As we look ahead to a future outside the EU, the nations of the UK are beginning to consider some of the biggest potential changes to agriculture since WWII, putting a system that enables farmers to grow food and restore nature within our grasp.
But why does how our food is grown matter quite so much for our wildlife, and why is a change in approach needed?
We can all see how our landscape has been shaped and re-shaped by the work of farmers over thousands of years, across rolling hills, endless horizons or high peaks. No other country looks like ours from above. And our farming history is woven through our names for once-common countryside wildlife too. Think barn owl, harvest mouse, corn marigold, meadow pipit, fieldfare…
Today, around 75% of our country is farmed. Neither our protected areas, gardens, hedgerows and urban green spaces combined, nor (in spite of how it might sometimes feel) our towns and cities, come close to covering the same area. And so of course, places to make a home in this huge combined area of food-growing land remain vital to much of our treasured wildlife.
In the post-war era, our agriculture policies encouraged food production above all else: the UK now has some of the most sophisticated and productive farming in the world. But over the decades they’ve unintendedly led to dramatic and harmful reductions in spaces for wildlife to survive around our crops, as well as other countryside qualities that we need and value like beauty, or water, air and soil quality. Since the 1970s, the index of farmland birds has halved in value and at current rates we could be just 40-60 years away from losing some of our most fertile soils in East Anglia from both erosion and loss of biodiversity, structure and nutrients.
Nature underpins farming. It provides and sustains us with the fertile soil and pollinators we need to grow crops, fresh water, and the air we breathe. These declines are damaging the future of our farming system and food production.
An established and growing group of farmers and environmentalists have been working hard to reverse these declines; long-time supporters will know what a core part of our work this is. Thanks to ongoing research, experimentation and demonstrated results from this movement, we know that it is possible to grow food and protect or re-create space for nature alongside it. The outcome, a healthy environment, benefits us all, but we don’t pay for the effort it requires through our food prices.
To help solve this, current agriculture policies now include some rewards for farmers who manage their land in ways that restores nature. But most public funding of agriculture still rewards landowners for how much land they own, not whether it’s managed in a sustainable way.
Bigger change is needed. David Corrie-Close, who runs the Horned Beef Company in the Lake District, is on the steering group of the new Nature Friendly Farming Network. He’s absolutely clear that “we need Government support for nature friendly farming to achieve food security for our children's children.”
David’s colleague on the Network steering group, Jon Andrews, runs Langdon Barton Farm in South Devon. He points out that “if we want to maintain the countryside, one of best tools in our tool bag is nature friendly farming. We need to see conservation in terms of public good. After we leave the European Union, farming will be will be competing for funding with health and education, so we have to provide clear benefits to the public.”
You may know and love a place where you can find field margins sparkling with colourful flowers and buzzing insects or thick hedgerows alive with birdsong, which Jon’s farm has; where grasslands, meadows or moorlands are grazed in a way that benefits birds, bees, butterflies as well as farm animals, as they are on David’s farm; where in autumn, trees and hedges burst with berries and in spring skylarks and lapwings soar or tumble above you because there are safe nesting areas for them.
But you may also know places where you hear and see little. Where pigeons, magpies and crows – the generalists who’ll manage well in damaged environments where others can’t – dominate. Green deserts that look vibrant and are full of healthy crops, but are no longer surrounded by the diversity of other living creatures that make up a thriving countryside.
In our Twitter poll at the end of last year those of you who took part told us you think it's the Government's job to ensure our food meets a minimum standard of sustainability. Well, now's your chance to tell them!
Right now, the UK Government are asking for our views on proposals that would put the environment at the heart of public spending on agriculture. This could do more than anything else to restore our environmental quality and wildlife numbers, and support all farmers to do so alongside producing quality food.
We all eat food grown here in the UK. So if we nature-lovers, food growers, shoppers, cooks (or enthusiastic eaters!) want change, we all need to let the Government know that we support these ideas, and keep doing so until they are embedded in law.
Take 5 minutes to send them your views today.
We're expecting consultations in Scotland and Wales in the next few months, and of course this conversation is just as important in Northern Ireland. If you haven’t already, sign up as a Campaign Champion and we’ll keep you up to date with how you can get involved in the Brexit decisions that could have the biggest positive impacts on nature in generations.
Read the more stories of the farms already helping nature recover from the Nature Friendly Farming Network, and our work on RSPB’s Hope Farm.
Read more from David Corrie-Close about hill farming in balance with nature and why he's lobbying for all farming to be this way.
Read more about how to support wildlife through the food choices you make now.
Photo credits: Oxfordshire from above allispossible.org.uk; David Corrie-Close and Jon Andrew courtesy of the Nature Friendly Farming Network; Lucerne and vetch (background to 'Have your say...') from Georgie Bray, Assistant Farm Manager at RSPB's Hope Farm.
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