The Big Debate: how to make UK farming good for people and good for nature

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Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

The Big Debate: how to make UK farming good for people and good for nature

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The RSPB has a clear mission: to inspire a world richer in nature.  Core to this is the need for more, bigger, better and connected protected areas and for an improvement in the wildlife value of land outside of these protected areas. 

Given that 70% of the UK is farmed and agriculture has been cited as the biggest driver of decline in species populations, we have to find ways for wildlife to coexist alongside farming. 

While in places like the Cairngorms or the Flow Country, we are moving towards more passive management of the land to restore wildlife at scale, in many of our sites, we farm the land we manage for the benefit of wildlife.

It is perhaps at Hope Farm where this work is best known. Against a background of declines in the UK’s farmland birds and other wildlife, we have shown that is possible to meet both the needs of people and wildlife.

On this conventional, intensive, arable farm, we have increased the population farmland wildlife while maintaining profit. We’ve shown that targeted conservation work by farmers, backed up by science and supported by agri-environment schemes and financial mechanisms works.  If you would like to find out more, why not come along to Hope Farm on Open Farm Sunday, 11 June.  I'll be there and it would be lovely to see you.

RSPB Hope Farm (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)

But our farming operations touch all parts of the UK.

At The Oa on Islay we own and farm 2,000 hectares of coastal and heathland habitat. With 140 breeding cows and 600 ewes this is not a small operation. Each group of animals is put on selected areas to make best use of the particular characteristics of different breeds and species and delivers the habitat management we need.  By using the livestock in this way we can deliver the conservation benefit for species such as chough.

With Brexit on the horizon, wildlife friendly farming faces an uncertain future. However, it is also an opportunity to make the existing £3.1 billion of taxpayers money (that supports farming annually through the Common Agriculture Policy) work much harder for people and wildlife.  Once we leave the EU, we need to develop a new farming policy that must create both a thriving farming community AND improves the natural environment.  With the right policies and incentives, and by working together with land owners and the farming community, I am convinced we can create an environment that’s equally good for nature, farmers and us.

With this in mind the RSPB will be hosting a special event at the Hay Festival on 31 May, which will delve deeper into what the next 30 years could look like if the natural environment was placed at the centre of farming policies post-Brexit – with a specific focus on Wales.

Eighty four per cent of the Welsh landscape is farmland and the RSPB has been working closely with farmers in Wales for many years help show that farming and nature can work together.

Last year RSPB Ramsey Island struck a farm-to-fork deal with a local restaurant, St Davids Kitchen, to highlight the positives of environmentally friendly farming. The reserve sold all 66 of their ‘ram lambs’ along with eight red deer to St Davids Kitchen. Having travelled the mere three miles, the lambs grazed under the hill of Pen Beri on the St David’s Peninsula until they were ready for the restaurant.

RSPB Lake Vyrnwy (Eleanor Bentall, rspb-images.com)

More recently, RSPB Lake Vyrnwy has been holding live-lambing events offering a unique day out for families. When we see where our food comes from, we also realise what a big impact it has on nature. These events are not only a unique family experience, but also the perfect way to discover the connections between food, farming and nature at first hand.

Farmers have helped to turn things around for species like stone-curlew and cirl bunting, but the scale of intervention needed to see the same reversal of fortunes across the board for the UK’s farmland wildlife is clearly greater than is currently being delivered. What is needed are new and innovative ways of farming that deliver for wildlife at the same time as addressing problems faced by the current generation of farmers, such as herbicide resistant weeds and decreasing soil fertility.

This is why, through the Greener UK coalition, we have developed our vision for the future of farming policy in the UK.  Following the General Election, we want to engage politicians in a debate about how to ensure our future land management and farming policy delivers a sustainable future for our countryside.

To get you in the mood, why not visit the Hay Festival and take part in the debate.  You can find out more about it here

Comments
  • Much to my surprise, I'm in agreement with what Rob has said !

    Technology and farming systems are vital to the future of our landscape - and they are definitely not as simple as organic good/chemicals bad and the similar examples Rob gives. Similarly, a 'freefall' removal of public support would not result in idyllic natural landscapes.

    I would suggest:

    - we need to work back from outcomes - start with what society as a whole needs from the landscape

    - and, closely linked, we must get away from the 1947 idea (when it was right - it isn't now) that food production is the overwhelming priority for every square inch of the countryside

    - But we must give land managers - as long as they are ready to change - a fair deal. Despite appearances and farming propaganda, farming is economically fragile and the true rural is losing out daily to the power of the cities - as exemplified by the supermarkets near destruction of dairying.

  • Martin

    I'm glad that the red deer made it onto our plate - as we find it increasingly hard to stray far from our norms of consumption that do little for nature. I hosted a discussion at Hay earlier on the how agri-tech can reduce farming's footprint on the environment www.hayfestival.com/p-12085-helen-browning-david-speller-and-jake-freestone-talk-to-rob-yorke.aspx which attracted a full crowd of farmers and Hay goers (200+) interested in how we can make it work involving innovative farmers thinking way out the box.

    It is not as easy as it sounds. Free range chickens and pigs may be great for welfare but bad for diffuse pollution into water courses. Grazing the uplands is good if stock are well managed over a patchwork of fields but bad if poorly ranched over huge areas of improved grass converted from heather.

    The big one for politicians of any hue, is price of food. Supermarkets, oft framed as bad boys, react to and influence as to how consumers wish to spend their money.

    Conservation organisations of any hue, must help educate society as to how their food choices impact on the environment - it is not just carry on as before - as we are all culpable for the State of Nature.

    Best, Rob