Everything is in flux, but if we really are leaving the EU then the biggest conservation opportunity is bound to be through changing our financing of agriculture.
We spend £3bn per annum on agricultural support at the moment (in England and Wales). We can spend more or less than that post Brexit because we are net contributors to the EU coffers (about which I have no complaint) so we will have at least as much money at our disposal. And those decisions will be ours in future.
Today, most of that £3bn is given to farmers as income support with hardly any strings attached – there is the requirement not to break the law and to keep the land in good nick for agriculture (that seems to me to be some of the palest pink of red tape that anyone could imagine). Those payments, let’s call them Pillar1 payments, apply right across the ununitedUK and to almost every type of farming. You can think of them as a ‘shadow’ of former subsidies which were more dependent on how much stuff (milk, meat, cereal) your farm produced. Those Pillar1 payments are paid whether you are a good farmer or a bad one, whether you are large or small, whether you are farming according to best practice or not. They are a remarkable form of income support for one section of society which comes from all the rest of us.
The rest of the money, a much smaller proportion, is spent on Pillar2 payments. These include the payments to farmers and landowners, and grouse moor managers, to manage their land in various ways that are thought to be good – managing field margins, organic farming etc. There are lots of details but they don’t matter really because this is the current system, we can tear that all up and start again.
So we may well have around £3bn per annum to spend in whatever way we wish. We can spend it on building a wall between the north and south of Ireland and another between Scotland and England; we could invest in the England football team; we could spend it on teachers’ salaries, or nurses or give junior doctors a pay rise; we could spend it on a nuclear submarine or on anything else we can think up in our new freedom to decide our own destiny.
What we should not do is continue to waste it in the way that we have been doing for so long.
What might happen if we just stopped giving any of it to farmers – because we can once we leave the EU.
A lot of farmers, the small ones and the inefficient ones, would go out of business because the current income support is often their biggest source of income: all that farming doesn’t pay at all, it’s the handouts from the rest of us that keep many small farming businesses afloat. That wouldn’t necessarily mean less farming in the ununitedUK because other farmers, particularly large and efficient ones, would be likely to want to increase their land holdings to spread their fixed costs over larger areas. And without the annual cheques from the taxpayer the value of farmland would decrease, so buying land, whether for farming, built development, wind turbines, forestry or nature reserves would be cheaper. If we just pulled the plug on all that money, as we could, then land prices would drop and that would be good for some people and some industries, and we’d have the £3bn per annum in our pockets, or in George Osborne’s successor’s pocket anyway, as well.
But pulling the plug completely would also remove the ‘good’ portion of what is currently Common Agricultural Policy money. There would be no grants for farmers to do ‘good’ things on their land so we would have to rely on the unpredictable market consequences of this change to be good for the environment or somehow imagine that farmers, with less income, and sitting on a lower capital asset, would fork out for the environment out of altruism (just as so many have in the last years when there has been a financial carrot?).
Fancy that scenario?
No? Let’s try another one then. How about if we spend all the £3bn on environmental grants – encouraging farmers to take much greater account of wildlife, carbon, flood risk, water quality etc etc? That would take quite a lot of thinking about but it would be a superb bonus for the environment if done properly. If we did it properly then we might easily make a paper profit on it too – by reducing costs imposed by agriculture on other industries (eg water suppliers) and therefore the taqxpayer might get a real result from spending that money differently. Of course, the Brexiteers don’t seem to like experts so they might get a couple of Special Advisors to come up with a new scheme, or ask the grouse moor managers to write it, or have some chums round for a dinner party and sort it all out there – now that there is no red tape from the EU to constrain us, we have the freedom to screw it up mightily all on our own.
This is a conundrum – we could use our freedom very well or very badly. Freedom is a bit like that.
There is a common fault in thinking about policy change – and we all fall into it until experience beats it out of us – and that is that the best will happen if it might. It’s more often the case that something a bit rubbish is mixed up in good things, and that takes the shine off things.
Brexit will focus the minds of us all, but particularly all those townies, on why we give so much money to farmers, and get so little in return. Anyone who comes to that view will choose one of two things (or both at once): ‘Let me have my money back’ and/or ‘You need to deliver more for my contribution if you are going to keep receiving it’. You can start thinking about what you would like right now – and remember you have a clean sheet – there are no external rules (not completely true because of international trade laws, but pretty close). Here are some ideas to stimulate your own thoughts:
- put a cap on payments to any land owner so that we don’t pay large landowners lots of money – watch out for any land-owning wildlife NGOs’ views on this!
- give all the money to grouse moors because the rich deserve as much help as the rest of us can give them, and anyway, they tend to vote Conservative with a large dash of UKIP so they are our mates
- remove all payments from the lowlands and transfer them to the uplands to pay for rewilding, carbon storage, flood reduction etc
- use the money to buy land in National Parks, it will be quite cheap, and give it to National Park authorities to manage sustainably
- support organic farming
I am sure that this audience, a very special and well-informed audience after all, will come up with some great ideas for spending the money better. but there is a massive chance that most normal people will say ‘I’ll have my money back – I’ll need it more in this post-Brexit world and I can’t see why I should give it to farmers’.
So, if I were the NFU (what a thought!) I’d start sucking up to wildlife NGOs so that they do some of my lobbying for me. It will take quite a lot of doing, but that is a good idea. But my guess would be that farmers will go a different way – and just ramp up the ‘We’re all poor. We’re all doing a great job. We all need your money and you owe us a living for some strange reason that I can’t quite remember’ route. If I were more deeply in this game in an NGO I would tell the NFU, CLA etc that their behaviour over the next three months would determine whether they got any support from the environmental movement at all.
Yet another satellite-tagged Hen Harrier, this one called Chance, has disappeared – her last known location (when transmitting a strong signal) was on a south Lanarkshire grouse moor. This sounds as though it must be in the same general area where Annie (pictured above) died. Add in Highlander whose satellite tag stopped transmitting abruptly on a Durham moor and the disappearance of Bowland Betty (shot in the Yorkshire Dales – and found on a grouse moor) and of Sky and Hope (tagged in the Forest of Bowland and both disappearing on a nearby moor) and you can see why I advised not getting too attached to satellite-tagged Hen Harriers. Holly too, has died but hers is a death that appears, fairly surely, to have been due to natural causes. You have a slim chance of survival whatever your name if you are a Hen Harrier visiting grouse moors, it seems.
Chance was born and died in Scotland – soon to be a former member of the ununitedUK. Just imagine how it will become more difficult to keep an overview of these events when there is a border between us – it won’t happen at once but we will grow apart.
The good news is that the RSPB has simultaneously announced that they have an active Hen Harrier nest at their Geltsdale nature reserve, where there was a nest last year whose male ‘disappeared’ when away from the nest site (as did four other males from active nests in the Forest of Bowland last year). This is the third in the ‘tiny handful’ of active nests that the RSPB has announced and it is just possible that others might start to nest (although it is getting very late) and there might possibly have been other earlier attempts which might come to light. Whatever the final figure, it’s still a dismal start to the Defra Hen Harrier plan and not nearly good enough.
Let’s hope that this pair of Hen Harriers at Geltsdale fares better than the one last year, and also doesn’t suffer the fate of a bird in that area described by Guy Shorrock in pages 38-40 of Inglorious. Good luck to the RSPB staff and volunteers watching over the nest 24 hours a day – what a ridiculous state of affairs when the birds are at such grave danger because they eat Red Grouse that people want to shoot for fun. I mean – really!
Here is a female Hen Harrier at her nest with chicks – there is enough suitable habitat for over 300 Hen Harrier pairs in England and yet this year it seems as though the number is three or so, not three hundred.
The very best way to stand a chance of seeing more nesting Hen Harriers in England is to get rid of driven grouse shooting, which as well as being underpinned by wildlife crime is also an unsustainable land use that disrupts ecosystem services that benefit us all.
I think anyone looking at the landscape above would be hard-pressed to call it ‘natural’. It is drained and burned – and it has tracks running all the way through it. It’s the burning that creates that patchwork of different colours – patches of heather that were burned in different years according to a strict plan.
Such management is done solely for the unsporting sport of shooting Red Grouse for fun. That’s the only reason for it. Burning has other consequences, mostly bad but some, as always, good, but it’s done so that a few people can shoot a lot, an awful lot, of Red Grouse.
It’s only in the ununited UK that the habitat of the Red Grouse/Willow Grouse/Willow Ptarmigan is manipulated to such an extreme so that a very few people can spend their money and free time shooting grouse for fun.
The land is drained because heather, the main food of the Red Grouse, likes relatively dry conditions, and the grouse moor manager wants lots of heather so that there can be lots of Red Grouse.
Wherever you see that pattern of land use (go on Google earth and have a look round the North York Moors, Yorkshire Dales, Durham Moors, Lammermuirs, Deeside and Donside) you can be pretty sure that a war is being waged against natural predators such as foxes, stoats, weasels, crows etc because each of these species might reduce the numbers of Red Grouse available for shooting after the 12 August (The Inglorious 12th).
And you can be pretty sure that there will be piles of medicated grit placed at hundreds of places across a view like this one – grit that the Red Grouse will eat to aid their grinding up of heather. Medication is added to the grit to kill off parasitic worms that infest the grouse at very high densities – and the grouse moor manager is aiming for very high densities so that paying clients will pay a lot, often thousands of pounds, for a day shooting.
And you can also be pretty sure, in a view like this, that there will be very few birds of prey such as eagles, falcons and harriers, because they eat Red Grouse too, and although every grouse moor may not be committing wildlife crimes there is enough illegal persecution of protected birds of prey to wipe them out from most grouse-moor dominated areas.
So that is what I see when I look at a view like the one above. It’s a thoroughly unnatural landscape – one that has been subjugated to just one aim; that of shooting a wild bird for fun.
Should we look to the concept of re-wilding for a better future for these uplands? Now rewilding means different things to different people, but at the heart of it is letting nature do what it wants to do a lot more than we do at the moment. It’s an unfamiliar way of thinking to many, but one that is growing in standing all the time as we learn that the management we impose on habitats often has unintended and harmful consequences for wildlife, but also for us.Clearly another unnatural landscape, like this wheat field, has a very obvious and pretty useful product – food! We all need to eat, and our food has to come from somewhere, and that’s what agriculture delivers for us. We ought to look at the means of food production to make them as efficient as possible but also as sustainable as possible. We need to test insecticides and herbicides, be wary of GM crops unless shown to be safe, reduce soil erosion, cut down on water pollution and reduce flood risk from overdrained or compacted soils. We ought to do all of that: we do some of that; but there clearly is a bit of a trade-off between causing harm and producing food. I’m one of the last people likely to let the farming and agrochenicals industries off the hook on environmental damage, but it would be unrealistic to think that there won’t be any at all. [And our unfortunate Brexit will open up the possibility of doing this much better ourselves – but will we take it?]
But go up into our hills, and look at a grouse moor and you are seeing a landscape intensively managed not for food but for the ‘fun’ of killing things. There we ought to take a much harder line with any bad environmental consequences. And there are lots! The intensive management necessary to produce ridiculously high numbers of Red Grouse for shooting also causes increased greenhouse gas emissions, increased flood risk, increased water treatment costs and reduced aquatic biodiversity. And, of course, less wildlife in the shape of anything with a hooked beak! And you tell me if those geometric shapes caused by burning look pretty to you.
So on grouse moors we have a ‘sport’, killing birds for fun, which causes environmental damage. Surely there is a better way forward?
And that’s where rewilding comes in. If we did far less burning, less drainage and less killing of predators then we could shoot fewer grouse – but how many grouse have you ever shot? And how many have you ever eaten? No, it wouldn’t harm your life much would it?
In return we would have fewer homes flooded (and so we would all pay lower home insurance), less water treatment costs (which would lead to many of us paying lower water bills to Yorkshire Water, United Utilities, Severn Trent etc), there would be more fish in the rivers (so you could go fishing) and we could thrill at the sight of Golden Eagles in England as well as much more of Scotland (remember, Scotland and England/Wales/NI will be separate countries soon – you didn’t dream it – you’ve got to get that thought straight in your head).
And what would this rewilded landscape look like? Quite like Scandinavia where they don’t go in for this ‘intensive grouse shooting for fun’ pastime. There would be undamaged blanket bogs laying down peat and storing carbon, blocked up drainage channels so that flash floods were reduced, more trees would spread up the valleys and onto the moors and there would be a much more varied selection of wildlife for you to enjoy. And there would be plenty of Red Grouse too – but they wouldn’t be the dominant species. Now that doesn’t sound scary does it?
Why are our National Parks completely dominated by grouse shooting with all the environmental damage it causes? Why can’t you see a rewilded Peak District or a rewilded North York Moors? The long list of damaging consequences of intensive grouse shooting should make every decision-maker, every water customer, everyone living downstream of a grouse moor and every environmentalist keen on rewilding and demanding that we shift the balance from grouse shooting for fun for the few, towards rewilding for the benefit of the many.
Here’s one way to do that – please sign this e-petition to ask for a debate over the future of driven grouse shooting. Over 45,000 people have already signed up – they’re really wild about it!
A group of 75+ met at Grimwith Reservoir car park yesterday to gather together to protest about the lack of Hen Harriers in the ununited-UK, in the uplands of England, in National Parks and in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
There was sun, there was gloom, there were midges and there was rain – a summer’s day in Yorkshire I was told.
Paul Irving of the North of England Raptor Forum, Phil Walton of BAWC and I each said a few words.
A six-foot Hen Harrier was applauded.
The best part of 5000 leaflets were taken away by locals to distribute through the letter boxes of the area. When I say the best part – a few friends and I had distributed c800 already through letter boxes in Leyburn, Reeth, Grinton, Gunnerside, Hawes, Sedbergh, Dent, Kettlewell and Grassington.
I enjoy handing out leaflets and chatting to people. I met a lady who was very clued up on Hen Harriers in Reeth (and who took a pile of leaflets away with her), some ramblers in Grinton who knew what they were talking about, some young lady hikers in Gunnerside who hadn’t heard the EU referendum result and were gutted to hear the news, a gamekeeper’s sister in Sedbergh, a manager of a Lush shop in Dent who knew all about Hen Harriers and lots of other really nice people.
A ‘Bowland’ version of the leaflet is in preparation and a Peak District one and a ‘general’ one. Watch this space.
But we were filmed and interviewed (for later in the campaign), and we compared notes and we talked about the implications of the EU referendum and we had out picnics and we shook each others’ hands, gave each other hugs and told each other that in the end we will win. For, we will win!
Thanks to all who came and those who organised the event. The word continues to spread.
If you really want to have a go at the establishment and you don’t really care how – then just sign this e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting. https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/125003
If you want to have a go at the establishment in a more thoughtful way then read it first and then sign it! https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/125003
I went to bed worried on Thursday night (or was it Friday morning?) having heard the first few referendum results, and woke to be devastated by the news early on Friday morning. Devastated may sound like an exaggeration but I assure you it isn’t – and it’s a word that I have heard from many friends over the last few days too. We’ve really done it now!
Well, who is ‘we’ now? We are a very divided and un-united kingdom. From this day I am no longer going to use the term UK, but only u-UK (for un-United Kingdom). Maybe it should be dUK – for we have ducked the challenge of the future.
Scotland voted solidly for remain as did Northern Ireland, whereas England (outside London) and Wales voted for Brexit. And the young voted for Remain (although not enough of them came out and voted) and the old voted for Brexit. This was summed up in two radio anecdotes from my car travels on Friday: an 80+ ex-soldier (Radio 4 news?) in tears of joy that we would no longer be ruled by Germany and two bright, coherent young women who were disappointed, worried and felt let down (BBC Radio4 Woman’s Hour). I’ve often thought that votes should be on a sliding scale with a young vote counting for more than an old one. I also may get a T-shirt saying ‘I may look old to you but I voted Remain too’.
There is so much to reevaluate and ponder, but here are a few early thoughts:
- the environment and wildlife – probably! It depends. Everything’ depends’ now, and it depends on things over which you and I have rather little control. The struggle to protect the environment hasn’t ended, the need is just as strong but the task has got a lot more difficult without the inefficient safety net of the EU.
- the United Kingdom – is Scotland ready for a flood of English environmental refugees? Anyone got a house for sale? I’d vote for Scottish independence under these circumstances and wish all Scots who do so the very best of luck.
- politicians in general – the standard of debate, on both sides of the argument, in the referendum campaign was atrocious. Truly awful. Almost every politician that I disliked I now dislike more, and many of the ones I liked have gone down in my estimation. And I reckon, you may not agree, that I am pretty tolerant of politicians in general and of political opponents too. I can only think of four MPs whose currency in my mind has not been devalued and those are Ken Clarke, Alan Johnson, Hilary Benn and Caroline Lucas (I’m sure there should be more but those are the ones that came to mind) – all on the losing side of the argument of course. I remember on an evening in September 2015 (when my young friend Findlay Wilde made an excellent speech) talking to Caroline Lucas and being taken aback when she said that she was afraid there was a real possibility that we might lose the EU referendum – that was a shock at the time and it lodged in my mind.
- wildlife NGOS – they didn’t look like players in the debate and now they will be focussing on shoring up their finances. There will be losses of jobs and of power and influence in many of the smaller wildlife NGOs (eg many county Wildlife Trusts, but also more generally). The RSPB now has to plan for a break up of the RSPB after a Scottish exit from the uUK – it might not happen, but then again, it might happen within two years (see the words at the top of p290 in Fighting for Birds). The RSPB and WWF, who are the strongest players in their networks in Europe, will be greatly diminished in enthusiasm and ability to influence EU policy and the whole of the EU’s wildlife will suffer.
- Hen Harriers – Yes, let’s make the point here. The fact that many Special Protection Areas for birds, notified under the EU Birds Directive, are vastly underachieving in terms of their Hen Harrier populations is not a very powerful argument in a uUK heading out of the EU. Likewise, the RSPB complaint against the uUK government about failure to implement the Habitats Directive properly in protecting blanket bogs from excessive burning will now fizzle out and will have gained us nothing whatsoever – because we are now in Brexit limbo. And the RSPB Skydancer project is EU-funded, remember.
- David Cameron – the PR PM gambled with our future for party political reasons (I believe) and lost his job, the uUK and may have started the break up of the EU as a result – quite a legacy just to try, and fail, to keep the Tory right under control. Tony Blair would never have made that mistake.
- Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove – all seem to be winners, but all look clueless about where we go from here and their lack of a plan will be their downfall. Their best day was 22 June – it’s downhill all the way from there.
- Jeremy Corbyn – this is a tricky one. I voted for Corbyn to be Labour Leader, partly because the rest of the field looked hopeless, and despite misgivings about his EU stance (and other areas too of course). My assumption, totally wrong, was that we would vote to Remain whatever Corbyn said or did and then we could get on with life. Corbyn’s assessment of 7 out of 10 for the EU was actually quite right – I’d give it 7.5 out of 10 myself – but that was in comparison to a 2 out of 10 for the Brexit option. Corbyn now faces a vote of no confidence and may be gone in days or weeks. This is slightly odd for a party leader who has shown himself to be in tune with a large part of the traditional voters of his party. All those solid Labour seats in Wales and the north which voted for Brexit – not my choice remember – but Corbyn was in tune with them but tried to hide it.
- the parliamentary Labour Party – when I heard Ben Bradshaw (Radio 4 again, of course) saying on Friday morning (I was looking over Gunnerside and Grinton at the time I remember) that Labout is a pro-EU party it seemed to me to exemplify the gulf between Labour MPs (many of whom I admire and with many of whom I agree) and Labour voters. Difficult time ahead.
- farmers – we won’t decide to pay farmers just for being farmers in the new set-up. We can take our money back to pay for the NHS, foreign holidays and a countryside that we want, or just go down the pub with Nigel Farage.
- the EU – will it exist in anything like its current shape in five years’ time?
- the Green Party – I wouldn’t advise you to jump ship from Labour yet, but the lifeboat for the disappointed Left looks like the Green Party.
- the LibDems – Tim Farron is a bit of a twit, but he sounded quite good on the radio (Radio 4 of course) on Friday – slightly shrill but lots of passion.
- Brexit voters who die soon – only because they won’t see the mess that is made of what they wanted.
Peter has also written a number of Guest Blogs here and I hope he will write some more.
This book is one that the author wanted to write and is a mixture of autobiography of a boy growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and his love affair with nature (other loves do appear and exit in the book’s pages too).
If you read the Twitcher in the Swamp column in British Wildlife magazine, and I always do, then you will find, occasionally, some similarities in style and wit in these pages.
This book is rather more about growing up in a distant time rather than about nature in that distant time, but from an early age nature was a large part of Peter’s life and he got to grips with nature rather sooner, and rather more easily, than he got to grips with girls, disco dancing or the rest of human life. So there is plenty of nature in this book, written by one of the best naturalists I know (though I am easily impressed by anyone who can identify every British plant and most British insects).
For me though, the nature was just the right amount of delicious icing on the cake whose most noticeable ingredients were self-deprecating observations about himself, wry observations of others, and memories of a bygone age when one’s parents talked a lot about ‘The War’, when it was almost impossible to buy a decent cup of coffee, and when there were 240 pennies to the pound and each of them was the size of a poker chip.
Peter’s first years were in the reign of George VI and this book stops short of the referendum vote that confirmed the UK’s enthusiasm for being members of an economic community that would ensure peace in a continent accustomed to war. Yes, that seems a long time ago. England was a green and pleasant land and, yes, that greenness is now somewhat diminished along with many other aspects that made life pleasant.
This is a very English book that deserves a very wide readership. You won’t find it on a well-known website named after a mythical race of women (or a long river in South America) and it has no ISBN so if you still have a local bookshop (which you probably don’t) then they may not be able to help you much either. But it will be worth the small amount of effort to track down this delightful book from the pen (and I wager it was a pen rather than a keyboard) of this delightful naturalist.
Where the wild thyme blew by Peter Marren is published by Peter Marren and can be purchased from the Naturebureau.
The author and readers of this blog are pretty pro-RSPB people as supported by the graph above where most of us voted strongly in favour of believing the RSPB over the Countryside Alliance – this isn’t surprising, and is very wise of us, but it is a very strong preference.
Not surprisingly, we also oppose the misguided Badger cull and are unconvinced that birds of prey are a wildlife issue (next two graphs).
But given that, it is perhaps surprising that we are so lukewarm in our ‘support’ for the RSPB position on the Defra Hen Harrier Inaction Plan (below).
We don’t, in general, support the RSPB position, and those who do, do so with little strength of feeling. Since the survey results are anonymous, I cannot tell you whether Shania Twain took part or not, but if she did then I guess she would tell the RSPB to dance with the ones who brought them.
Readers of this blog are pretty convinced that climate change is happening (graph above), that it is caused by human activities (graph below)…
…that it is a problem for us (below)…
…but less confident that we can do much about it (below)…
This is not surprising.