Farmed to hell?
I spend a lot of my time in the farmed environment. I live surrounded by arable, and have to pass through it to get anywhere. At work recently (I work in the Polar Data Centre at British Antarctic Survey) we had a midsummer solstice challenge for running/walking, simply personal achievement, nothing else…..
Now I like a challenge and decided to go for the max distance in the challenge, the 100km. I decided to do it over 2 days, 22nd and 23rd June (50km (30 miles) each day, with a break eating/sleeping at home) and planned a figure-of-eight loop to several local nature reserves and other favourite places. This meant that I walked through an awful lot of farmland. An awful lot of pretty awful farmland.
I survey for farmers, chat to farmers, and understand farming. I have pottered and poked about in the farmed landscape for two decades. I recall being able to note the occasional arable weed (of the commoner species) in the field edges on surveys or walks, and paths would be a narrow path on the surface of the field. My weekend took in many bridleways, permissive paths and byway tracks. Most of the routes have either been mown to 5m wide minimum, or hard-surfaced. The cereal fields have been sprayed for about 50cm each side of this strip, and no weeds visible there or further out into the fields. Sanitised, probably for the benefit of better yields. I had always thought this first metre of the crop away from the field edge or margin was interesting for what else survived there, providing food to other wildlife, but this season there seems to be a stricter regime spraying out anything that has the audacity of trying to exist in amongst cereal.
I know I used to find plants like scarlet pimpernel and scentless mayweed, not rarities, but fairly common plants. Now, nothing, just scorched grass and cereal edge, absolutely nothing growing. In terms of birds, there are still a few Skylarks, Yellowhammers and, on the chalky-soil sections, Corn Buntings, singing, but I really came to realise that farming has shifted a gear again locally, to something more brutally monocultural and intensive than it ever has been. I truly fear that this will be another nail in the coffin of those creatures which rely on insects and weeds in the wider farmed landscape. If the pressure to produce is this high, what future any wildlife?
I hope the new ELMS can counter this new trend by providing incentive to having more relaxed areas through the whole landscape. Where there are ditches or hedges alongside paths, the plants growing are usually nettle, bramble, coarse grasses such as False oat grass, Sterile brome, occasional perennial rye, with small patches of mallow and hedge bedstraw clinging on…. nothing which wouldn’t be classified as a ruderal weed by most botanists and few pollen/nectar/invertebrate resources.
Some of the large agribusiness have really put effort into permissive access and ‘improving’ the public rights of way, a lot of time and money, including to some river-side grasslands which were not ablaze with flowers and had a path to rightly contain any passing human interested in the field; I feel even more unsure over what actual benefit this gives us…….
The hard-surfaced byways and bridleways mean that they have undoubtedly greater appeal to the urban folk accessing the countryside, so they don’t get their shiny boots or canvas shoes muddy, who need the reassurance of something securely urban. Many of the farms seem to need to surface some of these tracks for their own access, not wanting to break the surface in the extremely wet winters we sometimes get now (but I always thought the appeal of the local byways was their outrageous filthy ankle-deep mud in late winter). Byway restrictions are on nearly all of those I walked, and although they are usually open in high summer, all were locked closed. Presumably there has been an increase in opportunistic access, maybe illicit activities and general dumping of household renovation waste, hedge clippings etc. The road-planings used as the new surfacing have been dumped and rolled the full width of the byway….. no longer are they interesting green connections between villages, nature reserves, etc. but hard-surfaces sterile highways…….
My route was usually 5-10km of walking through the landscape between each of the reserves, and this also shows the isolation of many of our better parcels of land from each other; musing on whatever happened to ‘bigger, better, more and joined’ (Lawton report) became a bit of a theme on the tougher sections when most tired, when I didn’t have a friend keeping me a socially-distant company. Planning this also brought home how unconnected our villages, reserves, open spaces are from each other, as I often had to connect footpaths and bridleways with 1-2km along roads, and if us humans have to connect oases of habitat via tarmac then the smaller creatures stand little chance.
In general, the nature reserves, rightly, get visitors, and often inspire them to get more into nature, but the wider landscape really doesn’t inspire, does it?
I saw hardly anyone on these routes away from a couple of places, except for the last 6km of day 1 as I walked the footpath/cycle route down the River Cam leading into Cambridge city, on a hot Sunday evening, more flowers and insects, more litter including face masks strewn in the undergrowth, more people and a patch of urban rewilding…
I completed each day’s walk in 13.5hr, my breaks were nearly always in reserves – a 20 minute rest in amenable surroundings, often with a friend bringing me a back-up half litre of water, was regular therapy through the two days. It has left me appreciative of local nature reserves but increasingly worried about the disconnect between farming, wildlife and access, and I fear to the chances of survival of all bar the toughest of species out there in the wheat, barley and beet of southern Cambridgeshire.
My partner thought I should ask friends who couldn’t join me but who had spare cash to donate a tenner to a justgiving page I set up for Birdlife’s albatross work, something loosely connected to my day-job working on southern ocean fishery and seabird data, but I really hate publicising fundraising things…
I used to be a biochemist studying human immune system malfunction whilst being a part-time naturalist and conservationist. Then I converted to being an environmental data geek, which is what I do part of the time in a vague attempt to pay the bills. I have been a birder since childhood, and am now the Cambridgeshire county bird recorder, and am also a butterfly and moth enthusiast, with an interest in several other taxon groups including lichens, ants and molluscs, and when not in front of maps or a database can usually be found in woodlands carrying out vital management work, or surveying farmland birds. Louise has written a number of guest blogs here about volunteering, foraging and woodland management – see here.