If you were looking for an issue that united pretty much everyone in contempt, a hot contender would be the EU Common Agricultural Policy.
Everyone has their own view of what’s wrong and what needs to change. Secretary of State Caroline Spelman wants farms to become more competitive and less reliant on grant aid. Farmers of all persuasion want less regulation, and pretty much everyone is now talking about food security and whether we can produce enough to feed a growing and increasingly demanding world population. But we are in real danger of losing sight of the role farmers play in looking after our countryside and its wildlife.
Next year it will be 50 years since Rachel Carson published her seminal work, Silent Spring, which gave a chilling vision of a countryside where bird song had been obliterated by “modern” farming, in particular the use of agrochemicals, so prevalent at that time. Fortunately this brave new world has not materialised, but it’s easy to forget just how much we have lost – half our ancient woods, 98% of our wildflower meadows, and goodness knows how many birds, butterflies and other insects. Not all of these are irreversible, but it is a lot harder, and far more expensive, to put back something we’ve lost than to maintain what we have.
From an environmental point of view the CAP has been a mixed blessing. It has undoubtedly contributed to chronic overgrazing and long term damage to many sensitive habitats, including on Exmoor and Dartmoor. But despite its many faults, it has funded a lot wildlife management such as maintaining hedges, ditches and field margins. These modest and often unassuming features of the countryside are the refuges in which wildlife can still thrive within our heavily managed rural landscapes. And the mechanisms through which it does so are the agri-environment schemes.
Agri-environment schemes have been around since the late 1980s. They arose out of the furore surrounding the continued destruction of hedges, marshes, wildflower meadows and other treasured features of the landscape. Subsidies for producing food, combined with the cost and effort involved with managing some of these sites, gave many farmers little incentive other than to put these features under the plough. Through these schemes, farmers were paid directly to conserve and recreate these habitats.
We know from studies across Europe that the amount and variety of wildlife is greater in fields that are in agri-environment schemes, whether you are looking at bees, plants or spiders. Birds such as the cirl bunting and stone curlew have done particularly well, as have native mammals such as hedgehog and brown hare. A national study funded by the government highlighted the upland hay meadows on Dartmoor as a particular success story.
Last week I had a wonderful day being introduced to a number of sites in North Devon where the Devon Wildlife Trust is working with its partners, including many local farmers, to recreate Culm grassland, one of the nation’s rarest habitats and a great place to see the beautiful marsh fritillary butterfly or the ghostly shape of the barn owl. What is really impressive is just how much of this is happening outside nature reserves and on land owned by local farmers. Drab, largely lifeless stands of sitka spruce are being transformed on an impressive scale. This work would simply not be possible without agri-environment schemes. What really struck me though was the potential to role this out on a far larger scale. We could be thinking about whole river catchments where a significant amount of land is put over to wildlife habitat. This would help to regulate water flows in times of drought and flood, and improve water quality.
If we want to see our existing wildlife survive, let alone putting back something akin to what we had thirty years ago, we need to be thinking on a much more ambitious scale. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), challenges us to manage at least 10% of our land with wildlife in mind. At the moment we are nowhere near this figure. Managing with nature in mind doesn’t exclude farming, but it does mean using less intense farming methods. But if 10% still sounds a lot, it’s worth remembering that this is less than many of our European neighbours, and far less than countries like Brazil and Indonesia, who we often malign for their attitudes towards their natural environments.
A vision on this scale would mean a lot more funding for agri-environment schemes. It would also mean thinking much more imaginatively about how farmers can be rewarded for helping to control flooding and low water flows in drought years, minimise soil erosion and the resulting pollution of rivers, and minimise emissions of greenhouse gases. There would be a significant cost of course, but I’m far from alone in strongly suspecting that the financial benefits from these “ecosystem services” would outweigh the costs. We are working on a model to test this in the Culm.
So why aren’t we doing this? Fundamentally it comes down to a lack of vision and political will. There seems to be almost universal disappointment in the proposed CAP reforms announced last week. Its weakness is less about what’s in the proposals than it is about what isn’t. Sadly, we shouldn’t be too surprised. There are so many competing calls for what the farming of the future should look like that a mealy mouthed compromise promising little of significance to anyone was always going to be hard to avoid.
But we have to face the facts. Every year there are more of us, each putting more pressure on the Earth’s finite resources. We just don’t have enough land to provide us all with abundant cheap food and space for wildlife, to say nothing of the many other demands we create. This is a truly tough problem to solve it’s true, but it would be nice to think that politicians across Europe had the foresight and courage to start tackling it. As Albeit Enstein said, you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created the problem in the first place.