Who are the environmental lobby?

Farmers Guardian insight has an interesting little article on ‘who are the environmental lobby?’  I’d have thought that most farmers have noticed by now but you never know.

Apparently it’s not the Wildlife Trusts, Friends of the Earth, WWF-UK or Greenpeace – which will miff some of those not named. The environmental lobby is George Monbiot, Chris Packham, the RSPB and the National Trust, at least as far as farming is concerned. Not a bad selection.

These people are apparently some of the best-organised in the world and some of the most adept – well I guess it depends what you are used to, but it never does any harm to big up your adversaries (it looks so much better for you whether you win or lose if your foe was a fearsome creature).

Apparently the RSPB ‘claims’ to have over a million members rather than having them.

The NFU says that ‘The public also believes farmers play a beneficial role in improving the environment.’ which is probably true of what the public think and is sometimes true of what farmers do.

The insight that FGinsight offers is that environmentalists should be invited out to farms so that they can see all that good work.

This was all in a piece about the State of Nature report showing that intensive agriculture has had, and is having, a massive impact on wildlife.

Tim Breitmayer of the CLA kept saying yesterday, at the State of Nature launch, that farmers and landowners were very proud of what they have on their farms but didn’t really seem to get much beyond that point. Although when pressed on whether he would keep protection for species and habitats post-Brexit he looked uncomfortable and suggested that some species should lose their protection because they were a problem for other biodiversity. I wonder what he meant? All carnivores? All raptors?

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28 Replies to “Who are the environmental lobby?”

  1. An NFU spokesman on ‘Today’ said that the S of N Report had ‘overlooked increases’ (of pheasants, corvids and wood pigeons, presumably) and needed ‘better metrics’. It really does make you wonder what it will take to persuade them that intensive farming (again, according to the NFU spokesman, intensive farming is a thing of the past) has had and is having a massively detrimental impact on our native wildlife.

    1. I think I heard the same piece and it was depressing. I can’t claim to have heard all of it as we were getting the kids dressed, but recall it was Guy Smith of the NFU who expressed frustration with the “wildlife lobby” and claimed “the current generation of farmers are the ones that put wildlife back into the countryside” (really? That’ll be why turtle doves are doing so well then). He then made the point that we were producing less food and importing more. The very patient man from the wildlife NGO (didn’t catch who or which one) referred back to the data and simply said “these declines [in wildlife] are continuing”.

      What’s interesting is that in such debates the wildlife NGOs always go out of their way to praise the undoubted good environmental work done by many farmers and emphasise the need to work together and that farmers are part of the solution etc. By contrast the NFU are straight on the defensive with rehearsed lines about future food scarcity and present the issue as a confrontation between farming and those who have the temerity to defend wildlife. It says a lot about both “sides” I think (and it seems to be largely down to the NFU that I have to put it like that).

      1. I have to say I’m frustrated with Guy Smith. He’s an intelligent man, but he’s content to peddle the same old guff.

        The RSPB farm is the template for arable delivery – quality habitats but also very well farmed. And I know commercial farmers who have done similar, with success. But they are still the minority. More need to understand that uncropped areas have to be given as much attention to detail as the cropped area. Scratty grass margins really offer little more than barren cereal fields.

  2. We environmentalists do go out on to farms. My BBS squares includes farmland. I walk in the countryside around where I live, it includes farmland. I live by a farm and can see two from my house. I see what farmers do and it is rarely good for wildlife. Examples of what I regularly see are: damage to soil structure and erosion by allowing stock to poach it and tractors to cause rutting, hedges deteriorating, hedge flailing, effluent running into watercourses (and if you report to EA v. little gets done), removal of hedges, draining of rushy pastures that were once the home of Lapwings and Curlews, (on one occasion) tractors driven through fields to install drains in fields where Lapwings are trying to breed whilst the Lapwings are displaying over their heads!, herbicide applied immediately adjacent to water courses (EA does b****r all if you report it), huge black smokey fires burning goodness knows what (even though it is banned), lame cattle and sheep, features on their own farm land such as hollows in fields and abandoned quarries used as rubbish dumps (even interesting archaeological features such as old bell pit heads are sometimes used), discarded silage wrappers caught in hedges, buckets that once contained sheep licks blown into hedges and woods and never removed, old barbed wire and broken down fencing left to harm wildlife and their own livestock, ancient farm machinery left in fields to rust and leak oil, an old car abandoned in a field, damage to old hedge banks and dry-stone-walls from tractors travelling on narrow country lanes.

    1. Thank you Wendy Birks. My experience of the state of the wildlife on farms is much the same in Wiltshire and Somerset (my rural village borders both counties).

    2. Funny you should mention lame cattle and sheep. Last week I sat looking at a field of sheep near my home, and noticed one of them was lame. I know this can happen and hopefully the farmer will pick it up quickly, but then noticed there was a dead sheep there too, how long had it been there? Certainly caused misgivings about the farmer and care of their stock. Yesterday we we’re out driving and took a wrong turn. We ended up in the long drive to a farmhouse. The verges would have done suburban Surrey proud, a few ornamentals within a close cut emerald green verge. There was a lot of space there for wild flowers and ‘weeds’ that bees and birds would have loved – but there were absolutely none through choice not necessity. Most farms I imagine have a garden, I wonder how many of them are wildlife gardens? Even the land where there’s scope for change, there rarely is.

    3. “effluent running into watercourses (and if you report to EA v. little gets done),” You could write to your MP asking what action was taken by the agency. Maybe there should be a campaign of writing to MPs in these cases. Also writing about breaches of the payment scheme whatever it is called now ( if you can follow the conditions). Like other benefits claimants we, the taxpayers have the right to expect them to meet the conditions.

      1. ‘Farmers have planted or restored 30,000km of hedges and increased the number of pollen and nectar rich areas by 134 per cent in the past two years.”

        Wendy, your experiences mirror mine exactly. How can this above quote from the article in the FG be true when all we witness is the destruction of hedges, cut to the absolute minimum width and height. No fruit left for the winter, no safe sites to roost or nest. Cutting started this year near us mid July! I know for a fact that yellow hammers were still nesting, but if you point it out to the farmer (contractor more like) you are likely to get a hand signal in reply.
        Verges are also treated the same way. It really makes you so sad. And yes, the farm litter is in evidence everywhere.
        Let me say, it’s not all farmers, some really do care, but I’m afraid from what I witness in the Lincolnshire wolds, they are few and far between.
        Future payments absolutely should reflect this but with a Conservative government with us for the foreseeable, I doubt that I will see a change in my lifetime.

      2. I have written to my MP about this in a very lengthy letter describing all the things that result in my local river (the River Churnet) being classed as in only “moderate” condition (Water Framework Directive) and then in another letter replying to her typically predictable replies to the first. She sent this second letter to the local EA office who then had to reply to her outlining all the works they have undertaken to maintain the water quality in the river (which weren’t much) and a remark which implied that I was wasting the EA’s time and costing them money in replying to my concerns. You can’t win when the MP really doesn’t care, and surmises you will never vote for them!

      3. There is a campaign to do this – it is called Blueprint for Water. I’ve been part of that but not very successfully as my MP doesn’t give a s***!

  3. Have a listen to the Martin Harper (RSPB)/Guy Smith (NFU) exchange on Farming Today on Wednesday:


    At 10:40, Guy Smith says: “I’m a great fan of the big farmland bird count. And if you look at the ten main species they see, you know, such as Woodpigeon and Buzzard and Magpie, Great Tit, Wren, Pheasant – I’ve got the figures here in front of me. All those species are increasing.”

    Understandably, I think you can hear a snigger from Martin Harper in the background.

  4. having walked around our countryside I believe that one of the most damaging aspects of it are the terrible abundance of pheasant shoots. Obviously yet another addition to farmers income. Snares, traps, poisons , all sorts of damage as the commentator above speaks of. I lack of respect for wildlife where any creature that moves is up for a bit of sport and to be shot at, dug out and often cruelly killed.
    When I look at the rolling hills, the sunsets, the stunning skies , I also feel deeply sad because I know now that the countryside underbelly is the playground of shooters. The fox hunting is constantly rampaging over our fields, our covers, our woods and may well be responsible, in part, to spreading diseases such as bTB. The Anti Hunting Laws may as well not exist and the police stand back and do nothing to stop this. I can only think that their superiors have asked them to let them be. Its a tragedy taking place every day and night and the beauty is only skin deep, if that. Presently cub hunting is going on prolifically. This yrs cubs, not much larger than a yorkshire terrier, are being torn to pieces by the fox hounds and this is due to the fact that some of the older hounds from last season grew too slow and were consequently shot in the head by the Hunt and replaced with young hounds. They have to be taught by some of the older hounds how to chase and tear apart the cubs and then go onto more adult foxes. This government, a tory government depends a great deal of the Countryside Alliance vote and this is in fact how Cameron won the last election , only just.

  5. sorry but need to add this. about 1 yr ago Osborne , apparently, helped Andrew Sells to become Chairman of Natural England who issue licenses to shoot wildlife. The licenses to kill badgers seems to have given the green light to those who enjoy blocking setts, as the hunts do also before a hunt so that the foxes cannot go to ground though not such a problem as the terrier men are called to dig out the foxes and offer them to the hounds. We have seen crimes such as badger setts filled with diesel.
    And the state of some of the dairy cattle is a tragic thing to see. Do people know that on the list of reasons why dairy cattle are sent to slaughter is from becoming barren at a very young age and that way down the list of reasons why cattle are sent to slaughter is bTB. But I shall not go into the awful cruelties iflicted upon our dairy cows and their calves.

  6. I was at a meeting with the President of CLA and policy head of NFU on the panel yesterday. The land use/farming lobby has got the message that it is going to have to compete for funding with other -urban- interests for the first time since 1947. But the CLA President referred to the environmental lobby as the ‘left’ in what was not meant to be a positive comment and the NFU policy head said ‘we’ve got our problems too, like resistant Blackgrass (the direct result of profligate use of herbicides, and exactly the sort of problem intensive farming will keep producing) .However, we didn’t get any ‘food security’ and behind all the other comments was the key point that farmers have to make a profit to survive – which is true. Which means that overriding even the food production religion is the key fact that farmers will ultimately do what pays – and for much of farming public money is the difference between profit and loss. One big step forward, there was even talk of retirement schemes for upland farmers and the prospect of land going to other uses – perhaps rewilding even ?

    Taking a step back, two things struck me. We rightly get worked up about water pollution and flooding. But from a land managers perspective what I’d like to ask is why, when the rain falls on my forest it is subject to a whole load of regulations – not strong enough, which is why there are various pollutions from different land uses, and then suddenly when captured by a water company becomes an asset so valuable it has attracted investment from global companies. Might land managers perhaps have something to gripe about ? Might, if instead of paying to clean up the water ( c £800m/pa) or after the flood they put clean water into our rivers and aquifers and check the flood if they were paid for it ?

    The other thing CLA and NFU clearly haven’t latched onto yet is that to keep their money they need all the help they can get – and the environmental lobby provides a bridge between the countryside and the town. There are huge risks to future farming support were the conservation lobby to lose its patience and start telling it as it is. Conversely, there could be huge gains for all were we to really start working together – most importantly a new social contract between town and country.

  7. and did you see Andrew Gilruth’s letter in the Times (yesterday?) saying wildlife decline was down to too many predators?

    1. Naturally! One can only assume predators must be terrible for insects – after all they drive the whole system and are clearly in freefall – once common widespread butterflies like Wall Brown and Small Copper being obvious indicators.

      Ditto House Martins and Swallows, rapidly declining in lowland England, this is clearly because of the lack of insects, not the prevalence of Sparrowhawks and Buzzards which wouldn’t get near them.

      I’m afraid Gilruth is just another idiot truth denier. Our equivalent of the birthers.

      And if predation is a factor in some declines I suspect it’s because increases in the annual release of semi-docile gamebirds has reached the point where it’s materially shifted predator/prey relationships, enabling predator populations to maintain at unnaturally high levels.

  8. Ok so now I’ve gone beyond depression into hopeless despair (as a farmer ) is there anyone on this blog who didn’t actively hate me ?

      1. Nor me – I know farmers who are producing great food and doing great things for wildlife. It’s not incompatible. I also know farmers who don’t get wildlife at all. At best they are doing very little, at worst making things worse.

        Julian, my view would be that the NFU has led farmers badly – and continues to do so. That’s where a big issue lies.

  9. On a more serious note; Wendy and Paul you both mentioned hedge cutting I think and how you felt when you see it. I thought i might just point out that hedge cutting or hedge management is a counter intuitive operation in that what you imagine is the best course of action, not cutting at all, is actually the worst not best practise. Hedge species have evolved to be resilient to severe browsing by large herbivores (Mamoths etc I’d imagine)? The best thing you can do is actually coppice them off to ground level and then allow say ten years growth before repeating the process. (Hazel is a good example where coppiced “stools” provided and endless supply of wood for thatching and so on. But other species such as White and Black Thorn reacts the same growing new and denser growth from the cut stool. We actually have had grants to do this under HLS schemes when we had them. Flailing a hedge severely back and then leaving it uncut for the next three years is another lower cost option. Leaving a hedge unmanaged is absolutely the worst thing you can do. Ultimately it becomes dead in the base, rotting sets in on the base and it dies back providing little or no wildlife cover. ( there are exceptions as some taller hedges obviously provide different habitats for say Turle Doves and so on )

    So there you go “flailing a hedge back to within a inch of it’s life” is actually the best management so long as you don’t do it every year obviously.

    1. Julian, thanks for that and I don’t hate you either by the way.
      I’m fully aware that hedges need to be managed, it’s the time that they are cut and the fact that they are all cut together that concerns me. Cutting in July?

      And were there really hedges around when Mammoths walked the earth? I thought that the hedge was invented by man to keep stock in.

      Nicholas Watts did a good talk on planting ‘five hundred year old hedges’ (8 species) at the bird fair. If he can farm profitably and still have increasing bird numbers, shouldn’t others try it?
      Let’s be honest about this, for many farmers, it is simply down to convenience. And wildlife is inconvenient.

    2. Some good points Julian.

      I spend my life walking around farmland and I believe the standard of hedgerow management for wildlife has improved markedly in the last 15 years and farmers should be given credit for this. Of course there will always be those recalcitrants who don’t manage their hedges so well, but they are in the minority these days I feel.

      There is no such thing as the ideal hedge, or cutting regime. As a general rule farmers should be encouraged to maintain an aggregation of hedgerow based around the type of species that are found on the farm. Some hedges should be allowed to grow tall and bushy and cut on a 3-4 year rotation, some cut every other year and some cut annually.

      Just touching on your last point – actually sometimes annual cutting is best practice if the adjacent fields support ground nesting birds such as lapwing and skylark. Tall bushy, untrimmed hedgerows don’t appeal much to species such as grey partridge and corn bunting which seem to prefer hedges which are kept low.

  10. John, thanks for your reply ! The NFU do a good job for the industry as any union would do hopefully for it’s members however these days not all members view the NFU in the same way, as they would all have done in the hay day of the smaller farms. The livestock and mixed farmers, mainly in the west of the county and hills have a very different and I suppose more involved relationship with the NFU than do the Eastern and Midlands arable areas. This has come about as these areas have seen the greatest transformation in terms of scale with more land, be it owned or normally contract farmered, in far fewer hands. Modern arable businesses often now control thousands of acres where twenty years ago it would have been a few hundred. This is often overlooked by enviromental groups who still see the NFU as the main point of pressure or contact but actually on the arable or combinable crops issues this isn’t as valid as it was. I as struck by the scale of the change the other day when I considered that I would only have to get together ten fellow managers who I know personally to represent over 100,000 acres, which is roughly 150 square miles of countryside, quite a thought really. These businesses are highly professional concerns, run by open minded people who frankly remain well below the radar when it comes to policy proposals or consultations. This is a great mistake a think by RSPB and others who just don’t seem to appreciate that other farming groups such as the Cooperatives and the Buying Groups, such as Anglia Farmers for instance, have a level of access to farm businesses and indeed end users that the NFU does not have.

  11. Paul, hedges can’t be cut, under cross compliance if a farmer is recipient of the Bps, until the 1st Sept unless they are roadside hedges or form part on an one farm access. If an owner of a hedge is not getting the Basic payment or subsidy then he/she can do what they like with their own hedges so long as they do so under the 1981 wildlife act and the Hedgerow regulations 1997.

    I’m sorry you think that most farmers find wildlife an inconvenience, that’s certainly not my experience and personally I can think of no greater hell than farming without wildlife.

  12. Earnest, yes agreed. Hedge management normally fits around cropping rotations, which vary so by varying hedge cutting regimes. The well mean (I think) intervention by NGOs to get the hedge cutting date pushed back one month to Sept 1st has made it far more difficult to correctly cut hedges on rotation as the work cannot be realistically completed in the time available (before ground conditions become too wet).

    Wouldn’t it be a perfect world if those who thought up these regulations actually had some practical experience on the ground ?

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