Let’s start with a statistic and a shocking one at that: 56% decline in farmland birds since 1970!
That’s more than half of our iconic farmland birds – which include skylarks and corn buntings, turtle doves and yellowhammers – gone. Vanished from our landscape. Silenced.
That’s not even considering the tragic reduction in bugs, bees, beetles, butterflies and more, that have accompanied this biological desertification of our countryside.
Let’s continue by looking at what’s happened to our land management over the last 40 plus years, as the UK has embraced the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, driven by intensive agriculture and a goal of maximising production.
To have a policy that has encouraged hedges to be stripped, trees to be felled and as much land as possible to be used for production, can surely only have a negative impact on our natural environment.
Now, that’s not to say that there hasn’t been an effort to resist this. Both by the environmental sector and farmers themselves – many of whom have gone above and beyond, often hindered rather than helped by the current agricultural system, to attempt to save our precious nature.
I’ve met many of these farmers. Committed stewards of the land, often second, third or even fourth generation farmers, who know their patch better than anyone.
They’ve seen complicated ‘environmental payments’ for arbitrary pieces of land in the name of this species or that, often without a proper strategic plan.
They’ve also struggled to make their efforts pay. Whilst many don’t require payment – often doing it out of their deep connection with our precious landscape – they do recognise the need for a sustainable system, to assist them on a larger scale and to incentivise others.
That’s why I was so delighted to see the creation last year of the Nature Friendly Farmer’s Network. A group of farmers ‘who have come together to champion a way of farming which is sustainable and good for nature’ and who are ‘passionate about ensuring our countryside is being productive and bursting with wildlife’ – the holy grail I hear you say!
What’s more, they know it can be done as they have been doing it. The question is, how do you redesign a complete system, thousands of farmers and a vast amount of land, to achieve this everywhere?
Many environmental organisations have long pitched for the idea of ‘public money for public goods’, the idea of providing that sustainable finance for things, like nature and biodiversity, which aren’t ‘profitable’ on the market. This includes the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has agricultural advisors across the country and leading thinkers at their HQ in Bedfordshire.
Imagine then the joy earlier this month when the Secretary of State, Michel Gove MP, published his long-anticipated Agriculture Bill. A Bill that clearly puts forward an ambitious funding model based on this principle of public money for public goods. One that incentivises and enables farmers to both deliver on productivity and their environmental stewardship.
The Bill has a strong focus on environmental protection and it has committed to a ‘strong regulatory baseline, with enforcement mechanisms that are proportionate and effective’ – which will no doubt be music to the environmental sector’s ears!
From investment in new technologies, to rewarding farmers that take appropriate steps on flood management, such as planting trees, or maintaining hedgerows and making their farm more resilient; to the pressures of climate change, this Bill has the potential to revitalise and revolutionise farming and our natural environment.
Now, there’s more to be done and this is still early days. Appropriate funding will of course need to be better developed, beyond the current funding commitments until 2022 made by the Secretary of State. There will also need to be further thought about how the four countries of the UK interact going forward, which will no doubt be a priority for post-Brexit planning.
However, this is a very welcome start and I for one welcome the commitment and zeal of Michael Gove, especially this passion for a Green Brexit.
So, when you next walk through the countryside why not stop and listen, taking note of all that’s been lost to date - the buzz, the birdsong. Hopefully, rather than all the noise remaining just in Westminster, there’ll be lots more coming back to a farmland near you!