The future of farming and wildlife - "We stand on the cusp of a revolution"

"We stand on the cusp of a revolution in how we protect and manage the countryside on which we are all dependant, either for food, health or enjoyment."

A couple of months ago I sat in one of Kingston Maurward College’s conference rooms on a dark November evening with 100 or so good people.  It was the AGM of the Dorset NFU (National Farmers Union).  I was there despite recently having disagreed with several NFU policies such as neonicotinoids damaging bees and pollinators, and of course the badger cull.  We are however supportive of farmers, recognising that sensitive farming can be a huge benefit to wildlife.  Farming and wildlife are intrinsically linked.

I may have been wrong, but I got a strong sense from the members there that the industry felt their livelihoods, legacy and calling was under sustained threat.  Many elements of the farming industry are in decline, yet it is one of the most important, if not THE most important profession in the world.  I for one like to have food on my table each day.

The concern that is being expressed more and more is that our current system of farming is not sustainable.  By sustainable I don’t mean in a general, fuzzy, non-green way as the word is often misused, but rather in both a quantifiable business and habitats sense.  Farm subsidies through the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy), just as fishing subsidies through CFP (Common Fisheries Policy), though usefully providing financial stability, can serve to maintain an unfit, non-competitive industry that doesn’t need to look to the future.  Our farming industry deserves better than that.  Farming in this country needs to be prosperous, stable, dynamic and forward-thinking.  If it were all of those things it would also be sustainable.  Subsidies based purely on the amount of land you own (Basic Payments Scheme) lead to perverse incentives and can, in some cases, reward people for not protecting the future of the industry or the countryside.

A vision for a healthy countryside

A thriving, long-term farming industry has to be built on an environmentally sustainable footing where the health of the countryside is maintained and enhanced so that it is productive and diverse – protecting pollinators, building soil, valuing natural habitats, reducing flooding – the list goes on.  All of this amongst a commercially productive landscape.

The Wildlife Trusts, along with colleagues especially in the National Trust and RSPB, have a vision for the countryside and a plan to support farming.  The CLA (Country Land & Businesses Association) are making similar positive noises.  We have recently published a summary document that spells out, in both policy and practical terms, a way forward for farming in the UK: ‘What next for farming?’ (see link below).  For its own future, farming has to find a way to coexist and benefit from nature, not work separately or fight against it.

Into this debate comes our Defra (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) Minister Michael Gove.  In a recent announcement, Mr Gove made a game-changing speech that, if followed through, will be one of the most important steps for wildlife and equally for farming in decades.  At an organic farming conference in Oxford he announced plans to reform the current EU subsidies regime to shift payments based on the amount of land owned, towards the public (aka environmental) benefits farmers deliver.  In a new regime to be phased in over 5 years he will incentivise farmers, for example to provide habitat for wildlife, create wildflower meadows and improve water quality.  His view agrees with what The Wildlife Trusts have been saying.  It also challenges those resistant to change, but embraces innovation and the development of new ways of ensuring a prosperous farming sector which contributes to a healthy environment and a healthy society.

This will mean substantial changes for the industry, but it will put them on a more sustainable, competitive footing which will also gain them more public support which has been flagging since the badger cull and agrochemical issues.  The Wildlife Trusts have calculated that it will cost just 0.5% of UK public expenditure (£3bn pa) to restore the natural systems that sustain us and indeed the farming industry itself.

Our aims for farming

Our plan, which Mr Gove seems to be supportive of, has eight aims:

1. More, bigger and better natural habitats.  Restoring and creating new habitats for wildlife to prosper.  Some of this will come from farmland too marginal to be productive.  So this would help those farmers currently struggling on marginal land such as in parts of West Dorset.

2.  Thriving wildlife everywhere.  Connecting habitats, restoring soils, replanting lost hedgerows.  Paying farmers to benefit nature and themselves, such as in central Dorset around Blandford where so many hedgerows have been lost.

3.  Abundant pollinators.  For example managing 3% of arable land specifically for pollinators and banning neonicotinoids.  That way we don’t turn into China where pollination often has to be done by hand with paintbrushes.

4.  Healthy soils.  Ploughing less often, increasing the organic content, ensuring plant rotation and replacing artificial fertilisers.  Nature and farming working together to boost long-term productivity.

5. Clean water. Reducing the levels of nutrients and chemicals in our rivers and watersheds making our drinking water safer.  Poole Harbour has a major problem with historic agricultural nutrients flowing down the Piddle and Frome rivers.  Dorset farmers are working to reduce nutrient inputs, and this plan should reward them for doing so.

6. Clean air and climate change mitigation.  Reducing greenhouse gas emissions – a useful measure of the efficiency of an industry.

7.  Flood risk management. I have long been calling for landowners to be paid for farming water.  Hold water back away from towns and valuable crops in more natural catchments less likely to flood in the way we have seen at Christchurch.

8.  Healthy People.  Mr Gove announced plans to reward landowners for improving access to the countryside, thus promoting exercise, enjoyment, health and wellbeing.  The Dorset LNP (Local Nature Partnership) is working with the NHS and social care providers to treat mental and physical ill health and prevent illnesses by getting people out into nature.  Landowners across Dorset can help with that.

A great leap forward

We stand on the cusp of a revolution in how we protect and manage the countryside on which we are all dependant, either for food, health or enjoyment.  I believe Mr Gove’s plans will result in a more prosperous, healthy and enjoyable country and countryside, and one where we are, finally after over a century of thinking we are above nature rather than a part of it, valuing our wildlife and environment as our life support system.

Further reading: What next for farming?

Read: A future policy for land in England: investing in our natural assets by The Wildlife Trusts.