Yesterday, I gave a presentation to the Oxford Farming Conference on balancing production with conservation.  You can read a copy of my paper here. I enjoyed the experience despite having the odd flashback to doing my final year exams - the conference is held in the Examination Halls which for me is home to some rather painful memories. 

It was great to be able to contribute to the debate as the conference sets the scene for the rest of the year.  To keep the debate alive I have invited a few guest bloggers to add their contributions this week.

Below you will find some thoughts from Matthew Naylor. 

Matthew is a farmer from South Lincolnshire.  He grows cut flowers for most of the major supermarkets.  The farm, on Holbeach and Moulton Marsh, was reclaimed from the Wash by the Saxons and Romans.  The farm is LEAF Marque accredited and Matthew is a trustee of LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming).  He is a Farmers Weekly columnist, a Nuffield scolar and he writes a blog here.

Matthew writes...

Martin Harper’s paper gives a rational and comprehensive overview of where Western European agriculture finds itself.  It is a fact that the CAP-designed system for producing food in the UK has caused biodiversity to suffer.  Thankfully he delivered the news in an impartial way.  Farmers are sensitive souls and they take criticism badly; they need to understand why there’s a problem before they will start to tackle it.

There has been a tug of war between certain farmers and certain conservationists in the past.   The best policy in this situation is usually to stop tugging and let the other side fall on their bum.  This signifies a brave new dawn and I hope will lead to many more cases of farmers and conservationists working together.  Unfortunately it is much easier to keep on arguing than it is to address a situation.  The big challenge now is “How do we deliver a productive and profitable farming network while maintaining a balanced eco-system?” 

Martin’s paper was the first time that I have heard the phrases land sharing/land sparing.  This encapsulates something which has troubled me as a farmer.  Should I be farming with nature or alongside nature?  The correct answer varies from one crop to the next but I suspect involves a proprtion of both.  We clearly need areas that are managed for wildlife on most farms but we also need to consider our practices on the productive areas too. The timing of mechanical operations is fundamentally disruptive to all sorts of natural life cycles.  Most UK farms have moved towards huge fields and the capabilities of modern machines mean that vast areas of the countryside can receive the same process in a few days.  We cannot hope to have broad bio-diversity unless the crops and the way that they are grown is at least as diverse.  In this respect, the market is leading the farming industry in completely the opposite direction.

The paper also highlights how difficult it is to measure the postive and negative impacts of our actions.  None of us can claim to be absolutely sure why farmland bird numbers are falling.  The EU have paid huge sums of money into Stewardship schemes without a clear idea of what they would actually achieve.  ELS and HLS have set the agenda very well but they should have been supported with much more research funding and practical advice at a local level.  The role of the RSPB has been invaluable on our own farm in this respect.  It is disappointing, but perhaps not suprising, that the charitable sector has to be depended upon to make up for the shortcomings of the tax-funded policy.

Do you agree with Matthew? 

It would be great to hear your views.

  • Martin ---thank you felt sure you had it all in hand and once you start think you will get it there but was slightly worried about how it would look if we did not get to the target and how difficult individuals were finding it just manageing to reach just relatively small numbers of contacts which have now been exhausted.Thank you for tolerating me mentioning it more than once.

    Certainly would be a wonderful world if Peter ruled but we have to move forward in the real world which is proving very difficult,however maybe you have got your relatively new job just at the right time with the right attitude so perhaps unfairly a large responsibility on your shoulders.It is a time for all of us to try and progress just like the Thorney project and not be on opposite sides,this will allow the moderates on all sides to prosper as I think it is too easy to lump all of one group as good or bad.For certain the majority in most groups want much the same.

  • What a interesting world it would be if you ruled the world, Peter!

    And Sooty - I hear your challenge regarding the petition - we do support it and will determine how and when to promote it so that at least as many as the >210,00 people that signed our birds of prey petition sign up.

  • I am afraid that we can be pretty sure why farmland birds numbers are falling; the evidence is clear and fairly unequivocal. This is not to blame farmers but to try and understand the consequence of actions in the countryside that were encouraged by government policy and often resulted in other public "good" such as food production. These actions were often driven ruthlessly by a background of hard economic realities and more lately by the brutal monopolies of the supermarkets; and the ecological ignorance of the impact of fertilisers, pesticides and the impact of the mechanics of scale notably hedgerow loss. This all in an era dominated by plentiful energy.

    In many hill areas the farming population is quite elderly while conversely there are many who  would love to get their hands on "some land "; maybe "farm shares" could be encouraged as opposed to ranches to let young starters in.

    I am quite happy to abandon East Anglia to food production; it is a flat featureless desert. I would love to put all that arable subsidy into the smaller mixed and family farm who tends to spend money locally.

    If I ruled the world there would be no barley barons but only yeomen !

  • Matthew ---well done for taking on a challenge of doing a blog and as a retired farmer wish more farmers would somehow do this so that both sides get more understanding and also shows a really good attitude to moving forward from Martin.

    Strange how conservationists criticise farming in general they do not realise that it hurts when so many like yourself are trying so hard and think you hit the nail on the head that farmers are sensitive to criticism.

    Think you have put points very well and both sides have to work together or seeing as farmers are by far the biggest occupiers of land it will be doom and gloom for much longer.

    Farmers in my opinion have a really good chance of partnering the RSPB in things at the moment as they are in the majority of personnel all on the farmers side so lets hope we do not miss this big opportunity.

    Martin----well done for giving a farmer chance to blog and the obvious thought is that you listen carefully to their thoughts.My concern about the raptor petition is that it is a once in a generation chance to improve things and if we do not hit the target then politicians will take the chance to say we do not really care.Ordinary mortals like myself and others are surprised by how hard it has been to get to 5,000 and it will simply stagnate without a organisation and/or a personality taking it on board,what a pity that would be for raptors and the person who started the petition.