Custodians of the Countryside

‘Custodians of the countryside’ includes farmers, park rangers or foresters. The three large local ‘parks’ – Stansted Park, Staunton Country Park and the South Downs National Park – all have small numbers of rangers managing large tracts of land. Forest rangers do similar work in the forests owned or leased by the Forestry Commission in Havant Thicket. Other ‘rangers’ supervise private woodland. They decide about felling and replanting trees and about removing or replanting hedgerows. Similarly, farmers decide which crops to sow, and whether to graze sheep, cattle or horses or even alpacas. All of these decisions and actions cumulatively affect the appearance and influence the aesthetic appeal of the countryside, as well as the environment as a whole. Locally, these incremental, sometimes annual decisions, appear to have a beneficial effect on the local landscape.

This idea if ‘custodians of the countryside’ can be extended further: the Parish Council also has legal custodianship of The Green, Whichers Gate & Finchdean Greens, as well as some woodlands transferred as part of local housing development plans. The groundsman of the local Golf Club affects the appearance of a large green lung in the centre of the village. Beyond that, householders with their own gardens can cumulatively affect the appearance of the village environment. In Rowlands Castle village – part of the ancient Forest of Bere – care is taken to protect trees, copses and hedge-rows, to retain an overall wooded ambience and ‘treescape’.

One of the criteria for designating land as part of National Parks is to do with ‘landscape’ (hence the interest in ‘local landscape assessments’). The South Downs National Park has importance at a strategic level too, not only because of the work of its Rangers, but also when fulfilling its responsibilities as a ‘planning authority’ in drafting ‘local plans’ and proposing appropriate housing numbers. Other policy decisions affecting the countryside are consolidated through the Park’s Management Plan.

Similarly, Planning Officers of East Hampshire District Council draft a Local Plan and propose housing numbers as required by the National Planning Policy Framework of March 2012. The Framework is aimed at achieving ‘sustainable development’. Individual planning decisions are based on wider consultations and formal decisions referred to district councillors.

By way of a postscript, it is interesting to note that Bill Bryson, the noted American writer and Anglophile wrote about the English countryside. His thoughts were expressed in the last chapter of his book “The Road to Little Dribbling” published in 2015. He apparently gave serious thought to a question allegedly posed to him by an elderly shop assistant in Indianapolis: “Why do you live in England?”

He apparently listed in a notebook all the pleasant things Britannic that he could think of. He listed the most important one last, but stated that he knew it from the outset: “It is the beauty of the countryside which he considered a great achievement. He cites the ancient White Horse of Uffington as a landmark feature that has existed and been carefully tended for by generations for centuries. “I have said it many times before, but it really cannot be stated too often: there isn’t a landscape in the world that is more artfully worked, more lovely to behold, more comfortable to be in, than the countryside of Great Britain. It is the world’s largest park, its most perfect accidental garden. I think it may be the British nation’s most glorious achievement”. It will not be surprising, therefore, that the Campaign for Rural England (CPRE) invited Bill Bryson to be its chairman, which he accepted.

Speaking recently at an anniversary meeting, the Chief Executive of CPRE, Shaun Spiers, expressed the contribution that CPRE had made to protecting the countryside, citing: ‘Green Belts’, ‘Country Parks’, ‘Areas of Outstanding Beauty’ (AONBs) and a positive influence on the Planning Acts over many years.

These two references summarise both the importance of individual actions by what we have called ‘custodians’ as well as the strategic influence of sound planning legislation and regulations.

In its own way, the survey carried out for the Rowlands Castle Parish Plan 2008 showed a similar interest and support for the ‘countryside’. When replying to a question “What is important to you about the Parish?”:

– nearly sixty percent of respondents said  ‘The Village community’

– nearly eighty percent of respondents said ‘The Village environment’

– and nearly seventy percent said ‘Access to the countryside’.

CUSTODIANSHIP IN THE COMMUNITY