The anti-environmental NFU – and a little bit of advice for Peter Kendall

Yesterday’s blog was about the ‘coming out’ of the NFU’s President Peter Kendall who told the government in England to switch its focus from biodiversity to production.

The RSPB was ‘disappointed’ and ‘saddened’ by the NFU’s position and as far as I can see that is the limit to wildlife NGO comment on this (but do let me know what I have missed) except that the excellent Miles King, of the excellent Grasslands Trust, wrote a very good blog around this subject.

Maybe no-one else noticed what the NFU President said on Wednesday, and it may have, rather strangely, taken this blog to bring Kendall’s extraordinary statement to the notice of the wildlife conservationists, or perhaps they were all just ignoring Peter’s comment and taking the advice of David and Dennis on this blog who told us that the President of the NFU didn’t speak for all farmers and no-one took any notice of him anyway (I paraphrase – read their comments on yesterday’s blog).  First, the NFU President is elected every few years by a rather progressive voting system so we should assume that in general farmers (NFU members anyway – probably not organic farmers for example) agree with him (not necessarily on this particular issue but generally). So Peter is the farmers’ choice, not just a random farmer, and unless farmers speak out against his line on this issue then we can assume that NFU members broadly agree with him or don’t care enough to argue.  And, second, the NFU President, whoever it is, is always in ‘election mode’ – that’s how the system works, so we can also assume that Peter is partly playing back to his members what he thinks they want to hear – he’s certainly no fool.  Third, the NFU is a very strong lobby with government and what their President says does carry weight with politicians.  That’s all the more likely to be true of the current Defra Ministers who are; Caroline Spelman, ex-NFU employee; James Paice, farmer; Richard Benyon, land owner and Lord Taylor of Holbeach, land owner.  That’s a pretty balanced crew isn’t it (and not a Liberal Democrat to be seen, of course).  So I don’t think we can or should ignore what the NFU President says as being unimportant.  (And, Paul de Zylva – I’d be surprised if we see the Kendall line being criticised publicly by Defra Ministers).

Then there is the ‘we don’t like the farmland bird index’ line that is trotted out with a few doubts about its validity – in yesterday’s comments from Anthony Gibson who might just well be this Anthony Gibson who works for the NFU as a strategic communications consultant. As you know perfectly well Anthony, and if you don’t then you certainly should, the farmland bird index includes increasing and decreasing farmland species and has been in existence for well over a decade so it’s a bit late to decide you don’t like it and would like to change the rules.  Of the species you suggest might enter the index two are non-native species that are released from captivity in millions each year – perhaps that is the NFU vision of a wildlife-rich countryside? Breed ’em up and let ’em out each year.  Let’s do that with plants, insects, mammals, frogs, birds.  Good plan!

I very much appreciate the comment by David, a farmer, yesterday.  But to suggest that Peter Kendall is looking for the middle ground by running down the right wing is a bit odd.  Peter has always been out there and there is no referee to show him a red card for his foul play.  It’s only his own team mates who can sort him out – you made him captain of your team, the rest of us are just shocked by your team tactics (and player selection!).

Several commenters expressed amazement, and wondered why Peter was saying this stuff.  Who knows? It might be that with wheat prices so high (and Peter is an arable farmer) then getting everyone behind the idea of higher yields is simply representing the interests of his members (or at least those of them selling wheat rather than buying it).  It might be that with the expected disappointing outcome to the Campaign for the Farmed Environment it suits the NFU to downplay biodiversity and the environment – after all it’s a bit embarrassing to be associated with failure in a matter of importance so it’s much better to paint the failure as being in an area of little importance.  Or it may be that Peter is wanting to feed the world.  Who knows – I don’t?

But it is a bit difficult to believe that the NFU believes that it is acting on behalf of the starving masses across the globe.  This is the organisation that still supports the growing of biofuels on land that could grow food – isn’t it? As Roderick Leslie suggests, the ‘push for food’ might become a ‘push for fuel’ if the economics and incentives changed. And there is enough food in the world right now and probably for the next 20 years if only less of it were wasted through rotting in many parts of the world where there is food shortage and being binned in the ‘developed’ world.  We should be aiding food production abroad (rather than selling countries weapons) if we want to feed the world and providing better food storage facilities to help reduce food loss.  Let’s switch the Single Farm Payments to doing that!

And fundamentally, both the GWCT and the RSPB have shown that you can increase biodiversity on farmland and maintain yields.  Why isn’t the NFU President telling this message? Why doesn’t he say ‘If we farmers got our act together then we could increase farmland biodiversity – plants, insects and birds – shut up the moaning nature-lovers and then get on with increasing yields.’? Because that is almost certainly possible.  But it seems that the NFU doesn’t want to give a message of hope.  It seems intent on making an unnecessary conflict between production and nature.  It doesn’t have to be like this but today the NFU is a fundamentally anti-environment organisation.

But just a little story of warning to the NFU.  On the day that Peter Kendall was suggesting that biodiversity should be dumped by government I was at an event in Newcastle.  I spoke in a debate, but at an earlier debate the motion was should food security or environment take precedence.  Now it was a debate, and people need to take a position that they are given in a debate, but the farmer and academic speaking in favour of food security both went out of their way to be dismissive of wildlife in their addresses.  This was unnecessary – but almost as though Peter Kendall were in the room since he was saying similar things elsewhere that very day – and lost them the debate.  When, as Peter did this week, farmers’ (elected) leaders go out of their way to dismiss the needs of wildlife with spurious arguments then it is up to public policy and public opinion to step in and redress the balance.

It’s a tactically bad approach, Peter.  If you continue it then people will start wondering why farming should get all that public money – and rightly so.  The ‘social contract’ which is the basis for billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money going into farming is that farmers are nice to the environment because you can’t sell the environment and we all depend on it.  Act as though you simply don’t give a damn and more people will wake up to the huge amounts of money going into farming and disappearing without any noticeable public benefit.  And sound as though you don’t care – as you did this week – and the public and policy makers will make you act whether you care or not.

That’s why the line you peddled on Wednesday lost the debate in Newcastle on Wednesday – and if you don’t believe me then ask your Vice President Gwyn Jones, he was there.

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Casual but calculated anti-environmentalism

Government should switch its focus from bio-diversity and concentrate on farm productivity if it wants to make the most of British agriculture’s potential as an engine for growth‘  Peter Kendall, the President of the NFU,  said on Wednesday.

Kendall continued with this most callous, calculated and casual statement ‘The point is we haven’t got a bio-diversity crisis in this country. Most of the key environmental indicators have been moving in the right direction and almost 70 per cent of farmland is covered by an agri-environment scheme. ‘.

We should expect better from the President of the organisation that is the ‘Voice of British farming’.

In particular, let us just look at the current state of farmland birds – an important environmental indicator which has been used by governments to assess the overall state of biodiversity in the countryside.  You might think that the National FARMERS Union might take some interest in the fate of FARMLAND birds.  They might even take some responsibility for how that biodiversity is doing.

This graph, from the Defra website, shows the fate of farmland birds – the birds living on land over which NFU members are custodians (here is the link so that you can have a closer look at it).

In 45 years, but mostly in the last 35 years (since my 18th birthday) farmland birds in England (the green line) have more than halved in numbers.  This is despite some species included in the index (such as wood pigeon) showing very big increases in numbers, the index is dragged down by the much greater decreases in population of many farmland specialists such as tree sparrow, corn bunting and the iconic skylark.  If you split the overall data (the green line) into generalists (the brown line) and specialists (the purple line) you find that generalist species have maintained their populations and it is the species that depend on agriculture the most which have declined the most.

No crisis, Peter? Just saying it doesn’t mean it’s true.  Your remarks show that you either don’t understand or you just don’t care.  The NFU under its current leadership is, as I wrote on departing the RSPB, a fundamentally anti-environment organisation. But do we hear a word of criticism from his members? Will Defra give its favourite stakeholder a dressing down for talking such rubbish? And will we hear the NGOs combatting this nonsense?

 

 

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Indulgence

I’ve been rushing about and don’t quite have time to write a proper blog today – plenty more coming in the next few days though! – and you did get two blogs on Tuesday, so please indulge me when I just post most of an email that a reader of this blog sent to me:

‘I waste (?) hours reading your blog and love your writing,  keep up the good work.  The wild world needs help, all it can get.  Thank something or other (not God)  for the McCarthys, Attenboroughs Cockers, you and all the other naturalists who try and make us aware of the destruction that we are causing our planet.  I really believe that conservationists need to be more hard hitting, less touchy feely, perhaps more like anti’s such as James Bartholomew (Daily Telegraph).  Read him and one realises what we are up against.‘.

That’s a very nice email to receive and I thank the person who sent it.

The readership of this blog keeps increasing so I may be doing something right.  And it seems likely to increase by another one as someone I met in Newcastle yesterday said to me ‘I’m going to have to start reading your blog every day as our chief exec does and then comes in and expects to know what we think about it!’.

 

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Dogger Bank – I wonder what is happening

This blog has raised the plight of the Dogger Bank in the past.  That started with a Defra announcement of the listing of the UK portion of the Dogger Bank as a Special Area of Conservation under the EU Habitats Directive a couple of months ago.

Regular readers may recall that after the proud announcement by Defra of the SAC it became rather difficult to find out what that designation meant for wildlife (see here, here, here , here and here).

The Dogger Bank is a long way ‘out there’. I’ve never been there and neither have most of your fellow readers of this blog.  If we did get ‘there’ we would most of us be restricted to floating on the surface of the water, whereas an awful lot of the wildlife would be metres below us in the water column and on the surface of the sea bed.  It’s difficult to connect with the wildlife in the sea – and maybe that’s why it gets a poor deal, there must be an element of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

But if we were bobbing about in a boat above the Dogger Bank we might find that we were seeing lots of seabirds – because that is what the JNCC found in this report.  And we know that kittiwakes travel long distances from the coast of Yorkshire to feed out at the Dogger Bank. There might even be enough seabirds to ensure that the Dogger Bank qualifies under the Birds Directive as well as the Habitat Directive so it, perhaps, should be an SPA as well as an SAC. I assume that the RSPB is pushing hard for SPA designation as well as SAC?  A good example of those pesky birds being of quite some value to all that creeps and crawls below?

We know already that the Dogger Bank is rich in wildlife and vulnerable to threats such as fishing and any form of development such as windfarms.

So you would have thought that because the SAC is an EU designation, and because the Common Fisheries Policy is an EU common policy for fisheries there might be some easy way to make sure that fishing doesn’t wreck the EU-acknowledged wildlife interest of the Dogger Bank. But I’m told that it is more complicated than that.

One of the difficulties is that fishing is an ongoing operation so, and this is a fair point, whatever fishing has taken place has been compatible with the internationally important wildlife interest that remains. But that is a little like saying that wife-beating is compatible with life provided the victim doesn’t quite die.  It is clear that the Dogger Bank could be much richer in marine life if it were made a no-take, no-fishery zone.  And indeed this might (I can’t say will) lead to more fish being available for fishermen in the medium term as stocks recover.

The CFP wasn’t designed to be a wildlife management policy just like the CAP wasn’t either.  Each, though, has major impacts on the wildlife in the economically active zones which they influence.  For those of us who are pro-EU, as I generally am, it is the clunkiness of the whole system that infuriates.  Everything seems like a struggle and everything is very slow.  The North Sea Regional Advisory Council has a Marine Protected Area working group which I am glad to see is chaired by Euan Dunn from the RSPB and I wonder how they are getting along with this issue?

The UK, under successive governments, has been awfully slow in designating marine protected areas under EU legislation and now (see Saturday’s blog, and yesterday’s blog) under English legislation too.  There must be a case for complaining to the EU over UK non-compliance with the nature directives and potentially taking legal action through the courts.

And the Dogger Bank is not just ours – I’m quite pleased about that.  The Netherlands and German governments (and people) have a stake in this stretch of sand and water. Cross-boundary sites are always tricky – three lots of politicians and civil servants!  And the UK (which in this case is really England) was the last of these three countries to do its bit and announce its bit of the SAC, and that was after years of foot-dragging and whittling down the size of the site, and weeding out inconvemnient features of interest such as porpoises.

Let us hope that the Germans and Dutch can pick the UK up by the elbows and hurry them down the street to agreeing a no-take and no-development zone for the Dogger Bank.  I don’t know whether that will happen but it is what should happen in many more places.  Despite them being ‘out there’ we need to give marine protected areas proper protection and that means full protection from damaging operations.  Marine wildlife has had a poor deal for so long and now it needs to catch up. The Dogger Bank case should set the precedent for protecting complex marine protected areas and restoring the sandbank to favourable ecological status.

This blog will keep coming back to this subject and any information that others would like to provide will be gratefully received and sensitively managed.

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Hopeless delay – Government all at sea

This morning Richard Benyon made a written statement on Marine Conservation Zones.  Read the statement and you might struggle to discover what it means – it means that this government and the previous government, between them, have made a massive mess of delivering the promise of the Marine and Coastal Access Act.

After setting up a very time-intensive process of stakeholder engagement to identify the best wildlife areas at sea (the previous government) this government has given the information to a bunch of expert boffins who have said that the data aren’t perfect.  And so this government has decided to do some more chatting with lots of people again before moving to protect the wildlife of our seas.  The first Marine Conservation Zone designations are envisaged to take place in 2013 and not expected to include any more than about 25 of the 127 put forward.

The data from the marine environment aren’t perfect.  And that is because every government I have known has underinvested in monitoring in the marine environment.  This is an area where NGOs can’t bale out the government and organise the studies and flood the seas with volunteers counting sea horses, porpoises and starfish – the logistics are just too difficult.  If you want perfect data on wildlife go to a car park – the data are good but the wildlife is missing, but at least you can be sure that it is missing.

The English process was set up to use the best available evidence  but now wildlife protection is being delayed further because the evidence available isn’t perfect (and to be fair it is far from perfect).  But no-one in Defra should ever have been in any doubt that the data were  a bit ropey in places – and no-one in Defra should be in any doubt that the data are ropey because Defra hasn’t invested in making them anything else .  Whose side is Defra on?  This is a sad day for nature conservation in England and the government just looks hopeless and pathetic.  Greenest government ever?

Joan Edwards, Head of Living Seas for The Wildlife Trusts, said:

We welcome the commitment that Defra has announced today to consult on all 127 recommended Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) in English Waters.  However, despite international evidence for the urgent need to protect our seas, the Minister’s statement will result in further unacceptable delay.

“Stakeholders have been discussing Marine Conservation Zone recommendations for more than two years, based on Defra’s 2010 guidance to use ‘best information currently available’.  But now Defra appears to be changing the level of evidence required, after stakeholders have made their recommendations.  If more data is needed, it could be collected during consultation or even after MCZ designation.  We are disappointed that we now face a further delay of at least 12 months when more damage to marine habitats will continue to occur.

Martin Harper, the RSPB’s Conservation Director said: “We do not understand how Government can still claim to be delivering an ecologically-coherent network, and to be a world leader on marine protected area designation, when there is so much uncertainty around. There is no clear business plan for completing either the English Marine Conservation Zone network or designating sites of European importance, and the international 2012 deadline will be missed.”

“To achieve true coherence, sites such as the Flamborough-Helgoland Front should be included in the marine conservation zone network. A network cannot be ecologically coherent if it doesn’t cover all marine wildlife.”

“It is hard not to feel short-changed by Government. We have committed time, energy and money towards achieving comprehensive marine protection for example with our own work in furthering marine research.”

“While wanting to wear the mantle of ‘Greenest Government Ever’ our Government seems strangely reluctant to invest in and come up with a convincing business plan to deliver the commitment for protecting our seas. We can, and will, continue to do all we can to support marine research and site designation, but in reality we will never get the evidence we need to support the marine protected network area unless Government steps up and provides resources to support adequate monitoring of our sealife.”

These comments are pretty mild.  There is nothing to welcome in the Minister’s statement but there is a lot to condemn.  This fiasco makes border controls look like a well-run regime.

The data for the marine environment will never be perfect.  Why not give nature the benefit of the doubt and designate all 127 sites until the data show that they should not be designated? Why is it that wildlife should suffer for government’s lack of investment?

 

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