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Landscape Ownership

I recently returned home to France after a quick jolly to Devon, and the snow has opened up the landscape. Whilst in Devon the snow had arrived on the moors and I grabbed an opportunity for a hike on Dartmoor, where despite being a weekday I was far from alone. The car parks were full and the snow covered hills were littered with off piste ramblers. This is an unthinkable pastime for many French and despite the alluring beauty of rural France lying under a blanket of snow I find myself completely and utterly alone wandering around in my new landscape. In the ski resorts of the Alps and Pyrenees the French will queue up with others to experience a manufactured ‘snow’ experience, this belies the fact that the vast majority close their shutters and wait for the white to disappear and the landscape to close up again.

This is because the French, as I often experience, are comfortable with the fact that the landscape belongs to them and therefore there is no need to have to grab opportunities to experience it. For the English the snow erases those permanent stamps of ownership and thus under a blanket snow is one of the few times when they can visit their landscape without boundaries.

The classic cliché seen in film and television, (usually of American origin), of a father showing his son a landscape which ‘will one day all be yours’ is somewhat a slap in the face for the English, who can never own land outright and equate a given landscape with it belonging to someone else at all times.

But this has changed, the concept of landscape as defined by the European Landscape Convention is still being discussed at length in academic circles, it is still a concept the British as a whole struggle with but there is no hiding from the simple fact that we all own landscape. It may be an intangible ownership to many but a picnic by a gateway or under a tree provides a tantalising touch of what, where and who you are, although it is at real risk of being removed by way of the branding of landscape with the plethora of English organisations; charitable, private and governmental, keen to stamp their logo somewhere, somehow into your experience.

People may argue that when others use the phrases ‘our forests’, ‘our land’ or ‘our countryside’ they are wrong to do so. But no one can argue against anyone and everyone saying this is ‘Our Landscape’.

In my new landscape I can see how bizarre the English mindset is and sympathise with those few foreigners who visit England and cannot get their heads around the evolving etiquette of ‘visiting the countryside’ English style.

The ongoing campaigns against the badly written draft NPPF, the public forest sell off and more have exposed us to opinions, particularly in the new social media of Twitter and the blogosphere, that are so diverse and have really waken many of us in land management up to new angles and arguments that we never before would have taken account of. Not least the concept that the English really are all NIMBYs’ and the rural landscape is, not at risk of becoming but is now, a museum complete with a vast supply of curators because of perceptions of land ownership, particularly as more and more lay claim to land. The adage ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’ is so true and acted upon by most new landowners with relish, resulting in a closed urban and suburban landscape, a landscape of 2metre fencing and hedges defining our plots.

The great but dead English authors and artists enjoyed access to and the pleasure of owning a landscape and often little more. In doing so their work has enabled further branding of landscapes. Would they not find the fact that their landscapes have remained preserved in aspic more bizarre than if that landscape had evolved beyond recognition to them? Would they be flattered or confused?

The ownership of land is very unique in England, all land being in fact ‘freehold’, no one actually owns any land outright. Perhaps this is the cause of why there is a classic English trait to stamp as many signals of ‘ownership’ on the parcels of land they purchase, including the obligatory gates and fences higher than the tallest man likely to pass by.

But as vitriolic statements fly to and fro, the worse for me being some ‘conservationists’ and other ‘experts’ determined to demonise farmers and foresters and keep alive that classic English mythical image of a shotgun wielding landowner shouting ‘get off my land’, would it not be more prudent tointroduce everyone to their landscape instead? The problems England faces in trying to get to grip with modern sustainable land management, urban and rural can surely only be accelerated by a new public perception that when they are invited to discuss the local landscape it is actually theirs.

And if English schoolchildren, who have turned their back on landscape in favour of a 3D computer one, are led out into their surroundings and told that what they see as far as the horizon and for 360⁰ is theirs, they will surely feel better off and in turn society would be also.

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