State of Nature 2: Farming in the spotlight

Despite the BBC editorial team not passing today’s launch of the second State of Nature report sufficiently newsworthy to be included in this evening’s News at 10, it was included in this morning’s episode of the Today programme on Radio 4. If you didn’t catch it it can be found just under two hours into the programme at 7:50am. The Wildlife Trust’s England Director Stephen Trotter and the NFU’s Guy Smith spoke to Nick Robinson about the report with Smith doing his absolute best to defend farmers to the hilt. However, such a defence was not really necessary. State of Nature criticises agricultural policy, not farmers. This is a key thing to remember. As we know, agricultural and environmental policy is soon to be ripped up and reassessed in the light of Brexit, so instead of turning this into a polarised debate, as it seemed the NFU tried to do on twitter today with #BackBritishFarming trending alongside #StateofNature, we should be acknowledging the science and moving forward together.

This said, farming was certainly the star of the show (even if the NFU rather it had not been) in today’s critique of the State of Nature in Britain. The key headlines of the report, which pools data and expertise from more than 50 nature conservation and research organisations, are as follows:

  • Between 1970 and 2013, 56% of species declined, with 40% showing strong or moderate declines. 44% increased, with 29% showing strong or moderate increases. Between 2002 and 2013 53% of species declined.
  • A new measure that assesses how intact a country’s biodiversity is suggests that the UK has lost significantly more nature over the long term than the global average. The index suggests that we are among the most nature depleted countries in the world.

It certainly made for some sombre reading. When it came to the state of farmland the report stated that ‘over the long term (since 1970) 52% of farmland species have declined and 48% increased. However, over the short term (since 2002) the overall picture was unchanged’. This can be taken in two ways. Yes, it is not good to see that figures have not improved but critically, they have not got any worse.

In the Today programme interview Guy Smith called on ‘the environmental lobby’ to not criticise all the time but to also pay attention to the successes. On this front I have to agree with him. Don’t get me wrong, I fully take on board the seriousness of the figures and there is much that is still to be done. However, I want to support the farming community and a certain amount of current policy. Nature conservation measures on farmland have only been in effect for a pin prick of a moment in the grand scheme of time. Personally, I am pleased to see that the overall picture, in the short term, has not become worse. There is much that can still be done but we should remember the brilliant work that many farmers and landowners are doing through the various environmental stewardship schemes. Believe it or not there are still farmers out there who prefer to have hedgerows, actively support ground nesting birds by creating skylark plots or enhanced field margins, dig ponds or increase woodland cover on poorer soils. The condition I put on this is that there are not enough of them. There is so much that we could still do. However, the funding needs to be there to support such work. A rather depressing stat I took from the report is that, since 2008, public spending on UK biodiversity has reduced by 32%. This is not going to help matters. I say this because I still remain fearful for the policy world post Brexit. It is vital that we continue to support environmental stewardship work on farmland and if we ignore the positives that are already going on it will be more difficult to make a case to conserve and expand this offering to farmers. More than this, what is required is a complete change in attitude when it comes to our objectives as a nation. How will we be satisfied in terms of getting value for money? If subsidies are provided they need to be there for a wide variety of services, of which food production is just one.

Returning to the negative stuff in SoN, we are told in State of Nature 2 that 12% of farmland species are threatened with extinction from Great Britain. This is a terrifying statistic but one that we cannot argue with. This is the reality. Farmland birds have declined by 54% since 1970 (we were aware of this from State of Nature 1) and butterflies by 41% since 1976.

What does State of Nature blame for the decline in farmland biodiversity?

In short: the intensive management of agricultural land.

Specifically: a switch from spring to autumn sown crops, production of more silage over hay and the increased use of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides over the long term. In addition to this is added the loss over time of marginal habitats such as hedgerows and ponds.

In many ways this was about hitting hard the point made in State of Nature 1 all over again. After all, most of the blame is being put on the figures which begin in a period of the 1970s, a time when agriculture was far less ‘environmentally aware’ and this was available in the last report. I agree with Pete Cooper in his blog earlier today when he lilted on the fact that the predecessor report was only launched 3 years ago, which seems a little soon. Anyway. That’s a side point. If we look at trajectories I would like to suggest that there are more farmers around today who take part in conservation measures than did forty years ago. True, there has been a general shift towards specialisation. Most arable farms have a comprehensive spraying programme which will usually include some form of pre-emergent herbicide and often targeted insecticides. In the improved grasslands, species diversity is reducing as more productive rye grasses largely take over in the pastures. All of this is having an impact on the overall biodiversity that is encountered. It is going to be a very difficult task to transform the current situation and I am beginning to err on the side that we need to take radical action.

There are numerous difficulties with deciding which direction policy should go in. One such difficulty is that most conservationists would agree that climate change policy must be advanced alongside nature conservation policy. Soil is something that wasn’t really covered in the State of Nature report (who thinks about the soil anyway!) and it is worth considering how soils will have a huge role to play in climate change policy moving forward. Soils have the potential to be the second largest carbon sink, after the oceans. Methods of agriculture such as no-till/conservation agriculture do not invert the soil and therefore retain significant amounts of carbon within the soil. However, the down side is that it currently relies on significant glyphosate spray to ‘control’ the weeds, limiting biodiversity. Organic agriculture continues to rely on ploughing and/or additional cultivations to control weeds, therefore releasing more carbon into the atmosphere even if organic farms are generally more biodiverse. You cannot, it seems, have it both ways. We need to generate a third way that enables us to move forward. This will probably require radical action, something that our civil servants are not famed for.

This rather rambling post has I hoped shown a few things:

  1. We need radical action to improve the state of nature. Whilst there are some positives to take from today’s report (it is sometimes easy to forget that many species are increasing in numbers) there is a lot of work still to be done.
  2. We must not forget the good work that many farmers and land managers are doing to improve the state of nature on their own land. We need more however. In the words of Sir John Lawton, we need ‘more, bigger, better and joined’ sites and this goes for farmland habitats as much as any other kind of habitat.
  3. It is very easy to farmer bash and for farmers to take this personally and bring up the drawbridge. We all need to work together in a generations long project to improve the state of nature. We all broadly want the same thing, let’s work together to achieve it.

On a side note, it was brilliant to see that A Focus On Nature were represented at today’s launch of the report at the Royal Society by Megan Shersby, Matt Collis and Tiffany Francis!

6 thoughts on “State of Nature 2: Farming in the spotlight

  1. As well as policy, don’t you think some of the cause of the decline is our addiction to cheap food? The proportion of income devoted to food has declined consistently, unprocessed food doesn’t seem to be valued, perhaps because it’s not branded and marketed the way other ‘stuff’ is. The wildlife organisations do very little to champion organic food, yet if it’s herbicides, insecticides and fungicides that are the problem, it can be remedied by increasing demand for food produced without those things – simple!

    1. I completely agree that far more needs to be done to tackle the perception of food being as cheap as it is. For me, this is partly to do with education, partly to do with policy and partly to do with sticking up to the major retailers. Your point about branding is an interesting one. Marketing psychology relies on quick purchasing decisions and, to a certain extent with ‘new’ products, impulse buying. I agree that unpacked, unporcessed food perhaps doesn’t have the same ‘thrill’ factor. I find that organic farms actually tend to be much better at marketing than ‘conventional’ farms as they often need to be – they have a product that has a point of difference that they can market more easily to the public. However, what is needed is a much larger shift in attitude. If the wildlife NGOs want to see fewer agri-chemicals used on the land then it makes sense for them to advocate less intensive agriculture – not just criticise where they see the problems lie.

  2. Hi Ben,

    You talk a lot of sense, Ben and in this article; it comes across in spades. With your background, you are of course as much a farming fanatic as a conservationist. We simply need more like you. One way to do this, is for the RSPB et al. to take on board land managers and farmers viewpoints in the future and to adopt a policy for food, farming and the wildlife. This is achievable via politicians engaging in conversations about conservation on a regular basis. According to me and via my more recent involvement in scientific studies during the past few years, precisely what is happening. It may well be that since 2002, the law-makers have been better informed and the declines have slowed which is clearly good news. Moving forward, work with the people on the land and they will try to do their best; I’m sure of that.

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