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.
A Scottish Government consultation on a transition to a new rural policy closed last week. The theme was ‘Stability and Simplicity’, setting out plans to make the next few years as smooth as possible for land managers and rural businesses as we transition to a new system post-Brexit.
According to the Scottish Government, the aim of the transition is to ‘enhance [farmers and crofters’] role as stewards of the natural environment, and embrace an integrated approach to land use which seeks to deliver multiple benefits from the land’. They suggest any changes should take us closer to a ‘comprehensive new rural policy which helps to protect and enhance the natural assets on which our farming and other rural industries depend’. These are things that RSPB Scotland certainly agrees on.
But the consultation does not get as far as telling us what this new policy might be. A well-planned transition is necessary, but unless we know what we are transitioning to, planning is difficult. Rural Scotland urgently needs a vision for the longer term.
The policies and funding frameworks that we have now under the EU Common Agricultural Policy have had very mixed success. While schemes like the Agri-Environment Climate Scheme (AECS) are a vital way of funding landscape scale interventions for biodiversity, climate and other environmental needs, other schemes lack evidence and a logic for spending public money beyond simply land ownership and farming activity. There are few strings attached to major funding streams like the Basic Payment Scheme, allowing public money to fund practices that contribute to, rather than solve environmental challenges.
The Paps of Jura with Scottish Black Face sheep grazing in the foreground. Image: www.rspb-images.com
At RSPB Scotland, we have a vision for a different system. The current one-size fits all approach leaves too many smaller, more remote, more nature-friendly farms without adequate support. In the future, we want a system that is fully focused on delivering public goods in return for public investment, and takes regional and local differences into account.
Public goods include wildlife and functioning ecosystems, a stable climate, beautiful landscapes for recreation and cultural identity, and other goods and services not paid for by the market but which are vital for us and future generations. As part of Scottish Environment LINK, we have outlined what a new support scheme could look like, that prioritises public goods while supporting land-based businesses to become more nature-friendly, efficient, and sustainable.
The transition period planned by Scottish Government should help us get there. We agree that stability and simplicity are sensible principles in the short term, but with caveats. A period of limited change in the short-term must mean that we use this time to plan for a fundamentally new policy and funding framework post-2024. And stability for the sector relies on everyone knowing what’s ahead, so that we can all plan for the future.
Simplicity in the system is also welcome, but this mustn’t come at the expense of maintaining environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards, or get in the way of achieving environmental and other public goods goals.
In the short-term, we believe that the sector needs to come together to trial some fundamentally new approaches. Regional land use planning should set priorities and shape funding frameworks at a regional level. Individual holdings should be supported to look at their whole business in the round, planning for environmental and business performance in the long term. For this we need much better advice to be available, from people who have the right knowledge, especially when it comes to environmental issues. And finally, we should test out some different ways of structuring schemes, focusing on the outcomes that land managers achieve, in the context of a much more supportive system.
If you are interested in reading more on these proposals in detail, you can request a copy of our response by emailing email@example.com
Blog post by Derek Gruar, Senior Research Assistant, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science and Georgie Bray, Hope Farm's Assistant Manager.
Farming is a rewarding but very challenging test of resilience for many reasons. This year has been particularly testing, and really hammered home to us that we, like the wildlife around us, are at mercy to the almighty clouds, rain and sun from above. Whilst ensuring profitable crops are grown, farmers are also looking ahead to ensure that wildlife will be given the best chance of surviving through the winter.
Summer bird monitoring for 2018 started on 3rd April, following snow and rain that pummelled our fields well on into March. After a few weeks, things changed quickly as the summer scorch soon dried out the countryside and called an early end to the nesting season for many species by the last breeding bird survey on 6th July. The table below details the number of territories held by the 17 species in the Hope Farm breeding bird index.
Despite the overall positive picture, there are important messages to take home about how sensitive farmland bird populations are to extreme weather conditions, just the same as our crops our in the field.
The spring was wet and cold, with some of the harshest weather that I can remember so late in the season. Storms whirled across the continent, making it very difficult for the migratory farmland birds to arrive here in good time to breed or arrive at all. Back here on the farm, we were standing looking at puddles in the fields we wanted to drill, with the birds struggling with resources low and little new summer food coming through.
41 species were recorded as holding territory in 2018 with 494 individual territories. This was a drop from 568 of 46 species in 2017, but still a considerable increase compared to the 301 territories of 35 species in 2000. Yellowhammers have fallen from 34 to 27 territories, and alas both corn buntings and yellow wagtails were absent as territory holding species. Lapwings and grey partridges did well with 3 and 7 territories respectively.
With these results, the Hope Farm breeding bird index now stands at a 150% increase compared to the baseline (see graph below) but a notable drop from 226% increase in 2017. Reed warbler was confirmed as breeding for the first time with two pairs nesting in one of the wet (and perhaps this year even wetter!) features created on the farm.
This is not the first year that Hope Farm’s birds have struggled to survive and breed successfully. 2012 was the wettest summer in years, leading to little insect food and poor juvenile survival, with a knock-on low Hope Farm farmland bird index in 2013. We hope that the envionmental features at Hope Farm will again aid a fast recovery of our bird population after the extreme weather.
Reed warblers were recorded as breeding on Hope Farm for the first time this year. Image: www-rspb-images.com
Now, we look toward another winter for the fewer birds that have managed to successfully survive to breed this spring. The weather has also led to a short and difficult growing season for our wild bird seed mixes; these crops are unlikely to provide as much seed as in previous years.
Like other nature-friendly farmers in a similar position, we are already looking to see how much seed we will need to buy for supplementary food compensating for the lack of grown seed food. The recent rains mean there will at least be a boost in growth, but after a hard year on wildlife and farming alike, these birds will need more help than ever to ensure they breed successfully next year.