Casual but calculated anti-environmentalism

Government should switch its focus from bio-diversity and concentrate on farm productivity if it wants to make the most of British agriculture’s potential as an engine for growth‘  Peter Kendall, the President of the NFU,  said on Wednesday.

Kendall continued with this most callous, calculated and casual statement ‘The point is we haven’t got a bio-diversity crisis in this country. Most of the key environmental indicators have been moving in the right direction and almost 70 per cent of farmland is covered by an agri-environment scheme. ‘.

We should expect better from the President of the organisation that is the ‘Voice of British farming’.

In particular, let us just look at the current state of farmland birds – an important environmental indicator which has been used by governments to assess the overall state of biodiversity in the countryside.  You might think that the National FARMERS Union might take some interest in the fate of FARMLAND birds.  They might even take some responsibility for how that biodiversity is doing.

This graph, from the Defra website, shows the fate of farmland birds – the birds living on land over which NFU members are custodians (here is the link so that you can have a closer look at it).

In 45 years, but mostly in the last 35 years (since my 18th birthday) farmland birds in England (the green line) have more than halved in numbers.  This is despite some species included in the index (such as wood pigeon) showing very big increases in numbers, the index is dragged down by the much greater decreases in population of many farmland specialists such as tree sparrow, corn bunting and the iconic skylark.  If you split the overall data (the green line) into generalists (the brown line) and specialists (the purple line) you find that generalist species have maintained their populations and it is the species that depend on agriculture the most which have declined the most.

No crisis, Peter? Just saying it doesn’t mean it’s true.  Your remarks show that you either don’t understand or you just don’t care.  The NFU under its current leadership is, as I wrote on departing the RSPB, a fundamentally anti-environment organisation. But do we hear a word of criticism from his members? Will Defra give its favourite stakeholder a dressing down for talking such rubbish? And will we hear the NGOs combatting this nonsense?




31 Replies to “Casual but calculated anti-environmentalism”

  1. The man insisits the science shows we need a badger cull too, which is the opposite conclusion to what the scientists involved and anyone with a basic grasp of science who read the papers came too. So he is either ignorant, illiterate or just lying….

  2. I am a farmer and NFU member and after my occasional dose of a bit of Mark Avery to get me fired up I have to say that I am actually partly in agreement with you. I am upset that there is a maintained attack against agriculture from conservation campaigners but I am also conscious that in responding to such criticism can only be done with hard facts (and vice versa). Maybe in order to find middle ground Peter Kendall has decided to start on the wing, but this in my opinion shuns real pressing issues, particularly the ongoing strive to gain fair price for our products from the big four, and sets us up to be demonised in the forthcoming restructuring of CAP. We are seeing many of our overseas colleagues gaining considerably from liasion with environmental engineers and their governments, but we are still stuck in the mire of damaging statements, vitriol on all sides and further polarisation. I am coming around to the conclusion that we will never see balanced discussion, someone has to offer an olive branch and you are right Mark, it isn’t going to happen during Kendall’s tenure.

    1. David – welcome and thank you for your comment. I am itching to respond but that can probably wait until tomorrow’s blog. Thank you again for your comment. The more farmers that comment here the nbetter. And Peter Kendall is welcome to have a gust blog here if he would like to put his views forward. I doubt that he will, though.

  3. How can the man talk such rubbish? Concentrating on farm productivity (by using chemicals that kill the food birds rely on) is how we got our countryside into this sorry state in the first place. I am an organic farmer/grower and in my lifetime alone I have witnessed a ‘quieting’ of the countryside I grew up in.
    • In the Big Bug Count of 2004 in the UK it was concluded that on average, only one bug would end up ‘splatted’ to your windscreen every five miles driven, whereas 30 years previously, windscreens and bonnets would’ve become encrusted with tiny bodies. (The Independent. September 2004).
    Is Peter Kendall blind or being bribed? Time for him to stand down before he does any more damage by lying to honest farmers trying to make a living.

    1. Sarah – welcome and thank you for your comment. I’ll come back to this subject tomorrow. How can the man talk so much rubbish? …Practice makes perfect?

  4. I’ve just read a superb book ‘Farmland Birds Across the World’ from Lynx Edicions. Paul Donald of RSPB is one of the authors. It really emphasises something I’ve felt for a long time: agricultural technology has raced far ahead of ethics. We simply aren’t asking the question ‘when is enough’ ? And Peter Kendall in particular isn’t. The problem is it’s not just biodiversity at risk – in this country look at water resources – did your house flood because of the £100s of millions we spent getting water to run off faster ? Do you object to paying to pollute the water you drink then paying again to clean it.

    It is also only a tiny percentage of our output that does the most damage – over the last 20 years we’ve squezzed the tiny remanants of naturalness out of our arable landscapes but the impact on birds which hung on quite well on just a few percent of the land has been catastrophic. The push for more is nothing to do with feeding us and everything to do with farm incomes, where a few percent are the critical difference between (modest) profit and loss.
    And why are farmers struggling ? Largely, is suspect, because of their fight to the death with the all powerful supermarkets, a battle of their own making because of their 50 year collaboration in selling us the idea that its only price that counts with food.

    And a crude test of NFU and ‘food security’ ? Simply, what would NFU do if suddenly there was a very profitable subsidy for energy crops ? Tell its members not to accept the money because it threatened food security.

    Wow, a pig just shot past my third floor window.

  5. How can a person in his position as President of the NFU express such an antedeluvian attitude when the facts concerning loss of biodiversity stare him in the face. The point is that with imaginative thinking and initiative it is possible to have both excellent productivity AND biodiversity on a farm. Many farmers are showing this and the RSPB’s Hope Farm demonstrates this overwhelmingly. I think conservation minded people will rightly feel very disappointed (yet again) by this statament but the key thing is to move on and not be distracted by it. It is a “song” we have heard many times before, albeit in various forms, and which no doubt we will hear again from a person/organisation clearly not very interested in the natural world. I’m afraid this particular leopard will never change it’spots

  6. The farmland birds index, by which Mark Avery sets such store, is highly selective. As Peter Kendall pointed out in his speech, the list of 19 includes the declining Starling which is as much an urban as a farmland bird and does not include many species which most farmers would see regularly on their farms such as Red-legged partridge, Pheasant, Buzzard, Kite, Hobby,Collared Dove, Mallard, Barn Owl, Green woodpecker, Swallow, Jay, Magpie, Crow, – all of which have shown significant increases. If you added those 13 to the mix then Farmland Bird populations would look more stable.

    In any case, even if you take the evidence from the farmland birds index, it does not amount to a ‘biodiversity crisis’. As Peter Kendall said, the vast majority of environmental indicators – fertiliser and pesticide use, water quality, greenhouse gas emissions, area under environmental management – are moving in the right direction.
    He also added the vital caveat that, whilst we do undoubtedly need to improve our lagging agricultural productivity, we need to do it sustainably.

    1. Anthony – welcome to this blog. It’s good to get a prominent NFU bod commenting here. Come back tomorrow for a reply and more.

    2. But Antony, Redlegged Partridge and Pheasant are released in their millions for shooting which would totally blur the picture if they were native as it is they are alien. starling ceased to be a significantly urban breeding bird a quarter of a century ago. Sorry but the decline in the real agricultural specialists says it all for me.

  7. I have spent the last few days with farmers. Firstly with Philip Merricks in Kent who owns and manages the vast Elmney National Nature Reserve as well as farming commercially in Kent and Sussex.

    I have also been the guest of the Barkers at Lodge Farm, Westhorpe in Suffolk who have recently won National awards for their efforts to use agri-environment schemes to successfully integrate wildlife into their profitable farm which supports two families.

    I mention the above only to ask who does this Peter Kendall think he is speaking for. Certainly not Philip Merricks or the Barker family. Is he so out of touch that he makes these daft staements because he feels that is what his members want?

    I know of probably hundreds of farmers who are doing so much to encourage wildlife and redress the destruction of the past that I cannot belive they approve of his vitriolic stance.

    As Mark says it would be nice to hear from more farmers who feel this man is doing more harm than good. Conservationists and farmers still need to do more to understand each other’s stance but with such a man at the helm of NFU we are in danger of slipping back into the dark ages.

    I look forward to him being cast into the wilderness.

    1. Derek – cast into the wilderness? Eminently reasoanble suggestion. The trouble with the current NFUline is that they will make a wilderness for all of us. Agree totally with you that many, many farmers doing good things – how could they agree with NFU line?

  8. 1. Is Peter Kendall of the NFU fast becoming the Sepp Blatter of UK food, farming and environment?

    2. I have yet to see a comment on this from one of our Environment Ministers.

    It’s a perect chance for them to stand up and correct Mr Kendall’s error.

    Failure to do so will speak volumes.

    3. At the very least, shouldn’t Defra produce one of its so-called ‘myth busters’?

    Defra managed to rush one out on the story yesterday and today (17+18 November) about the threat of the controversial planning ‘reforms’ to our National Parks.

    How long will it take to produce one on this, I wonder?

  9. Only a minority of farmers belong to the NFU and it’s not clear that Mr Kendall represents the views of even that minority. Pastoral and upland farming seldom seem to feature in his pronouncements. You know, Mark, that it has long been my view that you (and the RSPB) pay far too much attention to the NFU. You won’t change his ideas and I doubt that it’s worth trying even to debate with him/ them. He is stuck inside the Cherry Orchard and oblivious to the revolution outside the walls.

    Far better, in my opinion, to work at a local level with the thousands of farmers who do care about the wildlife on their land; and to work with DEFRA and the EU on influencing policy for the better.

    1. David – yes it would be good if we could ignore the anti-environmental NFU but the NFU represents farmers (not all of them, of course) and speaks for farmers to influence English, UK and EU policies so it’s probably best to maintain the ‘work with the good guys and combat the bad guys’ approach.

  10. i am going to be candid here mark so i hope you are not flipant.

    i am aware of the food security debate and i know that when wheat hits £200 a tonne children around the world go without food because they simply cannot afford it.

    we are probably rich enough in this country to turn all our land over to the birds and import everything we consume however that food comes out of the mouths of children in africa.

    google child malnutrition, tell me doing everything we can to stop it happening is bad.

    saying that i do believe in the environment however it is easy for a single policy lobbyist to shout their corner. think of the children in africa if you want the EU to set aside more land or to farm in a less productive way. when you see the images on tv think are the birds worth it?

    1. James – welcome. And you are so right – it is easy for a single issue lobby to shout their corner, and that’s exactly what the NFU (the clue is in the U – for union) is doing. At present it does not speak on behalf of the world’s poor and starving nor on behalf of our own downtrodden wildlife, it speaks for the narrow financial interests of some farmers. And Peter Kendall has made that clearer with his speech this week. Our farmland can be highly productive for food and much more productive for wildlife (and store more carbon, produce less polluted water) all at the same time.

  11. Lots of problems here Mark,several of your commenters do not understand farming problems.You also state incorrectly in part that farmland birds are declining that are living on land that NFU members are custodianns of,well fact is I would think but for sure you are so well informed to know that probably 50% of land is managed by non NFU members and you say you do not hear farmers shouting president down,well think that is not easy thing to do or for people to find if they did.For sure if the NFU president who I do not defend on this issue is irresponsible on one side for sure we have some conservationists who are extreme opposite him.I know you are not happy with farmers getting subsidies at present but for sure I think farmers would be happy with fair food prices and no subsidies in general,the problem being hill farms and similar poor ground,they would definitely need some help.
    Think farmers reading this blog and comments will wonder what they can do to make you the minority happy seeing as so many farmers are in the agri enviroment schemes which means they are doing what is asked so suggest you all give your thoughts instead of some having a go at farmers then have a go at the people who run these schemes.
    So that some of your commenters understand farming a bit more,for almost all of last century farmers were encouraged and indeed at times forced to produce more so that you the general public had enough food and indeed during war years even Exmmor ponies nearly became extinct and bet that general publc then did not worry too much about what was happening on farms as long as they produced as much as possible.Ever since the war there has been pressure on farm prices so that the only solution farmers have had is that to keep the same income they have had to produce more.
    What a pity the rest of population have not done the same,they all seem to have managed to do less hours a week and put less into each hour.

  12. From memory, doesn’t the RSPB use the NFU for their corporate insurance Mark ?

    Reading today’s news report from the RSPB doesn’t hit me with a message of NFU trying to address world food production as some have mentioned but more about profit at the expense of our environment. Someone else who is out of touch with reality me thinks.

  13. I know relatively little about this topic, but am curious. Is there not an important clue in the title of the index – ‘farmland bird populations’? It seems to me that ever since we cut down our forests our rural environment has been a product of human activity. Surely the farmed environment in 1966 was manmade in the same way as the one we have now. How many of these species would not be here or would have very different populations without this minor irritation that most of us would rather not be hunter-gatherers and are pleased farmers grow food for us. Equally pleased perhaps that the real cost of food has fallen so much to give (most of) us in the developed world discretionary spend.

    I’m not an ecologist, but I would have hoped there was a better measure of the ‘health’ of an environment than just counting (some) bird species. What about biomass of birds per hectare? I guess it would need to be averaged over time in some way to take account of migratory species.

    Thinking a bit more about this; I wonder if an even better measure would be wildlife biomass per hectare (measured over large areas of course); as I guess there is potential for the diversity to shift from birdlife to terrestrial wildlife as well as between species if the way we manage the environment changes (e.g. more winter cereals). Do we have any such more integrative measures?

    Whether one manmade environment is better or worse than another must surely include a lot of factors; such as whether or not unmanaged land elsewhere is being spared by maximising productivity on this piece of farmland? I recall a recent major study said ‘land sparing’ was a better option for the planet than ‘land sharing’.

    1. Chris – welcome and thank you. Yes it all depends a bit on how far back you go and what you want – but not to the NFU who baldly state that there is no problem at all. And you can have both wildlife and highly productive agriculture anyway – but not with the attitude of the NFU.

  14. Is Mr Kendall fast becoming the Sepp Blatter of UK farming and environment?

    This is a prime chance for the Government to correct Mr Kendall’s errors. It will be interesting to see how long they take to comment.

    Defra could also push out one of its so called ‘myth busters’ on this. It managed to rush one out in response to the news stories on 17 + 18 November about National Parks being at risk of the Government’s planning ‘reforms’.

    Ministers’ reaction to this – and the time taken to do so – will speak volumes.

  15. Inevitably the subject of food production vs wildlife conservation throws up some interesting questions. The reality is that farmland birds are on the dive however clever you mess with statistics or re define birds as ‘farmland’ or otherwise. Having carried out farmland bird surveys for the last 7 years I can see it first hand and I suspect many farmers who know their birds and wildlife would agree.
    The value of wildlife is ultimately to our own survival not because it looks pretty, why is this so little understood?
    The stupidity of the Kendall statement is that food production increases can go hand in hand with conservation with some simple measures. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Why do the NFU feel so threatened by this? I think because they don’t understand or choose not to understand it, it’s inconvenient or they just don’t want ‘outsiders’ meddling I’m guessing.
    Taken to extremes we could of course grub up every hedge, ancient woodland, the few hay meadows that are left and grow some profitable wheat on it. Who really wants this?

  16. Well of course those commenters on this and other blogs who blame farmers are completely innocent of less wildlife around it is everyone elses fault.
    What I find most disturbing and think most farmers do is that basically we are doing what is asked and whether or not the NFU president says things we disagree with matters not much in a democracy.Those critics never tell us what they want and/or offer a solution because when it comes down to it they do not have one they can agree on.
    If you want more farmland birds with farmers doing more than they do at the moment you have to pay for that extra,simple fact.Now here is a solution,nominate someone to collect a tax on all mobile phone contracts of £10 each contract because anyone spending all that money each year on moblie can easily afford that and then that money goes to farmers growing bird seed mixtures but only those.Of course this will only solve part of problem but come on you clever conservationists more needs doing than the agri environment schemes obviously so come up with ways of raising money and productive ways of spending it to improve numbers of farmland birds.This blog not very long ago was about extinction and these birds are in reality almost extinct in some areas.This type of discussion has gone on and on while like raptor persecution not improving so action is needed.We really in my opinion pay much too much attention to what Peter Kendall says because we cannot do anything about it.Surely there are people around with the brains to help the problem.The number of farmers taking part in schemes proves they have the will if it is financially viable.Really P K is a very small fish as it is surely all those E U politicians who count.

  17. Picking up on the starving children in Africa, one of the key themes of Farmland birds across the world and in fact the agricultural debate generally is between improving the productivity of existing, often quite sophisticated, farming systems and globalised, high tech agriculture which is likely to push people off the land. Whilst EU and US grain has undoubtedly directly saved probably millions of lives over the past 50 years it has equally probably done huge damage to agriculture in many developing countires through dumping of surpluses at unfair prices impossible for locals to compete with – at the same time as imposing ferocious tarrifs on their attempts to export. There’s starting to be some correction – the removal of much of the support that made sugar beet competitive and excluded cane sugar exports from some of the poorest countries being a case in point. But we need to be a little careful about using feeding the world as a (probably spurious) excuse to further ramp up productivity on the most intesively managed land in Europe.

  18. I work with many farmers, providing advice about agri-environment schemes in a relatively unproductive area, where many farmers struggle to make a living. The NFU leaders should take a walk over such areas and they would see for themselves the scale of habitat loss even in these sorts of areas. Farmers regularly tell me that they haven’t seen curlew, lapwing, skylark etc etc nesting on their fields for years. It’s no longer anecdotal – the evidence exists on a UK and global level. Farmers know there are difficulties but don’t necessarily always see the whole picture for wildlife. It’s easy to demonise them, however, farmers were encouraged to intensify to make Britain self-sufficient. For the NFU to deny there is a biodiversity crisis because of continued intensification is incredibly dangerous and feeds the perception that farmers are avaricious and put profit first. Farmers are heavily subsidised and to maintain/justify such public financial support they need to better demonstrate that they can maintain functioning landscapes – ones that function for wildlife, people and can be sustained for future generations. Without subsidies/regulations would we trust farmers to provide all our needs? Afterall, we all have a stake in the future of the countryside.

    I think many farmers are very confused and such comments from high profile leaders are unhelpful, add to the confusion and negatively contribute towards the goal of achieving a balance for food production, people and wildlife. The evidence is also starting to show that without biodiversity our systems of food production could well fail. It’s a foolish strategy that the NFU are taking; farmers require clear guidance and dedicated advice about how to make changes. There is still too much of a divide between farmers and conservationists. If changes are to be made there needs to be improved relations & NGOs need uniequivocal arguments to combat the increasingly emotive threat of feeding 10 billion people!

  19. Ann, I feel thats a really telling comment you’ve made. A lot of what the CAP support was meant to be about was supporting farmers in areas where it was hard to make a living. Sadly it hasn’t really worked – in the UK farmers hang on, fewere workers but the houses go to retirees. In the remoter areas of France people simply leave – villages left with only old people. In a way its a parrallel to the impact 1st world globalisation has had on many small scale farming systems in 3rd world countries. Most of all, and applicable worldwide, I agree with your comment that without biodiversity farming systems themselves could fail – we really aren’t as detached from the ecologu of the planet as some of our farming leaders like to pretend.

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