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Go to 'God's island' and discover a new Jerusalem for the British countryside

Magnus Linklater

BACK in Ambridge, David and Ruth are worried about whether they can afford to carry on farming at Brookfield, what with the new CAP reforms. “I don’t know if it’s worth keeping the sheep, once the ewe premiums go,” sighs David. “Brookfield without sheep?” moans Ruth. “What would Grandad say? And then there’s the Herefords. . . We’ve either got to get bigger or cut back.” As usual, The Archers has its finger on the pulse of the nation. Waiting for the Mid-Term Review of the Agenda 2000 agreement, which will finally begin to pare back the massive subsidies that have kept farmers in business under the Common Agricultural Policy is now the only topic of conversation in the countryside. This year they will find out whether they can survive or not, at least in the manner to which they have grown accustomed.

The idea is that, for the first time since the war, the emphasis will move away from direct payments to farmers for producing food, and towards the idea of “managing” the countryside, a woolly concept which fills farmers with foreboding. Subsidies will take into consideration the environment, animal welfare, food safety and something known as “rural development”. No wonder Ruth is worried.

The big farms, as ever, will adapt and survive. Finding ways of diversifying is easy if you have the land and the resources to do so. In New Zealand, where subsidies were abolished 20 years ago, farms have amalgamated and grown in size, or else turned to “niche” markets for high-quality products. When we were last there, we visited a farm which had abandoned sheep to concentrate on cut flowers for the Japanese. Having a sub-tropical climate helps of course. It’s hard to see that catching on at Brookfield.

The British countryside is a lot more than rolling Suffolk wheatfields, or West Country dairy herds. The farther you get away from populated areas, the harder it becomes to define the concept of rural development. How do you “develop” a bleak hill farm in the Yorkshire Dales, or a croft on a remote Hebridean island? Protecting the environment or tending to animal welfare is all very well, but if the threatened species happens to be human beings rather than the natterjack toad, what can you do? People have steadily drifted away from these remote and far-flung places for the best part of a century. It once prompted a despairing civil servant in the Thatcher era to wonder whether it wouldn’t be better to draw a line at the Highlands and abandon it to wilderness.

It doesn’t, of course, have to be like that, as the islanders of Gigha demonstrated this week. “God’s island”, as it used to be known, is a small jewel off the west coast of Scotland, a steep and rocky place with an abundance of wildflowers and a magnificent garden, full of exotic shrubs planted by a former owner, Sir James Horlick, who used to enjoy his creation by driving through it on a motorised tricycle disguised as a dragon.

As a private subsidiser, Sir James, whose fortune came from malted milk, pumped thousands of pounds into the island economy. But since then the population drained away, from more than 200 in the 1930s to a low point of 98. When it was put up for sale, not many people would have bet on the islanders themselves buying the land, and then putting in hand plans to transform its economy.

Yesterday they paid back the last million pounds of the money they had borrowed to secure it. The funds were raised partly by the sale of Sir James’s house and garden, but also through coffee mornings, bring and buy sales, selling Gigha-labelled whisky, and other examples of local enterprise. They have sold off land to create 3 craft units and 23 new houses, started up 6 small businesses with 11 jobs, planned 3 wind turbines, expanded 3 farms and created a fourth. The population is back up to 123, and the school roll has doubled. Small stuff maybe, but big for Gigha.

None of this could have been achieved without public money. Of the £4 million asking price, £3 million came from the Scottish Land Fund and the local enterprise company. The islanders had to come up with the balance. In effect, the purchase has been subsidised. But that support, unlike the standard CAP scheme, would not have come about without the enterprise, imagination and dogged determination of the island community. That strikes me as money well spent — an investment in the future rather than a subsidy of the status quo. Without it, places such as Gigha would simply die. Is that what we want to happen? I think I know what Ruth would say to that: “Oh no!”