Why is more clarity needed from Defra?

The Brexit referendum in June 2016 triggered a wholesale change, including in the way that Britain sees itself as a country, as well as practical ‘differences’ in the way we live and work. Change in farming and environmental policy was one of these intended changes and over the past five years Defra has worked to create a new framework, putting environmental land management at the heart of new policy. However, as has been documented in the media and on other blogs, the new schemes have had a low level of interest for uptake.

I would argue that lack of clarity, indeed wholescale uncertainty lies at the heart of this low level of interest. As a farmer said to me the other day, there is confusion on the ground as to what it is that Defra really wants. Is it food production? Is it rewilding? Is it tree planting? Is it regenerative agriculture? We cannot be all things to all people.

The term ‘evolution not revolution’ has rung throughout the process of change at Defra and I personally believe that this was a good thing – for a good amount of time. However, what is required now is certainty of options. We need to know payment rates and management requirements of schemes. Only when that is known can farmers and landowners make decisions as to where they go with their business. If this doesn’t happen soon then you will either see more businesses turning towards increased intensification, or you will see businesses failing. I urge Defra to get their message out early next year, ideally at the Oxford Farming Conference, but by February at the latest.

Recent news

With the amount of change going on at the moment it is sometimes difficult to know where to turn, especially when it comes to planning the future of a rural business. One of my personal challenges over the next six or so years is to adapt my family’s business in Essex, based on 700 acres of coastal farmland, into a selection of enterprises that are fit and sustainable for an ever uncertain future. Farming will of course form part of this, but I am keen to go down the route of further diversification, to spread risk in the future and make us more resilient. Further, I believe that diversity in all forms leads to a more vibrant community and environment. Who knows where one thing may lead? Anyway, this is a rambling start to a post that I thought would gather together some of the key challenges and news stories to have come to the fore in recent weeks.

Last week I spent a couple of days watching sessions at the Oxford Farming Conference and the Oxford Real Farming Conference. Hundreds of people came together (virtually) to discuss the food, farming and environmental challenges of our times and to showcase some of the most inspiring examples of farmers across the sector. I always feel refreshed after Oxford, but it also makes me think how much more there is to be done on our farm! Carbon management will become more central in future years and there will be opportunities for farmers in terms of new carbon markets. Farming is unique in that whilst it could be argued it is a significant emitter, it also has the potential to not only be carbon negative as a sector, but to aid other sectors in capturing carbon and being an overall sink.

According to data from the EU’s satellite system 2021 was declared the fifth warmest year on record, just a little warmer than 2015 and 2018. Further, the past seven years have been named as the warmest seven years overall on record. In Sicily last year 48.8 degrees celsius was reported, breaking Europe’s then existing record for highest temperature by 0.8 degrees C. The trend is clear and never before has there been a greater need to adapt our practices, lifestyles and economies to a low carbon model.

Also in the news we recently learnt of the extremely poor quality of ours rivers. The Environmental Audit Committee has published a report on water quality in English rivers and not a single river has been given a good health status. Long term lack of investment is causing severe issues and the government, regulators, water companies and agriculture are all partly to blame. A lot of farmers will feel this as yet another attack on farming but where there are issues the industry needs to accept that it must do more. The report suggested that chicken farms are a particular source of contamination. Underinvestment in the Environment Agency is also cited as a problem. Action is clearly needed, but we will see over the next decade whether the political will, and the will of riparian landowners and the water companies is there to make the changes that are required.

Finally, we have recently learnt that Countryside Stewardship payments rates will be increased by up to 30% (note the ‘up to’) in a hope that more landowners and farmers will be incentivised to get involved in the schemes. Defra have also announced more detail on their ‘Landscape Recovery’ projects, applications for which will open soon. Areas of between 500 and 5000ha will be given over for new projects involving flood prevention, boosting biodiversity or capturing carbon.

Keep Calm and Carry On

‘We live in interesting times’.

I find this phrase to be somewhat timeless given that, whatever generation we are born into, ‘times’ are always ‘interesting’, given that the world is always in flux. If the world and society didn’t change then life and time would not be what they are. However, this said, it is a relevant phrase to summarise the state of the British countryside today (and indeed the wider world). For those of us who make a living in the countryside, and especially those entrepreneurs and people running a business in the countryside, there are immense pressures.

Does the British public really understand (or indeed sincerely care) that the withdrawal of the Basic Payment Scheme and the way that farmers make a living is changing and thus ushering in a shift of practice the consequences of which are yet unknown. The situation right now is ‘adapt or leave’. On top of this shift we face new trade deals, the ongoing challenge of rural connection (both digital and public transport), rural homelessness, unaffordable house prices and rural crime, to name just a few. The challenge is immense but indeed those who survive it will develop a countryside economy that is more diversified, more resilient and indeed thriving. As well as immense challenge there is significant opportunity for those who recognise what those opportunities are and grasp them with both hands.

To all rural businesses out there – good luck; keep calm and carry on.

When will the weather change?

Have you ever found yourself asking yourself this question? Is there ever such a thing as perfect weather at the right time? Perhaps not.

As I write this I’m looking out at a snowy landscape…still. This time last week it felt as if Spring were around the corner with bright blue skies, birds singing and snowdrops presenting themselves on the garden edge. However, two days later we were under almost a foot of snow with drifts several feet higher than that. We had hoped to have planted hundreds of metres of new hedgerows by this point in the winter but the wet ground followed by this recent weather has delayed planting. It has been great to see people in other parts of the country progressing with their planting but I’m getting itchy feet here. Looking at the positive, it has provided time for planning new projects and dealing with day to day orders for the farm’s sea buckthorn products. I have finally submitted a planning application for a new stable block on the farm and there has of course been plenty of podcasting going on.

If you’re anything like me you will be highly fed up by now with the latest lockdown, although the incredible efforts of our emergency services, scientists and health workers is providing the prospect of something like a return to ‘normal’ in the coming months. My mental health has suffered at times, and despite having developed and learnt strategies to deal with this and prevent things from overwhelming me I must admit things have been difficult at times, so I can empathise with those who have been having darker days. I am however ever grateful for my good health overall and am just focusing on each day as it comes.

For now, I will pin my hopes on the dry (and slightly warmer) weather forecast.

A deadly fungus is killing frogs around the world, but the bacteria on their skin could protect them

Researchers in Costa Rica have found that some bacteria on the skin of amphibians prevent growth of the fungus responsible for what has been dubbed ‘the amphibian apocalypse’.

Published in the journal Microbiology, the research identified a number of bacteria which could growth of the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). One particularly dangerous strain of the fungus, called BdGPL-2, is responsible for mass amphibian die-offs around the world.

The fungus infects the skin of amphibians, breaking down the cells. As amphibians breathe and regulate water through their skin, infection is often deadly. It is believed that almost 700 species of amphibian are vulnerable to the fungus, and Bd has led to the extinction of 90 amphibian species.

In order to investigate why some amphibian populations in Costa Rica were more resilient to Bd that others, a research group led by Dr Adrian Pinto, Professor at the University of Costa Rica sampled the circulating strains of Bd and the skin microbiome of amphibians at different sites.

To do this, the research group collected wild amphibians from areas of Costa Rica which had a history of Bd outbreaks. “Bd has previously been widely detected in Costa Rica, but this is the first study to isolate and compare the characteristics of different isolates,” said Dr Pinto, “our work showed that the circulating strains of the pathogenic fungus belong to a highly virulent global strain known as BdGPL-2.”

They found that the bacteria on the skin of some surviving amphibians prevented growth of the fungus in the lab. “Amphibian species that survived decline harbor bacteria on their skin capable of inhibiting the growth of the pathogen. However, this inhibitory capacity varies according to which strain of the fungus is being tested,” said Dr Pinto. “These findings suggest that locally adapted skin bacteria may offer protection from the disease.”

Although the researchers expected to see the highly virulent strain BdGPL-2 in Costa Rica, they did not expect to see so much variation in circulating strains. “We were surprised of the phenotypic variations among the pathogen isolates, including their different responses to the antagonistic bacteria,” said Dr Pinto. “Local pathogen adaptations must be considered when designing mitigation strategies for this disease.”

Dr Pinto hopes to combine their findings with other disease control strategies to protect amphibian populations from decimation by Bd: “We will further study the ability of skin bacteria to protect amphibians against disease, as another tool to combat this plague alongside the creation of climate shelters and fostering the amphibians’ own immune system,” he said.

Costa Rica is one of the countries that suffered a dramatic loss of amphibian species between the 1980s and 1990s. In Costa Rica, there are currently 64 species of amphibians in some risk category according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Species classified as critically endangered include the Holdridge’s Toad (Incilius holdridgei), a native species found only in the mountain ranges of the central region; The Variable Harlequin Frog (Atelopus varius), a river species very sensitive to Bd, and several species of river tree frogs of the genus Isthmohyla that live in cold currents in high areas, a habitat where Bd proliferates successfully.

Amphibians are one of the most diverse groups in the tropics and represent crucial links in food webs. Protecting them keeps ecosystems healthy since biological diversity is the basis for resilient forests, thus helping control pests and zoonotic infections.

The full scientific paper can be found on the Microbiology website. (https://doi.org/10.1099/mic.0.001017)

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