Fair enough Minister

On Monday I did an interview for the BBC Farming Today programme, with the NFU’s Guy Smith.  If you want to listen to that interview you can but you won’t learn anything new from it as the NFU is still in denial over the loss of farmland wildlife and the role that farming has played in it.

Much more importantly, the points I made were put to the Agriculture Minister, Jim Paice, on Farming Today yesterday and what Mr Paice said is well worth listening to a couple of times.  Defra is determined to reverse the declines in farmland wildlife.

I was very pleased to hear the Minister strongly reject the idea that there is a conflict between food production and biodiversity production – and he referred to the work of the RSPB at Hope Farm and of GWCT at Loddington (as I often do in this blog, as I did in my discussion with Guy Smith (although it was edited out) and as the NFU never ever ever do when they talk about these matters) as good examples where food production and wildlife recovery go hand in hand.  Quite right!

The Minister was also open about the fact that the Campaign for the Farmed Environment would miss some of its targets – there’s never been much doubt about it he said.  This is a shame in practice, but there never has been much doubt about it, and it’s good to hear the Minister being so open.  It isn’t Defra’s failure  of course, this is a Big Society attempted ‘solution’ (brought in by the Labour Government not by this Coalition Government) and it has been up to the NFU, CLA and farmers to meet the targets.  And so the Minister loses no face in being honest that targets won’t be met but the NFU and CLA do lose face as they haven’t delivered what they said they would do.

The Minister was strong on the fact that farmers need to do more and that the schemes under his control have to enable them to do more.

All in all this was a very good  and sensible series of points by the Minister.  Much of it was entirely contrary to what the NFU seem to say on behalf of farmers.  I like Mr Paice – he is a farmer himself and so he sees things from that perspective, and he can be a bit grumpy sometimes, but he has a true feel for farming, wildlife and the countryside in general.  I’d like him to push Defra to move further and quicker but there is some movement and it is generally in the right direction.

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8 Replies to “Fair enough Minister”

  1. Well done Mark,nice to know you rather think highly of Minister.Just think many more things go against farmland birds than just farming although no way am I saying that is not one of the factors.After all I saw a few days ago something like Nightingales had declined by about 65% which is probably similar to some farmland birds.
    Do not think farmers worst enemies could pin that decline on farmers.

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  2. Mark,
    That's nailed down exactly where the fault & responsibilities lie. What hope can there be that DEFRA (or the Scottish Government up here) will actually do something concrete to deliver against Paice's commitment in context of CAPreform 2013?
    Having heard Kendall bleating this morning on Farming Today about the unfairness of proposed ( sensible, in my view) shift of up to 20% of SFP into AgriEnvironment & RuralDev pillar I can't say that I have much confidence that DEFRA et al won't bottle it.
    Please keep the pressure on the B**s !

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  3. I’m currently in Extremadura in central Spain, probably one of the richest areas of Europe for farmland wildlife. The meadows, pastures and cereal fields buzz with insects, are full of arable ‘weeds’ stuffed with priority farmland birds (that’s the ones that are native, non-migratory and depend on the farmed environment for Guy’s reference) and in terms of biodiversity, is probably as rich as the UK was a number of years ago. Additionally, the area is also stuffed with top predators like lots and lots of raptors so really goes against the grain of what another bunch of denialists are trying desperately to hang on to.

    What’s different about Extremadura from Essex? Mixed farming, extensive grazing, fallows, spring cereals, lack of dependence on inorganic fertilisers, insecticides and herbicides. If Guy or anyone else is in any doubt over what has caused the declines in our farmland wildlife I suggest they get out to Spain pronto for a look around. Of course in the UK we will never return to such extensive management but it clearly shows what we have lost and what changes have driven the farmland biodiversity embarrassment we have in the UK. So let’s not argue about what has caused the declines (we have good evidence to show this), let’s try to support what dwindling farm wildlife we have (not just swallows and great-spotted woodpeckers Guy) but the actual species that the farmed environment should support. Let’s hope the minister backs up his words with some real action to get some real recovery for farm wildlife in exchange for the vast chunks of public money we are currently handing out for little change. I wouldn’t take much note of the NFU, they have failed over the CFE and clearly don’t represent the good farmers out there who really are raising the bar on farm conservation and go on as unsung heroes in their own community by their own production focussed union.

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    1. David - thank you for a great comment from a part of the world I know quite well and which I like very much. I envy you being out there at this super time of year (and it's raining here, again!). Your comment echoes that of another naturalist to whom I talked earlier this week. He had just returned from France and was saying much the same - even in the intensively farmed areas, the farmland is much more alive with insects and plants, and that means that the birds are far richer.

      I recall many instances when I have stood by the side of the road in Spain, looking over an unpromising looking landscape and heard corn buntings singing evrywhere - an almost impossible task these days in the UK. years of drenching the countryside with pesticides may have something to do with that.

      Yes there are many good farmers out there - but they are too quiet. They are quietly getting on with doing a good job for nature but also letting the NFU apparently speak for them. Those farmers would do something important for nature by speaking out too. This blog would welcome their voices.

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  4. It’s a place I love to get my ‘farmland bird fix’ and usually visit 2 or 3 times a year. It is staggering what we have lost back home when you visit these places. Even in my lifetime (a mere 30 years!) I have seen species like corn bunting and grey partridge disappear from areas I used to find them as a kid. Talking to older farming family and friends they tell me their memories of corncrakes and plague proportions of lapwings but can also tell me of the changes on the farm since this time. Having travelled around much of Europe’s biodiversity hotspots it’s the same wherever you go but Extremadura certainly does come close to the least trashed of all the farmed ecosystems out there in Europe. My worry is what potential damage the EU can do for farmland species in Eastern Europe and other parts of the region, I worry we won’t learn from our mistakes in the UK. We really need to put a value on our wildlife as once it’s gone, it’s hard to get back and can have bigger effects in the future. If we want a snapshot of high nature value farming and the good old days, Extremadura is place.

    I regularly mention the area to farmers who I talk to when they worry about the effect of raptors on farmland bird numbers. Clearly the two co-exist happily here and the only thing that is different, is the extensive farming practices haven’t change the priority species habitats in the first place, leaving them wide open to any effects of predation.

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    1. David - I agree completely. The point about raptors is well made. In a single day in extremadura you might well see; griffon vulture, black vulture, Egyptian vulture, red kite, black kite, black-shouldered kite, Montagu's harrier, hen harrier, marsh harrier, golden eagle, imperial eagle, Bonelli's eagle, booted eagle, short-toed eagle, buzzard, kestrel, lesser kestrel, peregrine, goshawk and sparrowhawk. I hope you see all of those today and more David!

      And the thing is, like the Minister sdaid this week, it isn't a choice between food production and wildlife production - you can have both. We can have both here in the UK too.

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