29 Oct

Give Farmers the Opportunity to Help Widlife Thrive writes Pete Burgess

DR Director and Director of Conservation and Development at the Devon Wildlife Trust Pete Burgess wrote a fantastic piece published in the Western Morning News this week highlighting the importance of farmers being given the opportunity to help wildlife thrive, whatever Brexit and other governmental changes are afoot.

Read the whole article below:

Should there be butterflies in the Uplands?

Andrea Leadsom in a pre Brexit debate infamously stated it would “make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies”  since these comments were made seismic political events have occurred. The vote to leave the EU has and will continue to dominate activity at all levels for the foreseeable future. We are experiencing levels of uncertainty which render short and medium term business planning a treacherous exercise – especially if you are one of the 102,000 businesses that are within the agriculture, forestry and fishing sectors.

Political spheres which are witnessing unrivalled activity are farming and the environment. In any one parliamentary term we may expect perhaps just one key piece of legislation that may broadly relate to the environment. But our environmental laws, regulations, policies and practices are so intimately bound within EU that we have witnessed more change in one year than one may reasonably expect in a generation – and we can expect more radical changes over the coming years.

The following papers and proposed policies have been or are soon to be launched:

• 25 Year Environment Plan
• The Agriculture Command Paper and Bill
• Changes to the National Planning Policy Framework
• Fisheries White Paper
• Consultation on 3rd tranche of MCZ
• The Environment Act

With this mind boggling rate of change there is a genuine risk of policy fatigue and potential complacency – it is crucial however that each change is given the diligent scrutiny that we would have given to just one in the pre-Bexit era.

Of all the proposed legislation the Agriculture Bill has the potential for triggering tumultuous change. Like it or loath it, it is clear that leaving the Common Agricultural Policy is not going to be easy. After all the CAP has shaped how farmers receive financial support from the taxpayer, for over 40 years. Farmers currently receive €4 billion of support each year. To its great credit, it has in recent years allocated some £460 million annually towards environmental stewardship. But this is only a meagre 12% of the funds. The remaining 88% is largely spent on the Single Farm Payment. Allocated on the basis of land owned, this subsidy has not sufficiently encouraged agricultural innovation nor the environmental enhancements so desperately needed.

Our farming systems which are intertwined with our environment, biodiversity, landscape, soil and water health and air quality, not to mention cultural identity rely on the Single Farm Payment. As I look outside of my window onto the fringes on Dartmoor none of the pasture based livestock farms make a profit on their farming activities (farming livestock in the uplands in fact makes a considerable loss) and are only able to keep afloat through diversification, the Single Payment Scheme and agri-envrionment support.

There will be many opportunities that arise when we break free from the CAP shackles. But what might it mean for farming and wildlife in Devon? Are we destined for farming in the more agriculturally productive lowland landscapes to become more intensive and for wildlife to retreat to the moors?

I hope the answer on everyone’s lips is “we sincerely hope not”!

Many moons ago I was lured away to the other end of the earth with tales of an environmental nirvana – otherwise known as New Zealand! What I saw in troubled me and forced me to rethink my connections with the land. On the one hand the country boasts pristine swathes of natural land, shaped by natural forces, which was stunning to witness. However on the other there are vast monocultures of grass, crops and plantations with little space for any wildlife, let alone public access, or many of the other public goods that land can provide us with. Much of these changes were driven by farming and forestry being decoupled from any public support – they were essential cut adrift and fully exposed to free market forces. I happily returned to Devon and saw our landscapes through a new lens.

Devon is a truly special County with a rich environment. Our cultural history is writ large across our land from, for example, our field boundaries which can date back millennia. Our wildlife is intertwined within these farmed landscapes and it can remain that way, whilst being set firmly on the path of recovery. Organisations such as the Devon Wildlife Trust and the DR Company are ideally situated to support the businesses, communities and people who work on, care for and are integral to our rural landscape.

I’m looking forward to a future where butterflies, in fact all wildlife thrives, irrespective of whether it is in the lowlands, uplands, small or big fields! We must challenge the government to provide sufficient funds to ensure farms are able to invest in crucial resources, healthy soils, clean water and air, and to work with the grain of nature providing ample space for natural processes and our treasured wildlife.

By Peter Burgess
Director of the DR Company

Director of Conservation and Development
Devon Wildlife Trust