The 2016 State of Nature report, published last week, proved to be a very sobering read.The results clearly show that modern farming practice needs to change and it is in the interest of farmers to do so. If species continue to be lost, if soil continues to erode and rivers continue to flood then farmers will inevitably do themselves out of a job. If there was a book titled ‘Farming for dummies’ i’m pretty sure they would be a section on how barren, unproductive, infertile soil is bad. Not only has the NFU formally acknowledged the need for change, many ordinary Farmers have taken to social media to show their willingness to implement new or different practices.
In fact, many farmers are already mindful of protecting and conserving wildlife. Under EU regulations, subsidies have been paid to farmers partaking in agri-environment schemes for quite some time. Essentially tax payers have already been paying farmers to manage their land for the good of the environment. An example of one such sustainable land management schemes is Glastir, which has over 7000 members. Any Welsh farmer that meets the entry requirements can join up . The scope of the scheme ranges from incentives for Rhododendron removal through to grants for woodland creation, to turning land with an archaeological importance over to permanent grassland. Other similar schemes are already at work within the rest of the UK.
Through this enviro-centric approach to farming many beneficial changes to the Welsh countryside have been made since the scheme started 4 years ago. These include the creation of over 310km of streamside corridor, the repair and creation of more than 260km of hedgerow as well as reductions in fertiliser and pesticide usage.
On paper these schemes seem to be an ideal solution, with measures that aim to make managing farmland with nature in mind easy and beneficial to all concerned. So why are farmland species in such dire straits? The final uptake report for Glastir may hold some clues. According to one of its surveys the main reasons for farmers not participating were
a) They had no spare land left as all suitable areas had been used with previous schemes.
b) The application process was too complicated.
c) They were unaware of the scheme and the grants available.
d) They did not meet the eligibility criteria.
Food for thought for any future creation of environmentally friendly agricultural schemes. If its off putting from the get go, it will not work. If its easy and straightforward then it is a more attractive prospect.
Some farmers may also be wary of enrolling productive land in long term conservation management in case the scheme becomes obsolete. Once the land is taken out of farming, whether it is arable or grassland, and used for another purpose it cannot easily be returned to its previous use. For instance conifer plantations planted by UK farmers in the 50’s and 60’s are only now maturing, but are no longer encouraged by conservationists.
Another point to note may be the current financial situation faced by a large section of the farming community. Dairy farming has suffered over recent years, with many family farms being forced to make the ultimate decision of selling their animals, land and even their homes. There are still bills to be paid -Veterinary bills, purchase of animal feed and medicines, paying staff, maintaining and updating equipment – it soon adds up. For people who are working extremely hard to produce something that is at present worth less than the cost of production concentrating on how to reintroduce newts to their farm pond may fall at the very bottom of their ‘to do’ list. Not necessarily because they don’t want to (although I’m not naïve enough to think all farmers are wildlife lovers) but because there simply aren’t enough hours in the day or money in the bank.
You could argue that ‘rewilding’ and agri-environment schemes will offer opportunities to increase the potential income of a farmer, and indeed paying a farmer to do something he or she probably knows will benefit themselves and the wider world seems like an ideal solution.But as we have seen with the Glastir scheme, this isn’t always a sufficient reason to sign up. Clearly voluntary subsidised schemes are not enough, and subsidised mandatory requirements may be a better approach. I guess we will have to wait and see.
Another thing that is bothering me is the amount of blame being laid at the door of ordinary farmers. Again, farming practices may have caused some species to decline in number and in certain cases whole habitats (meadows) have been lost. Traditional farming practices, harking back to the days of horse and plough and Poldark-esque scything, were abandoned after the end of the second world war. Lets examine why. To put it simply, post war Europe was a very hungry place. In order to feed the masses of hungry mouths new and ‘improved’ farming techniques were implemented to make farming more efficient and productive. The slow trudge of man behind horse and plough was superseded by the speed and greater horse power of tractors. In the modernisation and mechanisation of agriculture man-made habitats such as Meadows were left behind, deemed inefficient practice by the powers that be. The policy makers of the day, along with subsequent generations of politicians , incentivised the mass production of cheap, affordable food, a legacy that remains today. Farmed produce, whether it is organic, extensive or intensively farmed is undervalued . Farming as a profession is overlooked and underpaid. As a result, nature has suffered.
Most of the debate that has been fuelled by the publishing of this report has centred around farmland habitats. However this was only a few pages of the report. It is undeniable that agriculture has been a major player in habitat and species loss but if we only focusing on reshaping this habitat there will still be others that are suffering. 58% of species in Coastal habitats have declined, and 15% of coastal species are at risk of extinction. This is thought to be due to development in these areas and degradation due to recreational activities (e.g loss of dunes to golf courses). 11% of woodland species are at risk of extinction as are 13% of freshwater and wetland species. It is clear that energy and discussion about our plan of attack needs to be directed across a range of habitats.
Fortunately the report is not all doom and gloom, and there is more than a faint whiff of hope. Some species have flourished in recent years. Woodpigeons populations on farmland have increased due to changes in Autumnal crops. Creation of English and Welsh reedbeds have enabled bitterns to bounce back from 11 males in 1970 to 156 in 2015. Introduction of specific legislations have allowed some bat species to recover. Marine species have increased by 62% since the 70s. All of which are testament to the power of the armies of people dedicated to saving, protecting and restoring our natural world. It is with absolute certainty that farmers should take their place amongst the teams of people trying to turn the tide against species loss. After all, as Robin Milton, winner of the Farming and Wildlife Advisory groups’ Bronze otter award, said “hundreds of years’ worth of experience in management of the natural environment must be of some value”.