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.
Yesterday, I blogged about a new report on the potential impacts of Brexit for UK farm incomes and what this might mean for wildlife and the environment. As promised, today I’m hosting a blog from Janet Fairclough, RSPB Conservation Advisor in the North Pennines - the first of two guests giving a first-hand perspective on the challenges and opportunities that Brexit could present.
What does Brexit mean for nature-friendly farming in the uplands?
I have been an RSPB farm adviser since 2000, and during the past 17 years (blimey, that makes me feel old!), I have managed a variety of projects that promote nature friendly farming all over Northern England. My current role is as a Conservation Advisor, working in the North Pennine Dales helping farmers to manage their land for wildlife whilst also running their farm businesses.
The North Pennine Dales are very special, being some of the most remote and unspoilt places in England – for instance we have more breeding waders than anywhere else in mainland UK, over 80% of England’s black grouse, and 40% of England’s upland hay meadows.
Working with hill farmers, I see the challenges of making a living from upland livestock farming every day, and I see the amazing work that many farmers in the uplands are doing for nature.
At the moment, these farmers are supported for this good work through agri-environment schemes. Agri-environment schemes provide a guaranteed income stream, which helps make farm businesses more resilient. The price a farmer gets for his lambs and cattle at market is very unpredictable and can go up and down considerably, so for many farmers in the uplands, agri-environment support is a vital element of their business model.
Agri-environment schemes are great for wildlife. They pay hill farmers to reduce or adjust their stocking rates and avoid using machinery in pasture fields during the spring so that birds like lapwings, that nest on the ground, are protected. They also require farmers to spread farmyard manure on these fields before the breeding season, which provides camouflage for nests and chicks. In the meadows, the gates are closed from stock so the grass can grow, then these are not cut for hay until July, to make sure curlews have time to breed.
The report from Cumulus presents some really challenging scenarios, and I know the results will be alarming for many farmers and their families – particularly those in the uplands, where farming is already difficult. It’s clear that if we end up in a scenario where the level of financial support available to these farmers is reduced, even by a third, that this will present considerable stresses on many upland farm businesses.
The types of farming that are crucial for some of our most sensitive species in the uplands (known as “High Nature Value” farming) are already economically marginal, and could potentially be pushed over the edge by Brexit.
The farmers that I work with don’t want to be dependent on subsidies, but they do deserve to be adequately paid for the amazing stuff that they do for nature on their farms. In the current system, they are not. I feel they should be rewarded for producing locally-distinctive, high-quality food in a way that delivers an outstanding range of benefits to wildlife and society, so as to secure the long-term economic viability of High Nature Value farming.
It goes without saying that I want agri-environment funding to continue post-Brexit, but I also know that some of the underlying farming systems in the uplands may be at risk if the total level of financial support falls much below current levels. If we move away from direct payments after
Brexit, it will be more important than ever that farmers are better rewarded for the work that they do for nature.
Birds like curlews and lapwings depend on the continuation of low-intensity hill farming in the North Pennines. Post-Brexit, I’d like to see farmers being offered a joined-up package of support that ensures that nature-friendly farming in the uplands is profitable. Environmental payments should be at the heart of this, but it would be great to see wider support for farmers to help them access local or niche markets for their wildlife-friendly lamb or beef so they can get a better price for their products; and for holistic business advice to be available to help them navigate potentially dramatic change.