Guest Blog: Soil Association response to 25 Year Environment Plan

A guest blog today from Laura MacKenzie, Head of Policy (farming and land-use) at the Soil Association.



Soil at heart of 25 year environment plan

Last week, the Prime Minister gave her first major speech on the environment, marking the publication of the long-awaited 25 Year Environment Plan. Soil Association chief executive Helen Browning was at the launch at the London Wetland Centre, alongside other environmental leaders.

Over recent months, the Soil Association has put forward proposals to government on what the 25 Year Environment Plan should contain when it comes to food and farming – to meet the objective of protecting and enhancing the natural environment for the next generation.

We’re pleased to see that the 151-page Plan tackles some important food and farming issues – including the vital need to restore soil health, reduce pesticide use, deliver the highest levels of animal welfare and restore farmland biodiversity. However, it lacks a sense of urgency, especially on climate change, and there’s still a lack of detail and too few practical or new measures that would turn green aspirations into on-the-ground action.

Overall, we’re not yet convinced that the Government has understood the need for fundamental shifts in the food and farming system if we’re to effectively protect and restore our precious natural environment. There’s no mention of agroecological farming systems, such as organic, even though they exemplify many of the agricultural practices and deliver many of the environmental outcomes described in the Plan. The Government urgently needs to rectify this in the forthcoming command paper on the Agriculture Bill.

Here, we take a look at four key issues that were covered to a greater or lesser extent:

  1. Soil health

Last year, Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, and Farming Minister, George Eustice, both promised to put soil health at the heart of the 25 Year Environment Plan. How does today’s publication measure up? Whilst we heard no mention of soil from the Prime Minister, the Plan itself contains 57 references to soil.

It sets out the Government’s ambition to improve the approach to soil management and restates the commitment to all of England’s soils being ‘managed sustainably’ by 2030. The actions intended to achieve this are: updating guidance for farmers, investing £200,000 in developing and testing soil health metrics, and research to better understand how soil health supports wider environmental goals.

This is a start, but ignores the fact that we know what action must be taken to save soils, and how effectively to monitor soil health. We want the Government to start that monitoring right away, and that was a key ask of the Save our Soils campaign. But there’s further to go, for example, including soil organic matter in the new mandatory soil testing rules, and fully recognising the contribution that more organic farming would make to the restoration of the UK’s precious agricultural soils.

Another focus of the Save our Soils campaign, which we were the first to draw political attention to, was the huge greenhouse gas emissions from lowland agricultural peat soils. This has been picked up in the 25 Year Environment Plan, which states:

“Although our drained lowland peatland makes up only a small proportion of the agricultural land in England, these are among our most fertile soils and play an important part in the nation’s food supply. Conventional agricultural production using current techniques on drained peatland is, however, inherently unsustainable. In view of this, we intend to create and deliver a new ambitious framework for peat restoration in England.”

This recognition that ‘conventional agricultural production’ is unsustainable in areas like the East Anglian Fens is really welcome, and we welcome this ground-breaking announcement and the determination to create a framework for future action.

  1. Trees

Tree planting is a key theme of the Plan – and we’re pleased that encouraging more trees on farms is part of the plan. Agroforestry is when trees are integrated into farming systems and is attracting major interest from farmers and foresters alike, because of the wide range of benefits that it can deliver in areas such as soil health, farm animal welfare, climate resilience, flood alleviation, and productivity.

The Plan states:

“Through new approaches to environmental land management we will support extra woodland creation, incentivising more landowners and farmers to plant trees on their land, including for agroforestry and bio-energy production purposes.

And there’s a commitment to:

“Designing a new woodland creation grant scheme, involving landowners, farmers and key forestry stakeholders in the process. We want landowners to plant trees on their marginal land, while encouraging agroforestry.”

Agroforestry is another area where the forthcoming command paper, which will set out detailed proposals for the Agriculture Bill, should provide more detail.

With forestry being a major part of the Soil Association’s wider work, we’re pleased to see the Plan go some way to recognising the positive role of trees in many areas, for example: wildlife habitat, adapting to and mitigating climate change, water management, landscape enhancement, alternatives to plastic packaging, and a sustainable raw material for everything from toilet paper to timber framed houses.

  1. Schools and farms

One of the welcome announcements in the Plan is a new scheme to help children engage with the environment though the Nature Friendly Schools programme and environmental school visits. Whilst this is welcome, it’ll be a huge missed opportunity if children are taught only to associate nature with nature reserves -rather than with our farmed countryside. Growing food, and visiting farms, are both proven ways to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables that children eat; in this way, combining nature with agriculture could achieve greater benefits, including for public health.

Food for Life farm visits have shown how valuable it is to let children experience a real working farm – to reconnect them with where food comes from, and will provide them with a valuable and enjoyable educational experience and lasting memories.

As the plan itself recognises:

“Farms in both rural and urban locations host groups of school children and share their knowledge about the environment and where food comes from. Some health professionals have adopted a practice known as ‘green prescribing’, a type of social prescribing where nature-based interventions are used to treat people with health conditions. Examples of interventions include gardening, conservation, care farms and green gyms.”

The forthcoming Agriculture Bill must do more to support farmers to farm for nature as well as food, including through more organic farming, and support the aims of the education sector, including by ensuring more children have an opportunity to stick their hands in the soil.

  1. Pesticides

The Plan restates the Government’s intention to ban bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides, stating that:

“the UK supports further restrictions on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides because of the growing weight of scientific evidence they are harmful to bees and other pollinators. Unless the scientific evidence changes, the Government will maintain these increased restrictions after we leave the EU.”

It also gives a nod to the need to reduce pesticide use. However, the measures set out do not adequately address the risks that pesticides and agrochemicals pose to wildlife and human health alike. Just last month, research found that common fungicides are the strongest factor linked to steep bumblebee declines – adding to the threats to vital pollinators. At a recent conference on public health and pesticides, scientists raised concerns about the human health impacts of very low doses of pesticides, and the dramatic increase in the number of active ingredients applied to three common UK crops.

Again, the Plan could be made stronger by recognising that organic farming is one important approach to producing food without synthetic pesticides and agrochemicals linked to the plight of bees, pollinators and other wildlife.

A new poll has revealed that an overwhelming majority of the British public want tough EU controls on pesticide to continue after Brexit – and many want even stronger regulation. Most people want an outright ban on chemical products sprayed on parks, playgrounds and other public spaces. Banning the use of controversial weed killer glyphosate in public areas, and on crops just before harvest, is what the Soil Association has been calling for through the Not In Our Bread campaign – yet the 25 Year Environment Plan is completely silent on glyphosate.  The “new Chemicals Strategy to tackle chemicals of national concern” announced in the Plan will be an opportunity to rectify this.

What next?

In response to concerns that Brexit will create huge gaps when it comes to environmental enforcement and a loss of key environmental principles, the Plan reiterates that the Government will consult on setting up a new independent body to hold government to account and a new set of environmental principles to underpin policy-making.

A new green business council will be established and the 25 Year Environment Plan will be refreshed regularly too.

On farming policy, the Plan confirms that proposals for an Agriculture Bill will follow. These will contain more detail on: a new environmental land management scheme that encourages broad participation and secures environmental improvements; improving targeted support for more complex environmental improvements, backed up by specialist advice; and new and innovative funding and delivery mechanisms. This will be a big test of whether Gove’s green revolution will be looked back on as fact or fantasy – not least when it comes to organic farming, climate change, and the links between food, farming and public health, which are far too often neglected.


Posted in 25 year environment plan, guest blogs, Soil Association | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

First day of #ORFC18

reblogged from Ben Eagle’s excellent Thinking Country blog. Ben interviewed a few of us at the Oxford Real Farming Conference.


Around 800 people descended on Oxford Town Hall yesterday morning to attend the 9th Oxford Real Farming Conference. This is my third time attending the event, but it feels just as exciting and in many ways just as groundbreaking as my first a few years ago. This year the ORFC is focusing on four distinct strands:

  1. Farm Practice
  2. Growing and Supporting
  3. Food Sovereignty
  4. The Big Ideas

Particular congratulations and thanks must go to the conference organisers who have yet again provided delegates with a packed programme of sessions, with topics ranging from growing heritage cereals to valuing sustainability, animal welfare to permaculture and biodiversity to micro-dairying. An entire room is dedicated to Brexit and this year is also the first time that a Secretary of State for Defra has been invited to attend the conference, yet another milestone achieved for the ORFC.

Michael Gove MP and Zac Goldsmith MP pre-session (1) credit: © Hugh Warwick

Yesterday, Michael Gove took…

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Will farm subsidies be slashed after Brexit? Guest Blog by Guy Shrubsole, campaigner at Friends of the Earth,


“After we Vote Leave”, said the official Leave campaign’s farming leaflet, “we can protect farmers’ subsidies – and even increase them”.


Eighteen months on from the Brexit referendum, that promise is looking decidedly shaky. The Government has pledged to keep farm subsidies at their current levels of around £3.5bn per year until the end of this parliament – that’s to say, 2022 at the latest. But what happens beyond then?


To date, no Minister has dared to be drawn on how much money farmers and landowners will get beyond this parliament. Public discussion has focused on how future monies should be spent, but not the overall budget.


Environment Secretary Michael Gove has pleased many environmentalists by criticising the existing Common Agricultural Policy on grounds that it “rewards [the] size of land-holding ahead of good environmental practice, and all too often puts resources in the hands of the already wealthy rather than into the common good of our shared natural environment.” It’s vital that farm payments are reformed so that public money is spent on public goods, from restoring habitats and protecting wildlife to improving natural flood measures.


But the overall size of the pot of money available to do this matters hugely too. And it matters not just to the direct recipients – farmers and landowners – but to environmentalists and the natural world.


My concern is that behind a welter of welcome green policy announcements, Michael Gove is gearing up to make a trade-off. He knows that Brexit may prove expensive and that the Treasury is itching to make savings wherever possible. After all, the Leave campaign – including Mr Gove – also promised a post-Brexit dividend for the NHS, albeit one based on false figures of how much we actually send to the EU.


Faced with demands from Ministers across Whitehall for more money, still pursuing deficit reduction, and forced to set aside contingency funds for the eventuality of a hard Brexit, the Chancellor is looking for things to cut. And investigations by Friends of the Earth show that behind the scenes, there are increasing fears that the farm payments budget could be for the chop:


  • At a recent conference organised by centre-right think-tank Bright Blue, Julie Girling MEP, who sits on the European Parliament’s environment committee, warned that the latest Treasury figures doing the rounds were to cut farm subsidies after Brexit to just £2bn per year, down from £3.5bn currently. Her office subsequently confirmed in correspondence with Friends of the Earth that this was “a figure that has been heard around”.
  • The Agricultural & Horticultural Development Board (ADHB), an industry-funded quango that is accountable to DEFRA, published in October a set of scenarios for post-Brexit agriculture that modelled dramatic falls in farm payments. One scenario, ‘Evolution’, saw payment levels remain the same, but the other two scenarios anticipated cuts of 50-75% in overall farm support.
  • Increasing numbers of land agents and chartered surveyors are advising their clients to prepare for a big drop in subsidies. An editorial in Savills’ spring-summer 2017 trade magazine warned: “Without subsidy, many farming businesses simply won’t survive. It is difficult to envisage current levels of farm support continuing post-2020 and we need to get match-fit, ready to compete and trade in a global marketplace”. At an event organised by Strutt & Parker in early 2017, one of the organisation’s farming experts advised that “some form of ongoing subsidy support would remain [after Brexit], but it would probably be channelled into environmental stewardship schemes… It would therefore be wise to assume that the Basic Payment would fall by 20% in 2020 and is likely to continue to decline after that”. And in this November 2017 publication, land agents Fisher German advise: “We are recommending to clients that they should plan for a reduction in net subsidy income of 50%.”


In other words, there are widespread fears that post-Brexit farm payments may end up greener, but a lot smaller.


That would be a mistake. Friends of the Earth doesn’t want to see small farmers go to the wall any more than farming organisations do. And a smaller pot of money for land management, even if it’s a greener one, would confine positive environmental measures to niche schemes and pockets of land, whilst failing to address agriculture’s role in the biodiversity, climate and soil crises afflicting our countryside.


While there are instances where removing subsidies for harmful practices would benefit ecosystems, nature’s recovery would often be speeded up by investing more on positive measures. For instance, cutting payments to huge grouse moor estates could discourage them continuing their damaging practices of intensive upland management and heather-burning. But better still would be to incentivise tree-planting, peatland restoration and Hen Harrier reintroduction in their stead.


In terms of national budgets, £3.5bn is actually peanuts – for context, it’s only 2.4% of the combined UK NHS annual budget of £147.5bn – a small price to pay, and in reality a sound investment to help secure and protect the very resources that are critical to food production, like pollinators, healthy soils and thriving wildlife.


The RSPB, the National Trust and the Wildlife Trusts will soon publish research modelling what it would cost to enable farmers to effectively deliver public goods and protect the environment.


Maintaining, or even increasing, the £3.5bn farm payments budget and directing it at the right outcomes would honour the promises made by Vote Leave to farmers – and it would start to rise to the challenge posed by our decimation of nature on these small islands.

Posted in agriculture, Brexit, guest blogs | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Free the Beaver: Michael Gove officially endorses legal #Beaver releases into the English Countryside

Is there any comedy value to be extracted from the fact that on the day the Brexiteers capitulated (or were outmanoeuvred) on membership of the Single Market, leading Brexist Michael Gove chose to announce that Beavers would be released in the Forest of Dean and into the wild? Read on to find out.

Sharp-eyed readers (yes that’s all of you) will recall that the Forestry Commission had been working on a project to use beavers to reduce downstream flooding of a village (Lydbrook) in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, but that this had been squashed by the unimaginative Minister Therese Coffey. Why would Coffey have taken against the aquatic rodent? Could it have anything to do with her enthusiasm for artificial drainage, as I outlined in a previous post. Could it be related to her enthusiasm for Grouse Shooting? We may never know.

Either way, Environment Secretary Michael Gove has over-ruled her (it’s difficult to imagine she will be pleased about that) and given the go-ahead for the Forestry Commission to release the beavers. When I say release the beavers, obviously they will not be released in the sense that the River Otter Beavers were released. They will be in a pen.

So far so good. What’s perhaps even more interesting is that Michael Gove has given a very strong signal today that other Beaver introduction schemes in England will be looked on favourably by the regulator Natural England. Natural England, as we know, does what Defra tells it to these days. Here’s the new guidance.

this one is for similar projects to the Forest of Dean one







And this one if for legal releases into the wild.





yes you read that correctly. Gove has just announced that the Government is approving the release of Beavers into the wild. These releases will need to be time-limited (though of course it doesn’t specify what the time limit is) and should include an exit strategy if problems arise. That would be recapturing the beavers.

This is a big step forward for rewilding and natural flood management in England.

I may still have grave doubts about Michael Gove on all sorts of other levels, but for this I applaud him.

Photo by Ray Scott  [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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Michael Gove: his battle with the Truth


We need to talk about Michael, especially those within the broad environmental sector, to which I belong, though mostly sitting on the sidelines observing these days.

Michael is our new Best Friend. Michael promises us all manner of goodies. A new British Agriculture Policy which promises to sweep away all the bad things of that nasty European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)  – and nasty things there certainly are a plenty. Michael promises to create a new progressive farm policy which rewards farmers for delivering “goods” like healthy soil, planting trees and so on. Michael has apparently taken personal control of producing the new 25 year Environment Plan, which we are promised will be much more intelligent and witty than Andrea Leadsom’s paper and crayons version which never saw the light of day. And, just last week, with a conspiratorial nod and a wink, Michael’s Friend Oliver told Parliament that Michael wanted to fill the “governance gap” created when the UK loses the European Court’s role as final arbiter of environmental law in the UK, and create a new Regulator, with teeth, which will hold the Government to account if it fails to meet the standards set.

Ever since Michael took over at Defra he has been marching to this tune – he was the “shy Green”, now fully revealed having come out of the… compost heap? He waves his environmental credentials in the face of vested interests like the National Farmers Union. He sticks it to the Fox-man, rejecting the idea that we will learn to love chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-induced Beef or GM crops. his most important speech so far was to a bunch of greenies at WWF.

Michael is worried about our soil – “if you drench the soil in chemicals… you are cutting away the ground beneath your feet.” Michael has pledged to reinstate the Ivory ban, ban neonicotinoids, release Beavers in the Forest of Dean; and introduce CCTV into slaughterhouses. In other words, he has cleared the in-tray of things that his predecessors and underlings were either lobbied into putting off, intrinsically opposed to, or just too useless to do anything about.

What’s going on? This is, after all, the same person who stabbed his best mate Boris Johnson in the front and back, then fell on his own stiletto during last year’s leadership campaign. This is Michael the Geek, who then played the populist card when he said  “the people of this country have had enough of experts”. This is Michael the neo-con/neo-liberal ideologue, the Michael who likened the Good Friday Agreement to condoning paedophilia.

Will the Real Michael Gove please stand up.

It’s a mystery, worthy of the handle-bar moustached Hercule Poirot.

For what it’s worth, these are my thoughts on Michael Gove and his battle with the Truth.

I do actually think Gove genuinely has some beliefs in the importance of the environment. OK I’ve got that off my chest. From now on it’s politics.

Gove has invented the notion of a Green Brexit. This is of course post-hoc rationalisation. Almost all people who care about the environment saw Brexit as likely to be damaging to the UK’s environment, with a few notable exceptions. Yes many (including myself) were reluctant remainers, but then weighing up the pros and cons of an action or a policy is bread and butter to anyone interested in the environment and human impacts on it. So why invent Green Brexit? In one word, Momentum.

Gove is aware that the Tory party has lost the votes of most people in this country under the age of about 40. Tory voters are getting older, and to be blunt, dying. Meanwhile,  the Environment continues to be at least in the top five issues that voters under 40 are most concerned about. How to get younger voters to think about voting Tory again? Start playing up your environmental credentials. For Gove personally, Green Brexit is akin to Ed Balls dancing on Strictly – it’s all about public rehabilitation – perhaps even a bit of penance.

It’s also a wise move for Gove to cosy up to the Environmental Movement, which, if you include the National Trust, covers roughly 10% of the population – and an influential 10%. Now of course there’s a big difference between Tory voting NT members who mainly like visiting gardens and getting free car-parking at beauty spots; and activist anti-frackers. But when it comes to neutralising their considerable abilities in, for example, the Houses of Parliament, then they are best seen as one movement.

Offering them a new strong watchdog for the Environment, a new National Policy Statement for the Environment, and powers to hold the Government to account should it stray from that NPS, have all been laid out by Sir Oliver Letwin last week (see the debate here).  These are apparently to be a replacement for the Precautionary Principle, the Polluter Pays Principle; and the powers of the European Court of Justice to impose massive fines on UK Government for failing to apply the EU’s environmental law. And while I personally think they are in no way a replacement, these might be just enough of an incentive to reduce the pressure on back-bench MPs from the environmental lobby. I have to say, the idea that this Government would create a strong environmental regulator, when they have been so busy emasculating or abolishing the environmental regulators that already exist, is absurd (bonfire of the quangos anyone?). But that’s just me.

And who doesnt like seeing an old vested interest group getting a proverbial kicking? Gove, after all, has form here. Remember the zeal in which he and his Grima-wormtongue advisor Dominic Cummings (self-proclaimed architect of the Brexit victory) took on “the blob”, the name he used to vilify the teaching profession, when at the Department for Education. Interestingly he didn’t invent “the blob”. That came from his friends at the neo-liberal Center for Education Reform, as did the Free School nonsense. And while former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson (blogs passim ad nauseam) took that language and applied it as the “green blob” to environmental groups, Gove understood who the real vested interests are in Defra – the NFU. “Fat cat farmers living it up on the EU-funded gravy train” as the Daily Express might put it – are such an easy target.

It has been entertaining to see the NFU suddenly unsighted, presented with a Defra Secretary of State with no farming connections, no country-landowning background; and no natural empathy for the plight of the landed and subsidised. Far from it. Gove’s background is places like Policy Exchange, who would merrily sweep away all public support for farmers. So Gove is happy to see the NFU fume that they are not getting the access to which they are entitled. NFU President Meurig Raymond has decided to step down early, to spend more time with his cows, no doubt. Is this a sign of the frustration building within the fabled Union? How they must wish they still had Peter Kendall with all his political guile, at this critical time.

Gove knows though that his plans for a leaner smarter (and cheaper) British agricultural polict could be scuppered by back woodsmen on the benches of the Commons and more importantly the Lords. Because plenty take the farm subsidies the EU has generously channelled to them, whether they be landed nobility with thousands of hectares, or Yeomen farmer stock. And they will not give it up without a fight.

So expect to see a few fish thrown to these seals. Gove is going big on soils; and his wingman George Eustice has already started dropping hints that the new “public goods for public money” approach will be through an Agri-Environment Scheme available to all. You could call it ELS-lite. Given Gove’s enthusiasm for zero-till, for example, ELS-lite might provide public goods payments for zero-till farming, by default. This would also explain why he has repeatedly supported the re-licensing of glyphosate, an essential tool in the zero-tillers box.

Finally, there is of course a bigger story, about Michael’s future. Is Gove auditioning for the Chancellor’s job? Has he shown, with all these good works at Defra, that he really has seen the error of his ways and is now on his best behaviour? If spreadshit Phil does get the sack after the budget on wednesday and Damian Green is finally forced to resign, a bigger reshuffle (never far away these days) looms. Gove must be hoping to catch the Prime Minister’s eye, or twist her wrist a bit further behind her back, depending on whether she’s in charge or a hostage to Gove and Johnson. In which case all of Gove’s good words will have turned out to be, just words.






Posted in Brexit, Defra, Michael Gove, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

LEGOs, Landscapes and Catchments – guest blog by @UKSustain farm campaigner @VickiHird


I am delighted to post another guest blog from Sustain’s Campaign Co-ordinator for Food and Farming Policy, Vicki Hird.


The rich debate about how we deliver new farming and land management support after we leave the CAP is getting stimulating. As we anticipate the White (Command) Paper on a new UK Agriculture Bill in 2018, choices are presenting themselves. How will new schemes work out on the farm? How will decisions actually get made? What unintended consequences should we consider in any change?

The following are ideas for the discussion ahead.

A three tier delivery mechanism

It has been constructive to see common ground between many of the stakeholders working on this – from the NFU and CLA to conservation and animal welfare groups. Recent reports by Sustain, the Wildlife and Countryside Link and Natural Capital Committee add more detail to the mix of ideas. Maintaining a significant level of support to deliver what we need and the ‘payment for public goods’ approach are pretty much accepted as desirable though we will see much debate over what the ‘goods’ actually are.

Equally complicated will be how can measure them – natural capital valuing and beyond. The public will need to see value delivered to feel their investment (tax revenue) is being well spent. That will need effective and useful on farm indicators and assessment.

Jumping ahead to dodge all that cluttered debate about ‘goods’ and measurement, it is interesting to contemplate how such schemes will actually be applied in practice. What does it look like on the eight floor at DEFRA and out in the farmyard? What are the governance methods?

At a meeting on farm indicators organised By Farmwel and the Farm Animal Initiative, I was interested to hear the ideas of Merrick Denton-Thompson, Chair of The Landscape Institute, someone who has worked through a number of decades of farm, land and planning policy. He proposes a new National Rural Land Management Policy articulated at a landscape scale that is easily interpreted and actioned by individual farms. Sustain’s principles for future support – based on health and wellbeing as well as economic and environment goals for farming – chime well with his. Publicly agreed outcomes could be delivered by collaboration between public, private and voluntary partners and finance.

There is a common call for pilots and trials for new approaches and learning from current and past agri-environment schemes. The Farm Cluster approach by Natural England and GWCT is one such pilot. As I have noted before it would be a mistake to call for simplicity as an outcome – we need context specific, well managed and adequately resourced schemes. Experienced agri-environment expert Steve Peel also made this point forcefully in his blog about the skills, timeliness and attention to detail needed if we want to actually achieve anything.

Looking ahead, what could the delivery structures look like to supply what’s needed? Some of what is laid out below is drawn from Merrick’s and others’ proposals. The ideas can be defined in three levels:

  • how national governments would be involved
  • the role of local communities, statutory bodies, the public
  • what does it mean in the farmyard

National – setting the overall objectives

At the national government level, each government could have a National Rural Land Management Policy integrating farming and the environment, forming the policy reference for public goods and natural capital and fitting with an overall vision for food and farming. An overarching UK framework would be needed setting an agenda and targets for the public money to be spent wisely and to ensure cross border priorities are achieved such as on climate, landscape and mobile species.

This would be signed off by the Secretary of State’s and Devolved ministers and would set the framework for landscape plans and objectives.

Local – Landscape approach to governance and allocating resources

Given that central government is not set up to handle local and live information about land use changes and opportunities some have proposed a local level of governance ie Local Environmental Governance Organisations (LEGOs), which would provide funding for locally valued ecosystem services and ‘fill in the gaps’ that arise from the operation of the national funds.

One approach could be that the LEGO could be grouped via National Character Areas (NCAs) which divide England into 159 distinct natural areas. Each NCA is defined by a unique combination of landscape, biodiversity, geodiversity, history, and cultural and economic activity. Their boundaries follow natural lines in the landscape rather than administrative boundaries. They would help form the framework for agenda setting, delivery, partnership working, integrating – public sector, private sector and voluntary sector collaboration. The maps describe what is there, appreciated and understood by communities and the different stakeholders.

They can be used to engage the public, crucial going forward and as blue print to build plan and vision for specific areas. For protected areas additional resources and information already exist to deliver additional protection, support and advice.

Whatever the acronym, the joint committee could be made up of local community reps, farmers and landowners, park authorities, conservation bodies, private sector and planners. They could use the National Character Area Maps and other objectives defined by the group in facilitated meetings to devise a Character management plan for the area which would be signed off by the Secretary of State but which would remain a live document subject to reviews and change. From this individual plans with appropriate indicators for progress for each farm in the area would be drawn up using the priorities.

Where needed, the plans would focus on specific issues for a specific area with general wildlife and environmental assets and characteristics – what did and does and could be protected, enhanced and restored and by whom.

Farm – Land Management Contract

At the farm/estate level, the scheme would ideally have a single point of contact representing the public sector with each farm/farmer, with the back office support from Government Agencies, Government Departments and Local Authorities. This point of contact could combine with a private accredited body maybe. But they would need a new set of skills, knowledge and would build a positive but impartial relationship with the farmer.

A farmer would develop with this contact, a multi-annual whole farm/estate Land Management Scheme agreement – one that farmers can work through with their advisor so it fits the farm and the catchment and the landscape as needed.

Farmers would do much of the on-going assessment themselves, and would have training if needed. and access to great business (and marketing) advice and mentoring so the business planning links with the agreed Land management plans. But there would need to be an initial agreement meeting, spot checks and an annual survey to discuss issues, look at new opportunities, compliance and so on.

The idea often mooted of ‘earned recognition’ – if you’ve had a visit by a Red Tractor standard  rep and got the all clear you are okay to go – is not really fit for purpose as this is not just about compliance. It needs to be better and built on mutual trust. As the blog of an ex Natural England staffer and the comments thread below it show – it all depends on the quality of the science, how it is shared and the scheme being resourced sufficiently to ensure a sustained ‘relationship of trust between adviser and land manager’. As he puts it “The story of agri-environment since 2005 has been one of tragically unfulfilled potential” and we should ensure we get the new system right by testing and pilots in the transition period.

One idea could be to equip each farmer with a new (waterproof) digital iPad ready loaded with key information, self-checking forms, coupled with training guides, access to wildlife identification tools, and even farm business data. Not as a gimmick but a way to ensure access to information and uniform, digitally accessible data is being recorded.

Data. There I have mentioned it and it will clearly be a key feature; one for another blog.

Finally some questions to challenge this delivery model:

  1. How would a joint committee at a landscape level be set up? Clearly it would have land managers and reps from statutory bodies (NE, EA, FC) but who else? The NFU, CLA but what about other land managers, the public in general and those interested in access, air pollution, good food (such as the Sustainable Food Cities network);
  2. Would the diversity of farms be protected and enhanced under this model? There is a need – well documented recently by CPRE – to protect that diversity and crucial to stop the loss of farms in England in particular.
  3. Can a national plan incorporate health objectives at a local level such as getting more fresh fruit and vegetables into schools so encourage more mixed horticulture for procurement, ensuring accessible countryside for all; and other similar measures that have wider public wellbeing benefit?
  4. Could local partnerships that emerge deliver on wider objectives such as providing a hub for marketing and coordination of delivery for local outlets, possibly working with the urban hinterlands?
  5. Is this really too complicated?

Vicki Hird is Campaign Co-ordinator for Food and Farming Policy at Sustain



Posted in agriculture, Brexit, farm subsidies, guest blogs, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Some thoughts on the #Glyphosate Saga

arable field sprayed with glyphosate ©Miles King



So many words have been written about the herbicide Glyphosate (commonly known as Round-up), it seems almost pointless adding any more. But anyway…



Last week the European Commission postponed a decision on whether to renew a licence for the herbicide. They will have to decide by December or face legal action from its maker the US chemical company Monsanto. Monsanto are currently waiting for approval for a merger/take-over from the German chemical/drugs behemoth Bayer. The European Parliament voted (the vote was not binding – just like the UK Referendum vote) to call for the Commission to phase out the use of Glyphosate-based herbicides within 5 years, and an immediate ban on all domestic and urban uses. But when it came to totting up each Member State’s vote, there was a small majority of EU countries (including the UK) who voted in favour of renewal. This majority was not sufficient for the decision to be confirmed though, hence the further delay. France, Italy and Austria have been leading the calls for a ban. Germany is now apparently lobbying for a 3 year extension.

What’s all the fuss about? A couple of years ago the World Health Organisation cancer expert group the IARC concluded that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic”. This means that the evidence is currently not strong enough to conclude that it is definitely cancer-causing, but there are serious grounds for concern. Monsanto, which markets Round-up, but far more importantly has a near monopoly on GM-crops: specifically crops which are resistant to glyphosate, has been orchestrating a campaign to undermine both the IARC and its findings. Light is now being shed on this campaign in the US courts, where lawyers for farmers who claim long-term glyphosate use has given them cancer (specifically non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma) are suing Monsanto. The more one reads of what Monsanto has been up to, the more parallels appear with the Tobacco Industry tactics in the 60s and 70s.

In the UK the most vociferous campaigners trying to persuade everyone that glyphosate is perfectly safe, are those arable farmers who have adopted a no-till or minimum tillage approach to growing cereal crops. No-till means that there is no cultivation before or after a crop is harvested. The seeds are sown directly into the soil, but in order to prevent the crop from being swamped by weeds, herbicide such as glyphosate is applied. After the crop has matured, a further application of glyphosate is applied to desiccate the crop (and for other reasons – see more here), so it is easier to harvest. This saves money and energy drying what are often rather wet crops in our climate.

One of the main “weeds” that the no-tillers have to contend with is Black-grass Alopecurus myosuroides. This was not even a common arable weed before the second world war, and only became problematical in the 1970s after a switch away from mixed farming, spring crops and fallow periods, towards a winter-crop monoculture approach to food production. The ban on stubble-burning in the mid-80s further exacerbated the problem. Farmers operating no-till (apart from those few organic no-tillers) now depend on glyphosate amongst a mix of herbicides to keep Black-grass levels under control. So far, Black-grass has not evolved resistance to glyphosate; however, given how much of it is used, it can only be a matter of time before this happens.

The no-till farmers claim that their practices are much more environmentally friendly than conventional arable farming, making all sorts of claims about soil health, carbon storage (for climate change mitigation) and wildlife benefits.  I have searched for quite a long time for any real scientific evidence that no-till leads to long-term increases in soil carbon that could make a significant difference to the UK carbon store, but found nothing. What I have found is evidence that the no-till claims are unfounded. This paper in Nature Climate Change for example:







which suggests that there are good reasons for adopting no-till under some circumstances, but that claims for a role in climate mitigation (ie reducing greenhouse gas emissions) are “widely overstated.”

One of the big problems for no-till as a solution to climate change is this. As crop material that has been left after harvest decomposes, it releases Nitrous Oxide. This is a far more potent greenhouse gas than Carbon Dioxide. So any benefits from no-till are likely to be wiped out by the N20 released.

Equally, there is no evidence (that I could find) that no-till is better for wildlife of arable farmland than conventional agriculture. This may not be particularly surprising, given that the farmland is given repeated doses of glyphosate, which kills all wild plants, on which insects, and the birds that eat them, depend. Anecdotal evidence from no-till farmers themselves suggests that ground-nesting birds such as skylarks benefit from the lack of disturbance from cultivation, but this needs backing up with proper studies.

And this is really my concern about the ubiquitous use of glyphosate. Yes, it’s possible that it is a carcinogen, and given that it and its main breakdown product AMPA are now pretty much in everything and everyone, then some people are getting cancer as a result. But then cancer is a very common set of diseases, caused by a whole range of things that we do as humans. From an environmental perspective though, glyphosate use is having a series of interlocking impacts. If wild plants are constantly being prevented from becoming established, or surviving in farmed landscapes, this not only has an ongoing impact on their own chances of survival, but also on all the wildlife that depends on them. Our countryside, and indeed large parts of the countryside in Europe, is being systematically cleared of wildlife. Last week’s report that insect populations across a series of nature reserves in Germany had declined by 75% in 25 years is not unrelated. Farmers on social media were writing “but glyphosate’s not an insecticide, so it can’t be affecting insects”.

If wild plants are removed, insects have nothing to eat, nowhere to hide and nowhere to lay their eggs.

Another lesser known impact of glyphosate is on microbial communities. Glyphosate and its main breakdown product AMPA are amino acids but glyphosate also acts as a selective antibiotic. Certain bacteria are able to digest and benefit from glyphosate in soils but also in animal guts, while some evidence indicates that glyphosate may help drive antibiotic resistanceMicrobiologists are also concerned that glyphosate may be affecting the balance between relatively harmless gut bacteria and their more pathogenic cousins, such as Clostridium difficile. Given how ubiquitous glyphosate now is, this is perhaps the single biggest issue for glyphosate on human health, but is widely ignored. We also know almost nothing about its impact on soil microbial and fungal communities – the assumption is that there is no impact.

And this brings me to the Precautionary Principle. This principle is woven into the legal fabric of the European Union, and we may well lose it as a result of Brexit. Apply the precautionary principle to glyphosate and, on the balance of current evidence, its use would be severely restricted, while far more research would need to be instigated. However, if we leave the EU and the EU does phase out glyphosate, we will be left with little choice but to follow their lead. Because otherwise the UK food exports to the EU would be banned. This is what is particularly exercising Monsanto (whose lobbying tactics in the EU have led to them being banned from the European Parliament estate) but also countries that have wholesale adopted GM farming, which is totally dependent on glyphosate.

Former Brexit minister Oliver Letwin believes that we should adopt the Precautionary Principle into UK law, but then ignore it for glyphosate. This opinion piece (we are blessed to have a weekly thought from Letwin) is from our local rag the Dorset Echo.





If you believe some of the claims from the farming community, the UK food supply chain sky will fall in, if glyphosate is banned. I’d just point to one previous example – paraquat. Paraquat was widely used in UK agriculture until it was banned (by the EU) in 2007, despite a vociferous campaign by the UK agrochemical industry – Sweden banned it in 1983 because its toxicity was already well established. Did the sky fall in? no.  Scandalously, Paraquat is still manufactured in England, for export to countries where it is not yet banned.

There are certainly strong claims to retain glyphosate for specific applications – such as killing Japanese knotweed, where it threatens buildings or infrastructure. Scare stories like this one, where the rail infrastructure of the UK will be threatened by a glyphosate ban, do nothing to help those who argue sensibly for continued, careful use in specific circumstances.

The saga of glyphosate is also emblematic of a wider debate, which we will need to have sooner or later. Farmers are forced to farm in unsustainable ways, because consumers refuse to pay the real price of food; and the big retailers take far too big a chunk of that price for their shareholders (which may include some us if our pension schemes invest in them.)

How to untangle this particular gordian knot? At least some people are thinking about it – and this new commission on the future of food and farming is welcome.




Posted in agrochemicals, GMOs | Tagged , , , | 24 Comments

Brexit will save us from the Obama Flatworm, claims #OPatz.

Owen Paterson – the gift that keeps giving

The impact of invasive species, so we are repeatedly told, is one of the biggest threats to the future of global biodiversity. Himalayan balsam rampages through the countryside, while Ash dieback has now reached about two thirds of the native range of Ash in the UK. Yes, it’s coming to an ash-wood near you. Signal crayfish carry a virus which kills our native white-clawed version of this remarkable little crustacean. And of course Grey Squirrels carry the pox which kills out plucky native Reds.

These invasives, whether macro, or micro, are all about us.


But wait! Salvation is at hand! Yes, it’s our old friend Owen Paterson, scourge of the football-post hiding Badgers,  who has the answer. What could it be? A new massive funding stream? Armies of invasive species inspectors, tooled up with the necessary weaponry, scouring the countryside like Eco ghostbusters? No. For OPatz, there are only usually a handful of options to choose from. And unsurprsingly, his answer is……


Yes reader, Brexit is the answer to all our problems, even problems associated with free and unfettered global trade. Because somehow, magically, even as we throw open our borders to the benefits of free trade , we will still somehow do exactly the opposite when it comes to letting in the unwelcome seafarers. This is the core argument, if it can be described as such, laid out by Paterson in a speech he recently gave to the Competitive Enterprise Institute. I suppose it would be worth pointing out that the CEI is a neolibertarian American think tank which has been funded by the Koch brothers, has prior convictions for defending the Tobacco Industry and for Climate Change Denial, but you would have all guessed that from the name. Indeed it was Myron Ebell, the notorious “enemy of environmentalism” who advised Trump on climate denial during his election, who invited OPatz to speak. They must be good friends.

Paterson is clearly pleased with his talk – perhaps it garnered a few generous US donations for his own thinktank. The talk is here .  Paterson claims that Brexit will free us from the shackles of the EU which have been preventing us from taking much more action against invasive species and focusses in on one particular issue – the import of invasives via the horticulture industry. As plants are moved around the world in horticulture, they carry (often as eggs) plant pests and pathogens from one country to another. The New Zealand flatworm was one which apparently arrived that way, where there was a bit of a panic over, in the mid-90s. As it turned out the flatworm (which eats earthworms) had arrived much earlier, certainly as early as the 1960s. Paterson raised another spectre – the Obama flatworm from Brazil. How the neolibs at the CEI must have chortled at the name. But where did this new found knowledge of invasive planarians arise from? It turns out OPatz (or more likely a minion) had been reading the Buglife website. Paterson churned out more stories from Buglife, even quoting their CEO Matt Shardlow. Buglife want a complete ban on the import of pot plants into the UK.

Paterson’s argument was that once free of the EU, the UK would be able to stop all these critturs from coming in. How so? Paterson explains:

With the latest developments in technology and technique, we can capitalise on that advantage (of being an island) to develop a modern, responsive system to predict, monitor, and control the spread of pests and disease. We can implement a quarantine system with the kind of rigour found in Australia and New Zealand and ensure that the UK becomes a haven for animals, birds, plants and trees for generations to come.”

What might this technology be? We have a clue from one of the most influential Brexit thinktanks on the block at the moment, the Legatum Institute. They recommended solving the problems of a porous border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, by patrolling it with airships. Airships which can sniff out flatworm eggs hiding in pot plants and – well presumably zap them with some sort of worm-ray. Without harming anything or anyone else.

Later in the speech, Paterson also hilariously attacked the EU for its ban on neonicotinoids, and the “Green Blob” of NGOs which he seems to think run policy at the European Commission. Did he not realise that Buglife were part of that blob?

A number of things occurred to me when reading this latest piece of nonsense from Paterson. Firstly, Paterson oversaw massive cuts in Defra funding during his time there. Funding that would have paid for researchers and staff carrying out phytosanitary checks. Similar cuts at the Home Office have done for customs staff doing spot checks and intelligence work. So the infrastructure available to carry out phytosanitary checks is no longer there.

Secondly it was the EU which wrote the 2014 Invasive Species Regulation which is still being transposed into UK law. Will Paterson be lobbying for the UK regulations to be strengthened during the EU withdrawal review process? Before this EU regulation, the UK legislation on invasive species was pretty weak. The Green Blob welcomed the EU regulation as a strengthening of protections against invasives.

Countries like New Zealand and Australia do have stringent customs checks on entry, to try and stop invasives arriving, with some success. There are bins for you to deposit any food, or plant material you might have  on you – and hefty fines if you forget. You can be required to clean all mud off your boots and airliner cabins are sprayed with insecticide on landing, to kill disease carrying insects. Is this what will happen in the UK of the future? What about that pesky Irish border, where flatworms can slime their way across into Britannia UNDER THE SOIL.

Are invasives the massive problem that Paterson suggests? It’s true that pathogens are threatening a handful of iconic species – the crayfish, the Red Squirrel. Ash dieback (which likely arrived on the wind as well as on infected nursery tree stock) is going to ravage our ash woods. There have been success stories – such as rat eradication for seabird colonies. But compared to the impacts of modern intensive agriculture, or climate change, as far as the UK is concerned, it’s not the biggest issue facing nature.

And the idea that Brexit, where our borders will be thrown open to global trade, where our public sector is even further starved of funding, will be the answer, is as ludicrous as every other Paterson solution.


Posted in Brexit, invasive species, Owen Paterson | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

New Natural Areas: time to really make space for nature and people? Guest Blog by Steve Jones

European Bison (Wisent) in the Kraansvlak, Netherlands. ©Miles King


Over at Mark Avery’s blog, Steve Jones outlined the idea of creating a series of pilot New Natural Areas, a new class of natural landscape to sit alongside National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Steve stressed that such areas would compliment, not replace, existing efforts to secure wildlife-friendly farming. Here, Steve tells an entirely fictional story, looking back in time from the vantage point of 2030, of how one particular Natural Area came into being.


It’s a hot July day in 2030 and we’re sitting on a hillock affording panoramic view across the 26,000ha Brecknoll Natural Area. This particular New Natural Area came into existence in fairly modest form when, in 2019, it was selected as one of five pilot rewilding areas. Initially called New Natural Areas during their development phase of active intervention, they’ll be renamed as Natural Areas after 30 years to reflect their transition to light-touch management.

The Brecknoll pilot, in the English southern lowlands, was initially restricted to the publicly-owned 15,000ha of afforested heath and open acid and chalk grassland mosaic, and two adjacent shooting estates, totalling 3,000ha, that entered the scheme on the understanding that carefully managed hunting for wild meat could continue, with the harvest sold at the lakeside restaurant sitting where the dryer uplands drop down to the broad Breck River floodplain.

Over time, another three adjacent farms entered the pilot, supported by the government’s Natural Areas Stewardship Scheme (NAS). This provides a simple payment per-hectare of land entered into the NNA, with a generous top up where adjacent private land owners collaborate to increase the area entered, plus top ups for initial preparatory works (such as fence removal) and business planning (the restaurant feasibility study and business plan, as well as some building conversion costs, were all supported this way). Agreements last for 30 years, with an additional lump sum payment at the end of the initial term if the land owners renew for a second, 30 year term.

Land owners report that one of the great attractions of the NAS scheme is its simplicity: it offers a standard payment based purely on land area, rather than specifying habitats to be delivered. The payment aims to capture the value of a basket of social benefits delivered in addition to recovery of natural habitat, including atmospheric carbon sequestered and water quality impacts avoided. This simple formula also greatly reduces scheme administration costs, because outcomes are measured from satellite land cover data.

Funding for the NAS comes from a re-purposed Common Agricultural Policy, now called the Countryside Challenge Fund (CCF) to reflect its wider purpose. The CCF still pays farmers a small basic payment for sustainable farm practices, but most funding is now directed through an expanded Countryside Stewardship, and through the NAS initially within rewilding pilot sites. Countryside Stewardship aims to deliver wildlife alongside food production; Natural Areas Stewardship aims to support natural enterprises within non-extractive, naturally-functioning areas. As such, these schemes are complementary.

A Brecknoll Land Trust was formed during the pilot project start-up phase. It represents a public-private-nongovernmental partnership, responsible for coordinating delivery of the NNA project and long-term management. It is a charity, capitalised by a large government endowment with revolving funds drawing from various sources through time. Although initial land purchases here are costly, longer-term costs are projected to fall as initial recovery interventions are scaled back. Management will be minimal after a couple of decades.

The publicly-owned afforested heath and open grasslands were vested to the Land Trust during the first two years of the pilot and, the plantations being mature, the Trust set about selling timber. Areas of broadleaved trees, small copses, linear streamside woodlands and veteran trees were all retained, initially creating a part-open landscape very much like the New Forest. Prior to this, a lively debate between the RSPB and the Land Trust considered how best to accommodate nightjars, which had hitherto thrived under a regime of clear-felling and re-stocking. Analysis suggested that birds would distribute themselves more evenly across the landscape at least in the short-term, and, if large grazing and browsing mammals did indeed manage to maintain significant areas of open habitat, nightjars ought to persist, along with innumerable other open habitat specialists. But such uncertainty was acknowledged to be one of the drawbacks of the ‘naturally functioning system’ approach being tested within the Natural Area pilots.

The formation, in late 2019, of the Trust for Natural Areas (TNA), set in train a programme of social and ecological studies around the efficacy of the Natural Areas approach. Although the conservation science basis for re-assembling naturally-functioning landscapes within the UK was sparse at best, TNA was able to draw upon a wealth of scientific evidence internationally. TNA also embarked upon a programme of policy advocacy which promoted the idea that varied land tenure regimes – private, public and charitable – would be the best way to assemble land at the scale required.

A major boost for Brecknoll came in 2025, when over 8,000ha of pump-drained floodplain farmland was acquired by the Brecknoll Land Trust. The most recent in a string of major flood events afflicted large parts of the UK, leading to a shortage of large-volume pumps, with some areas remaining submerged for eight months into the following summer. With a similar flood event affecting the large Breck River floodplain area every other year since 2018, and with the climate scientists stating that this is likely to be the norm going forward, the viability of constant re-draining of an area that produced little farm output was passionately debated, and change was inevitable. In fact, the farmers themselves initiated discussions with the Land Trust and the Department for Countryside Stewardship, negotiating a package whereby their floodplain land was purchased by the Trust using government funds and leased back to farmers in return for delivering wetland management based on water buffalo grazing, wild fish harvesting and nature-based recreation. The farmer’s case was bolstered by an Office for Natural Enterprise study outlining the economic potential of natural wetlands in the UK. The local water company and adjacent upland farmers are now negotiating contracts with the Breck floodplain land managers that will allow modest abstraction of pooled water, stripped of nutrients and silt. Although the capital costs of land purchase were high, the tax payer ended up saving money in the longer-term because intensive river dredging and land drainage works were no longer demanded.

The National Rivers Authority (NRA) was resurrected in the face of increasingly severe flood events nationally and with the national policy decision to classify all rivers and their 1:100 year floodplains as Critical Natural Infrastructure. The NRA is charged with the duty to provide enhanced, localised flood defences for key human assets (homes, roads, power infrastructure etc) located on floodplains, which then enables the safe withdrawal of intervention from the remaining floodplain. Now, rivers and their floodplains are set aside as natural flood water storage and conveyance systems, with any land uses incompatible with these services disallowed.

Today, the pulse of flood water at Brecknoll creates an ebb and flow of water across the floodplain, bringing nutrient-rich water and much grass growth as well as prolific fish spawning and some of the best lead-free wildfowling in the UK. Breeding redshank have increased dramatically and productivity is reasonable despite some summer flooding, and lapwings have taken to nesting at high densities in wide, muddy draw-down zones as water recedes in the spring. Several species of dragonfly have arrived in southern England from the south as the temperature has increased, creating one of the richest Odonata assemblages in the country. Carefully managed kayaking safaris are increasingly popular, with visitors hiring kayaks from several guest houses that have sprung up adjacent to the NNA.

The unexpected arrival of beavers in 2020 and lynx in 2022 were presumably natural colonists from re-introductions elsewhere. Prior to this, the huge deer population had been reduced somewhat by sustainable harvesting, aimed at bringing population densities down to what spatial population modelling suggested might be expected within a landscape of this sort. These population models were developed at the Brecknoll Research Station, constructed in 2019 to host students conducting research projects within the NNA. Density estimates for the various wild grazers and browsers were derived based on likely kill rates if lynx and wolves were present, and human hunters harvested appropriate age classes of animals based on these models, bringing population densities down to what were taken to represent ‘natural’ densities. With the arrival of lynx, the models were adjusted to reflect this additive, natural mortality, and human harvesting reduced accordingly.

The Brecknoll Land Trust team conducted a research visit to Costa Rica in 2019, visiting the Guanacaste National Park. Professor Dan Janzen had gradually led the creation of this large-scale rewilding project since the 1970s, working with a local team to negotiate land deals, buying up agricultural land holdings over the decades to enable recovery of dry forest on a grand scale. Here, they heard from Professor Janzen how critical larger mammals were to the dispersal of larger seeds of some tree and tall shrub species across the landscape. Janzen went on to describe the role of these mammals in nutrient dispersal, citing work by Oxford scientists that suggested that the extinction of megafauna had greatly curtailed the spread of dung-based nutrients globally. Stressing the pivotal role of large European mammals in landscape functional ecology prior to their extirpation by people, Janzen challenged the group to set out how they intended to re-build these processes once domestic stock had been removed from the Brecknoll landscape. He lamented how European conservation practitioners appeared to be oblivious to the ‘empty forest syndrome’ that afflicted many tropical landscapes subject to heavy bushmeat hunting, and the idea that ‘trophic downgrading’ (removal of whole trophic levels due to over-hunting) was having profound effects on the long-term ecology of marine and terrestrial systems. He stressed that rewilding in ‘half-empty landscapes’, from which key large mammals have been extirpated, really isn’t rewilding at all.

This claim from a father of ecology led the group to contact Rewilding Europe to discuss how one might go about addressing the ‘half-empty landscape syndrome’ in the Brecknoll NNA pilot. A key constraint on re-instating such processes was the fact that the key mammalian participant – the aurochs – was now globally extinct.

In 2023, with not inconsiderable misgivings, the first Tauros herd was introduced. This herd comprised animals from an aurochs back-breeding scheme, which was aiming to create animals that matched as closely as possible the ecology of extinct aurochs. When these animals were first introduced, the Brecknoll landscape comprised a mosaic of non-native forestry, patches of secondary native woodland, heathland, acid and chalk grassland, and large areas of improved floodplain pasture and arable. The conservation scientists predicted that Tauros herds would most likely loiter within quiet wooded areas during the day, and venture into open grassland areas at dawn and dusk to feed. In the event, herds have concentrated within quieter, open parts of the landscape, feeding out in the open throughout the day. Satellite tracking data reveal that these animal have formed loose herds and track food resources across the landscape through the changing seasons, much as banteng do in Asia, and European bison in south-east Europe. It’s been interesting to see how the Tauros and water buffalo have segregated themselves, Tauros on the dryer uplands, buffalo down on the floodplain. Fears that Tauros herds would require supplementary feeding proved to be unfounded, and the population size has stabilised within the last eight years, suggesting that it is now ‘bottom-up’ controlled by food availability (rather than requiring ‘top-down’ control by predators). What was striking was just how rapidly ‘natural’ herd-forming and resource-tracking behaviour developed in these animals. The team is now evaluating data on the interactions of bulk-feeding Tauros and other grazing and browsing animals. It appears that ‘grazing lawns’ are developing in some of the more open areas where wild herds concentrate their feeding efforts, maintaining species-rich plant communities hitherto maintained by domestic livestock. Although English Nature continues to demand that livestock are used to maintain the target conditions of some open grassland SSSI patches within the NNA, early indications are that the mix of ‘wild’ grazers may be able to maintain these areas longer-term. The team is now discussing the introduction of horses, the theory being that these will continue to graze open areas after wild Tauros cattle have left in search of patches of taller herbage.

Although the large mammal ecologists assert that wild grazers and browsers will act as highly effective plant dispersal agents, the Land Trust team decided to undertake some wild flower dispersal experiments. The aim was to create species-rich patches of wild flowers, positioned across the large areas of improved grassland. Aided by wild grazers, plants will then disperse more widely from these ‘source’ patches through time, speeding up the process of wildflower biodiversity recovery. Local school parties have been engaged to collect seeds of various open grassland species and cultivate these at school for subsequent planting in the NNA. School groups also conduct hay-making parties as a way of gathering seeds from areas of species-rich grassland shut-up for hay to provide another local source of seed. Early on, a decision was made to collect only locally-available native wild flower material, thus maintaining the local genetic integrity. The irony of this, when set against the use of back-bred surrogates for wild aurochs, was not lost on project participants.

The Research Station, constructed with EU funding, is proving popular with students from across the UK and overseas, and from a variety of disciplines. Ecology students are investigating wild flower dispersal, the development of vegetation structure under the influence of mixed grazers and browsers, dung and corpse ecology; economics students are looking at the viability of natural enterprises and mechanisms for forming private markets for ecosystem services; social science students consider how communities responded as the view gradually evolved from a traditional farming scene to an increasingly wooded landscape with less openness and extensive areas of widely fluctuating flooding. A striking finding has been a shift in attitudes among both hunting and conservation participants, with wild meat harvesting now seen as an exciting, sustainable form of land use, and a significant decline in antagonism towards wild predators. Although homes remain in some parts of the floodplain, none have been damaged even though floodplain inundation is now annual and prolonged, with localised flood defences for clusters of homes and the raising of key roads proving highly effective.

There have been clear wildlife losses and gains here as species communities have developed with cessation of farming and resurgence of larger wild animals. Grain-eating bird species, closely associated with mixed farming, have declined with the loss of arable, but annual wild flowers now thrive in disturbed dust baths created by Tauros cattle. Water voles love the buffalo wallows and beaver dam pools. Population densities and breeding success of some species fluctuate and are difficult to predict now that species-focused management is no longer practiced within the NNA. There have been some surprises: the breeding population of corn buntings has increased dramatically within taller grassland communities, but these disperse into nearby arable dominated landscapes in winter, to feed on Stewardship-supported weedy stubbles.

Local people, initially somewhat resistant to the idea of withdrawing farming and floodplain water management, are now incredibly defensive of their Natural Area. Many could never see themselves leaving the area, and enjoy their freedom to wander and the delight they feel when a beaver family swims past or they spot a family of lynx frolicking on the slop across the river. Most visitors never see the lynx they’ve come for, but then few visitors to a haunted house are likely to see a ghost.


The above short story is, of course, entirely fictional – impossible – from today’s perspective. But will we look back in 2030 and see a collection of evolving, maturing Natural Areas, with their own constituency of passionate supporters, thriving natural enterprises and energetic programmes of biodiversity research revealing how nature can recover itself without closely tailored human intervention? And will each Natural Area be embedded within much larger landscapes of wildlife-friendly farming, through which wildlife migrates across stepping stones and corridors of farmland habitats in lively landscape mosaics? Both elements are entirely achievable in my view. For Natural Areas we could create a small number of pilot projects, perhaps in some cases taking publicly-owned land as their starting point and progressively expanding out from these via dedicated Natural Area Land Trusts, blending land purchase, leases and various forms of Conservation Concession to build scale. Such approaches have been common in the tropics for decades: in Costa Rica (where land isn’t cheap) we have Guanacaste and Monteverde; in Florida (where land certainly isn’t cheap!) we have, well, vast public land acquisitions for conservation; Colombia and Ecuador have whole cottage industries of land trusts delivering ever-expanding natural area networks. If we lack confidence, there is no shortage of experience from overseas to draw upon! We’ve tended to focus on all-important farmland biodiversity in the UK and, although this work must continue, it’s time we drew lessons from overseas and dip our toes into the restoration of low-intervention natural areas.

Posted in guest blogs, rewilding | Tagged , , , | 17 Comments

Guest Blog: Agri-environment – a need for detailed scrutiny, by Steve Peel

Agri-Environment schemes pay for grass margins around arable fields ©Miles King







As the process of changing from an European agriculture policy into a UK one starts, I’m delighted to publish a guest blog by former Natural England grassland specialist Steve Peel. Steve looks at how successful agri-environment schemes have been (in England) and how they could be improved.

The state of UK nature


‘Our wonderful nature is in trouble and needs our help as never before’. So wrote Sir David Attenborough in the foreword to the State of Nature report (Hayhow et al, 2016). The report went on to say ‘Many factors have resulted in changes to the UK’s wildlife over recent decades, but policy-driven agricultural change was by far the most significant driver of declines’.


Yet 30 years ago agri-environment schemes were initiated across the UK with the specific intention, amongst others, of halting and reversing such wildlife declines. And these schemes were expanded over that period such that they were generally recognised as among the most ambitious in Europe. In England alone payments to farmers in these schemes have been approximately £400 million per year since 2005. So have these schemes been ineffective and if so, why? At this time, when post-Brexit policies are being formulated, the answers to these questions are crucial for the future state of nature.


Critiques of agri-environment


Ecologists have been publishing studies and critiques of schemes for many years. These tend to be at a European scale. Kleijn et al (2006) concluded that schemes gave only marginal or moderately positive effects on biodiversity and that it was not possible to tell whether this was due to the measures being ineffective, sub-optimally implemented by farmers or applied in the wrong location. Batary et al (2015) concluded that the general lesson is that schemes can be effective but are expensive and need to be carefully designed and targeted.


In his very engaging British Ecological Society presidential address in December 2015 Bill Sutherland suggested that 34-58% of agri-environment interventions were ineffective, with resultant squandering of significant amounts of money and effort on well-intended but ineffectual and largely untested land management interventions. This was a global critique but the audience may have concluded that UK schemes have a weak science base. Consequently Clare Pinches and myself gave presentations at BES December 2016, seeking to explain the schemes in more detail.


Species-rich grassland options – design


We focused on Higher Level Stewardship (HLS), launched in 2006 and aimed at maintaining and restoring high-value environmental features. Grassland options and their associated supplements represent over 40% of the total spend on HLS and we used as our example the HLS options for restoration and creation of species-rich grassland. The design and targeting of these options was based on a long series of experiments and surveys within the Defra Agri-environment R&D programme and summarised by Pywell et al (2012). This showed that:

  • The main abiotic constraint on restoration is soil nutrient status, particularly phosphorus (P). Hence the options were targeted at sites with low P and/or other characteristics imposing stress.
  • The main biotic constraint is lack of seeds and suitable establishment niches. Hence the scheme funded the whole cost of seed purchase and the option guidance stressed that seeds usually need to be introduced and sufficient bare soil needs to be created.




These options can work brilliantly: in 2010/11 Natural England advisers identified 73 sites that they thought had been most successful and these were independently surveyed (Hewins, 2013; Wilson et al, 2013). Most were creation rather than restoration. Eighty five % met or exceeded the minimum threshold to qualify as BAP Priority Habitat and typically this took 8-15 years.


But what do independent surveys of random samples of agreements show? Creation of species-rich grassland from arable appears to have been much more successful than in earlier schemes. But restoration of existing grassland, on which we have spent ten times as much (£113 million), has been very disappointing – see table 1.


Table 1. HLS Option HK7 Restoration of species-rich grassland.

Change in condition 2006 to 2014

Condition improved 23%
Condition remained the same 66%
Condition declined 11%
Source: Monitoring project LM0443 – awaiting publication


After 8 years in an option specifically designed to restore species-richness, with payments of at least £200/ha/year, less than a quarter had improved in condition, and some had actually declined. Likely reasons for these poor results are that 27% of the sites had a P index of 2 or more – higher than optimum. And most importantly 81% of sites had no record of seeds being introduced. This sample was of agreements set up in the first year of HLS and might be ascribed to teething problems, but similar issues were identified in later agreements eg Mountford et al 2013.


Generic quality problems


There were concerns about the quality of HLS delivery from the start in 2006 and these were recognised by the Making Environmental Stewardship More Effective (MESME) project in which 18 recommendations on quality were agreed by Defra (Natural England, 2013). These included the need for:

  • Better agreement set-up, more tailored to the site. (Includes choice of site, and need for seed).
  • Better QA, including peer review by experienced colleagues and national in-house monitoring of quality (c.100 agreements/ year).
  • Better aftercare: regular visits Assess progress, feedback to agreement-holder, record results, follow through, c. 5% of visits with an experienced colleague.


Boatman et al (2014) studied HLS outcomes and the relationship with adviser input. They found, as did Mountford et al, that performance was good for many of the metrics, with the majority of agreements working well. But this covered all outcomes including, for example, historic environment and landscape. The situation was less satisfactory for the more demanding biodiversity outcomes such as on grassland. There were positive correlations between outcomes and:

  • the quality of the agreement set-up
  • agreement holder knowledge

Seventy-one percent of agreement holders said that the advice they had received had been important or very important to the successful delivery of their HLS agreement. However, many agreement holders were concerned about the number of changes in project officers. In 7 years only 24% of agreements had kept the same adviser, and 23% had 3 or more advisers.

A telling comment made in that report was ‘Lack of follow up visits and changes in adviser personnel led to a sense among agreement holders that early expectations in terms of support were not fulfilled throughout the life of the agreement. In some cases this led to increasing disillusionment and declining commitment as the agreement progressed’.


Learning the lessons


Lawton et al (2010) concluded that England does not have a coherent and resilient ecological network and that we need ‘more, bigger, better and joined’ core sites. In response government said ‘We want to promote an ambitious, integrated approach, creating a resilient ecological network across England’ (Defra, 2011). This intention has recently been reiterated (Natural England, 2016) and since over 70% of England is agricultural land much of the restoration, creation and management of sites will have to be done by and with farmers.


The evidence from HLS shows that even if we have a farming scheme soundly based on science it will not work well enough unless quality is inbuilt and it is managed and resourced sufficiently to sustain a relationship of trust between adviser and land manager.


The signs are that Natural England and Defra are not keen to be open and honest about this evidence:

  • There has been no follow-up reporting on the MESME recommendations to improve the quality of agreements: no reports on the internal QA, no reports on aftercare.
  • The written submission to House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee on the Future of the natural environment after the EU referendum (UK Parliament, 2016) quoted positive impacts on landscape character – a relatively straightforward outcome to achieve – and showed that the scheme (mainly arable options) has the potential to have national-scale effects on avian population growth rates. But it, and the witness evidence by Rob Cooke, was silent on the biodiversity objectives of the HLS grassland, moorland and other habitat options on which two thirds of the budget have been spent.
  • Giving evidence in July 2017 to the House of Lords select committee on the NERC Act, Alan Law (NE Strategy Director) did not take the opportunity to correct this (UK Parliament, 2017).


The story of agri-environment since 2005 has been one of tragically unfulfilled potential. Basic objectives have, as in predecessor schemes, been widely achieved: grassland and other habitats not ploughed up or agriculturally improved, landscape features such as stone walls and buildings maintained and restored, grassy margins round arable fields created. And there are many examples of much more challenging objectives being achieved. But there are also many, many examples of agreements which do not reach the standards required to deliver the Lawton vision. On arable land this is often because uptake of the more demanding options has been too low. In contrast on grassland, where over 40% of the HLS budget has been spent, uptake of demanding options has been high but outcomes have often been woefully poor.


This should not be seen as an indictment of NE advisers – they are committed and hard-working. But they have not been appropriately deployed. When HLS was launched in 2005/6 they were told to go out and make sure they spent the budget. This resulted in many agreements being rushed through. Even once the scheme was more embedded the message from above was very much focused on number of agreements and area of land covered with far too little focus on quality when setting up agreements. This might not have mattered so much if there had been adequate aftercare but the HLS design, which was based on 3 visits in 10 years with Indicators of Success assessed on each visit, was not delivered. Some agreements were not visited at all until it was too late to change the outcomes. And that was before the major staff cutbacks of recent years.


This matters because not only is the same thing happening with the new scheme, Countryside Stewardship, but it is likely to happen all over again in any post-Brexit scheme. The sort of outcomes required to deliver Lawton – create new habitat, restore and extend existing habitat – require skills which are not part of commercial farm practice, as well as timeliness and attention to detail. Expecting this to be achieved on the scale required with the resources deployed in HLS, let alone the current reduced resources, is unrealistic. Yet that is what policy-makers and ministers will expect unless the evidence of past delivery is made so crystal clear to everyone that they cannot risk repetition. And, crucially, if the necessary resources are not available then instead of spreading them thinner and thinner and failing to deliver in many places, admit it and at least deliver good value for money in some places. This is surely what is required of ministers and public servants: openness and honesty (Committee on Standards in Public Life, 1995).



Batary, P, Dicks, L.V, Kleijn, D & Sutherland, W.J. 2015. The role of agri-environment schemes in conservation and environmental management. Conservation Biology, 29, 4, 1006–1016.

Boatman, N. et al 2014. Agreement scale monitoring of Environmental Stewardship 2013-4: Assessing the impact of advice and support on the environmental outcomes of HLS agreements. Natural England Contract reference LM0432.

Committee on Standards in Public Life 1995.

DEFRA 2011. The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature. CM8082.

Hayhow D.B. et al 2016. State of Nature 2016. The State of Nature partnership.

Hewins, E. 2013. A survey of selected agri-environment grassland creation and restoration sites: Part 1 – 2010 survey. Natural England Commissioned Report 107.

Kleijn, D. et al. 2006. Mixed biodiversity benefits of agri-environment schemes in five European countries. Ecology Letters 9: 243–254.

Lawton et al 2010. Making Space for Nature: A review of England’s Wildlife Sites and Ecological Network. Report to Defra.

Mountford, J.O. & Cooke, A.I. (eds), 2013. Monitoring the outcomes of Higher Level Stewardship: results of a 3-year agreement monitoring programme. Natural England Commissioned Report 114.

Natural England 2013. MESME: report on the final outcomes.

Natural England 2016. Conservation 21: Natural England’s conservation strategy for the 21st century. NE642.

Pywell, R.F. et al 2012. Restoring species-rich grassland: principles and techniques. Aspects of Applied Biology, 115, 11-21.

Wilson, P., Wheeler, B., Reed, M. & Strange, A. 2013. A survey of selected agri-environment grassland and heathland creation and restoration sites: Part 2. Natural England Commissioned Report 107.

UK Parliament 2016.

UK Parliament 2017.

Steve Peel was a senior specialist in eco-agronomy with particular responsibility for grassland, for Natural England and predecessor bodies, prior to his retirement in March 2017. He worked on agri-environment schemes for 30 years and chaired the group that designed the grassland options in Environmental Stewardship and Countryside Stewardship. He is a past president of the British Grassland Society and a founder member of the British Ecological Society’s Agricultural Ecology Group. The first three quarters of this text was published in the British Ecological Society Bulletin, vol 48:2, July 2017.


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