Greetings and welcome to part 1 of Erin’s UK trip blog! (Or as the Irish would say “You’re very welcome!”) Be sure to click the hyperlinks (added for brevity) for further information throughout the blog!
When I left London to begin my two week bus tour around the United Kingdom and Ireland, I had no idea how much farmland there would be. (About 70% of the UK is devoted to agriculture vs 20% in America!) Of course, we’ve all seen the rolling green hills in photos, but personally, I’d assumed in such an old country, there would be more suburban development, strip malls etc. like I’m used to in America. In actuality, the majority of the UK’s 63 million live in cities, 53 million of which live in England, with 8 million in London.
In terms of population in Ireland, according to my tour guide, there was around 8 million people before the Great Potato Famine, after which 2 million left and 2 million died. The population never recovered, and about 4.6m now reside in the Republic of Ireland and 1.8m in Northern Ireland. (I highly recommend reading about the famine, as the logistics of it are fascinating. Apparently, it wasn’t truly a famine- enough food was being produced, but they were “money crops” not “food crops”, and could not be interfered with.)
I mention population because it felt odd to see so much farmland and so little development, despite the population size. The towns I visited rarely had an ASDA or even a Tesco (Stores comparable to Walmart) and instead, had plenty of small family-run shops. As this was my first time in a European country, I was awestruck by the thought that chain stores have yet to overrun independent stores like in the US (although they’re making an effort). It was like entering an alternate universe and I couldn’t tell whether it made me joyful or uncomfortable. I believe this might have a lot to do with culture in the UK, and perhaps they have observed from America that suburban development is not all it’s cracked up to be.
What also made the amount of farmland more noticeable was that the fields were separated by hedgerows rather than dense forest like I’m used to seeing in Virginia.
However, as we entered Scotland, I began to think that we may have accidentally teleported back to North America. There, interrupting the hours of green fields we’d passed, was a swath of familiar Sitka spruce and Douglas fir trees, towering over the landscape in tight, neat rows like a giant Christmas tree farm. The large forest of trees looked as if it had been photo-shopped onto the landscape in odd 20 acre patches here and there.
My tour guide told us these Canadian grafts were part of UK reforestation and carbon-credit efforts, as there is less than 12% forestation currently. This would also explain why the houses were almost all made of stone, brick, or stucco, something that surprised me since I’m used to seeing wood or vinyl. You can read a short-but-informative blog post about UK reforestation here (because otherwise I’d pretty much be repeating everything this guy has to say).
In Ireland, I learned about the European Union’s “Common Agricultural Policy“, which tells Ireland what it can and cannot grow. It also serves to protect much of Ireland’s countryside from urban development, as well as encourages the use of “green” farming and energy practices. According to the EU’s website, the CAP has been very beneficial to Ireland. One of the unique things I learned about Ireland in terms of the European Union was that they were so desperate for Ireland to join (when Ireland was known as the “Celtic Tiger“), they spent massive amounts of money (17B Euro) on infrastructure projects in Ireland. This helped Ireland modernize their cities and attract international businesses.
Despite the massive amount of land devoted to farming, the UK and Ireland face the same struggles America faces in terms of the cost of farming. Despite being part of the EU and being heavily subsidized, the cost of entry into farming has become a barrier for younger generations. The average age of a farmer in the UK is now 59. There is movement into more organic practices to increase profits as well as attempts at growing for bio-fuel (see tomorrow’s blog).
To conclude this rather scatterbrained commentary, my observation of the UK in terms of farming and forestation is that they seem to be making a grand effort to make the country more sustainable. I think they’re lucky to be a small country in terms of population and land area, because it seems easier for them to make and implement pro-environmental decisions. I don’t think the UK has as big a problem with large corporations breathing down their necks.
Tune in next time for some interesting information and history on bio-fuel, oil, coal, and peat in the UK!