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'If we want nature to recover, we need to change the farming system'

Posted: Monday 12th March 2018 by DevonWildlifeTrust

View across meadow with wildflowers towards treesTake courage: now is the time to reshape our farming policy

Harry Barton, Devon Wildlife Trust's Chief Executive, writes... So here it is at last – a strategy setting out the government’s thoughts on farming once we leave the EU. This could just be the single most significant opportunity we have had in fifty years to set our natural environment on a course for recovery. Will we opt for more of the same? Or will we have the courage to reshape farming policy for the 21st century?

As I look out of my living room window and watch the snow fields thaw across the slowly greening valley, I see so much many reminders of the strengths and weaknesses of our modern farmed landscape. The small fields, intricate network of tree studded hedgerows, the lush, rolling landscape. But the fields are increasingly empty of livestock, many of the pastures devoid of anything but the most competitive grasses, and the closer I look the more I see evidence of hedge-lines that once were. We have sacrificed diversity and vibrancy for uniformity, tidiness and order.

We must change the way we farm

More than three quarters of Devon is farmed, and most of us would find it difficult to envisage a future of this glorious county where farming wasn’t present. But since the early 1970s we have lost half of our wildlife. The Devon Bird Atlas, published just over two years ago, was a shocking wake up call. Species like the curlew and cuckoo reduced to a fraction of their former range, others like the nightingale disappearing completely. But it’s not just birds, plants and insects. Our soils have declined alarmingly – so much so that the Environmental Audit Committee recently concluded that half of them could cease to be commercial productive within a generation. And our rivers have suffered from sediment and chemicals that have been stripped off bare land in our increasingly frequent heavy rain events. Something badly needs to change if we want to leave future generations with a natural environment worthy of the name.

Curlews have largely disappeared as breeding birds from Devon's countryside

It would be wrong to blame farming for all of this of course, and many farmers are among the best champions for wildlife. But farming is the single biggest influence on our landscape, and it has such as crucial role to play in nature’s potential restoration. Put simply, if we want the natural environment to recover, we need a farming system that will allow it to do so.

Life after CAP

Just as rural Devon is synonymous with farming, then farming has become inseparable from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The CAP is a very strange beast, stretched and contorted into a bizarre shape over decades of politics and vested interests battling with fairness and common sense. We have become so accustomed to it that even those who profess loath it have a tendency to panic at the thought of it no longer being there. To its great credit, it has in recent years allocated some £460 million annually towards environmental stewardship. But this is only 12% of the funds. The remaining 88% is largely spent on the Single Farm Payment. Allocated on the basis of land owned, this subsidy has encouraged neither agricultural innovation nor environmental responsibility. And the system of cross compliance, intended to ensure subsidies were only paid in return for responsible land management, seems to have focused much more on minor breaches of red tape than on real problems such as preventing pollution. We need something a whole lot better, and this is our chance to get it.

A new approach?

So what of the government’s proposals? There is much here that is welcome. For a start, the name of the document – health and harmony: a future of food, farming and the environment – suggests that the government understands that this is about more than just farming, and that it affects all of us. The document acknowledges the obvious shortcomings in the current system and avoids pandering to some of the powerful vested interests that would feel comfortable with things staying just as they are. It has a lot to say about public funds paying for public goods such as nature’s recovery, flood control and soil management, rather than doling out moneys according to land owned or the number of animals put out to graze. It suggests capping payments to the largest recipients, ensuring a fairer allocation of funds to the many smaller farmers who play such an important role in the rural fabric of Devon. And it promises an ambitious new scheme to reward these environmental improvements. That’s a pretty encouraging start.

There are some challenges we need to make though. Just how much funding will be available for the new environmental scheme? The task of restoring wildlife is massive, and farmers will need real incentives if the payments are to measure up against the often perverse market drivers to sweat the land as hard as possible. We’ll need far more than the £460 million if wildlife is to be protected across the country. Secretary of State Michael Gove has promised that the total funds available will remain the same for the duration of this parliament. But how will they be divided between different elements of the new system? And what of the longer term?

Getting the basics right

The new environmental scheme sounds excellent as far as it goes. But it’s unlikely to be compulsory. So what of those who don’t participate? We know this government is no fan of regulation, and there are strong hints in the proposals that regulation will be reduced. But strong basic standards will be essential. So much of our wildlife is in hedges, verges, banks, field margins and the bits that fall between the plough. And these features play an equally important role holding our soil in place. With financial pressures on already hard-pressed farmers ever tougher, just how much of this fabric would be left intact without a legal requirement to do so?

My third challenge is to look strategically about what farming should be taking place and where. I live just outside the border of Dartmoor National Park. But for the first couple of miles after entering the park you could be anywhere in intensively farmed UK. The fields are large and subject to heavy chemical input. Steep slopes are ploughed right up to the fence lines, and after heavy rain the lanes are covered in mud that has leached off the fields. And when you do get to the open moorland there are huge opportunities to restore bleak stands of purple moor grass to healthy blanket bog, upland heath, valley mires and oak woodlands.

DWT's Harry Barton discusses our environmental vision with Michael Gove on a visit to Devon in 2017

I’m not suggesting that there should be no farming on places like Dartmoor – it is integral to much of the landscape, its ecology and culture. But surely we can do better? Land is a precious and finite resource. If we consider our consumption of food, timber, building materials, energy and living space, we need an area several times the whole of the UK to provide for our needs. This clearly isn’t sustainable in the long term, even if we are prepared to see the rainforests of the Amazon destroyed to maintain our lifestyle. We need to get a whole lot smarter at providing multiple benefits from our land, recognising its environmental limits and using this precious resource more efficiently.

What we need most

So what do we want from the government’s proposals? First, we need the new environmental scheme to be simple, flexible, attractive enough for farmers to engage on a large scale, and properly funded. Let’s see 88% of the funds spent on this and other public goods, not 12%.

Secondly, we need the scheme to be backed up by firm regulation. We need every farm to be doing its bit to protect soil, water and hedges, and taking at least some positive action for wildlife.

Finally, we need to be brave enough to say what type of farming is suitable in what location, rather than just leaving it to the market to dictate. We need a vision as well as a system of incentives and controls.

As public consultations affecting the environment go, it doesn’t get much bigger than this. We have just under ten weeks to make our views known and shape the strategy. It’s a good start, but we need to make it bolder and better. These are public moneys, and here is our chance to say how we would like it to be spent.

Secretary of State Michael Gove has said that he wants to hear people’s views. So let’s tell him.

Having your say  

Find out more about the Government's vision for farming and the environment and have your say.

Read DevonWildlifeTrust's latest blog entries.

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