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.
Unless you’ve been out of the country for the past few months, you’ve probably noticed Environment Secretary Michael Gove has been actively setting out his case for a 'Green Brexit'. Central to his vision is fundamental reform of agriculture policy and payments, and the direction of travel Mr Gove sets out for those reforms is very positive.
As a contribution to this debate, the RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts and National Trust have today published a report that assesses the costs of environmental land management across the UK, completed by independent economic consultant Matt Rayment.
As I have mentioned many times before, agriculture has been and remains one of the biggest drivers of wildlife decline across the UK. Poorly designed public policy has driven agriculture in the wrong direction, with actively damaging subsidies in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s resulting in environmental degradation. Since then, reformed agricultural policy has been insufficient to right these wrongs (as demonstrated by the continued decline in farmland birds reported in last weeks State of UK's Birds report).
The UK vote to leave the European Union means that we shall also leave the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This presents an opportunity to do things differently. We have the chance to create a farming and land use policy that help the UK Government's realise its commitment of restoring the natural environment in a generation. All four governments of the UK have their own ambitions for the natural environment – from improving water quality, to increasing extent of key habitats, and managing our finite and fast-eroding soils. Given that 75% of UK land is farmed, success will depend on how we support farmers and other land managers.
Crucially, this will require significant investment. Whilst some of this could and should come from the private sector, the fact that many environmental objectives are ‘public goods’ (i.e. they’re not provided through conventional markets) means that the majority will need to come from the public purse.
The report we publish today provides a figure for how much nature needs: we estimate that the total cost of achieving our environmental ambitions (for example to meet targets for species and habitats) on land are £2.3 billion per year. Compared to existing CAP funded agri-environment scheme spending, this would represent a 450% increase, but compared to overall CAP spending (£3 billion), it’s doable. And more importantly, it will is essential if we are to a future for some of our rapidly declining species such as curlew (profiled in a separate blog here), turtle dove, high brown fritillary, stone curlew, corn marigolds and corncrake.
As I have written previously, farming and land management policies need a thorough overhaul, and the environment should be the overriding focus of any future payments. With powerful voices calling for an end to all farming payments, refocusing future payments toward the clear environmental benefits that farmers and land managers are uniquely placed to provide presents an opportunity for the sector to continue to receive public support.
This report provides evidence for the funding needed to exercise this shift. However, as farming faces the uncertainty of Brexit, there is also a clear need for targeted support to ensure that the sector is able to adapt to the inevitable change that Brexit will bring, and to help drive sustainable innovation and build resilience. In an accompanying briefing for policy makers, we set out why we need to maintain the funding associated with the CAP – in excess of £3 billion per year – for at least a ten year period after our departure from the EU.
We have the opportunity to show the world that we can do something no other country has done, to deliver a thriving farming sector that delivers for nature and people. The UK Government and devolved administrations have this within their gift, and this report shows that it is both realistic, and attainable.
All we need now is the political will.
Please do read the report and let me know what you think.
It would be great to hear your views.
Arable flower image from Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
A good report. I think, realistically, one could not expect any government to increase the overall farming budget much above the current values when the UK leaves the EU. Therefore to achieve £2.3 billion spend per year, most of that money, by far, must, I assume be diverted from the current Pillar One payments. I think therefore the Report could address this issue a bit more than it does and what the effects of diverting this money might be. By doing this it would put less emphasis on the fact that it is a shear £2.3 billion COST and rather more on the the fact that it would mean diverting existing monies that the Government has, hopefully, already budgeted to spend
Finally I think some confirmation of the £,2.3 billion by reference to say current work at Hope Farm and perhaps some NT farms, if applicable, might well be useful.
We're at one of those big break points that are hard to see at the time: on the one hand, the familiar, traditional single-sector bidding for a limited resource of both space and money. On the other, an outcome led approach aimed at optimising the use of space and money for the things people need today.
It is difficult, but it is vital to get beyond the constraints of CAP and the 1947 agriculture act which is almost all most policy makers know (and the origins of which few understand). Nature doesn't have to go on solely on the poorest land - that is 1947 thinking - and the idea we are all going to starve if a single acre of farmland is given up to people or birds is a bad joke.
There is no possibility that the money needed will appear down the traditional route you are advocating: what is more likely is that both farming and conservation will lose much of what they already have.
The Natural capital Committee is giving us the sort of narrative that could produce the goods - serious economics, demonstrating what we all know, which is that we are paying to do damage we then have to pay again to rectify - which means the money is there with intelligent landuse that looks for multiple benefits and delivers the things we need - most especially restoring the natural world.