The anti-environmental NFU – and a little bit of advice for Peter Kendall

Yesterday’s blog was about the ‘coming out’ of the NFU’s President Peter Kendall who told the government in England to switch its focus from biodiversity to production.

The RSPB was ‘disappointed’ and ‘saddened’ by the NFU’s position and as far as I can see that is the limit to wildlife NGO comment on this (but do let me know what I have missed) except that the excellent Miles King, of the excellent Grasslands Trust, wrote a very good blog around this subject.

Maybe no-one else noticed what the NFU President said on Wednesday, and it may have, rather strangely, taken this blog to bring Kendall’s extraordinary statement to the notice of the wildlife conservationists, or perhaps they were all just ignoring Peter’s comment and taking the advice of David and Dennis on this blog who told us that the President of the NFU didn’t speak for all farmers and no-one took any notice of him anyway (I paraphrase – read their comments on yesterday’s blog).  First, the NFU President is elected every few years by a rather progressive voting system so we should assume that in general farmers (NFU members anyway – probably not organic farmers for example) agree with him (not necessarily on this particular issue but generally). So Peter is the farmers’ choice, not just a random farmer, and unless farmers speak out against his line on this issue then we can assume that NFU members broadly agree with him or don’t care enough to argue.  And, second, the NFU President, whoever it is, is always in ‘election mode’ – that’s how the system works, so we can also assume that Peter is partly playing back to his members what he thinks they want to hear – he’s certainly no fool.  Third, the NFU is a very strong lobby with government and what their President says does carry weight with politicians.  That’s all the more likely to be true of the current Defra Ministers who are; Caroline Spelman, ex-NFU employee; James Paice, farmer; Richard Benyon, land owner and Lord Taylor of Holbeach, land owner.  That’s a pretty balanced crew isn’t it (and not a Liberal Democrat to be seen, of course).  So I don’t think we can or should ignore what the NFU President says as being unimportant.  (And, Paul de Zylva – I’d be surprised if we see the Kendall line being criticised publicly by Defra Ministers).

Then there is the ‘we don’t like the farmland bird index’ line that is trotted out with a few doubts about its validity – in yesterday’s comments from Anthony Gibson who might just well be this Anthony Gibson who works for the NFU as a strategic communications consultant. As you know perfectly well Anthony, and if you don’t then you certainly should, the farmland bird index includes increasing and decreasing farmland species and has been in existence for well over a decade so it’s a bit late to decide you don’t like it and would like to change the rules.  Of the species you suggest might enter the index two are non-native species that are released from captivity in millions each year – perhaps that is the NFU vision of a wildlife-rich countryside? Breed ’em up and let ’em out each year.  Let’s do that with plants, insects, mammals, frogs, birds.  Good plan!

I very much appreciate the comment by David, a farmer, yesterday.  But to suggest that Peter Kendall is looking for the middle ground by running down the right wing is a bit odd.  Peter has always been out there and there is no referee to show him a red card for his foul play.  It’s only his own team mates who can sort him out – you made him captain of your team, the rest of us are just shocked by your team tactics (and player selection!).

Several commenters expressed amazement, and wondered why Peter was saying this stuff.  Who knows? It might be that with wheat prices so high (and Peter is an arable farmer) then getting everyone behind the idea of higher yields is simply representing the interests of his members (or at least those of them selling wheat rather than buying it).  It might be that with the expected disappointing outcome to the Campaign for the Farmed Environment it suits the NFU to downplay biodiversity and the environment – after all it’s a bit embarrassing to be associated with failure in a matter of importance so it’s much better to paint the failure as being in an area of little importance.  Or it may be that Peter is wanting to feed the world.  Who knows – I don’t?

But it is a bit difficult to believe that the NFU believes that it is acting on behalf of the starving masses across the globe.  This is the organisation that still supports the growing of biofuels on land that could grow food – isn’t it? As Roderick Leslie suggests, the ‘push for food’ might become a ‘push for fuel’ if the economics and incentives changed. And there is enough food in the world right now and probably for the next 20 years if only less of it were wasted through rotting in many parts of the world where there is food shortage and being binned in the ‘developed’ world.  We should be aiding food production abroad (rather than selling countries weapons) if we want to feed the world and providing better food storage facilities to help reduce food loss.  Let’s switch the Single Farm Payments to doing that!

And fundamentally, both the GWCT and the RSPB have shown that you can increase biodiversity on farmland and maintain yields.  Why isn’t the NFU President telling this message? Why doesn’t he say ‘If we farmers got our act together then we could increase farmland biodiversity – plants, insects and birds – shut up the moaning nature-lovers and then get on with increasing yields.’? Because that is almost certainly possible.  But it seems that the NFU doesn’t want to give a message of hope.  It seems intent on making an unnecessary conflict between production and nature.  It doesn’t have to be like this but today the NFU is a fundamentally anti-environment organisation.

But just a little story of warning to the NFU.  On the day that Peter Kendall was suggesting that biodiversity should be dumped by government I was at an event in Newcastle.  I spoke in a debate, but at an earlier debate the motion was should food security or environment take precedence.  Now it was a debate, and people need to take a position that they are given in a debate, but the farmer and academic speaking in favour of food security both went out of their way to be dismissive of wildlife in their addresses.  This was unnecessary – but almost as though Peter Kendall were in the room since he was saying similar things elsewhere that very day – and lost them the debate.  When, as Peter did this week, farmers’ (elected) leaders go out of their way to dismiss the needs of wildlife with spurious arguments then it is up to public policy and public opinion to step in and redress the balance.

It’s a tactically bad approach, Peter.  If you continue it then people will start wondering why farming should get all that public money – and rightly so.  The ‘social contract’ which is the basis for billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money going into farming is that farmers are nice to the environment because you can’t sell the environment and we all depend on it.  Act as though you simply don’t give a damn and more people will wake up to the huge amounts of money going into farming and disappearing without any noticeable public benefit.  And sound as though you don’t care – as you did this week – and the public and policy makers will make you act whether you care or not.

That’s why the line you peddled on Wednesday lost the debate in Newcastle on Wednesday – and if you don’t believe me then ask your Vice President Gwyn Jones, he was there.


28 Replies to “The anti-environmental NFU – and a little bit of advice for Peter Kendall”

  1. A very good blog Mark. i am sure we do have here a situation that Mr Kendall and colleagues have “over played their hands” with their regressive approach. I think that the people, who are concern about the natural world, need to emphasise that the NFU thinking is redundant and out of date and that it is not a question of “either farm producitivity or biodiversity” it is BOTH. It is pefectly possible to have both. The RSPB’s Hope Farm shows this and very many other farmers are also demonstrating it can be done. If the conservation organisations lobby judiciously against Mr Kendall’s/NFU’s approach, I am sure the debate can be won many more times, as it was in Newcastle on Wednesday. We all depend on the natural world for our existence, farmers more than anybody, and its welfare indicators are all pointing in a downward direction, so put in this context his approach is even more myopic than it seems at first.

    1. Alan – thank you. And well put! The NFU thinking is redundant -as you say. Nature conservationists need to find a way of working with those farmers with progressive attitudes to the environment – as I know from experience they do. But when the NFU is treated by government as the voice of farming then that makes life very difficult.

  2. Hello Mark,

    interesting to see Peter Kendall continues to play across your mind so often, I can’t see the attraction myself but each to their own!

    Rather than get involved in the armageddon hyperbole, I will refer you to a report which you had a hand in – RSPB’s ‘The State of the UK’s Birds 2010’ which can be found at

    Page 16 there is a chart of the ‘236 individual populations for which assessments are able to be made’ – DECREASING – 45 (19%) STABLE 129 (55%) INCREASING 62 (26%)

    Also note from the chart we seem to have gained 4 species since 1994.

    Then on pages 19 and 20 you have lists of 110 species of Common UK Breeding Birds. If you trawl through and count you will note that since 1994 58 are increasing and 43 decreasing.

    1. Guy – we have discussed this so often but you always revert to your original position. Having explained this to you so often before I won’t do it again. Let’s thank the NFU for the increase in the gannet – farmers have such a role to play in that increase. Peter’s NFU line is not to care about the loss of plants, insects and many birds in our cojn=untryside – shameful stuff which will play very badly with the public.

  3. But its not just the Gannet that is increasing is it Mark? You could have mentioned the Barn Owl, the Hobby, the Harrier, the Buzzard, the Woodpecker, the Heron, the Coot, the Moorhen, the Mallard, the Chaffinch, the Swallow , the Pheasant, the Pied Wagtail, the Crow, the Magpie, the Jay etc, etc, etc. These are all birds that most farmers see on their farms most days ( Swallow April-Sept) and for you to suggest they should not be included when it comes to monitoring farmland wildlife reflects a determination on your part to slag of agriculture and ignore the good work many many farmers, including Peter Kendall are doing on their farms.

    1. Guy – I didn’t invent the list of farmland birds which comes from an entirely independent source decades ago. You try to portray this as some sort of a conspiracy but it isn’t. And the facts are clear – those birds most dependent on farmland have declined more (as a group) than other groups of birds. And the indsects and many plants were swept from the countryside even earlier and before proper moniotoring was in place. You can niggle at the data (rather ineffectually) but most farmers would accept the losses of wildlife from their farms as being fact, i would guess. time for you to switch to your next argument – it’s all down to cats/hawks/cars/townies/the French or whatever? NFU shows no sign of understanding biodiversity and even less sign of caring about it. That will put a gap between the NFu and many good honest nice sensible farmers – and an even bigger one between the ‘voice of farming’ and the public who pay for so much of what farmers get.

  4. Guy’s comment is particularly interesting because there are two ends to the increase in species. At one end common generalists have done well. But at the other end it is species that have had strong, positive conservation action. It is a tribute to RSPB’s ‘money where their mouths’ are tactics that we haven’t just seen a lot of talk but real action that is working. A missed opportunity with the 2010 target was the failure to point out the extreme contrast between species that had had effective conservation action – almost all on the up – and declining species, farmland and woodland, of the wider countryside. Determined conservation action works -as you point out, Mark, even in the farmed environment.

    1. Roderick,

      if you tell farmers that species increases are due to the work of conservationists and species losses are due to farmers then you are in danger of alienating farmers from the conservation agenda. Most farmers recognise their conservation responsibilites and embrace them in the management of their farms. If you pat them on the back ocasionally and point out the species increases they are helping with then you might encourage them to do more, if you do what Mark does and go out of your way to describe farms as some sort of wildlife wastelands ( which they are not) you will just make farmers wonder why they bother.

      1. Guy – yes, but do the NFU care anyway? And who is more likely to alienate farmers from the conservation agenda – nature conservationists who say there is a problem and work with like-minded farmers to try to solve it (Advisory staff paid for by NGOs, RSPB Volunteer and Farmer Alliance (paid for by NGOs), agri-environment schems (lobbied for by NGOs and paid for by us all) or the farmers’ ‘leaders’ (like yourself and P Kendall) who say there isn’t a conservation problem?

  5. There is little I can add from what Alan Parfitt has already stated on this subject. I am however very disappointed and upset after reading the transcript of Peter Kendall’s outrageous statement to the government. The only small crumb of comfort I have is with the many past contacts I have had with farmers. The vast majority I had dealings with loved their nature and although sometimes there were conflicts, they would often do their best to protect ‘their’ wild cohabitants. It was always information rather than instruction which motivated most farmers I knew to care for nature. Alan’s post says much of the things I might have posted myself, but it does seem to me that Kendall’s statement is at odds with the many farmers I had met and conversed with. Let’s hope they read his statement and take issue with it, after all they are potentially at risk of yet more bad public opinion/press if they align themselves with such an out of touch NFU leader.

  6. Guy – it’s an old argument with some merit, I accept. You may be surprised to hear that when RSPB first got into agricultural policy it was at a time when the norm was to attack farmers. I was a very strong advocate of changing the system, not attacking farmers. I still wouldn’t attack the many, many farmers who are really doing their best in an economic system & climate which often doesn’t help them do the ‘right thing’ – and if you read what Mark says he doesn’t, either. I think we have, however, reached a break point where we have to take a choice down which road we go – Kendal and NFU are presenting one route, many of the farmer contributors to this blog, another. Why, I’d question, should public money be going into industrial farming where the sole objective appears to be increasing production any more than it should into purely commercial timber production ? Similarly, as for the sort of multi-purpose forestry/ landuse which won such public support when the Government tried to sell the nationsl forests, I believe passionately that land managers, whether farmers or foresters, MUST be rewarded for the things they deliver for society as a whole – landscape, biodiversity, access, water – but can’t sell for cash. Frankly, there are times when I feel rural people have to some extent been ripped off by the urban majority – and I think the sort of comments Peter Kendal makes almost gives them license to go on taking our money & goodwill.

  7. Thank you for enlightening us all, Mark, I have learnt a lot about our current NFU President. And forgive my unrestrained knee-jerk response yesterday. After all Peter Kendall is just protecting his members from ‘unsavoury truths’ (you know, like parents have to do when the dog dies – “no darling, he’s not dead, he’s just running round a home, honest”). Members, he may empathise with, who are getting to that point when things are seeming a bit of a struggle, and they could do without the hassle of leaving beetle banks and wildflower margins round their fields, or refraining from spraying at times bees may be foraging, cutting hedges later in the season, or having to think about anything, quite frankly, other than putting their feet up. He simply ‘modified the statistics’ to look after their interests (?) – which must include absolving them (and himself?) of any guilt – and asserting they have no need to farm responsibly to protect our wild plants, pollinators, insects, birds, mammals, us…(“…we haven’t got a bio-diversity crisis in this country…”). And it’s just not the arable farmers’ problem anyway after all, is it – they don’t depend on pollinators – they just need a bit of wind, wind and more wind (and a little hot air from their President) to grow wheat, wheat and more wheat.

    1. Sarah – you are welcome! Of course beetle banks and wildflower margins are optional extras that the farmer gets paid for. I don’t mind paying for them but i do mind being told that they are pointless because wildlife is doing fine!

  8. First of, I appreciate you including my comment yesterday on the blog and the dressing down in this one is far less than I expected. I think I need to state that it is was via your blog that I first heard about Peter Kendalls speech and having read in it full, had a day in tractor to think about it and a further interesting chat with a neighbour in the forest industry I can honestly say that what he said was awful and destructive to my industry at a time where we cannot afford it.

    Okay I was trying to mitigate a little bit by suggesting that his comments aim to ultimately seek a middle ground but it is now very clear that he has, as others have stated, simply further alienated the farming community from society as a whole.

    But, we are not errant schoolchildren and the language used by some commentators treats us as such. I care passionately about the wildlife that lives or migrates onto my land and the schemes I have entered into are not always subsidised but paid for out of my own pocket and have worked better than those sticking to quango centralised policies.

    Talking to Gareth my forester neighbour opened my eyes to the current situation in his industry where many are questioning the charity ngos with good reason. In fact on one landscaping website there is a lot of talk questioning the money flow into ngos and the fact that biodiversity losses are occuring on their watch and yet they, the landscapers get the blame. Those of us working on the land and with trees or in gardens are not well paid and we suffer from a complete lack of good publicity. The current top heavy, in finance, publicity and staffing terms (an almost seperate industry of ngos, quangos and our own representatives) system has stood watch, argued in conferences, debated but only via their own peers without achieving much progress either. Hedgehogs are almost extinct amongst other animals, the flow of money via subsidy is heavily creamed by consultants and others who seem to spend most of their time on social media.

    Therefore whilst I agree that what Peter Kendall and some of his ilk suggest is completely wrong, I will say that the ngos are not whiter than white also. They have taken huge subsidies as well, and we have a right to question everybody because quite frankly the system as it is doesnt work but it needs to.

    Lastly I will say that this opportunity by people like myself to enter debate amongst those Mr Kendall would speak of as enemies is a positive step in the right direction and is maybe proof that the days of lobbying, private boy club meetings etc are over and the internet will give us a chance to talk to one another quickly and efiiciently with real results.

    1. David – thank you again for your comment. You will be welcome to comment on this blog for as long as you like. And your comments are interesting and thoughtful. As an NFU member maybe you had better drop the NFU a line on this subject?

  9. Well Mark you kept your word incredably well another two brilliant blogs and as I can go on a bit will keep it short.Think you take too much notice of what Peter Kendall says and notice in your blog farmers more or less agree with him or they should get him out.Well we all know it doesn’t work like that a very small group of people in these situations seem to get what they want.
    As football supporters we both know Sepp Blatter is there and can anyone shift him,no impossible.My guess is farmers do not place too much importance on who is president,some joined out of loyalty,some in case they need help legally or similar and others not members at all.I wonder if at a group meeting with 300 members in that group 10 turn up and vote taken is it very representative.
    He obviously understandably annoys you but think you credit him with too much influence,farmers with a bit of incentive will go down the path that the majority of public want.
    I do however feel sad that in a time when we seem to be getting better relations between the two sides he does not seem to want in.

  10. I was thinking about the comment that farmers don’t speak out against the NFU, this is something that I have noticed, it has been especially noticable in relation to the badger cull. Also local farmers surprised me at a social gathering at our house by saying they really had very little good to say about Elin Jones [the then agricultural person at the Assembly]. But I never see/hear anything in pubkic…local newspaper etc. I’m not sure what this is about.
    So it is good to hear from farmers with different views – there are some of them out there, publically [badger friendly, biodiversity friendly, farmers found on twitter]. I see small farmers having a hard time, some caring for the land some not. There does at times seem to be a war against farmers – I often find myself stuck in the middle. But when I hear the opinions of the NFU, I’m not surprised.
    Maybe small farmers are too busy… In Wales the Tir Gofal, Tir mynydd, & Tir Gynnal schemes seem in some cases to be very successful in maintaining biodiversity – but some of their rules have not been flexible – there are dates when you can cut your hay, rather than looking at the weather and even plant indicators. All three schemes are being replaced by Glastir. I wonder if this will have more flexibility. And yet the last governemnet in Wales set up a policy document that was all about reducing the carbon footprint of farming by turning towards zero grazing. The grass monoculture.

  11. Dennis, I agree that relations between farmers and Conservation NGOs are in the main very good. I do find this NFU thing a bit strange. You say that he is credited ‘with too much influence’. He should have influence, he is after all the head of the National Farmers representative body. If he hasn’t got influence then why is here there. If I was a farmer I would expect that influence and I think the problem here is that others will see this coimment as coming from that influential position.

  12. Anthony Gibson was less than accurate with another part of his comment. Water quality is not going in the right direction. The EA likes to give press releases usually involving positive spin with salmon numbers increasing in a couple of rivers. Although rivers in urban areas are becoming cleaner, by which I mean they are recovering from polluted sewage outlets to having life in, our best rivers are declining in quality due to eutrophication, thanks mainly to run off from farmers fields. Jeremy Biggs of Pond conservation has more on this on his blog.

    1. Neil – yes, I hadn’t bothered to pick that up but of course you are right. According to the NFU everything is fine out there.

  13. While having a go at Peter Kendall when will you have a go at land agents? If Peter Kendall represents his members land agents are paid to represent land owners and tenants. It would be interesting to know what % of land they cover! Many of them have gained vast amounts of money from HLS and LLS and still not delivered wildlife friendly farming. One of the main reasons being they do not have the experience but they take the lion share of FEPs.

    1. John – I’ll keep it in mind for when i run out of ideas, thanks. Peter Kendall is a powerful elected voice who claims to speak on behalf of farmers who manage c70% of the land surface.

  14. Lots of various views here,one point I would make is that just like all people in authority positions M P being a typical example it is not easy to get who you want in the first place and once in position it is very difficult to replace them which in my opinion covers the point that lots of farmers are doing exactly what conservationists have persuaded the E U they should do to get the grants and seems to be the opposite to what the president is saying.Would be nice to do a poll and ask farmers name the president.
    People who moan that farmers in scheme are not improving things do no good at all,farmers are fullfilling the scheme requirements down to the last letter,what you should be doing if you are not satisfied is to get the scheme changed to what you require.Perhaps ironically as difficult for you as farmers getting a wildlife friendly president.
    Sarah —of course Mark has enlightened you but even Mark would agree he is only expressing his personal opinion even though lots of us agreee with him where I disagree with what you say is that you totally ignore the massive numbers,probably even a large majority of farmers who are in schemes to try and improve things.
    Flo Fflach—there are of course plenty of us farmers and retired farmers who consider ourselves badger lovers and still support a cull because there is no alternative for another decade and something needs to be done for badgers,cattle and farmers to benefit in the long term.There is 40 years evidence of a cull working against the evidence of a cull set up with stupid conditions that had no chance of working which badger groups conveniently quote but ignore the evidence of 40 years.Think we may disagree with president on this wildlife quote but most would back him on badger cull.Badgers are now becoming common in Scotland and surprise surprise I understand BTB is now occurring in Scotland.

    1. Dennis – fair points of view. The large majority of farmers who are in schemes to try to improve things were told last week by the voice of farming, the NFU, that thereis no biodiversity crisis and that money should be shifted towards production. It’s been good to see a few farmers express a different view here but, we have seen Anthony Gibson and Guy Smith come on to this blog and play down the biodiversity losses once more. There seems to be a concerted and decided NFU line to rubbish environmental concerns so that taxpayers’ money can go to farmers for more industrial farming. And that won’t help nature and it may not help farmers’ relationship with their customers – who are people like you and me who also pay for farming through our taxes.

      1. If the President of the NFU wants to see real value added growth in agriculture he ought to be focusing less on encouraging exports and start thinking about how UK agriculture can expoit its main customer base, the UK population. At the same time he should address how his members can salvage their businesses in the face of the annually worsening post peak oil situation. Isn’t it obvious that we need to see smaller farms, employing more skilled labour, depending less on massive carbon expensive machinery and growing more wholesome food for local markets. The switch will have to be made sooner or later so why not start doing it now? He’s right to call for more research as clearly new methods will need to be developed but not of the frankenstein variety, thank you. In fact we probably need to switch thinking away from agriculture to a higher proportion of horticulture. If he starts listening to what his customers want he ought to realise we want good local food and a wildlife rich countryside. Forget the free trade export blather and knocking the environment movement, why don’t his members hold him to account for not representing their real interests?

  15. “If he starts listening to what his customers want he ought to realise we want good local food and a wildlife rich countryside.” Well said Phil.

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