Dorset chalk downland site sprayed with herbicide and re-seeded for farming.

It seems almost inconceivable that 20 years has passed since a Chalk Downland Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) was ploughed up in Sussex. The Offham Down case became a minor cause celebre during the election campaign of 1997 which swept Tony Blair to power – remember him? Yes this really is ancient history.

the ploughing of Offham Down in 1997 led to much greater protection for SSSIs.

I played a minor role in the events, as a member of the Wildlife Bill coalition who were trying to get the law strengthened to stop SSSIs from being trashed. We had to persuade the then Secretary of State at the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) a certain John Selwyn Gummer (now Lord Deben), that English Nature should step in and stop the farmer from continuing with his plans to convert ancient chalk downland into an arable field to grow flax, purely for the very generous EU flax subsidy. The only powers they had at the time to do this were to impose a Nature Conservation Order, which could only be used where a SSSI was considered “nationally Important”. For Offham Down to qualify as nationally important, it had to support four nationally scarce chalk downland species. So I headed off to Sussex with Belinda, a good friend and excellent botanist. We duly found the four species and reported back to colleagues at Friends of the Earth, who faxed the data to MAFF and the Nature Conservation Order was applied. More significantly, the uproar led to the then Labour environment spokesman Michael Meacher, declaring that Labour would strengthen wildlife laws. And this they did, bringing in the CROW Act  in 2000.

Fast forward 20 years and SSSIs have far better protection from landowners wishing to damage or destroy them, although, as the cases of Rampisham Down and Lodge Hill show, it is becoming more and more difficult to get our best wildlife sites, threatened or not, notified as SSSIs.  And this reluctance on the part of Natural England to notify sites leaves them vulnerable, because – at least for open habitats like unimproved grassland, the only other recourse is the much unloved Environmental Impact Assessment (Agriculture) Regulations. As I have written copiously elsewhere, these do not work as a protection mechanism.

When I received a tip off that a well known chalk downland in Dorset, called Weatherby Castle, had been sprayed with herbicide and the scrub all cut and burnt, my heart sank. I took a look at the site (from the public footpath of course) last week. The downland was clearly high quality – from what others have told me it supported a variety of downland plants including Bee orchid, Horseshoe vetch, Chalk milkwort and many others. Adonis Blue one of the classic downland butterflies was known from the downland and warblers including whitethroat and Grasshopper warbler were breeding in the scattered scrub.

Aerial photo showing the chalk downland around Weatherby Castle. The scattered scrub is clearly visible on the south and west slopes. Attribution: Microsoft product screen shot reprinted with permission from Microsoft Corporation © GetMapping

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

flowering milkwort in a very diverse chalk downland sward which escaped the herbicide

The downland slopes surrounded a (mostly wooded) Iron Age hillfort which had not been damaged.  The whole area was evidently very rich in wildlife and historical heritage –  I think almost certainly it would qualify for SSSI protection.

the brown area was until recently wildlife-rich chalk downland with scattered scrub.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The farmer had not only sprayed herbicide to kill the downland flowers and cut and burnt the scrub, but had also, perhaps more significantly, reseeded the area with agricultural grass.

chalk downland which has been reseeded with Perennial ryegrass, an agricultural grass.

Ryegrass that has been seeded into the downland is now germinating

A large area of downland (between 5 and 10ha) on the south and west slopes of the hillfort has been damaged.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The downland was certainly known about and sits in a very prominent position in the landscape. Although it had been included in the Dorset Chalk Grassland Inventory, unaccountably though it was not on the list of Sites of Nature Conservation Interest in Dorset.

It’s inconceivable to me that the farmer had not known about its value though as it had been in the Entry Level Scheme under Environmental Stewardship for 10 years until last year, in the most valuable option EK3 for valuable grasslands. This image shows the farm under ELS with Weatherby Castle and surrounding downland at the bottom right.

Entry Level Scheme area including Weatherby Castle. Attribution: Google Maps under its “fair use” permission.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The The farmer had received £33685 over a 10 year period, via ELS, on top of his CAP single payment. (thanks to Guy Shrubsole for tracking down the old ELS data.)

I find it difficult to believe that it is coincidence that within a year of leaving ELS, the downland had been so badly damaged.

What happens now? Natural England has powers derived from the EIA (agriculture) Regulations, to require the landowner to restore the land to its previous state. This is going to be quite a challenge as the rye-grass will be difficult to get rid of. But over the long term, eventually the ryegrass will disappear or at least become a minor component of the sward. Pressure needs to be applied to Natural England though to make sure that it does take the necessary action, as Natural England, under Defra’s direction, is moving steadily away from a regulatory approach.

The case highlights and is illustrative of a number of issues.

The only two mechanism available for Natural England to take regulatory action to protect sites like Weatherby Castle are: SSSI notification or the EIA Regulations. If Weatherby Castle had already been a SSSI none of this would have happened.

This is a strong argument for notifying all remaining highly valuable wildlife sites as SSSI.

The EIA (agriculture) Regulations (EIA Regs) derive from the EU EIA Directive. Under the forthcoming “Great Repeal Bill”, the EIA Regs are at great risk of being dumped by Defra. In truth Defra never wanted to have anything to do with EIA for Agriculture – it took 17 years and the threat of European Court Action for the Government to even implement them in the UK. But if they are lost there is literally no regulatory mechanism to protect wildlife-rich grasslands, scrub or other open habitats, other than notifying them as SSSI. Which as we know Natural England are very reluctant to do/have been told not to by Defra. We actually need the EIA Regs to be strengthened, or alternatively do away with them and just notify all surviving wildlife-rich grasslands and other habitats.

What this case shows is that a new system of financial support for farmers needs to be underpinned by strong regulation which prevents damage of this kind from happening.

But on a more positive note farmers with land valuable for wildlife or heritage need to be helped to value it and manage it through financial support. This is the “public money for public goods” argument in a nutshell. For 10 years the Entry Level Scheme was doing just this (effectively the public rented the nature on that farm for 10 years), and when it ended, the financial support ended and the decision was made to improve the agricultural productivity of the land. To prevent this happening, support needs to be permanent and guaranteed, not temporary.

Under a new system of support for agriculture, incentives for farmers to protect and manage valuable wildlife habitats and historical features need to be sufficient, permanent and guaranteed.

For more on how we need to change the way we support farmers in England, read “A Pebble in the Pond: opportunities for farming, food and nature after Brexit.”

 

Posted in agriculture, Downland, EIA, farm subsidies, Natural England | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Time to rename Defra the Ministry of Agriculture and Fieldsports

no longer appropriate

While all talk of the Greenest Government Ever (anyone remember that?) has been quietly abandoned, another question arises.

Is the fieldsports lobby getting unprecedented access to ministers in the Environment department and are the Environment NGOs being squeezed out of ministerial access?

I have crunched the numbers for you.

Andrea Leadsom

Our Secretary of State for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs is Andrea Leadsom. She has overall responsibility for all the elements of DEFRA, which are very wide ranging. But Environment is the first word in Defra, and it would be reasonable to expect our Secretary of State to meet external organisations whose primary interest was the environment.

Available figures for her first six months in office indicate that of her 30 recorded meetings (excluding 4 roundtables):

  • Farming industry 8
  • Food (inc retail) industry 7
  • Fishing industry 1
  • A pro-Brexit fisheries pressure group 1
  • A neoliberal academic 1
  • A neoliberal thinktank 1
  • An ex-Tory Special Advisor now running a PR agency 1
  • A fieldsports pressure group 1
  • A religious group 1
  • A right wing newspaper 1
  • An animal welfare pressure group 1
  • A nature NGO 1
  • A horticulture NGO 1

From this we can see that, contrary to what one might expect, our Secretary of State does not feel the need to meet Environmental Organisations, preferring to focus on the Food in Defra, or perhaps the Farming in MAFF. Yes our Secretary of State met the Countryside Alliance, but the only environment NGO she met (other than where they attended Roundtables) was the Woodland Trust.

She also met a pro Brexit pressure group, a former head of research at a pro-Brexit thinktank that Leadsom was closely involved with, who now runs their own PR consultancy; and a representative from a neoliberal thinktank funded by a New Zealander billionaire based in Dubai.

George Eustice

George Eustice is the Defra Minister responsible for food, farming, fisheries and better regulation. He has been busy with 43 meetings in that 6 month period. Of those (excluding 3 roundtables)

  • Farming industry (23)
  • Food industry (5)
  • Fishing industry (5)
  • Farriers industry (1)
  • Fieldsports pressure groups (1)
  • a pro Brexit pressure group (1)
  • Environment NGOs (2)
  • A neoliberal academic (1)
  • Agroindustry academics (1)

It should come as no surprise that our farming minister has mostly met representatives from the farming, fishing and food industry. As well as meeting pro Brexit pressure groups and neoliberal academics he also found time to meet the chair of the Farriers Governing body to discuss a Bill passing through Parliament. Farriers shoe horses. Eustice was also able to meet 3 marine conservation NGOs before attending an EU fisheries Council; and met CPRE to discuss their farming after Brexit report.

 

Lord Gardiner

Lord Gardiner who, some of you will remember as former Deputy Chief Executive at the Countryside Alliance,  is the Defra Lords minister. He is also responsible for rural issues, climate change adaptation, animal health and welfare; litter, national parks, the Pollinator Strategy and various other bits and pieces.

You might expect that he would have met with some of the Bee Coalition members, as Pollinators are such a hot political topic. Lord Gardiner held a rather modest 13 external meetings in 6 months. Of these, excluding a roundtable:

  • Dogs (2)
  • Horses (1)
  • The fieldsports lobby (1)
  • animal health (1)
  • Bishops (1)
  • Food industry (1)
  • National Parks (1)
  • Local Authorities (1)
  • Litter (1)
  • Telecoms industry (1)
  • Kew Gardens (1)

So although Lord Gardiner found time to meet his former workmates at the Countryside Alliance, he held no meetings with anyone on bees or other pollinators. And his climate change adaptation responsibilities had to play second fiddle to more important things like dogs and horses.

Thérèse Coffey

Dr Thérèse Coffey is Defra minister responsible for the natural environment (including biodiversity) rural opportunities (including rural childcare), floods, air quality and other things. After a quiet first 3 months she got busy with 23 meetings in the 6 months to the end of 2016.

Despite her remit she still found time for meetings with the farming industry (2), food industry (2), forestry industry (1), cleaning products industry (1), waste industry (1), insurance industry (2) and the rural childcare industry (2). She also found time to meet Paul Stephenson, former Open Europe head of research, former SPAD to Philip Hammond who now runs his own PR consultancy. Presumably Andrea Leadsom had told Coffey to meet him.

Among a wide variety of other meetings she did find time to meet an academic to talk about Lion conservation, a food waste campaigner; and a wildlife trade NGO. UK conservation NGOs didn’t figure much at all on the list, aside from The Woodland Trust and an introductory meeting with Wildlife and Countryside Link.

So apart from the Woodland Trust, which appears to be gaining some access to Defra ministers, the UK conservation movement is remarkably absent from these meetings, while the fieldsports lobby has done very well. Is this unreasonable, disproportionate access though?

Countryside Alliance Chief Exec Tim Bonner thinks not.

“Well obviously we’re very good, but the 100k members & being widely accepted as the voice of the countryside helps too.”

Bonner also claimed that the CA “met lots of other ministers too”, but I had a good look through the ministers meetings for relevant departments like DCLG and DCMS and even BEIS and DFE, but I found no meetings with the CA in the period Oct-Dec 2016. There was one meeting with Brandon Lewis at the Home Office in September 2016. Perhaps others might find some elsewhere (Foreign Office? MoD?).

If having 100,000 members qualified the Countryside Alliance (which remember is not a Charity, and has just had its application to become a charity rejected by the Charity Commission), then on that basis the RSPB with over a million, should have had 20 meetings during that time period, and the National Trust, with 4 million members 80 meetings. That is of course absurd, but given that neither the RSPB nor National Trust had any (recorded) meetings in such a critical 6 months for UK nature, does raise questions. If membership/supporter numbers is a poor indicator, perhaps subscription income is a better measure. Countryside Alliance subscription income from the most recent available accounts  (2015) is £3.2M. This compares with £8M for the Woodland Trust, or £48M for the RSPB. So that’s not a great indicator either.

Perhaps Tim Bonner is right, and it is just down to the Countryside Alliance being a brilliantly effective campaigning organisation. Perhaps he is also right that Defra ministers regard the CA as “the Voice of the Countryside.”

It may also true that the UK conservation NGOs have stopped putting too much effort into gaining access to Defra ministers, on account of their being not in the least bit interested in nature, the environment or biodiversity. This seems unlikely though (the former rather than the latter.) as UK nature, especially the EU laws that have to some extent stemmed the tide of decline these last 40 years, are under direct threat thanks to Brexit.

The evidence, such as it is, does point towards the fact that the fieldsports lobby and the Countryside Alliance in particular, are gaining disproportionate access to Defra ministers.

Perhaps of greater concern and what is incontrovertibly true though, is that the Farming and Food industries have full and free access to Defra ministers. In this regard, it is probably best to call Defra by one of its previous name, the Min of Ag.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Andrea Leadsom, blood sports, countryside alliance, Defra, farming | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments

Medway Council love birds, as long as they are not Nightingales

Nightingales return to Lodge Hill ©Will Tofts

As Nightingales return to England, the Brexit juggernaut lumbers on, crushing all dissent as it goes. But the resulting mulch is full of contradiction and confusion.

Take our current commitments to protecting Birds for example. Until 2019 (and perhaps for longer) as members of the EU we are signed up to protecting birds via the Birds Directive (1979). Think about that for a minute. The UK has been signed up to a European law which requires us to protect wild birds for nearly 40 years, nearly as long as we have been members of the Common Market, European Economic Community, European Community and European Union. In that time wild birds have not been doing too well – well most of them. There have been successes eg the Stone Curlew, Bittern and Cirl Bunting are all good examples. And these have all done well precisely because of their protection and recognition under European law.

Sadly, for a long time the UK ignored aspects of EU law and failed to protect wild birds. But thanks to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), we were forced into taking action, under threat of punitive measures (large fines and a real threat that things we wanted the EU to do would be downgraded or ignored.)

A good example of how the ECJ shapes and clarifies the law as it is originally written down in an EU Directive (ie not necessarily very clearly) is the Waddensee judgement. Back in 2004 the ECJ was asked to rule whether a particular bit of the Birds and Habitats Directive applied to “all plans and projects” or not. They decided it did. so a local planning authority deciding whether to approve a developer’s plans for example to build houses near to a Birds Directive Special Protection Area would need to look very closely at all the consequent impacts of that development on the nearby SPAs.

Research had shown quite clearly that additional housing creates an additional recreational pressure on those sites – put simply new residents of new houses near to heathlands or estuaries are going to walk their dogs (on and off the leads) ride their bikes, have picnics and do all the normal things that people do near to where they live. Which meant that those additional houses were having an adverse effect on the species and habitats of the European sites – SPAs and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs).

This led to the infamous housing blockade of 2005 in the Thames Basin Heaths – the one that Michael Gove is still banging on about.

The EU had forced planners to stop developers from building houses right next to heathlands, because of the impact of the additional recreational pressure on the species and habitats of the heathlands. For Gove this is ridiculous red tape, for people interested in retaining some few remnants of nature in England, this is legal protection for nature actually working. While housing within 400m of a heathland (or other habitat eg Estuary) was stopped, it was allowed within a wider 5km zone but only if a range of mitigation measures were put in place, that would, at least in theory, remove the “adverse effect” on the European site. These measures included much increased wardening to educate visitors not to let their dogs off the lead where they could disturb ground nesting birds for example. And also the creation of alternative greenspace (SANGS) to encourage people to visit other places that would not affect the special wildlife of the European sites.

One such area is the Thames Estuary, much of which, including the Medway and Swale estuaries in North Kent, is  a Special Protection Area. A big campaign, led by Friends of the North Kent Marshes, successfully stopped the “Boris Island” airport from being built there. Medway Council, like many others where European sites occur, is bound to take measures to mitigate the impact of additional houses on places like the Thames Estuary SPA. Accordingly, Medway council has just advertised for a SAMMS manager – SAMMS is short for Strategic Access and Management Monitoring Scheme. This is what they say about the job:

 

 

Ah how lovely, you might think. Medway Council really care about birds. Sorry to disappoint you, but no.

Medway Council are still planning to build a 5000 house new town on the UK’s largest Nightingale population at Lodge Hill. Lodge Hill, which was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest on account of its incredibly rich wildlife (not just Nightingales.) Regular readers will know I have written many times about Lodge Hill here  and also last year a People Need Nature project explored Lodge Hill and its many qualities, as a source of inspiration for artists writers and composers.

This I think illustrates perfectly how our membership of the EU, and especially the power of the European Court of Justice, has shaped our approach to conserving wildlife in the UK. On the one hand, European law protects European sites from the indirect impacts of new housing, eg dog-walking. On the other hand, our domestic wildlife legislation may well not be powerful enough to prevent our best wildlife sites (SSSIs) legally protected under domestic law, from having houses built on them.

When the Great Repeal Bill transfers all that EU law onto the UK statute books, the power of the ECJ will be removed. It’s inconceivable that this Government will create an equivalent power to challenge (and over-rule) when it decides to ignore its own legal protection for wildlife.

RSPB have a campaign running to help Save Lodge Hill. If you’re interested, take a look.

Posted in Birds Directive, European environment policy, housing, Lodge Hill, Michael Gove, New Towns, Nightingales, People Need Nature, Recreation | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

No gathering Eggs for May: it has to be Easter

Can it really be true that there isn’t enough to keep our Prime Minister busy these days?

Theresa May, while cosying up to the Extreme Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, still finds time to lambast the National Trust, for removing the word “Easter” from their egg hunt (except of course they didn’t.)

 

 

Isn’t this a blatant example of virtue signalling (normally an accusation hurled at social justice warriors and other occupants of socialist/liberal snowflake world) by the Prime Minister?

The National Trust, in a presumably very lucrative deal with American food multinational Kraft (who I imagine have no interest in such trivialities) has renamed the traditional Easter Egg Hunt, in some places at any rate, the Cadbury Egg Hunt.

 

However much you sugar coat this, understand this is about money changing hands – large wads of it.

The National Trust quite rightly though do not want to put off non-Christians from taking part in the festivities. But Vicar’s daughter Mrs May has taken umbrage.

After all, (Easter) Egg hunts are all about Christianity, aren’t they?

Well no, actually they are not. Christ was not crucified holding an egg, nor did he carry an egg through the streets of Jerusalem.

The egg is a very ancient symbol of rebirth at the time of the vernal equinox. Ancient Persians decorated eggs (perhaps not chicken eggs?) to celebrate their New Year Nowruz, at the time of the Spring Equinox. This tradition continues to this day and long pre-dates Christ – though it is thought that Christians adopted the practice fairly early on in Christianity’s history.

And of course the Easter bunny is no bunny (and nothing to do with Christianity). It’s a hare – thought to symbolise Eastra, Norse goddess of the Dawn (in this case the dawn of the growing year). Or possibly it was Hares which pulled Norse god Freya’s carriage, Freya being goddess of fertility.

One theory is that people thought hares were born from eggs because of the “forms” they produce while lying up in pastures. Whatever the origins of the beliefs, Hares and Eggs are bound up in our modern day celebration of Spring.

But really, who knows? These things are, literally, the stuff of legend and people will continue to debate their origins forever more. It doesn’t really matter where they originated.

What this has to do with Christianity is obscure, to say the least. What it does indicate though is how ancient customs rooted in people’s reverence for nature still survive (albeit in cryptic forms) in our culture, despite fears of an ever increasing disconnect with nature.

Perhaps Mrs May’s PR advisors merely spotted the opportunity to provide a welcome distraction from the daily tales of Brexit cock-ups (why did they decide to leave any mention of Gibraltar out of the Article 50 letter?) we all seem to be enduring these days.

Posted in easter, National Trust, symbolism, Theresa May, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Badgers eat Nightingales, according to Dorset MP Richard Drax.

Badgers and their culling found its way back on to the agenda at Westminster yesterday, where a Westminster Hall Debate took place, thanks to the petition led by Simon King (no relation.)

You can read the debate here and there are some  interesting speeches from all political standpoints.

Perhaps the most extraordinary intervention was from one of Dorset’s MPs – Richard Drax, or Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, as he really ought to be named. Drax owns the 7000 acre Charborough Estate in Dorset and has graced these pages before.

This “man of the people” who has campaigned enthusiastically for Brexit, has quietly trousered over Three Million Euros in farm subsidies since 1999, with a healthy £384,351 of single farm payments in 2015.

Drax, who used to be a BBC news journalist, came up with some truly whacky “facts” in the debate. This is what he said, according to Hansard

“I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend’s excellent speech. Does he agree that those who oppose the cull look at the badger as a friendly, lovable animal, which in effect it is not? Factually, the badger is responsible for destroying bee hives, hedgehogs and ground-nesting birds such as skylarks, grey partridges and meadow pipits. [Interruption.] That is true. It is also responsible for the loss of wood warblers, nightingales and stone curlews. Those are facts. The badger is a danger, and like all wild animals that have no natural predator—just like deer and foxes—it should be culled, so that numbers are maintained.”

Now it’s known that Badgers predate the eggs of ground-nesting birds such as skylarks and grey partridges. Could Mr Drax’s interest in protecting grey partridges be purely altruistic? Perhaps not. His Charborough Estate organises (commercial) shoots of Pheasant and er Partridge. 

As to what “Pippets” are, is anyone’s guess. They sound charming and defenceless especially against the remorseless Badgers (with emphasis on the BAD) that inhabit Mr Drax’s rarified world.

Whether badger predation of ground-nesting bird’s eggs is a significant problem for them, as for hedgehogs, is another matter. Populations of ground-nesting birds of farmland have been declining across the country, whether there are large populations of badgers or not. It’s even possible that badgers might take the well-hidden eggs of the wood warbler, though scientific research only found one badger predation out of 28 predation incidents, compared with three by greater-spotted woodpeckers. Did I hear calls for a woodpecker cull? I did not.

But what really stumped me was the suggestion that badgers were responsible for Nightingale deaths. I searched the literature – and found nothing. Until I came across an article by Robin Page in the Daily Mail from 2013 and found this:

“But it is not just hedgehogs that suffer from badger predation. The eggs and young of ground-nesting birds such as skylarks, grey partridge and meadow pipits are vulnerable, as are the nests of the rare wood warbler and nightingale in woodlands.

So there you have it. Page claims, with no evidence, that nests are vulnerable. Drax converts this into “responsible for the loss of”, going way beyond what even Page was claiming.

While other MPs in the debate chose their words carefully and cited scientific evidence, Mr Drax found an old article in the Mail by Robin Page and misquoted it. Apart from the usual “look at Possums in New Zealand” irrelevancies, Drax made no other contribution to the debate.

Sadly, he’s not my MP. Otherwise I might have requested a meeting to discuss this with him. Any readers who are South Dorset constituents can do so. I would be happy to help them prepare for the meeting.

 

 

 

Posted in badgers, Brexit, Nightingales, Richard Drax | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Guest blog by Vicki Hird: Imagine the death of UK farms

As the Government continues to fail to develop any coherent plan for farming after Brexit, Vicki Hird, Sustain Campaign Coordinator and independent consultant (@vicki Hird) writes a guest blog.

Imagine the death of UK farms

photo-for-vicki-piece

 

Is it an exaggeration to predict the death of the family farm in England? A toxic combination of tough farm policies post-brexit and ‘open all borders’ trade deals could conceivably kill off small and medium sized farms. There is no way most of our farms could really compete with US farmers for instance, given the relative sizes and different safety, welfare and environmental standards applied.

Imagine the impact… most of English lowland farmed by a handful of big agribusinesses – the ‘Tesco-ization’ of farming.

And if you think no one could farm the whole of England just consider the largest farm recently sold in Australia – 77,300 sq/km (7,730,000hectares) – was about half the size of England.

Such a loss of farms would accelerate a trend. In England, farm numbers have been in dramatic decline this century as smaller farm businesses struggle to survive in a more globalised market which fails to pay for any sort of decent livelihood. Bigger is better and consolidation has meant the number of farms has almost halved. By contrast in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland specific conditions and support structures limited the losses.

Does this matter? Surely it is a natural restructuring and those smaller, family farms are inefficient. They can’t produce enough food and don’t employ skilled workers anyway, so why lament?

Well no actually. There is no evidence to suggest a smaller farm or a larger farm is better or worse. Recent surveys for The Prince’s Countryside Fund by Exeter University confirmed that you get good and bad small farms and good and bad big farms. But many are in serious jeopardy and once they are gone they are gone forever.

But why should this matter to the majority of us who have no link to farming other than the food we eat, 40 per of which is imported?

The reality is we lose so much when we lose farm diversity. In all regions we need the smaller farm sector within a mix of sizes so that:

  • we have smaller units for new entrants to get a foothold into farming. And we need new younger, innovative, energetic farmers. The ladder up for new players – which a matrix of farm sizes gives – is vital to get new entrepreneurial farmers who are up to the challenges ahead including climate change;
  • rural employment and services can thrive in remoter rural areas. Farming is often the backbone of rural communities – amalgamation of farms can have devastating social as well as economic consequences in rural areas with the loss of farm jobs and few alternatives available. Shops, schools and other services cannot be sustained as people migrate out;
  • communities flourish. The Exeter survey confirmed smaller farms support a greater density of employment and more local farm people means people available for community activities, parish council work, help when there are crises like flooding. That social connectivity will be lost;
  • rural economies prosper. Up and down-stream businesses rely on the range of farm businesses to survive – the multiplier effect. Imagine if 40 smaller farm businesses in a parish all became 1 large corporate unit run from one office selling on the commodity market, using external contractors and sourcing cheap supplies – photocopying even – from outside of the area.
  • Landscape and wildlife corridors are protected. Whilst data is older, there is evidence that smaller farms tend to have smaller fields, greater hedgerow density and more features like broadleaf woodland, and so create greater habitats for wildlife. Field boundaries also reduce soil erosion from wind and water. Smaller farms may be more passive conservationist compared to more active larger farms with more time and money.
  • wildlife can bloom. Smaller businesses often have smaller machinery and less time to ‘tidy up’ thereby providing great habitats and weedy bit for all sorts of wildlife though smaller farms may struggle to manage soil and water management as well as the big players.

This is not to demonise large farms but to explore what would be lost with a large scale reduction in farm diversity – if we ended up only with a few huge farm business, some highly protected high value farmland and hundreds of ‘weekend’ farms. The matrix, or tapestry if you will, in any given area is key. We have lost many smaller and middle sized farms. But we do still have some of that diversity left: held together by a lifeline of subsidies and by farmers willing to work for little income and no holidays. But it is in real danger.

So do we leave the sector to itself to further consolidate into a few giant farm businesses – ‘FarmTesco Ltd’ or ‘MicrosoftFarm Inc’. Given the interest in robotic farming to cover the loss of migrant workers that may well be prophetic. It is a vision restructuring into very tidy, very big farms with mega fields and mega livestock units, with some great conservation work going on in targeted areas and few farming families left. The Archers will be unrecognisable as would the landscape.

Or maybe diversity of farm size is recognised as a good thing. But if we want economically vibrant remaining and new smaller sized farms to exist we need to take action to make sure they can – from decent affordable advice, facilitation and training to long farm business tenancies and a really effective, well structured farm support scheme to replace the European CAP.

Posted in agriculture, Brexit, farm subsidies, guest blogs | Tagged , , , , | 30 Comments

Brexit Bill Day of Reckoning for Labour MPs beckons

screen-shot-2017-01-31-at-17-26-56

When so many things are happening so quickly, it can be difficult to decide what to write about, or even dismiss the idea that anything I write will be worth anyone’s time writing. There is also the small challenge of sifting through all the possible topics and coming up with just one, as opposed to writing something unfocussed, jumbled and incoherent.

But there is something to say, today. Because the Parliamentary Bill that will lead to Article 50 being invoked, in about 6 weeks time, has now been laid before Parliament. And our Parliamentary Democracy is dependent on there being a fully functioning Opposition, to challenge the party in Government, to ensure that there are checks and balances preventing massive mistakes (mistakes that will have ramifications for us, our children, perhaps even their children) from being made. When there is no functioning Opposition, the Government of the day can get away with anything, including things that small parts of the governing party are pushing very hard at, while other elements of that party are hoping against hope that their concerns can be voiced by the Opposition.

We are in one of those situations now.  Brexit means Brexit, has rapidly morphed into Brexit means Adamantine-Brexit – a Brexit so hard that it hurls us out of not just the EU, but the Single  Market, the Customs Union (of which non-EU states such as Turkey are a member) The European Union Court of Justice, The European Atomic Energy Agency EURATOM – what next, the Council of Europe, Europol?

This, at a time when the US has just elected a President who appears to be Russian President Putin’s biggest fan. Putin who has sought repeatedly to undermine the influence of the EU, of NATO. Putin who is implicated in fixing the election for Trump to win. Trump who has already signalled his intention to walk away from the US’ responsibilities for security in NATO countries. Putin who has already ramped up the scale of hostilities in the Ukraine, knowing there will be no pressure from the US. Putin who can confidently look forward to the US unilaterally withdrawing from the sanctions regime imposed following the Ukraine invasion and Crimea annexation.

Is this the best time for us to be leaving the EU? How have these massive geopolitical seismic shifts affected UK voters views on whether we should be within the EU or outside it? We are told repeatedly that Brexit is the Will of the People, but that was then. Things have changed.

Labour MPs, in particular those whose electorates voted for Brexit, are being scared into supporting the Bill for fear of losing their seats in 2020. Is this not utterly craven of them? Should they not be voting for what they believe to be the best outcome for their constituents – all of them. What about all their constituents who had no vote? Should their concerns be ignored? Corbyn imposes a three line whip and threatens to sack any rebels on the front bench. This from the serial rebel Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn who was pro-Brexit from the very beginning. Corbyn who appears to be being held hostage by some hard left extremists, led by Seamus Milne.

Labour MPs are fearful because many represent constituencies that voted for Brexit. But if you take a look at the areas which voted for Brexit and those which voted Remain, things are not quite that black and white. Many constituencies (or rather the Local Authorities in which those constituencies site) only voted for Brexit with marginal majorities. While around 160 Local Authorities voted strongly for Brexit and 100 voted for Remain, 120 voted marginally for Brexit (49/51 to 45/55).

Take the Birmingham City Council area. There are ten MPs whose constituencies lie within Birmingham – 9 of them are Labour, including Brexit leader Gisela Stuart. Yet the Brexit vote in Birmingham was incredibly marginal. 223451 Birmingham voters voted for Remain, while 227251 voted Leave. From a total electorate of 707,000, the majority for Brexit was just 3800 ie 0.5% of the electorate. Demographics alone (deaths of Brexit-voting older voters, enfranchisement of young Remain-voters) will have whittled this majority away in the time since the vote. What of those who voted Leave expecting, quite reasonably, that a soft Brexit was the obvious course of action?

Or how about Lancaster. A council with an electorate of 100567, split into two constituencies – Lancaster and Fleetwood; and Morecambe and Lunesdale. Lancaster and Fleetwood is Labour, Morecambe and Lunesdale Tory. Lancaster voted to leave by a majority of 37309 to 35732, or 1,577 voters. A shade over 1500 voters, from an electorate of over 100,000. If 750 switched sides, Lancaster would now be voting Remain.

This begs the question – are these MPs really just hostages to their voters’ views, on one particular day, in one particular year? Voters that had been bombarded with news (some of it fake) and a relentless diet of propaganda through their TVs, newspapers and, perhaps most significantly, via their Facebook feeds? Do our MPs not have a greater responsibility to use their heads, to consider all the angles. Is this not what they are elected to do – they are not delegates.

I think those MPs who do decide to bow their heads, walk through the Parliamentary lobbies, toe the party line, will find that come the next election, there will be a day of reckoning. It won’t be so much “what did you do in the war daddy” as

“what did you do to stop the mad rush for the Brexit?”

Posted in Brexit, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

NFU proposals for a new farm subsidy system only fit for cloud cuckoo land

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It’s a special anniversary this year – 70 years since the 1947 Farming Act. I will return to this anniversary in more detail later in the year, but today I want to discuss one particular thing.  The 1947 Act was most unusual, possibly unique, because it enshrined in law an obligation on the part of Government to agree a very important and very expensive national policy, with an NGO.

Can you imagine this happening now?

That NGO, as some of you may have already guessed, was none other than the National Farmers Union, the NFU. The Act stipulated that the Ministry of Agriculture would sit down, every February, with representatives from the NFU, and conduct the Annual Farm Price Review. At this review, the price paid to farmers for commodities, such as beef, wheat or potatoes, was thrashed out. Behind closed doors. Not even the Treasury got a look in. Needless to say those at the Min of Ag (many of whom had taken part in the wartime programmes to produce food at any and all cost) were close friends of the NFU reps. I wonder if any minutes of the meetings survive at the National Records Office.

The purpose of this subsidy was to pay farmers the difference between what the market was offering for their produce, and the price that had been set between the Min of Ag and the farmers for that commodity, in that year. This was called Agricultural Price Support. It’s interesting to note that the subsidy was not intended to provide cheap food to the consumer, but to ensure Agricultural Production increased dramatically. Cheap food imports were still encouraged (via low tariffs) and farmers were compensated for their relatively higher production costs by the price support mechanism. These meetings and the cartel they represented continued for decades.

Here’s one story of a Cabinet level discussion on farm prices:

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you can read more about this interesting piece of history in this article.

Fast forward to 2017. Surely, you might think, everything has changed now? In these straitened times, the NFU couldn’t possibly be thinking of reintroducing the notion of price support! Well you would be wrong.

It seems the NFU has been delving back through its long and distinguished history to come up with some new (ahem) proposals for what a farm subsidy system might look like post-Brexit. The policy document I have seen suggests that the NFU wants to propose a support system with an emphasis on “delivering for food, for the nation and for the public.” Note that it does not specifically say “supporting farmers”.

What appears to be the main element of this support system is a scheme of payments to “mitigate volatility”. This is jargon for price support, and there we are taken straight back to 1947. Prices for agricultural products do fluctuate in global markets, according to how much of each thing is produced, and what the demand for that thing is. Prices can also fluctuate wildly, because traders exploit weaknesses in the market system to speculate, in order to make quick profits. The NFU are also considering proposing “coupled” subsidies for market volatility – that is subsidies which are linked to how much of a particular agricultural product is produced by each farm. Coupled subsidies were mostly abandoned under the Common Agricultural Policy in 2005, because of their damaging impact on the environment and their tendency to encourage over production (remember the wine lakes and butter mountains?).

In another throw back to days of yore, the NFU is also proposing a system of capital grants to improve productivity. Another piece of ancient history – the 1947 Act introduced capital grants for farmers to increase their productivity by draining wetlands, ripping out ancient woods and hedgerows, and ploughing wildflower meadows and heathlands.

But I don’t want to suggest that the NFU has only returned to the golden days of the Annual Farm Price Review. There are some indications that the NFU recognise that the public expects them, as custodians of 3/4 of England’s land, to do other things. So they are proposing a “farmed environment scheme”. While this is touted as a replacement for the “greening” payments under the current CAP system, it’s really a return to the Entry Level Scheme (ELS). ELS was dreamt up by the NFU and their friends in Defra (and a few conservation NGOs) as away of channeling subsidies to farmers in such a way that it gave the impression that they were helping farmland wildlife and heritage features. The evidence from monitoring showed, as many of us said at the time, that at best ELS was merely putting a hold on further environmental damage, and in the main it did nothing for wildlife or other features.

Not surprisingly ELS was abandoned as an approach to Agri-Environment in the 2013 reforms, much to the annoyance of farmers who had been happy to take the £30 a hectare a year, for doing much as they had been doing before.

There is also a proposal for subsidy for the euphemistically titled “animal and plant health measures”. I think we can all guess what this means  – that part of a farm subsidy policy will pay to kill more badgers.

The most interesting proposal coming from the NFU is for a “selective scheme for environmental enhancement in designated areas.” This sounds promising, until you read on to discover that the NFU have cheerfully combined National Park AONB and SSSI all together in one lump of  “designated area.” As someone who has watched the Dorset AONB disappear under Maize for biogas over the past few years, while fighting to protect one particular area (Rampisham Down) which is an SSSI, it’s difficult to understand how anyone could be so ignorant as to lump the two together, as if they needed the same approach.

So, in a nutshell, there are the NFU’s proposals. No mention of public goods for public money, nothing about helping alleviate downstream flooding, no mention of Carbon, let alone Organic. When you add in comments from the NFU at last week’s farming conference that they were hoping for a 20 year transition period out of the CAP, and you can see that they are clearly living in NFU la la land.

 

For an alternative take on the future of farm subsidies, read the People Need Nature report “A Pebble in the Pond: opportunities for farming, food and nature.”

 

 

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Posted in agriculture, Brexit, farm subsidies, NFU | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

A Pebble in the Pond: People Need Nature report on opportunities for farming, food & nature after Brexit.

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I’m delighted to be able to tell you about this new report which is published today. It’s the first People Need Nature policy report – A Pebble in the Pond: Opportunities for farming, food and nature after Brexit. You can download it here.

Here’s the summary:

As England prepares to leave the EU we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the way we support England’s land managers.  This report shows how leaving the EU will enable us to channel money from the public purse to land managers in such a way that they can both produce food, help nature and provide all the other benefits society needs.

The last forty years of farm subsidies from Europe via the Common Agricultural Policy has contributed to a dramatic decline in nature on farmland – land that covers three quarters of England. The vote to leave the EU means we have to create a new system to support farmers to produce the food we all need.

This is an opportunity that cannot be ignored.  If England grasps this opportunity, the UK’s departure from the EU will yield benefits for nature and society that will be felt by generations to come.

  • The damaging subsidies that existed within the EU can be altered in order to protect and restore our countryside rather than damage it.  Nature, and the people of England will benefit from these changes.
  • Farmers are paid too little for the food they produce and in some cases are paid less than the cost of production. Supermarkets and others in the supply chain take most of the profit, leaving the farmers with the risks. This is an opportunity to tackle that injustice.
  • Subsidies currently paid to highly profitable farmers can be redirected to support small-scale sustainable farming, which benefits nature.
  • Landowners who provide benefits to society such as carbon storage or flood alleviation can be supported.
  • The UK’s unique Heritage Sites – from natural heritage, to historic buildings, to archaeological sites – can be protected for the future.
  • Far more action is needed to stop damage to nature from farming. Where an outright ban is not needed, a polluter pays principle can be widely adopted. Urgent action can be taken as a result of leaving the EU, to reduce the hazards of pesticides, to benefit nature, improve human health and produce healthier food.
  • Greater transparency in the way our countryside is managed and our lands are farmed can result from the UK leaving the EU, benefitting British farmers, society, our nature and environment.
  • A new relationship between people and food can be developed. Educating children about where food comes from and how it is produced, is the first step to understanding the true cost and value of food.

The report explores the relationship between farmland, food, people and nature; and identifies ways in which that relationship can be strengthened.

We need to have an open public debate about how the public supports farmers and landowners to provide food and help nature on farmland.

This really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to create a much better support system.

Please to download and read it, and ask others to do the same.

 

Posted in Brexit, Common Agricultural Policy, farm subsidies | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Rampisham Down: We Won!

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Rampisham Down radio mast © Miles King

 

 

 

 

 

 

Regular readers will recall the story of Rampisham Down and the plan to build a solar farm on a nationally important grassland Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). I have written about this case many times over the past few years, and you can read the back story in those blog posts; the story starts 3 years ago here.  Just search on Rampisham to find all the other ones. The story has plenty of plot twists, bizarre and slightly unbelievable characters, and some unsung heroes.

I’m delighted to say, after all this time, We Won!

Yes West Dorset District Council quietly slipped out the news before Christmas, that they have given planning permission to a smaller solar farm across the road from the proposed Rampisham Down SSSI site. As part of the permission, the developers, British Solar Renewables, have agreed to withdraw their plans for the SSSI, remove all the infrastructure they have illegally installed, and agreed a management plan with Natural England, to manage the grassland sympathetically. Wisely, the decision was delegated to the Senior Planning Officer. This avoided the Planning Committee getting involved again, after their epic bungling the first time round.

This is a great victory for conservation and something that we can celebrate at the end of this year which has been bad news on so many other fronts. All those people (over 10,000 in the end), who signed the Dorset Wildlife Trust petition to push for the original daft planning permission to be called in for a Public Inquiry, can feel that they made a difference to the outcome of this case. Most credit goes to Natural England for notifying the site in the first place (it would not have happened had it come up now) and for defending the site against immense pressure.

Happy New Year!

 

 

Posted in grasslands, Rampisham Down, Solar Farms | Tagged , , , | 18 Comments