Wildlife on Farms: Why should we care?

Over the Christmas period I spent a good deal of time walking on my family’s farm on the Essex coast, thinking about the future and  looking at the challenge of managing habitats and maintaining a healthy balance of wildlife on the farm moving forward. I trawled through the latest countryside stewardship options (we have been in a higher level scheme for several years now and will be continuing with the new scheme, despite its faults) and have tried to create a programme whereby positive ecological benefit is achieved at the same time as keeping the accountant happy and the business in the black. It is a challenge and the answer hasn’t quite been reached. One option on the table has been to get out of stewardship completely and plough up the land once again, but this would be going against both the ethos we hold in our business and, with the prospects of cereals over the next few harvests in flux, such action would be questionable economically. Whatever we do is a risk, That is simply the nature of farming. Nonetheless, all options must be considered.

The questions in my head are therefore: what should we do to generate the best ecological outcomes on our farm and, perhaps most importantly, why should we care? I’ll try to get to grips with the latter question in this post but I won’t promise I actually come to an answer!

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The inspiration for the title of this post comes from a session at the Oxford Real Farming Conference, held last week, that brought together ORFC founder Colin Tudge, George Monbiot, farmer Rebecca Hosking and Bob Cowley to debate and discuss the issues surrounding wildlife on farms. As I have mentioned many times on this blog it is crucial that we get agricultural policy right if the wider environment is to be stable and healthy. About 75% of all land in Britain is farmed in some way (40% enclosed land) and therefore farming practices have a huge impact on the natural world. Too often we focus our efforts on the boundaries of fields and see environmental management as being separate from production on the remainder of the land. Too often we look for simple solutions to complex scenarios. Too often we limit our ambition and therefore continue to see abundance of wildlife on farmland plummet.

Now, I am not sidelining all farmers, putting them all in one camp and suggesting that this is an issue whereby farmers must be dictated to and policy makers and conservationists should rule the roost. This is not my philosophy and with my family’s farm always in my mind I have a stake in both camps. There are farms (and I like to count our own among this number) where wildlife is doing well and the broader statistics are being turned on their head. Some species focused projects, such as those working to improve skylark or lapwing numbers have shown positive results in many places. There are many farmers, such as the Barker brothers at Lodge Farm in Suffolk and a myriad of organic and LEAF farmers, who care passionately for the wildlife on their farms and work tirelessly to improve the ways in which they work the land to have as little impact as possible on species abundance. Further, whilst not all farmers may be in this league and may not (as we do at Devereux Farm and Walton Hall in Essex) actively work to provide habitat and enter higher level environmental stewardship schemes, I challenge you to find a farmer who finds the wildlife on their farm an utter nuisance and actively works to destroy it! So, if we assume there isn’t an issue with the outlook of the farming population, why are we continuing to see such drastic falls in species’ populations, evident in the State of Nature report?

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The main reasons include the intensification of production, pesticide, herbicide and insecticide use and their impacts up and down the food chain, removal of hedgerows resulting in the reduction in complexity of connectivity between habitats, poor management of soils and the increasing specialisation of farms resulting in monocultures of crops and grasses, discouraging diversity which is crucial for a healthy ecology.

In the debate last Thursday George Monbiot looked at the issue on a landscape scale (something that we should be encouraged to do – we should view problems on micro, macro and meso levels of analysis) and presented the answer to improve the state of nature on our farms in terms of land sparing and land sharing. He looked to rewilding as one answer to turn wildlife’s state around and to encourage growth in biodiversity. He encouraged delegates to ‘forget the nonsense of HLS etc’ and claimed that ‘rewilding is the answer’. I many ways I can see his point and it has become absolutely clear that the policies we have been implementing for the past 20 years or so to improve the state of nature have failed. We need to go further. However, we also need to remember that farming is first and foremost about production. This production needn’t be done in an unsustainable way that wholeheartedly destroys wildlife and habitats on farms. However, farmland needs to have production at its heart.

Colin Tudge (who, I felt, spoke a lot of sense) suggested that we need a middle way and ultimately a change in ‘zeiteist’ is required so that land managers think in a wholeheartedly biocentric way. He placed the focus of the debate on the middle of the fields themselves and quite rightly pointed to the fact that if the beginning of the food chain is broken (ie the plants and the insects) then what hope do the birds and mammals have in sustaining their numbers. He called on delegates to see farmland as habitat in itself and to find ways in which we can properly finance agroecological methods.

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A problem we have generated is that many of us see farmland as a ‘sterile’ landscape, seemingly set outside the ‘natural world’, the purpose of which is to generate sustenance for humankind, many of whom see our own lives as being ‘outside’ the natural world. If we flip this on its head and see farmland as a habitat in its own right, as part of a broader landscape and playing its part in sustaining not just ourselves but other species, then we value the rest of the natural world, see ourselves as part of it and see how ‘it’ can ‘benefit’ us. (side note – I have presented this in a very ‘us’ versus ‘them’ format which strictly speaking I do not like. Some may argue that this view is simplistic and land is already – and in fact it is impossible not to be – managed  in a way that takes the rest of the natural world in to account. A whole host of ‘ecosystem services’ – pollinators, water purification and transport, soils etc – are crucial for healthy and farmland and thus successful harvests. However, it is the way society ‘seems’ to have been generated in to – our society is the child of the Cold war generation that saw everything in split dichotomies.)

Bob Cowley, from the Mammal Society, made some suggestions as to how we could turn things around. What actions do we have to implement to improve biodiversity on farms? Well, Cowley, echoing Monbiot’s interest in the ‘lynx’ spoke of the acronym ‘LINKS’:

Lines of Connectivity

Interdependence

Not

Killing

Stuff

These five (or rather three) points simply state how our mindset and policy needs to change and we need to remember how important a healthy natural world is for successful food production. Hedges provide connections between landscapes but we also need much larger lines of connectivity. Unfortunately the scheme in the new Countryside Stewardship policy which encourages farmers to work together to implement wider habitat and environmental projects is too complicated and time consuming for many farmers to enter which is a shame. I fear the latest CAP reforms which have resulted in Countryside Stewardship will, on a broad level, be a complete disaster and will turn many farmers off environmental projects for good, even though in some areas (under higher level schemes) there is every chance biodiversity will improve. Having been through the process of trawling through the policy and options it is vastly more complicated than it used to be and requires a good deal of time, patience and motivation to do. I fear it is only the ‘converted’ who will be motivated sufficiently to enter the scheme and we will lose the prospect of engaging all farmers with environmental stewardship to some extent. We cannot afford to see even greater fragmentation of biodiversity. The loss in abundance of species is simply too great and too rapid. We need as many farmers as possible to be engaged in stewardship and the current set of reforms has failed to achieve this.

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Turning to the ORFC once again…

Finally, Rebecca Hosking spoke at length from a farmer’s perspective. Rebecca farms in Devon and used to work for the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol. Incidentally she presented a super programme a few years ago entitled ‘farm for the future’ which is available here. In her talk at Oxford she recognised that we need space for megafauna and some rewilding may be necessary. However, we do not have enough space just to rewild (on this point George Monbiot later reiterated his feeling that rewilding should only take place in areas where it should take place – it would be mad for example to rewild the best farmland – even though we seem to use much of the best farmland for growing non-food crops such as maize, but that’s another story). Hosking suggested that we need to see ourselves as a keystone species – one that can have a negative impact but can also have a positive one, if we choose to manage land in that way.

If you google ‘declining wildlife on farms’ you will probably receive links to hundreds of articles. Amongst both academic study and the popular press it has become a popular area of scrutiny. Too often however it is linked to farmer bashing. If positive change is to be encouraged farmers and land managers need to be brought on side as it is ultimately they who will do the work that will generate the positive change required. We need to generate an argument as to why farming practices and policy must change, suggest what changes could be made and then encourage the farmers to implement these changes through both carrot and stick approaches (although I favour carrots over sticks). This subject could go on forever and I’m not sure I will ever be able to quite grasp the complexity of it all. But, I like a challenge and I will continue to listen and learn in my efforts to reach a consensus of land management that I can ultimately suggest we implement on my family’s farm in Essex.

Why should we care about wildlife on our farms? To put it bluntly, we are reliant on a healthy ecosystem which relies on a rich biodiversity, to produce food, fibre and other farmed products. We need policy to be more radical, we need to do more and in the words of Sir John Lawton and we need to create a network of sites that is ‘better, bigger, and more joined up’. This is the challenge. We need to meet it. No ifs. No buts.

 

All images (other than the skylark which comes from wikipedia) were taken at Devereux Farm, Kirby-le-Soken, Essex. credit: Jasper Fell-Clarke

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6 thoughts on “Wildlife on Farms: Why should we care?

  1. I wish I had the time to see your farm. Thanks for the comprehensive review and the work and time you’ve spent on it.
    It sounds as if you are doing the right things: growing food as well as wildlife. But you seem dissatisfied with that – maybe I did not read carefully enough, but what’s the problem with the subsidies and stewardship schemes? Is it too much paperwork?
    I’ve only ever had an allotment (0.25 acre). Been working it for the last 25 years and before that I was for a short while a labourer on a mixed farm in the 1970’s. The farmer used all the conventional chemicals, was pretty cavalier about the environment, animal and employee welfare (standard attitudes for that time) and yet the wildlife prevailed. The key was he thought about the soil and rotated his crops – the clue is hidden in the word ‘mixed’.
    You can call me a fantasist but if I had your farm I would want to experiment by leaving a good 10 yard wide strip around all the fields. Next, plough them as deep as possible and then leave them un-harrowed to give a subsoil ridden expanse of micro-niches. This process with luck, will bring up and germinate a long lost arable weed seed bank. On no account to sow anything, especially not commercial wildflower seed mixes. But really, it’s best to do nothing. You can prove that stratagem by visiting any disused quarry of any rock type – these are invariably biodiversity oases. Quarries have been rewilding our countryside since time out of mind. They are class acts and succeed by virtue of our absence. (Unless some fool of a planner has decided to landscape and prettify or garden the site – God forbid).
    The best thing I ever did to my allotment was to get a farmer to deep plough it. The next year two rarities appeared, Wild Pansy (V. tricolor) and Weasel Snout. I’ve no qualms about hoeing them off now; they are so abundant. (And some chemicals are used – no time for all this organic puritanism – hence the not re conservation grade produce).
    But to get back to the loss of 5%(a guess) of your total acreage. It, can be ploughed back up on any rotation of choice, but the longer it is left the greater the fertility and humus levels. And the wildlife that is ploughed under or destroyed in one section is already developing along another field edge.
    I suppose you could call it long term strip fallowing for wildlife and soil fertility which, once set up, would leave the total area out of production of about 2-3% (another guess). But you are going to tell me that this is no different to ‘set aside’. But I’m not so sure.
    Enough dreaming – anyway it’s probably uneconomic if your profit margins are as tight as you suggest.

    • Thank you very much for this thorough and insightful comment Murray.
      I’m not sure ‘dissatisfied’ is the right term – at least I hope that is not how it comes across. We are going through a process (like many other farms across the country) of taking a good look at the business as a whole and trying to forge a system that works in the current economic climate but also looks to the future to allow for investment and a thriving local ecology. The problems with subsidies go deep and there is not enough room to go into it her (perhaps I will write a post about this in future) but largely I cannot see a future in wholesale financial support from Europe. Who knows, we may even be out of Europe in a few years time. The issue with countryside stewardship is it’s complexity and although personally I welcome this as it provides us with more options, for the count as a whole it is a disaster as it will put off (and has put off) many farmers who are unwilling to create a suitable system to fit their situation.
      On the ploughing front I like your ideas but we have actually gone ‘no till’ on our farm now and have turned our backs in ploughing. For reasons of soil structure as well as carbon maintenance no till provides (at least we think) a sustainable future for the soils on our farm. So, personally I would feel uncomfortable with ploughing and moving ahead with your idea wholeheartedly but certainly there is something to be said with reinvigorating older arable weeds and encouraging them in the margins.

  2. Thank you for such an informative post and I agree with you farmers and farming is crucial to supporting a range of biodiversity and insects.mhere in Spain all we farm at the moment are our Chestnuts and that’s certainly not profitable on a small scale. However the area is a natural park,the old chestnuts are protected but it is hard to see how local farmers get on with the Park. There is so much difficulty with planning so the environmental consequences are often ignored. Stewardship seems a good start and I agree if it is too complex it is ignored. However, the natural world needs some help now if we are not going to lose so much.

    • Thank you for your comment and for following the blog! I’m glad you enjoyed this post. I’d be really interested to hear more about your situation in Spain and your views on how popular/unpopular environmental measures are in Spain (particularly amongst farmers).

      • Very, possibly against . There was some burning of forest in the north just recently so it could be turned back to farmland but I think was part of a national park. Now I have more access to wifi I can research more issues.

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