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.
On Saturday 360 people gave up their day to attend the RSPB’s AGM in central London. All were RSPB members and most were active volunteers.
From our President to our Chair, Treasurer and our other trustees, to those that run our local groups across the UK or take part in our Phoenix Forum for teenagers, all give up their time and help us grow support to allow the RSPB to have the impact it does.
In total, our charity benefits from the support provided by nearly one and a quarter million members and just under a million hours given free by our volunteers. These are big numbers and is why we are able to do what we do.
RSPB Abernethy nature reserve made possible thanks to RSPB members, volunteers and staff (photo by Chris Gomersall, rspb-images.com)
It’s right, therefore, that every year at our AGM we give awards to our most dedicated volunteers as we did on Saturday.
Those of us that are lucky enough to be paid to work for the charity know that we are servants of our amazing members. And our job is to ensure we work together with our volunteers to have the biggest impact for nature.
But, new data protection rules which come into force next year will affect how we stay in touch with our supporters which is why a big theme running through Saturday’s AGM was asking our members and supporters to opt in to hearing from us.
We’ve included details about how members can remain connected in the latest issue of Nature’s Home magazine which drops on people’s doormats this month. We have set up a webpage – rspb.org.uk/yes – to make it easy for people to tell us how they want to keep in touch on their terms.
The new rules are designed to give people more control over their relationship with charities and business. This must be right and we want to do whatever we can to keep our supporters connected to us so that together we can continue to do amazing things for nature – from taking part in our campaigns, doing practical conservation work, raising money or even taking part in Big Garden Birdwatch.
We have only until May 2018 to get our existing members and supporters to make their opt-in choices, after which new regulations come into force. If you are one of these supporters and haven’t opted in by May and given your express permission for us to contact you, then we won’t be able to keep in touch directly (other than through our correspondence about your membership and through Nature’s Home).
So, please do say yes to the RSPB so we can keep in touch with you about our work.
And, please do the same for all those other nature conservation charities you might support. We need to stay together to help save nature.
Three volunteers: from right to left, here are the past (Ian Darling), present (Professor Steve Ormerod) and future (Kevin Cox) Chairs of the RSPB Council of trustees
Today, I’m delighted to host the second of this week’s guest blogs reflecting on what Brexit might mean for hill farmers, following the publication of an RSPB commissioned report to understand the potential impacts. Chris Clark is a hill farmer and business consultant from the Yorkshire Dales.
Alongside his wife Fiona, Chris runs a 170 hectare beef and sheep farm in Langstrothdale in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. As well as producing and marketing rare-breed sheep and cattle, Chris and Fiona have diversified their farm business to include self-catering accommodation, an education centre and two observational hides, and a biomass boiler backed up by solar panels to provide sustainable heating and hot water. Their farm is also home to a whole host of wildlife including curlew, black grouse, short-eared owls, crossbills, red squirrels, otters, and brown trout.
How can hill farmers survive Brexit?
The importance of the role that farmers play within the upland landscape is well understood by most within the agricultural and environmental sectors. But there are justifiable concerns about the impact Brexit will have on the future of hill farming, not least the looming reduction of farm support payments.
The big worry of course is the fundamental issue of farm profitability. What if there is no area support and not enough environmental payments for uplands in say, 10 years’ time? How will farms and the upland landscape change? Will farm businesses stop, amalgamate, collaborate or do something else? How should government, agricultural and environmental leaders help farmers survive?
The uncertainty is exacerbated by the already marginal viability of hill farms. According to DEFRA, in 2014/15 half of all UK farmers failed to cover their costs of production. And even with support payments, almost 20% of farms failed to achieve a farm business income. This will almost certainly be higher on hill farms.
The stock in trade for most hill farmers is sheep but the truth is that the UK demand for lamb as a commodity is in long-term decline. And the age demographic of lamb consumption shows it’s being dominated by older people.
Demographics also plays a part in the entrepreneurial inertia of an ageing farming population - many farmers are set in their ways and maintain the unprofitable status quo.
However, change they will have to.
Of course, every farmer’s situation is different. Geology, soil type, altitude and weather all have an influence as well as the needs and wants of the farming family managing the business. But all hill farmers need to examine the intersection between productivity and profitability. Depending on the business, a better model might be achieved by, amongst other things, a combination of: reducing variable costs, reducing fixed costs, finding income from outside the farm, collaboration; taking control of the downstream food supply chain, diversification (but only when the core business is sound).
Look at beef production for example. It could be three or four years before any return might accrue, very hard for a marginal hill farm to manage, particularly when the unenviable capital required is added to the equation. Public policy will have a role to play here, such as through environmental land management payments and potentially capital investment in cattle handling facilities and housing, but hill farmers also need to find more certain routes to making a profit.
The primary answer relies on businesses that are strategically better budgeted and better planned and that trust business models with the appropriate interaction of profitability and productivity. However, understanding the secondary flaws in a hill farming business also helps to understand where to find a solution.
At the moment, typically, a hill farmer will sell the product, say lamb, through a wholesaler to a meat processor who then sells to a merchant. That merchant will set prices and sell to a retailer, who markets to the end user.This route gives the hill farmer 15% of the final price to consumer, while the retailer takes 35%. The meat processors and merchants can take a staggering 50%
So, what if hill farmers did the job of the processors and merchants as well as taking a slice of the retail trade?
Some hill farmers, perhaps working with their regional National Park or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, could form regionally-based producer groups. They can then offer products which are unique to their region. The merchant is cut out and the farms take a far greater share of the profits.
And then taking a slice of the retail trade might well take the form of denying the supermarkets access to the group’s brands, except at a premium.
The bottom line is hill farmers and its’ leaders need to urgently plan and budget in these uncertain times. They need to radically reassess the way hill farms work if they are to survive and for our uplands to remain intact.
In particular hill farming leaders should be working to ensure the survival of the existing structure of hill farm holdings, particularly the smaller family farm, tenanted, managed and owned, by firstly, promoting planning and budgeting for the future and encouraging farmers to expeditiously adapt accordingly. Secondly, assisting farm businesses move from a primarily production based business model to one motivated by margin, preferably margin derived from a value-added driven producer group. This will inevitably mean a move from commodities to branded produce where the branding articulates a differentiation, an implied guarantee of quality and a consistency in the product.
Focusing on profitability and added value produce can also align strongly with environmental outcomes in the uplands, as well as improving financial resilience. In this way, hill farmers can position themselves to benefit from a future policy centred around public goods and the Secretary of State’s ‘Green Brexit’, whilst putting environmental credentials at the heart of a brand that will really resonate with consumers.
I try to end the week with a bit of good news for a Friday, and as we come to the end of a short series of blogs about Brexit and farming (where admittedly the news has been pretty mixed), I wanted to conclude by saying why I think we’ve got a fantastic opportunity to get things right and set out a future that is good for farming, good for nature, and good for people.
On Wednesday, Janet gave us some insights into the critical role that many farmers play in managing important habitat for species like curlew and lapwing. Much of this work is currently underpinned by agri-environment support. In the uplands, where some of the most ‘High Nature Value’ farming systems are already economically marginal, the future of that management is uncertain and will, to a large degree, depend on the direction of future policy and availability of financial support.
Yesterday, Chris shared a different perspective, focussing on how upland farmers can build their resilience through careful business planning, by focussing on profitability rather than just productivity, and by working together to extract more value from within the supply chain. Chris highlighted how upland farmers’ environmental credentials can play an important role in creating brand recognition and achieving better value for top quality food.
And last night, at a dinner for 40 European BirdLife partners, I listened to a Dutch dairy farmer, Alex Datema, explain why farming and the Common Agriculture Policy needed to change for both wildlife and for people. Whether in or outside the EU, there appears to be consensus that the future of farming needs to be different.
From reading the various reports that have been published on this theme and reflecting on the contributions from Janet, Chris and Alex, some clear themes seem to be emerging:
- The future is uncertain, the picture is complex, and there are a huge mix of both risks and opportunities for farmers and for the environment.
- There is a vital role for public policy to play in shaping that future and ensuring that farmers who are doing great things for nature and the countryside are better rewarded – both through environmental management payments and through the supply chain.
- The difference between ‘getting it right’ and ‘getting it wrong’ is huge and now is the time to set the direction of travel. If we get it right, I believe we can have sustainable, resilient and productive farming nested within a vibrant rural landscape where nature can thrive. If we get it wrong, the consequences for many farmers, for wildlife, and for the environment could be dire.
That is why the RSPB, in collaboration with others, are calling for continued support for farmers and land managers based on the principle of ‘public money for public goods’. At a time when public expenditure will need to be justified more robustly than ever before, we argue that by supporting continued public investment in farming and land management in return for these public benefits, we are acting in the long-term interests of not just the environment, but also the farming community. This argument is supported by recent statements from the Secretary of State, that “…support can only be argued for against other competing public goods if the environmental benefits of that spending are clear”.
Our proposals for future policy, alongside the recent report we commissioned on Brexit, are intended to be a constructive, pragmatic and ambitious contribution to the ongoing debate about the future of the countryside post-Brexit, and will form the basis of conversations we have with farmers, land managers, other NGOs, Government and other stakeholders across the UK in the months ahead.
We can’t talk for too long though. To do so risks the uncertainty of Brexit turning into drift and stagnation, something that can only increase the risks for both farming and nature. If Brexit is an ‘unfrozen moment’, we need a plan in place before the winter comes.