Guest blog – A change in farming by Peter Cooper

IMG_7291Peter Cooper is a 21 year old naturalist, writer, zoology student and avid badger watcher. He has written both whimsical nature writing and ‘proper’ environmental journalism on his personal blog and for The Independent. Peter is currently going into his third year at the University of Exeter Cornwall Campus, where he is the editor in chief of his university’s nature magazine ‘Life’ and a presenter on student wildlife documentary ‘Naturewatch’. Always happier in the woods, when at home he is generally pursuing the natural history of his Romsey and the New Forest stomping grounds, with particular on-going studies of the local mammal populations. A steering committee member for the youth conservation movement ‘A Focus on Nature’ (and a mentee of Mark’s through the programme), Peter is keen to engage other young people into steering wildlife conservation towards a new era, and has particular interests in exploring the prospects for rewilding in the UK.

Being a conservationist is a bipolar affair. On the one hand engaging with nature fills us with joy, yet on the other, humanity’s relentless assault on the natural world, and the seeming inability of those who care to get the big business-folk and politicians to listen, can leave you thinking all the efforts of conservationists are ultimately futile.

Unfortunately, the latter mind-set has been looming large recently. On top of the many on-going assaults on wildlife and the environment, 23rd July was when the government decided – or perhaps more likely, were pulled on the trouser legs by high-up representatives of the NFU – to reverse the ban on neonicotinoid pesticides. Like many environment related decisions, this is another textbook case of Government sticking its head in the sand to unbiased scientific facts, and rushing towards short-term economic gain.

Mention farming to a conservationist, and while you’re likely to get a pick-and-mix of responses about the good or bad it can do for nature (largely based on that individual’s experience) one thing that pretty much all can agree on is that intensified agriculture has caused a reduction in Britain’s wildlife over the last 50 years or so.

That is a fact, supported by hordes of data on the showy species we can record easily (birds, butterflies & wildflowers), and the trend is generally reflected in everything else too – as State of Nature so starkly told us.

Of course, even without scientific evidence, there is enough verification for this decline. Nowadays, I find myself in the all-too familiar conversation with the baby boomer naturalist. Frequently stroking a beard, they reminisce over the vast number of lapwings that used to swarm the fields till it looked like a chessboard, counting dozens of water voles on an hour’s walk by the river, and in the headlights of the car at night, the ‘moth snowstorm’ – themes explored beautifully in Mike McCarthy’s new book of the same name.

These and so many other plants and animals’ life histories were both directly and indirectly linked to how the farmer treated the land. When you consider that roughly 71% of the UK is farmland, that’s a huge amount of responsibility we place with them.

We can’t ignore the fact farming is a business, and will therefore operate to the pressures that society as a whole puts on them. In a world of fluctuating supermarket prices and increasing numbers of mouths to feed, short-term destruction of nature by stripping land bare and smothering it with pesticides appears to have been the answer to such demands, and this fundamentally makes it difficult to get conservation engraved in what is essentially an industrial landscape.

Conservationists have tried their best. It most definitely isn’t working. The RSPB’s Hope Farm project has shown how one can maintain wildlife on farmland while maintaining a successful business, as have numerous other studies that reveal the long-term farming benefits of maintaining these ‘ecosystem services’; but they have fallen on deaf ears.

The environmental stewardship schemes appear to be the government’s lip service to providing for wildlife on farms, but the key fact it’s voluntary means only a minority of farmers have actually signed up, with the majority on the rather tame ‘entry level’ stewardship. Inspection of how signed-up members are maintaining schemes is reportedly very poor. This is about as beneficial to nationwide conservation as nature reserves; tiny islands of (variable) natural bounty in an otherwise cruel sea.

There are farmers who care, and are conservationists in their own right. Among those I know personally are people like Derek Gow, a conservationist I’ve started working for this year, who is most famous for his work in water vole and beaver reintroduction; yet few realise he is also a commercial cattle and sheep farmer very much in tune with the agricultural community.

Of my own age, there is fellow student and good friend of mine Jack Hirst. Part of a sheep farming family in the Yorkshire dales, he is also an enthusiastic naturalist studying Conservation Biology & Ecology at the Exeter University Cornwall Campus, and is a sign of hope for the next generation of farmers. A conservationist can (with a good dose of confidence) easily march into a pub, blather to a bunch of farmers about why they should conserve wildlife, and walk out again, only for the latter to disregard it all immediately. If someone like Jack within the group speaks up on it however, there is a lot more of a chance they’ll listen.

But again, these are just a couple of farmers among too few to make a real difference. Year upon year, the data from surveys such as the farmland bird index continues to get worse, and conservationists continue to say: “Oh dear, things still aren’t working out. We’ll try harder next year”, without really considering if the current practice just isn’t working at all. Or more likely they do, but don’t care to admit it.

So we do need something very different, and very quickly. Before I suggest my solution, I’ll note that I’m not a farmer myself (as if you hadn’t guessed that already), and saying I have the authority to speak on the issues because my grandfather was a dairy farmer would be as credible as me saying I know all about life in the home guard.

Therefore feel free to point, guide, and criticise the issues my idea creates, and I will listen. But if we are to really protect wildlife on farmland and in effect the majority of the UK, we need to start making it part of its ‘produce’.

The time has come for farming legislation to change, for wildlife to become a legal requirement for farms to maintain alongside their crop and stock, both for its long term benefits to agricultural productivity and the well-being of nature and people alike. Much like the current stewardship schemes, the more ecologically rich a farm, the higher the payment received. If the farmer doesn’t want to oversee this aspect of farming life themselves, fair enough – individuals employed through bodies such as Natural England or the Wildlife Trusts could do this for them. No more ‘you could do this’, no more praise for farms that actually do something for nature – this should be the norm. Nowadays, we know enough now about how ecology works, how we can maintain it and how important it really is for us to put this into effect. Britain could be a world leader, showing other countries how farming with wildlife fully in mind can sow the seeds for better protection of nature across the globe as the method catches on.

The idea is simple in direction, incredibly difficult to put into practice and (probably) support. But I feel it’s the only real way of ensuring a healthy future for wildlife in our agricultural ‘manscape’ (apart from land value tax, possibly – but that’s a different kettle of fish entirely).

I would welcome any other suggestions. But the naturalists of my generation (yes, we exist) are already getting excited when we hear one skylark or see one grasshopper, when really it should be at 20 to 100 times that number. I literally fear for what British wildlife will look like for my children if we continue business as usual. Let’s be brave for once.



13 Replies to “Guest blog – A change in farming by Peter Cooper”

  1. Your blog has painted a picture of most farmers being no better than profit obsessed yobs, determined to destroy flora and fauna wherever possible. Most farmers in my experience do work in harmony with nature. In my part of Suffolk the combine harvesters have been busy of late bringing in the harvest, the recently cut fields now reveal healthy field margins, left unsprayed and home to a wide variety of wildflowers, mammals and bird life. The hedges are cut, but they are cut later to permit nesting birds to fledge their young. This is the norm, not a rarity. Of course the truth is that many of these farms also are host to a shoot. The habitats that I have mentioned are in place to support partridge and pheasants with other wildlife benefiting from this management. Therefore your view that wildlife management on farms should be undertaken by a third party is in fact already happening, not by a Natural England volunteer, but by a gamekeeper. The conservation benefits provided by shooting seems to have been conveniently missed in your well written but ultimately unbalanced blog.

    1. And how much of this was actually made possible by public grants for conservation? Shooting on the back of public subsidy for protecting willdife and then taking the credit for it? I’ve lived and worked on a farm in Suffolk and I certainly did not get the impression that farmers were more interested in helping willdife than anyone else. Peter is honest and the first step forward will not be blindingly accepting the BS the NFU and others trot out about how conscientious their members are, the NFU recently called for EU Habitat Directives to be weakened! If a farmer wants to claim to be a conservationist then they have to practice it! Thanks for a well written article Peter and teling us ‘the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes’.

    2. I really don’t think that that Peter’s text can be construed as saying that most farmers are profit obsessed yobs. He acknowledges that farming is a business that operates under pressures imposed by society as a whole – the demand for low prices at the supermarket for example – and clearly recognises that farmers farm the way they do in order to ensure their businesses survive and continue to provide a living for them and their families. I don’t believe that anyone has suggested that farmers are gratuitously “determined to destroy flora and fauna wherever possible”.
      It is very clear, though, that whatever the motivation of farmers, the approach to the management of farmland that has been pursued in the modern era has been largely inimical to nature. Land drainage, increased use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers, new crop varieties and changing cropping patterns and livestock feeding systems have all contributed to a massive reduction in plant and animal diversity on farmland. It is a problem that cannot be ignored.
      As both Peter and you point out, some farmers do make an effort – considerable in some cases – to encourage wildlife to flourish on their farms and often with great results. I would acknowledge that some elements of game management can contribute to this. Overall, though, across the whole farmed landscape too little is being done and our rural fauna and flora continues to decline.
      If, as Peter suggests, the way farmers operate is determined to a large degree by the social pressures they operate under then it is reasonable to suggest that a solution to the plight of farmland wildlife must come through changing those pressures. This may be via consumer pressure, changes in legislation, changes in funding and subsidy arrangements or a combination of these. Ultimately, if more than an enlightened few farmers are to farm in a truly wildlife friendly way we have to ensure that that is the most commercially viable way to farm.
      Unfortunately, at present we have a government that really does not ‘get’ the environment and a Secretary of State at Defra who clearly sees her primary role as selling pork to the Chinese so such changes are not immediately around the corner. We must therefore continue to monitor wildlife in the countryside, lobby our political representatives and champion those farmers who really are making a positive difference.

      1. Good points ,well made and balanced. I still read the piece as a “most farmers are villains”. I’d be interested to read a longer piece from you.

    3. Gamekeepers, by their role in life are nature killers; there’s not even any judgement in that fact. And most farmers run with the pack. How many preserved their hedgerows when they were offered money to take them out. Let’s face it, the nature . loving few lost money on that one; I salute the few. As for the conservation benefits of shooting – go tell an English hen-harrier.

      1. Eco,good choice of name tag,please explain your point of farmers running with the pack,almost all the big shoots employing gamekeepers not farmers at all but rich bankers etc.
        Please also lets have proof of money offered and taken for hedgerow removal.
        Almost always done where fields were too small for mechanised farming as opposed to horse drawn implements.
        My guess is your two main points are very misleading.

  2. The conservationist work is rarely the crown of an individual- it is a prolonged commitment of many individuals and usually through the generations. The rewards are not often public but intrinsic to the protected environment.
    However it does sometimes happen that an individual ‘s efforts can be pivotal. My sister spent her life retrieving neglected ponds and their inhabitants . She got her PhD for her research into identification of the native northern pool frog and her evidence contributed to its recognition. Unfortunately the last pool frog died in the 1990s. Her work showed that in Northern Europe there were related frogs. Julia did not live to see the results of her work but 18th August 2015 saw the reintroduction of the pool frog after the habitat damage which had led to its loss was rehabilitated. Human damage was the cause of its demise and good conservation has enabled restoration of the pool frog . Check up with ARC for more details or Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

  3. Hi Peter,

    Environmental Stewardship closed to new applicants last year and has been replaced by the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS), CSS has operates with two distinct tiers. The Mid-Tier replaces ELS, but is competitive, much more rigorously targeted and for most farms likely to pay them a lot less than ELS did.

    The Higher Tier replaces HLS but again is much more competitive, targeted and significantly lower paying. HT CSS isn’t great news for those HNV farms that really embraced HLS and restructured their businesses accordingly and that’s a real shame. It was described to me by one an outstanding farmer conservationist as, “a bit of kick in the teeth”. And in many cases it’s hard not to agree, NE’s way of saying “thanks for all your hard work over over the last 20 years, but we’d like to carry on supporting you by paying you less than we did 10 years ago, with the added bonus of offering your business less security” (e.g 5 year agreements instead of 10).

    Both tiers are now open for applications for new agreements that start January 1st 2016.

  4. Hi Peter, nicely written article.
    As a conservation biologist and farmer I totally agree that farmers do have a responsibility to maintain ecological integrity of the land that they / we manage. As you mention, they are also trying to run viable businesses and provide food that we all eat.
    In that vain the “tame” Entry Level Scheme (ELS) is often the only option for many farmers, particularly if their farms are too small or don’t hold critical species or habitats to allow them to apply for the Higher Level Scheme (HLS). That is irrelevant now as unfortunately the subsidised environmental schemes are undergoing a massive revamp across Europe, and it doesn’t look good for conservation, with many farmers who hold current agreements unlikely to qualify for the new schemes. That is the case for my family’s farm – our ELS agreement ends next year and so we were excited that we might be able to enter the new “Higher Tier” scheme that comes into play next year. Our local Natural England advisor came to visit the farm, praised what we had done in the last few years to increase biodiversity (e.g. planting wildflower meadows and wild bird seed mixes which has resulted in a noticeable increase in yellowhammers, linnets, reed buntings and even harvest mice), and then told us we are very unlikely to be approved for the Higher Tier scheme because we are outside a priority area. The best he could offer was a small grant for maintaining some ridge-and-furrow grassland, which we would do anyway as part of normal farming activity. To rub salt into the wound he said that we might not even receive funding for the Mid Tier scheme which is the equivalent of the current ELS. So, this time next year we will be looking at funding all of our current environmental schemes ourselves. We are in the fortunate position that we have diversified sufficiently to allow this to happen (hopefully), but many farms across the country are not in the same boat and will simply exit the schemes and not apply for new ones.
    Yes we receive a lot of money from Europe, but that is partly to maintain realistic costs for consumers. The debate about milk prices in the recent media is a good illustration of how farmers are often asked to sell a product for less than it costs for them to produce – no other industry has to do that and it is clearly not a viable business plan. Don’t get me wrong, I know there are many farmers out there who could be doing more for the environment, but there are good and bad eggs in every industry, as you mentioned. It would just be nice if it was made easier for the “sitting on the fence” farmers to be pushed in the right direction with suitable targeted advice and subsidies. You mention that employees from Natural England or the Wildlife Trusts could be employed to implement conservation measures. This would be fantastic in an ideal world but I’m not sure where the money would come for for this. Natural England conservation / environmental advisors are already stretched far beyond their means and receive a very low salary for the hours that they work and the potential good that they do. Anyway, my point is that you have hit the nail on the head but that it is not always as clear cut as farmers making a choice to be more conservation-minded or not. Sadly the reforms to the CAP and environmental schemes have just made it a whole lot less attractive and straightforward for many farmers, not to mention less valuable for biodiversity conservation. We can only keep trying, as you say. Well done for getting people thinking.

  5. Peter’s blog could equally well be entitled “A Change in Attitudes” as his comments on farming apply equally to the vast majority of human activities. It is a sad fact that conserving existing biodiversity is all too often just an added extra which just wouldn’t happen without legislation or the promise of extra payment. Why is that that our environment is so easily ignored by the majority of people? What do conservationists see that the majority don’t?. Until biodiversity has a true value and is clearly understood to be as important as short term economic goals or political imperative then these conflicts will continue…

  6. Think there are lots of good points there but forget the legal requirement bit that will never work,just produce jobs for little hittlers who would not understand the problem anyway.
    The only way things will change in my opinion is if payments are made to farmers to do what is required to fix things as opposed to the futile payments that have not worked in the past and present.
    There could be worse to come unless things are put in place to help birds etc as more houses and much larger population will increase the already considerable pressure on farmers.
    You have to understand that generations of farmers have farmed to produce food of some description whereas a relatively new term of conservationists demand a different attitude,well that will have to provide the same income as a crop would and also at the same time convince them that is what they ought to be doing as opposed to saving your grandparents and lots of others including my parents and myself from starving in the 1940s.
    Good luck,your blog and attitude is great but it will be a long haul.

  7. Nice blog Peter but I think there are some things you have missed, which do need highlighting. I have become far more exposed to farming related issues and environmental subsidy schemes, in my recent new job, so will share what I have learnt over the past few months. I am by no means an expert and the world of farming and stewardship schemes is incredibly complicated. Forgive any mistakes I might make!

    You write this:

    “The time has come for farming legislation to change, for wildlife to become a legal requirement for farms to maintain alongside their crop and stock, both for its long term benefits to agricultural productivity and the well-being of nature and people alike. Much like the current stewardship schemes, the more ecologically rich a farm, the higher the payment received. If the farmer doesn’t want to oversee this aspect of farming life themselves, fair enough – individuals employed through bodies such as Natural England or the Wildlife Trusts could do this for them. No more ‘you could do this’, no more praise for farms that actually do something for nature – this should be the norm. Nowadays, we know enough now about how ecology works, how we can maintain it and how important it really is for us to put this into effect. Britain could be a world leader, showing other countries how farming with wildlife fully in mind can sow the seeds for better protection of nature across the globe as the method catches on.”

    We basically have this already. I have been told that in the new stewardship schemes and the new basic payments (referred to as cross compliance) scheme, wildlife and conservation measures will be incorporated into these. It might not be as radical as you wish but it is happening.

    One of the main problems with the way lots of environmental requirements have been delivered is that they come with huge amounts of paperwork, record keeping and legislation. It can be an absolute minefield for farmers to work out what they need to do, what they can claim etc. It confuses them and puts them off, it makes it a burden that many resent. It gets in the way. It needs to be made simpler and easier.

    You say the more ecologically rich farms should receive more payment. Well they kind of do now, you get more points if you have more features and thus are likely to get more funds. However, as outlined above, this is changing. Higher level stewardship is going at the end of the year, being replaced by Countryside Stewardship. The budget for this is lower, as the government makes cuts, the environmental budget is reduced. I forsee this only getting worse as the years go by, I don’t really see any government putting more money into subsidies for farmers. This means less money available to fund conservation work on farms.

    We are facing a crisis point in agriculture right now. Many farms who are coming to the end of their 10 year HLS schemes, will (as pointed out above) probably fail to get into the new one. What happens then? Can they still afford to put their cattle in the wet grassland fields to help marsh fritillary on Dartmoor? Or do they stop doing what they have done and increase productivity and grazing. There is a feeling that lots of farms are going to have to become more intensive across much of their land to cope with the loss in income provided by environmental subsidies.

    I used to think farmers were paid subsidies and that we did not get enough for them. However I have seen that on Exmoor and Dartmoor, networks of species like marsh fritillary and high brown fritillary are maintained by these subsidies. It does work. It enables farmers to help these species, without the funds it would not happen and it would be lost from the landscape. It is also not just about these species, though they are the flagship ones, it is about the habitats that they exist in.

    You say that employees from Natural England or the Wildlife Trusts could help. Firstly, Natural England has faced tremendous cuts and organisational restructuring and as such there are hardly any land advisers anymore. Dartmoor has 3 or 3 to cover the whole area! They barely have time to fit in their farm visits and help with advice and to check that the farmer is doing things properly. Again, with future cuts I can only see this getting worse. Similarly, quite a few Wildlife Trusts do employ conservation officer type roles but they are few and far between and you have to remember that they are charities and overstretched as it is.

Comments are closed.