s a lm o s t 2 ,0 0 0 t r a d i t i o n a l varieties o f vegetable have d is a p p ea red from cultivation, due to a combination o f excessively b u r e a u cratic regulations and commercial pressures? Rather late in the day, it is perhaps somewhat ironic that peop le a r e o n ly now b e g i n n i n g to realise that as well as having superiority of taste and o ther qualities, the seeds o f these o lder varieties may also co n ta in in f o rm a t io n o f vital im portance to fu tu re conventional p l a n t b r e e d e r s , such as d is e a s e r e s i s ta n c e . T h e sam e a p p l i e s to ancient varieties o f wheat and oats. After the Second World War when there was an understandable rush towards self-sufficiency at all costs, farmers naturally responded to the c lear econom ic signals th ey were g iven a t the tim e. T h e r e s u l t in g i n t e n s i f i c a t i o n a n d r e l i a n c e on monocultures meant that the value o f t r a d i t i o n a l sy s tem s b a s e d on mixed farming and genetic diversity was ignored. To depend on too n a r row a g en e b ank , however, is to make oneself vulnerable to disease and changing conditions o f climate. And many o f the older varieties had a distinctive and enhanced flavour.

And, finally, one cannot help but wonder if it is really progress’ when th e im peratives o f m a rk e t in g and f a s h i o n , t h e d e s i r e f o r ‘n e w ’ varieties, and the practicalities o f bulk cultivation have led to the loss o f m any p lants u n iq u e to British gardens. This diversity is im portant not only as a genetic resource for the future, but also because o f the cultural links that plants have with our past. If it weren’t for the crucial role played by a remarkable organisation formed twenty-five years ago, called T h e National Council for the Conse rv a t io n o f P lan ts a n d G a r d e n s (NCCPG) and dedicated to conserving the unique collection of garden plants in the British Isles, the situation would be far worse. As it is, there are now 630 collections, half in private ownership, each representing a specific genus, and in excess of 50,000 garden plants are thus held se cu re fo r th e f u tu r e . I am also patron o f this body.

I M ENTION ALL th is by way o f describing what I have been, and am, trying to do at Highgrove — in o ther words, to restore and recreate what has been lost. Some people like to say that this is till part o f a wealthy m an’s indulgence. They are entitled to their opinion. But I see it more as a duty to do what I can in my own area and to draw attention to what is possible. I may be lucky enough to pursue these ventures, but my aim is to make a long-term investment in what I hold to be genuine sustainability for the future. Returning for a m om ent to the loss o f the traditional hay meadow, at Highgrove I have been working with the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust to try and re create the species-rich habitat o f the past th rough, for instance, adjusting th e m a n a g em e n t o f th e m e adow area in the garden to reduce fertility and open up the sward, and we have introduced a num ber o f typical haym e adow species. T h e r e a r e now th i r ty -n in e w ild-flow er and grass species p resent, including ragged robin, pignut, salad bu rn e t and sainfoin. Since 1999 we have been working on two other fields on the farm where changes to the management have allowed species such as b ird’s

2 6 R e s u r g e n c e N o . 2 2 0 S e p t e m b e r / O c t o b e r 2 0 0 3

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