For me, improving the state of nature goes hand in hand with improving land management techniques and engaging with the farming community, who between them have the capacity to reverse many of the trends observed in the 2013 State of Nature Report. Farmland makes up about 75% of all land in Britain (enclosed farmland about 40%) and farmers and conservationists need to engage with each other and work together to achieve the common goal of improving the state of nature. I think there should be three key aims for our generation. Firstly, we need to get a grip on the size of the human population, secondly we need to be able to feed our growing population in a sustainable manner and thirdly we need to maintain and increase biodiversity. In 2050 my vision would see farmers working with conservationists to improve habitats on a locally specific basis. Large scale, ‘one size fits all’ generic policy is not favourable and this would change in favour of local, more pragmatic projects that are farmer/landowner and community led with support from government and the conservation sector. My vision is for farmland landscapes that are rich in wildlife and farming techniques that are environmentally sustainable but also for vibrant farming communities and a generation of farmers engaged with improving the state of nature.
In 1947 Clement Attlee’s government passed a piece of legislation that fundamentally changed the way the British landscape was managed. This was the Agriculture Act and it encouraged intensification of production as well as protecting farmers and farm workers against market fluctuation by guaranteeing minimum prices. It provided an economic security that farmers hadn’t really experienced before and it enabled investment, signifying a new age for farming. Many of these changes were positive and certainly investment in the land sector is vital. However, it must be the ‘right kind’ of investment that enables sustainable development on a business level but crucially also on an environmental and social level. The 1947 Act had a major influence on altering the British landscape itself, which in most places had not changed so dramatically for hundreds of years. Hedgerows were lost as fields became larger, use of chemical inputs increased and the quality of farmland habitats diminished. As explained in the State of Nature report, samples of the seed bank in arable soils suggest the number of weed seeds declined by 1% per year during the 20th century, a finding paralleled by the loss of farmland wildflowers and the extinction of some, such as Thorow-Wax and Swine’s Succory.
People have been talking about the effects of ‘modern’ agriculture on the natural world ever since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in the 1960s. Farmland bird populations declined rapidly during the 1970s and 1980s, and by the year 2000 their numbers were just half what they were in 1970. There has been no subsequent recovery, and some species, such as the turtle dove, have continued to decline rapidly. Arable plants are considered the fastest-declining group of plants in the UK – a quarter are threatened and others, such as downy hemp-nettle, have already been lost from the UK. Larger machinery and specialised chemical inputs have increased agricultural yields substantially, but they have also had unintended consequences for the environment.
My vision is for a farming system that holds concern for environmental impact at the centre of its philosophy, as important as food production. In 2050 thousands of kilometres of new hedgerows will have been planted, farmers will be working together with conservationists and their local communities to improve biodiversity on both a farm and a landscape scale and conservation policy will be flexible enough to work pragmatically on a local level. Trends relating to soil degradation will be reversed and water catchment will be a priority on all farms. ‘No till’ will be an accepted practice and agroforestry no longer a ‘niche’ concept. Rewilding will have been common practice in the uplands for many years and farm businesses previously wholly reliant on stock will be more diversified with a larger farm led tourist industry, driven by a healthy and diverse wildlife and landscape. Every child will have the opportunity to visit a farm and they will understand farming systems as well as the importance of pollinators, soil, maintaining a rich farmland biodiversity and sustainable agriculture. Soil science and sustainable agriculture will be well funded and popular subjects for research. Research in to integrated pest management will also be common practice in 2050, helping us to understand how we can work with wildlife and reduce chemical inputs on farm.
Today, policy and support for ‘wildlife friendly farming’ has gone in to reverse at a time when farmland wildlife is struggling, pollinators are in decline and only 25% of water catchments have good ecological status. There are nonetheless some fantastic projects taking place on farms across the country including beetle banks, wide field margins, planting for pollinators, drilling bird seed and planning complex rotations. Numerous organisations are also working towards solving the ‘key issues’ I set out earlier on. Nonetheless, there remains a lot of work to do. I want to live in a world in which farmers are seen as part of the solution to improve the state of nature, not part of the problem. All farmers need to be more creative in their approaches to soil conservation and pest management and see the ecological building blocks of their business – the soil, pollinators and water as critically important aspects of their businesses, placed alongside profit margins.