What was the Silsoe Conference and why should we remember it?

Forty eight years ago, in July 1969, a conference was held at Silsoe Agricultural College in Bedfordshire. It was jointly organised by the RSPB, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), The Wildlife Trusts, the National Conservancy Council (now Natural England) and the Agricultural Development Advisory Service (ADAS), and it aimed to bring farmers and conservationists together to discuss how profitable farming can exist alongside a thriving population of wildlife. This was the beginning of an interest in building a movement for farmland conservation in the UK, and it took place in the light of a growing wider interest in conservation, environmental justice and environmental politics, aided by the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and the explosive growth of the local Wildlife Trusts movement which took place in the 1960s. Following Silsoe the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (or rather ‘groups’) was formed, and farmers were encouraged to write conservation plans to aid wildlife on their farms.

However, although Silsoe apparently sowed a seed of interest, it didn’t have the impact that was required at the time. Hedges continued to be ripped out of fields, in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘productivity’, well into the 1980s. Between 1984 and 1993 the length of managed hedgerow in the UK fell by nearly a third. Many arable weeds and other plants associated with farmland went extinct between Silsoe in 1969 and the genesis of government-run conservation schemes such as Countryside Stewardship (mark one) in the 1990s. The national conversation was distracted by the perception of the need to boost production at almost any cost. Policy makers had grown up with the memory of WW2 and rationing. The balance had therefore shifted away from conservation, which in a previously less industrialised farmed landscape had been less of a requirement. There were far fewer pressures on farmland wildlife. The organisers of Silsoe realised that there was clearly a need for dedicated conservation work on farmland to safeguard species. Agriculture had become too industrialised for wildlife to keep up. However, nothing was going to happen quickly.

It might seem that connecting Silsoe with the environmental schemes and other conferences of the 1990s (Rio, Countryside Stewardship, Hedgerow Incentive Scheme, Wildlife Enhancement Scheme, Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) etc) is a little farfetched, but history has a strange capacity of requiring trigger moments, which can be traced back either directly or in a more convoluted way. It’s up to the skill of the historian to make the case for the links. Those who write about contemporary events (and those who write about them later, such as historians) enable conversations and debates to develop and they become part of popular consciousness. Ideas take time to come to the fore, to become populist or even seem important. If some people talk about one aspect of a topic (in this case production) more than another (conservation) then that will take precedence. Occasionally, the narrative allows the conversation to shift the other way. This is what eventually happened with farmland conservation in the UK, and I would argue that Silsoe was part of the path. Critically, it was vital in triggering the FWAG movement, which is still with us today and necessary to bring farmers and conservationists together to work together and push forward together. Perhaps a new Silsoe is required for the not too distant future?

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I’ll be in Dorset for the weekend and then I’m off to the Royal Welsh Show on Monday (my first time there), both of which will provide inspiration for next week’s blog posts. Have a great weekend.

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