Saturday cartoon by Ralph Underhill

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Where I’ll be on Monday

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Mellow Yellow but no Turtles

My favourite local farmer, Duncan Farrington, has been developing new delicious products with his prize-winning cold-pressed rapeseed oil.  This Chilli and Cumin dressing is delicious – and I know it comes from a local farm with high environmental standards too.

Duncan tells me that he didn’t see a Turtle Dove on his farm this year – it was bound to happen some time soon.  Maybe next year – but maybe not.

Have a look at the last chapter of A Message from Martha to learn more about Duncan’s LEAF farm.

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RSPB press release

Somerset’s farmers make hay when the birds fly

  • The picturesque hay-meadows of the Somerset Moors and Levels are the largest wetlands in England home to many waders and some of the rarest birds on Earth
  • A quarter of the global population of curlews can be found in the UK, but breeding numbers have dropped dramatically in the last 25 years
  • Identifying nesting sites and working with farmers to delay haying has halted the decline of curlews in Somerset over the last ten years

Local farmers and members of the public in the Somerset Levels and Moors are playing a vital role in helping to save one of the world’s rarest birds from extinction with support from the RSPB and Natural England.

The curlew is an elegant wading bird with a long, down-curved bill and long legs, although most will know the species by its unmistakable haunting call which many believe is the origin of the bird’s name. Sadly loss of habitat has seen curlew numbers plummet in the UK, with numbers plummeting by a third in less than 25 years – from around 100,000 pairs to just 66,000 breeding pairs.

In Somerset as landowners, farmers, Natural England, the RSPB, and local volunteers have been working together for a decade to help save the curlew from extinction. By planning haying activities to avoid curlew nesting sites curlew numbers have remained stable in Somerset while other parts of the UK have continued to experience declines.

During the summer teams of trained volunteers have been identifying curlew nesting locations. This information has been passed to farmers so that haying can be held off until any chicks have fledged and left the nest. Helping the local breeding population to remain steady at around 40 pairs every year.

Chris Corrigan, the RSPB’s director for England said:It sounds so simple, but changing when a field is hayed can make a huge difference to an endangered species. Thanks to the hard work of a dedicated team of volunteers and the willingness of our farming communities we have been able to alert famers to where important nesting sites are located. This means they can plan to hay other areas until chicks have fledged and the nest is no longer needed. We still have a long way to go to save the curlew, but the lessons learnt in Somerset are a good sign that we can save the species for future generations.‘.

Sam Mitchell, a farmer with land adjacent to Kings Sedgemoor explains: ‘Since we put the land into the Higher Level Stewardship it’s been a delight to hear the distinctive sounds of snipe and curlew more regularly on the fields once again, I am very keen to do anything I can to assist to assist the wildlife of the Levels and Moors.’.

Robin Morrison, a local volunteer and nature photographer describes this work: ‘Being part of the team has provided the chance to learn so much about the behaviour and calls of these birds in their natural landscape. I’m looking forward to continuing this work next year, and ultimately seeing numbers of these waders increase.’.

The project is also helping to protect another enigmatic bird of the Levels – the snipe.  Snipe are a long-billed wetland bird that perform a curious and magical display flight in the half-light of dusk or dawn, vibrating their tail feathers to produce an ascending bleating noise.

Snipe numbers have been steadily increasing in the hay meadows of the Levels over the last 10 years to 150 pairs. This success is the result of careful water level and farming management have shown great results, especially over the summer when snipes can still be found nesting in July and August.  

The Somerset Levels and Moors are an important site for waders, and being home to rare and endangered species such as the curlew make projects like this vital. To find out more about this area please visit: www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/conservation/landscape-scale-conservation/sites/somerset-levels-and-moors

ENDS

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A Bluffer’s Guide to Agriculture Policy (3)

Forget how we got to this place, the consensus is that it’s not the best place possible and so Brexit gives the UK a better opportunity to come up with a better way of spending taxpayers’ money on land management.

Michael Gove has latched on to the mantra of ‘Public money for  public goods’ as the guiding principle for reform of agricultural policy.

What are public goods? Well, they are quite like a common good or the public interest but for an economist (which I am not) the term public good means something that can’t be controlled by individuals for their own exclusive use and which isn’t used up if one individual uses it.

A lamb chop is not a public good because you can buy it and keep it for yourself, and once you’ve eaten it it doesn’t exist for anyone else to eat (btw I had some delicious lamb chops in Iceland). In contrast, a Skylark’s song is a public good because it is very difficult to control to one’s own adantage and if you listen to it that doesn’t stop me and my friends listening to it too.

If you believe in the power of the free market (and we all do to some extent) then you can see that a free market in lamb chops will tend to ensure that lamb chops are available (because people will buy them) and competition between suppliers will, in theory (and in practice often) bring the price down from what suppliers might like to charge because there are other suppliers available.

There is no market in Skylark song and although it is vaguely possible to think how one could create one in theory it is notable that no-one has bothered trying! And that’s because Skylark song is a public good.

The thing that makes agriculture special, and sets it apart from other industries (almost all of them) is that farming produces loads of public goods – such as wildlife, water quality, flood management, carbon storage and nice views which are very valuable. We could even put a value on them in theory, but this has proved difficult in practice. How much is it worth to you to hear a Skylark sing? And does that figure change if Skylarks are common or if there is only one male left in your neighbourhood? And does that figure change if the Skylark is too far away for you to travel to hear it but others can?

And not only does agriculture produce lots of public goods (sometimes well and sometimes badly) but there is sometimes (often) a conflict between producing the market goods and the public goods.

If you can produce more lamb chops by improving your pasture then you might well do that, because you get the money for more lamb chops even though you may have reduced Skylark numbers. And you may have reduced that natural beauty of the landscape by removing flower-rich meadows.  You may also have increased flood risk downstream by reducing water retention of your fields. That may have a big cost to the public, but not to you – they get the floods, you get the increased income from lamb chops.  The reason agriculture is special in these debates is that arguably no other industry shows the conflict between market and public goods so starkly.

And so, depending a bit on your political ideology, you may well think that farmers should live with the free market when flogging their lamb chops and that there is no room for market distorting, inefficiency-maintaining, income support and that the money should be spent on encouraging the delivery of public goods such as Skylark song and flood alleviation where there is currently a market failure.

That, in essence, is where Michael Gove is going with the Agriculture Bill. It’s actually where everyone has been going in their heads for years, but unshackled from the EU CAP, we now have the opportunity to move quickly in this direction without having to move at the speed of a group of 27 other countries with competing interests.

Next week I’ll talk more about the challenges of delivering public goods through public policy and I’ll give you a list of things that I don’t understand at the moment in the hope that others can fill in the gaps.

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