My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
The future of farming policy outside of the European Union is rightly attracting a lot of attention and some themes are beginning to emerge.
First, it is clear that the UK Government wants reform. The new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove said on Friday that “the CAP... encourages patterns of land use which are wasteful of natural resources and often intrinsically poor value rather than encouraging imaginative and environmentally enriching alternatives”.
The UK vote to leave the European Union is an opportunity to overhaul farming and land use policy especially as agriculture covers 75% of the UK and is the biggest driver of decline in populations of UK species.
Second, it’s clear that the UK Government wants public money to used to deliver things that the public will wants/needs. Mr Gove said “this Government has pledged that when we leave the EU we will match the £3 billion that farmers currently receive in support from the CAP until 2022. And I want to ensure that we go on generously supporting farmers for many more years to come. But that support can only be argued for against other competing public goods if the environmental benefits of that spending are clear.” He went on to say “we need to take the opportunity that being outside the Common Agricultural Policy will give us to use public money to reward environmentally-responsible land use” and“understanding how to create and protect habitats should be as much a part of good farming as understanding the latest crop and soil science.”
Lake Vyrnwy (Eleanor Bentnall rspb-images.com)
Our work with farmers has shown that well-designed, well funded agri-environment schemes can help recover farmland wildlife. This week, at the Royal Welsh Show (which is where I am today), we launched as part of Wales Environment Link, ‘A Sustainable Land Management vision for Wales’ (here). This includes the recommendation for a new Sustainable Land Management Contract that supports land managers to restore nature and manage natural resources soundly. This chimes with thinking from the CLA who also promote a Land Management Contract concept. So, there is emerging consensus that environmental public goods provide the central logic for public investment in the countryside.
This all sounds good, but there are at least a couple of bear traps.
First, emerging farming policy must be made to work for all parts of the UK. Given the current devolution settlement, there is a a clear need for cooperation between the governments of the UK after we leave the EU. This should mean the UK Government engaging with the devolved administrations, and developing a shared approach through consensus.
Second, we need to think about how future farming policy might affect different parts of the farming sector. Michael Gove said that “ support for farmers in areas like the Lake District, upland Wales or the Scottish borders is critical to keeping our countryside healthy. Indeed, whether it’s hill farmers or island crofters, or those running small family farms in England and Northern Ireland, there is a need to ensure that the human ecology of rural areas is protected”.
The RSPB cares about what happens to our rural communities. Many of our staff and volunteers live and work in them. We think is vital that a future policy rewards those High Nature Value farming systems that currently get the worst deal, despite delivering the most from an environmental perspective. This may mean maintaining current farming practices and rewarding them accordingly for what they provide.
Yet, in other areas, we need to find a way to influence those that are locked into environmentally unsustainable farming systems. Here, we need the State to think creatively to help these farmers adapt to benefit from new incentives that might reward protection of environmental goods and services (such as storing water to prevent flooding or restoring habitat to provide clean drinking water) or help them diversify their businesses so they are no longer reliant on a form of farming that damages the environment.
It is refreshing that farming policy is now subject to intense debate and I hope that the frame of this debate remains broad: to deliver a vibrant farming community that provides healthy food while restoring the farmed environment.
One aspect that doesn't get as much coverage is river health: preventing soil run-off and pollution from fertilisers or slurry.