By Tom Lancaster - Principal Policy Officer, Agriculture for the RSPB
As conservationists, we’re sometimes accused of being hyperbolic, evoking the threat of ecosystem collapse in every tweet, blog or magazine article.
With recent studies suggesting a collapse in insects, and the threat that we’re heading toward a ‘hothouse Earth’, coming on top of years of warnings from reports such as State of Nature, it’s hard to argue now that such rhetoric is misplaced. With such an emerging weight of evidence, the impetus for action is stronger now than ever before.
In this context, agriculture is often cited as a driver of biodiversity loss. But with challenges of this magnitude, farming and food production itself may become increasingly untenable if we don’t act now. Our own chief executive, Mike Clarke, added his voice to this urgency at the weekend in an interview with the Observer, arguing that Britain has one last chance to save our endangered species.
On the bright side, one last chance does mean that it’s not too late. In the words of the great football manager Sir Alex Ferguson though, if it’s not too late, we’re definitely getting into squeaky bum time for farming and wildlife.
Cattle graze habitat managed for cirl buntings - a conservation success story thanks to the joint work between farmers and conservationists Image: www.rspb-images.com
That is why the next few weeks and months are so critical. In the above article, Mike Clarke referred to three pieces of legislation that will set the framework for our post-Brexit environment – the farming, fisheries and environment bills. The first of these will be farming – or the Agriculture Bill – due out in the first two weeks of September. Given what we know about how Government legislation is produced, it is likely that the Agriculture Bill is currently being circulated across Government, meaning that other Departments and Number 10 get to have their say.
So far, Defra has been clear that they intend to use the Agriculture Bill to help farmers tackle the environmental challenges that they – and that we all – face, by shifting to a system of ‘public money for public goods’. This means the goods and services farmers provide but which we can’t pay for at the till, such as more wildlife, clean water and carbon storage. We have long argued for such a system, and it is more important now than ever. As the Prime Minister herself recognised in her foreword to the recent 25-year environment plan, this approach is also essential to delivering against a whole host of Government commitments.
Of equal importance though is that focusing the payments farmers receive on the environment will also give them the tools they need to address what to date has been a sorry tale of decline. And I’m not just talking about farmland birds. The evidence suggests that we are increasingly jeopardising the natural resources that farming itself depends upon, from soils and water through to pollinating insects. Many farmers are already leading way, with new groups such as the Nature Friendly Farming Network giving farmers the strong voice they need in this debate.
The Agriculture Bill must now give these farmers, and many more, the support they need to bring wildlife back to our countryside.
Farmers discuss wild bird seed mixtures with an RSPB advisor. Image: RSPB
So as the Cabinet scrutinises Defra’s plans, we need them to recognise the environmental urgency that we all face, and no sectors more so than farming. Suggesting that Cabinet should channel their inner Sir Alex might be taking it a bit far – we don’t want any football boots flying toward Michael Gove’s head now. It is worth stretching the football analogy a bit further though. If ‘squeaky bum time’ is about the tension during the end of season run-in, Ministers need to be mindful that, given the state of our natural environment, if they get it wrong now, next season will be even harder for farmers and wildlife.