Why Taxpayers need a “housemate agreement with Farmers: Guest Blog by Vicki Hird.

US Feedlot Beef production © Socially Responsible Agriculture Project










The dreaded ‘red tape’ and interference in farm decisions under the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is why many UK farmers voted ‘leave’. But I aim to justify the uncomfortable but necessary complexity we will need to cope with after Brexit when we have a new contract or agreement between farmers and the taxpayer.  

It is the elephant in the room. Farmers, NGOs and even new DEFRA head Michael Gove MP is talking up a new farm support system after Brexit where we deliver public money for public goods, productivity, rural resilience and so on. Sustain has published its ideas as have many NGOs. Yet we all keep relatively silent on the hard reality that any such scheme will need to have some pretty great rules, paperwork and enforcement.

We’ll need what could be described as a rather detailed ‘housemate agreement’ so we can live together relatively happily on these crowded isles with all the competing demands being agreed together. Farmers in other countries aren’t always subject to the type of housemate agreement the public wants to see here – they are free to trash their room, let the fridge turn into a biohazard zone, and drive their motorbike into the kitchen.

But can we really have what we are asking for – menus of options, light or dark green payment schemes, broad and shallow, local new markets for natural services and more flexibility and so on, all underpinned by strong but fair regulations – without a more intricate, complex agreement?

Not really. We live squished together on this tiny island with little room to swing a sheep. This is rather unlike, say, the US where space and distance mean few care or check enough and their vast national parks remain (mostly) pristine to be visited and loved. Here we need more care to keep everything humming relatively smoothly; or at least with as little conflict, harm and a decent level of oversight.

We need to find ways to live together with more complicated rules than if we were living far apart. This ‘housemate agreement’ between farmers and the rest of us needs to be tested, flexible, under review and proportionate. Leaving the lid off the bins is only a minor infraction; poisoning the water supply not so much. Treating livestock in a way deemed cruel or unsafe would be a red line in the agreement; and so on…

We need to embrace this reality rather than be scared of it and not let the ease with which schemes will be administered, controlled and verified be the main criteria for choice of scheme.

Certain farm systems like organic have been through the process of developing a comprehensive ‘contract’ and they’ve come out the other side of 50 years of development with a system based approach that is rather handy – a prescription for the whole farm with known results for soils, nature, welfare and so on. It does not lack complexity but organic farmers agree to it because they have a whole-farm, knowledge-based system and gain both from the process and in the market place.

I’ve yet to find anyone keen on saying we want more red tape and most people in the farm policy world say the CAP was too costly, ineffective and too complex. I’ve said that myself many times. The recent EU introduction of the three crop rule – which the ex DEFRA Secretary of State said they’d drop – was interference too far for most farmers here and for some, may have triggered a leave vote. The rule was to diversify cropping to protect over-used EU soils and stop monocultures taking root in Europe which reduce biodiversity, and increase fertiliser use. It was an admirable aim for systemic shifts yet maybe poorly designed. One study suggests the overall impacts, good and bad, are small. We can do better.

But we are just going to have to be realistic. The three crop rule was too simple in design and probably did not fit the farm and landscape scale needed. And taxpayer support will not come without strings- they will want to see results. An agreement will give farmers some decent financial reward in return for some specific actions (for instance to enhance farm biodiversity) plus some form filling and inspections.

As a result, ideally, farmers should get a decent living via the market (and we need better rules there via extending the Grocery Code Adjudicator and other policies) and via taxpayer support for what the market won’t pay. The time taken to do form filling and inspections could be calculated and covered in the agreement. Skills development, mentoring, training and advice also need to be on tap and financed. Let’s get this right. We have time in a transition period, to test and pilot; before the new scheme is due to go live in 2022.

Yes farmers don’t like form-filling, red tape etc. That’s understandable. I also understand that a certain number run unsuccessful businesses – failing on so many counts they maybe should leave farming after Brexit. Their holdings may be swallowed up by another farm, or far better still, available for new entrants or family members better able to deal with new era of markets and a new agreement with taxpayers. If that is a quarter of UK farmers that’s, say 54, 000 businesses that’s a fair few new entrants there…. and the 163,000 current farmers needing to be ready to get into new agreement with the taxpayer, with new, better environmental and health priorities, if they want to.

Finally it is worth remarking that a free trade deal with US is hugely problematic for farming and food. We need that housemate agreement but as noted many farmers overseas will have no such restrictions and can pollute, overstock and spray rather how they want. To stretch the housemate analogy, they don’t even have to empty the bins every other Friday.

Some of our animal welfare and food standards have been long fought for and should not be compromised in order to make a deal with US. Some farmers here may be lucky or big enough to compete and gain a new or bigger market via new trade agreements and may decide they don’t need taxpayer support but they will still need to adhere to baseline legal standards. How much better to embrace the new era and get a positive, forward thinking, ideally multi-annual agreement with the taxpayer. This will help to protect this crowded island, its population and its precious soils, landscapes and wildlife.

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

Posted in agriculture, Brexit, guest blogs, Vicki Hird | Tagged , , , , | 13 Comments

Meadows Sounds for #NationalMeadowsDay

The sound of the Corncrake has disappeared from the English countryside as the hay meadows it depended on have gone.

People Need Nature is releasing its “Meadow Sounds” soundscape today on National Meadows Day.

Charity People Need Nature celebrates National Meadow Day (1st July 2017) by releasing a specially created soundscape evoking the lost Wildflower Meadows of England.

97% of all wildflower hay meadows in England have been lost since 1945. Just a few thousand hectares remain.


People Need Nature Trustee Keith Datchler had the idea for a meadow soundscape at the launch of the Queen’s (Coronation) Meadow in Green Park, London, in 2016.

“We were standing next to Hyde Park Corner, with all the traffic noise, and I just thought wouldn’t it be fantastic if people visiting the Coronation Meadow could escape from the London hubbub for a few minutes and enjoy the sounds of a wildflower meadow.”


People Need Nature worked with composer Matt Shaw to develop the Meadow Soundscape. Simon Emmerson of Afro Celt Sound System produced the mix, with Charlie Moores from Lush Radio providing voice-over. Mark Constantine and Magnus Robb of The Sound Approach recorded the bird samples used in the Soundscape. The Soundscape was generously sponsored by Agrifactors (Southern) Limited.


Miles King, Chief Executive of People Need Nature said:

“Music has always been inspired by the sounds of nature. There are very few wildflower meadows now left in England. By listening to our Meadow Soundscape, anyone can enjoy the sounds of nature in a wildflower meadow wherever they are.”


The Meadow Soundscape can be downloaded from the People Need Nature website

Corncrake photo via Wikimedia Commons. By Richard Wesley – http://www.flickr.com/photos/balvicar/5480680608/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17725668

Posted in meadows, People Need Nature, sensory value of nature | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Brexit one year on: Instability Rules.


A year ago today I wrote this piece about Turkeys having voted for Christmas.

It doesn’t seem a year ago though – more like a decade. The Tory party project to shrink the state, shrink the economy and tear itself apart in the process continues unabated.

Cameron and Osborne, the architects of austerity (which apparently isn’t needed any more) have gone – one to write his memoirs in a Shepherd’s Hut, the other pretending to be a newspaper Editor, but really just sharpening tools (including that rictus smile) to inflict daily torture on their successor “leader” Theresa May.

May has lurched from crisis to crisis, showing her inability to make the right decision on almost everything. The election, another self-inflicted wound on the body Tory.

Corbyn has been awful as a parliamentary leader of the Labour party, utterly failing to provide effective opposition to this most useless of Tory Governments. But the election has suddenly transformed him into a hero. Why? Because, compared to May he comes across as human, warm and empathetic, listening to people’s concerns.

And Trump. I’m just leaving that there.

But also it’s been heartening to see Europe reject far-right populism where it has had the choice; in the Netherlands and France. And Merkel is now de facto leader of the free world. Where Europe has not had the choice, in Poland and Hungary for example, the gradual slide into authoritarianism continues.

Back in the UK, there’s been a real flowering of propaganda, on both sides. While it was clear a year ago that the Leave Campaign had been merrily lying through its teeth, what we did not know was the extent to which people had been manipulated by the targeted use of social media, nor the connections to the Trump campaign, and, indirectly, to Russia. If you want to find out more about these, I direct you to the work of Carole Cadwalladr in the Guardian and James Patrick at byline. Both have been doing fantastic work revealing the very real links between the Leave campaigns, Trump, the neolibertarian right (both here and in the US), UKIP; and Putin’s regime.

And while the Tories got away with widespread gerrymandering in the 2015 election (though one case has yet to proceed through the courts), they were not able to apply those mechanisms (bussing in activists but failing to declare their costs as local) again in 2017 – and this will definitely have diminished their vote.

Labour on the other hand learnt many lessons from the 2015 failure and executed a highly effective social media campaign targeted especially at getting young adults to vote. Knowing that most people under 40 vote for the left, and that the turnout had been reduced, partly thanks to disenfranchisement, Labour and other groups such as the unaffiliated Rize Up, were able to increase the number of voters under 25 by over 1.5 million. Compare this to the rather pathetic negative social media campaign the Tories ran against Corbyn, and the constant attacks on him in the press. That the social media campaign succeeded where the traditional press almost failed, is perhaps a signal of things having changed already in the world of political campaigning.

After all this, we are left in a state of real instability. The Government feels like it has no mandate to govern the people. The very reason May called the election,  to give her a strong mandate to negotiate with the EU, has been turned on its head. Having lost her majority in Parliament, she has lost her credibility to lead negotiations with the EU. We know, she knows, her cabinet knows, and the EU knows that. For all the shrill complaints from the pro-Brexit right, the EU don’t need to do anything, let alone start bullying the UK. They can sit back and watch concession after concession. On the very first day of the talks, David Davis made a massive concession about the timetable, which was supposed to be a “red line.”In truth now there are no red lines. Gone is the mantra of “no deal is better than a bad deal”.

The hard right Brextremists, both in the Tory party and in the wider world (Farage, Arron Banks etc) are now seriously worried that hard Brexit will dissolve like those old EU butter mountains on a hot Brussels day. Watch as they ramp up their threats – will Farage call people out on the streets? Watch the hard right Brexit press – led by the Express and the Mail, sharpen their attacks on any politician they regard as backsliding. There’ll be more accusations of “enemy of the people” and “crush the saboteurs”. While they will be licking their wounds over the election for a long time, it won’t take them long to find their voice (and a scapegoat) again.

Will May survive long as Tory leader and PM? That rather depends on whether anyone wants to step into her shoes. Most would sensibly decide that the next couple of years are going to be calamitous for whoever is in power, and resist the temptation for the sake of their own political careers if nothing else. Only one person in the current followers pack has the desire, the obsessive need for leadership – an obsession that over-rides all other factors – yes of course, Boris Johnson.

As for Labour – it remains to be seen whether Corbyn can change into a full-blown Leader of the Opposition, one who can organise his troops and mount an effective campaign to undermine, and perhaps fatally weaken the Tory Government. I would like to think he can. The sight of him and Labour MPs separating apart again after their relative unity during the election campaign would be unbearable, given the importance of the work they have to do, preventing further cuts, deregulation and the shrinking of the state; as well as ensuring Brexit is as soft as it can be. But anyone who thinks Labour will stop Brexit needs to forget that. Corbyn was always in favour of Brexit, from a left-wing perspective, Lexit if you will.

Will there be another election this year? Possibly, but I would guess (and it is just a wild guess) probably not. There may well be a new PM by the end of the year, especially if the Brexit negotiations go badly, or if the DUP start playing up.

Is anyone ready for Boris Johnson as Prime Minister?

Posted in 2017 general election, Brexit | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The First New Agriculture Act in 70 years creates an opportunity for farming, food and nature

The UK is to have its first new major Agriculture Act since 1947. There have been minor Agriculture Acts which made amendments to the 47 Act (eg in 1970) and in 1986, but by then agriculture was governed by rules laid down by the European Union (or EC and EEC as it was before it became the EU.)

The Queen’s Speech earlier today announced that the proposed Long Parliament (which will stretch to nearly two years instead of the usual one year) will include Government proposals for a new Agriculture Act.

There is fairly scant detail on how the Government intends to change agriculture after we leave the Common Agricultural Policy in 2019. Although May’s Manifesto mostly lies in tatters, there are some familiar lines in the wording that the Government has released:

In line with the manifesto, the Bill will ensure that after we leave the EU we have an effective system in place to support UK farmers and protect our natural environment

The Bill will:

•provide stability to farmers as we leave the EU;

•protect our precious natural environment for future generations;

•deliver on the manifesto commitment to “provide stability for farmers as we exit the EU.

The background briefing goes on:

The purpose of the Bill is to:

•Provide stability to farmers as we leave the EU.

•Support our farmers to compete domestically and on the global market, allowing us to grow more, sell more and export more great British food.

The main benefits of the Bill would be:

•To support a thriving and self-reliant farming sector that is more competitive,

productive and profitable.

•To protect our precious natural environment for future generations.

•To deliver on the manifesto commitment to “provide stability for farmers as we exit the EU” (p. 25-26).

The main elements of the Bill are:

Measures to ensure that after we leave the EU, and therefore the Common Agricultural Policy, we have an effective system in place to support UK farmers and protect our natural environment.

There are a couple of things to note: while the Tory manifesto webpage may have been recently deleted, I still have a copy. As I described before, the manifesto went into a bit of detail about what a new agriculture policy might look like. This included “a new agri-environment scheme” but no commitment to direct subsidies.

Former senior Cameron aide and Cabinet Office big thinker Sir Oliver Letwin (my local MP) confirmed that this approach was being developed, in an interview with our local paper the Dorset Echo, during the election. Letwin said

“we must maintain cash payments to our farms, but in the form (post-Brexit) of new, home-grown countryside stewardship schemes to protect our landscape without the massive burden of bureaucracy imposed by the CAP.”

Earlier this year People Need Nature published “A Pebble in the Pond: opportunities for food, farming and nature after Brexit.”

I wrote this (and pulled together contributions from experts in their fields) in order to lay out a positive vision for agriculture in England, after the many frustrating years of watching the CAP reform at a pace a glacier would find dawdling.

I could not possibly have imagined that just 6 months later we would be in a position where a new Agriculture Bill is going to pass through a Hung Parliament. There will never be (in my lifetime) a better opportunity to create a new way of supporting farming that works with nature, that gets us away from this obsession with yield at any cost, that pushes the environmental and social costs of unsustainable food production onto the consumer, onto society and onto nature.

While so much about Brexit looks like it is going to be a disaster, this could provide one large silver lining.


Posted in agriculture, Brexit, Common Agricultural Policy, Oliver Letwin, People Need Nature, queens speech 2017 | Tagged , , | 13 Comments

Michael Gove and the American Neoconservatives

Last week I wrote about Michael Gove’s surprise arrival as Secretary of State for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs. There is so much more to write about this, but time is limited and I will not be able to cover everything in one piece.

Gove obviously has achieved notoriety amongst the Education establishment, by driving through unpopular reforms to the National Curriculum and to the testing regime. As these reforms have only recently been implemented, the benefits, or damage they cause will only become clear in the years to come.

As a parent with children in the education system I will see personally what Gove (and his comic-book villain sidekick, Dominic Cummings) has done for the future of my family, aside from his (and Cummings’) leading role in Brexit.

His subsequent stint at the Ministry of Justice was too short for him to have achieved anything, either way. Perhaps the same will be true at Defra. This Government is so inherently unstable that the likelihood of him staying at Nobel House for any length of time seems very small. If May falls (as seems increasingly likely later this year) Gove will have the opportunity for a promotion – or even another stab at the leadership. Depending on who gets in (eg a Remainer), he may also be consigned to the back benches again.

While all these hypotheticals mill around, there are some things in his background which are worth bringing to your attention.

Michael Gove is an unashamed ideologue. Unusually among the upper echelons of the Tory party he is a Neo Conservative or Neocon. By Neocon I mean someone who believes that not only should the State be shrunk as far as possible, Regulations should be removed to allow the free market to operate, but also that (American) military power should be used to impose this ideology elsewhere in the world. Notable Neocons of the past included Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior and Junior, Margaret Thatcher and arguably Tony Blair.

These days the other main senior Tory who espouses this doctrine is the disgraced former Defence Secretary, Liam Fox. It is therefore no surprise that Gove was on the council of Atlantic Bridge,  a fake charity created by Fox to foster relations between British and American Neocons. Atlantic Bridge was closed down by the Charity Commission after the revelations of Werrittygate.

Gove has been pushing the Neocon ideology for many years – here he is 2 days after 9/11, as a journalist for the Times, pushing for Iraq to be invaded. There never was a link between Saddam’s secular dictatorship and 9/11 – a recent lawsuit in the US seeks to show categorically that the attack was carried out by terrorists funded (indirectly) by Saudi Arabia.

Gove has maintained his links with the American Neo-Conservative Right, via the extremely influential thinktank the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). The AEI was established by Richard Nixon’s vice president Gerald Ford. Key individuals associated with the AEI include Charles Murray, notoriously, author of The Bell Curve which sought to show causation between race and IQ. Gove has been in thrall of AEI-fostered thinking on Education; the AEI promotes Charter Schools (= Free Schools in the UK) and the idea of education vouchers, which parents can spend on state or private schools.  Thankfully education vouchers have, so far, not been introduced here.

One of the main funders of the AEI is the Devos foundation, Betsy Devos being the heiress to the Devos fortune, which was created from the Amway direct marketing scheme. Whether  Amway is a pyramid selling scam or a legal multi-level marketing scheme is not for me to say. You’ll have to decide for yourself there’s plenty of evidence.  What is clear is that the Devos dynasty fund a lot of American Evangelical Christian Right movements and Devos is now Trump’s Education Secretary.

The AEI is decidedly lukewarm when it comes to Climate Change – and regularly hosts blogs attacking Climate Change science, or action. The AEI is also strongly pro-deregulation and pro shrinking the state.

If you think Gove is only marginally associated with the AEI think again. He spoke at the exclusive AEI global forum (held on a private island) in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2017. He was on the guest list for 2016, but was replaced at the last minute by Sajid Javid.  The AEI Global Forum is pretty secretive but there is some detail available publicly as to who attends (all the big US business owners) and who speaks. This form for a US Republican Politician attending in 2012 for a “discussion on tea party” (that’s the Tea Party) includes details about topics discussed and attendees. Gove spoke at this event, alongside David Davis, Liam Fox and Sajid Javid.

Agenda for AEI World Forum 2012










Here is the agenda for the 2016 AEI World Forum. I guess Gove was too busy with the Brexit campaign to go. You get the idea, though.

Gove is no stranger to UK thinktanks either, having been the first chair of the Board for neoliberal thinktank Policy Exchange. Gove was chair at Policy Exchange for four years. It’s worth noting that Natural England chair Andrew Sells was Policy Exchange treasurer, though it would not appear that his and Gove’s time overlapped. Nevertheless they will no doubt know each other as senior movers and shakers within the Tory party and associated networks. Sells, for example, as well as establishing Linden Homes (which by coincidence builds houses in Gove’s constituency of Surrey Heath) was also Managing Director of Sovereign Capital for 10 years. Sovereign Capital was set up by two Tory party donors, and won lucrative contracts from the Coalition Government. One of the founders of Sovereign Capital, John Nash, was appointed to the Department for Education Board in 2010. Appointed by Michael Gove.

What does all this suggest about Gove and his time at Defra?

We know Gove is ideologically wedded to a deregulatory, small-state approach. So we can expect him to promote a reduction in regulatory protection for nature and the wider environment. Gove has already made his views known about the Habitat Regulations, as they affect housing. We can assume Gove will be keen to drop as many regulations emanating from Brussels as possible, during the passage of the Great Repeal Bill.

On future agriculture policy, if he has any influence over the future direction of agriculture policy, it is likely to be closer to Owen Paterson’s view and the New Zealand model, of no or very little subsidy coupled with very little regulation. Gove’s friend from Atlantic Bridge days Liam Fox, for example, is also very keen on the New Zealand model. And, although Gove has now (for the moment) retracted his claims that Brexit will bring food prices down (thanks to the Brexit devaluation of the pound), he is still keen on lowering tariff barriers to food imports.

And this is partly the problem with Gove and trying to work out what he will do. He appears to say whatever he thinks his audience wants him to say. If he’s talking to farmers, he’ll promise them subsidies and protection against cheap food imports. If he’s talking to “green Tories” he’ll tell them he’s a shy green and that Conservatism is Conservation. If he’s talking about nature in schools he’ll say he wants to put it at the heart of the curriculum. And if he invites himself to meet the RSPB (at one days’ notice?) he assures them he is in “listen and learn” mode.  One might even consider Gove to be a pure political opportunist with no fixed ideology.

But probe a little more deeply beyond this veneer and we can see that Gove does have a strong ideology – and it is being driven by his mentors on the other side of the Atlantic.

Hopefully he will not be around at Defra long enough to do any real long term damage.












Posted in Andrew Sells, Defra, deregulation, farm subsidies, Michael Gove, neoconservatism, neoliberalism, Policy Exchange, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

General Election Reshuffle sends Gove to Defra.


I was away in Germany last week looking at how they are restoring Floodplain Meadows in the Region of Hessen. More on that anon.

First though, a few thoughts on the election and in particular the rehabilitation of Michael Gove, who has become our new Secretary of State for the Environment and Farming.

I defy anyone to claim they predicted the election would turn out as it has. True, amongst the noise of the election polls, some put the two parties very close together – but they weren’t predictions. It seems (it’s early days with much poring over the results to be done) that a high turnout among young voters worked in Labour’s favour, though the remarkable numbers that voted Labour were not represented in much larger numbers of Labour MPs because of our voting system. Equally, the other parties were squeezed (LibDems and Greens) or the electorate rightly concluded were now irrelevant (UKIP) and these votes were split between Labour and the Tories, pushing both Labour and Tory vote up as well. We really are in a two party system again.

That the Tories are now reliant on the late Reverend Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) 10 MPs shows the desperate state they are in. The Party and especially Theresa May, are trying to cling on to power by any means and it’s an unedifying prospect.

Labour, on the other hand, are representing themselves as the winners in this election, even though they didn’t actually win. Jeremy Corbyn is now talking about putting forward an alternative Queen’s Speech next week which will lay out his demands – and it looks like he believes he can get quite a bit of the Lexit Agenda, which we know he supported all along.

Lexit is the left wing version of Brexit, which seeks to reduce the power of Corporate Lobbying which infects so much of what the EU does. The Lexit idea is to take back control of things like workers rights and environmental protections from the EU and make them stronger domestically than they were before. I don’t get a strong feeling that Labour have worked out exactly where they stand on things like the single market and customs union though.

With her majority destroyed in an act of political self-harm that is on a par with Cameron’s decision to have the EU Referendum in the hope of cauterising the festering wound in the body of the Conservative Party that is the EU membership, May was left with no options to push through the reshuffle she wanted. And now she has lost her two eminences grises, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, she is, as George Osborne said yesterday, a “dead woman walking”.  How he relished those words.

At least she was able to placate the judiciary by sacking the useless Liz Truss. And while she will no doubt have wanted to also rid herself of Andrea Leadsom, her opponent in the leadership contest (doesn’t that seem aeons ago?) last year, she knew she didn’t have the power, nor did she want Leadsom sitting on the back benches plotting a coup.

So Leadsom was moved sideways to Leader of the Commons – actually this, like Defra is a bit of a poisoned chalice, as it will be a key role in trying to keep the Real Coalition of Chaos (RCC) from falling apart. The RCC comprises not only the swivel-eyed homophobes, misogynists and climate change deniers at the DUP, but the various factions within the Conservative Party which already exist, and no doubt new ones which will appear. There are the new Scottish Tories, led by Ruth Davidson – who has already made clear she is unhappy about the DUP’s Jurassic views on LGBT rights. There are the Remoaners who are keeping quiet but are quite a sizeable group who want Soft Brexit at most. There are the hardline Brextremists, led by people like Steve Baker. It will be interested to see what views on Brexit exist within the new intake of Tory MPs as well.

And then we have Michael Gove.

Gove, who did so much damage while at the Department for Education, with his Greemer Wormtongue side-kick Dominic Cummings, who went on to play a key role in the Vote Leave Brexit campaign.

Gove who famously said

“I think people in this country, have had enough of experts.” 

Gove, who believes that we should open our markets to buy cheap meat produced with GMO feed, from South America.



Michael Gove, who ridiculed the EU Nature Directives:

“I am very, very keen – I may be odd in this respect as Conservative MP – on having more homes built in my constituency. It’s a social and economic good. But homes built in my constituency are governed by the Habitats Directive,” he said.

“The Habitats Directive holds that if you build a home within five kilometres of a particular type of terrain, heathland, then you have to allocate, at the same time, something called suitable alternative natural green space to offset the environmental impact.”

He derided the rationale for such rules and said that the directive “massively increases the cost and the regulatory burden for housing development”.

“As a result my constituents, and perhaps your children find homes more expensive and mobility in this country impeded,” he added.

As I said last February (2016) Gove thinks these rules are absurd.



Andrea Leadsom had already stated that about a third of EU environmental laws would be modified or repealed, though she didnt indicate which ones were for the chop. Gove has already shown his hand as far as the Nature Directives are concerned. If you live near a heathland, expect many more houses to be built if this Government remains in power for any length of time.

One other thought – in Gove’s Register of Interests, I see he was supported in his abortive attempt to win the Tory Leadership Contest by none other than Theo Agnew, the brother of Chicken Farmer, UKIP Agriculture Spokesman and Climate Change denier Stuart Agnew.  Yes, the one who claimed that action on climate change would suck Carbon Dioxide out of the air, preventing plants from growing.

Let’s hope Gove doesn’t seek “expert” advice from the Agnew family.



Photo by Policy Exchange via Wikimedia Commons – https://www.flickr.com/photos/policyexchange/9676612737/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38010730

Posted in Defra, Stuart Agnew, Tory Party | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Recycle and Re-use: Andrea Leadsom has nothing new to say about the Environment, Food or Farming.

Secretary of State for the Environment Andrea Leadsom, like so many of her Cabinet colleagues, has been missing from this General Election campaign. It’s all been about the PM as President, President May.

Leadsom did surface briefly on Monday to write a piece for Conservative Home website. You can read it there, but you don’t have to, because I have prepared it for your consumption, using some special ingredients.

The reason for this is because, as I read the piece, it all sounded very familiar. So I had a look at the 2017 Conservative Manifesto, and a recent Government Response to a House of Lords Brexit Inquiry into the Environment and Climate Change – and a few other places.

What I found was that almost the entire piece was cobbled together (verbatim) from previous material. Some of it goes back to the 2015 manifesto, some of it even further.

There were a few new things  – most notably that the commitment to ban the sale of Ivory less than 75 years old  – which had disappeared from the Manifesto, reappeared yesterday. This is much weaker than previous commitments on the ban of Ivory sales – so it’s a mystery why it disappeared altogether, but has now become a commitment again. Definitely something of a u-turn here.

There was also a rather odd claim that farm productivity was higher than ever – figures released today confirmed that farm productivity was down  in 2016, compared to 2015. And there was a general statement that more could be done on a wide number of issues including flood resilience, disease (all disease or is this a veiled reference to Bovine TB which doesnt get a mention anywhere here or in the manifesto?).

Also mentioned only in passing was environmental stewardship, which is interesting considering how much detail there is on this in the Manifesto. It may indicate how much or little this topic interests Leadsom. That she did mention microbeads, which are not mentioned anywhere in the manifesto, may also indicate that she feels proud to have made a difference on this subject.

Also notable by their absence were any reference to either the 25 Year plan for Farming (which seems to have died a death) and the 25 Year plan for Nature, which is in draft. And no mention of the vote to repeal the ban on Fox Hunting – which you would imagine would play well with Conhome reader (and something Leadsom supports).

Here’s the piece, and in italics are the same phrases or similar, which I have found elsewhere.


Brexit can let us give British agriculture a better deal

Britain’s future prosperity, our place in the world and our economic security will all be defined by our departure from the European Union.

Brexit will define us: our place in the world, our economic security and our future prosperity[1].

As Theresa May has said, Brexit is an opportunity to emerge from a period of great national change stronger and more prosperous than ever before.

I believe our United Kingdom can emerge from this period of great national change stronger and more prosperous than ever before[2].

Leaving the EU also presents huge opportunities for the environment, our food and farming industries, and rural communities.

We have huge ambitions for our farming industry[3]

Leaving the EU is a major opportunity for UK agriculture and fisheries[4]

Our priorities are simple: to grow more, sell more and export more Great British food, and to be the first generation to leave our environment in a better state than we inherited it.

we are determined to grow more, sell more and export more great British food[5].

We pledge to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it.[6]

This country already has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world and we will build on that.

We will continue to take action to improve animal welfare.[7]

We have pledged to make CCTV in slaughterhouses mandatory, bring in new regulations for pet breeders, and we will control the export of live animals for slaughter.

We will implement our proposed reforms on pet sales and licensing and will make CCTV recording in slaughterhouses mandatory. As we leave the European Union, we can take early steps to control the export of live farm animals for slaughter.[8]

Our food and farming businesses employ one in eight workers across the whole of the United Kingdom and generates over £100 billion a year for the economy.

Food and farming contributes £100 billion a year to our economy and employs 1 in 8 people[9].

Farm productivity is higher than ever before. However, there is still much more we can do to support innovation in farm techniques, skills development, greater resilience to disease and floods, as well as environmental stewardship and sustainability.

Last summer, we moved swiftly to provide farmers with continuity and certainty on EU agricultural funding. It means that if elected on June 8, Theresa May’s Conservatives will commit to the same spending on farming and food production over the next Parliament as is now provided by the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy.

So we will continue to commit the same cash total in funds for farm support until the end of the parliament.[10]

For the UK’s fishing communities Brexit also brings opportunities. After leaving the EU, Britain will be able to control our fishing waters – and the resources in them – out to 200 nautical miles.

When we leave the European Union and its Common Fisheries Policy, we will be fully responsible for the access and management of the waters where we have historically exercised sovereign control[11].

In recent months we have made good progress on some of our key environmental priorities – a ban on microbeads and working to complete a ‘blue belt’ of protection around our overseas territories and marine conservation zones around the United Kingdom.

We will now go even further, creating a Blue Belt around the UK’s 14 Overseas Territories, subject to local support and environmental need[12]

We will work with our Overseas Territory governments to create a Blue Belt of marine protection in their precious waters[13]

We will continue our work to conserve the marine environment off the coast of the United Kingdom.[14]

In addition we have launched the first ever litter strategy for England. This is designed to not only educate people, but also to introduce stronger enforcement against littering.

We will do more to reduce litter, including by supporting comprehensive rubbish collection and recycling, supporting better packaging, taking new powers to force councils to remove roadside litter and prosecuting offenders[15].

We have also committed to plant 11 million trees – and a further one million just in our towns and cities.

We will ensure that our public forests and woodland are kept in trust for the nation and plant another 11 million trees[16]

We are funding natural flood management projects to better protect communities, and we are introducing greater safeguards for our ancient woodland.

We will deliver on our commitment to improve natural flood management[17]

and provide stronger protections for our ancient woodland[18].

As we translate the body of European law into our domestic regulations, it means that the rules around the environment, food and farming will be set in the UK.

Over time, that means we will be able to prioritise scrapping unnecessary burdens on farmers[19] and ensure that our environment is enhanced by laws that focus on the needs of the UK, rather than 28 EU member countries.

protections given to consumers and the environment by EU law will continue to be available in UK law at the point at which we leave the EU. The bill will also create the necessary powers to correct the laws that do not operate appropriately once we have left the EU, so our legal system can continue to function correctly outside the EU[20].

It is not only at home in the UK that we have great ambitions for improvements to the environment. Brexit gives the UK a chance to play an even bigger role in tackling some of the world’s greatest challenges.

We will continue to lead the world in tackling the threat of climate change as well as in combatting the illegal wildlife trade in endangered species. We will also continue with the plans we have set out to ban the sale of ivory produced in the last seventy years, making UK rules on trading ivory amongst the toughest in the world.

We are at the forefront of action against global climate change[21].

All of this is only possible with a strong economy, by ensuring that we get a good deal from Brexit, and under the strong and stable leadership of Theresa May and her Conservative team.

If you want the best deal for our environment and our food and farming industries, the only choice is to vote for Theresa May on June 8.

[1] Manifesto page 1

[2] Manifesto page 4

[3] Manifesto page 25

[4] Government response to House of Lords Brexit, Environment and Climate Change Inquiry.

[5] Manifesto page 25

[6] originally stated in 2015 Manifesto page 54 (though more grammatically correct phrasing).

[7] Manifesto page 26

[8] Manifesto page 26

[9] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/elizabeth-truss-speech-on-the-environment-and-the-rural-economy

[10] Manifesto page 26

[11] manifesto page 27

[12] 2015 manifesto page 55

[13] manifesto page 40

[14] manifesto page 27

[15] manifesto page 25

[16] 2015 manifesto page 54

[17] manifesto page 26

[18] ibid

[19] same wording used by Leadsom in her speech to Oxford Farming Conference eg http://ofgorganic.org/oxford-farming-conferences-highlights-2017/

[20] manifesto page 36

[21] manifesto page 37

Posted in 2017 general election, Andrea Leadsom, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Sheepwrecked or a World Heritage Site? Thoughts on the Lake District

Herdwick lamb. by Adam Jennison licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

As the inevitability of President Theresa May being crowned on June the 9th seems without doubt now, we are hurtling, possibly out of control towards the exit, or rather the hard Brexit. This means the UK tumbles out of the Single Market, out of the Common Agricultural Policy and into a brave new world, of Free Trade, if you believe the Conservative Party manifesto. Without a Free Trade deal with our largest export market (the EU) exporters pay a significant tariff for the benefit of exporting. With a Free Trade deal, exporters in other countries can gain unfettered access to our markets.

One of the consequences of this will be a big shift in the economics of farming, particularly farming in the uplands – and nowadays there is only one upland farming “gunslinger in town”, and that is lamb production.

So it is interesting, to say the least, that one particular upland area of England is seeking to bolster its upland farming system at the moment, via what is rather an unusual route. That route is an application by The Lake District National Park (strictly speaking a partnership broader than the National Park, but led by it) for UNESCO World Heritage Site status.  World Heritage Status is not given out willy-nilly. It’s a challenging process that takes years, and of course the process began before Brexit. That Brexit has happened in the middle of the process, gives extra impetus to the application, some might say an urgency.

The first bid for WHS status for the Lake District was made in 1985, so this is just another stop along that long trek. The difference this time is that the Government is right behind the bid.  James Rebanks of Rebanks Consulting prepared an an influential report, economic case for the bid in 2009 and this was updated in 2013.  Through these report, Rebanks advised the National Park on how best the Lake District could best secure its economic benefit from the bid and the possible inscription. This is the same James Rebanks as the author of The Shepherd’s Life – and someone who has become a modern and eloquent champion for the sheep farming industry in the Lake District.

The WHS bid is interesting in the way that it places sheep farming at the heart of the concept of “Outstanding Universal Value” which is the way that UNESCO use to decide whether a site is up to the standard required for a World Heritage Site.

Outstanding Universal Value can be defined according to different criteria depending on the type of site. For instance,  down here in Dorset the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site’s Outstanding Universal Value is defined solely by its geology, geomorphology, the history of the development of geology as a science; and the global significance of the Jurassic Coast in the teaching of those sciences. Despite the fact that the coast also supports wildlife sufficiently important for almost the entire area to be designated under European law (Birds and Habitats Directives), this was insufficient for it to qualify as a WHS for natural features.

World Heritage Sites also qualify if there are globally significant cultural features in an area or a site. Stonehenge is a World Heritage Site as is the Cornish tin mining landscape – and Kew Gardens. This is how the Lake District WHS bid defines its universal outstanding value in this document:




the bid goes on to describe in more detail how this fusion arose and what it means today








This is where it gets interesting. The suggestion, as I see it, is that the landscape of the Lake District today is rooted in and reflects centuries of farming – and indeed the farming that exists today is a continuation of that thousand year history.

There is no mention, anywhere in this document, of the decades of overgrazing by sheep. While the worst excesses of farm-subsidy funded overgrazing may have been in the past (I wrote about them back in 1999 for Friends of the Earth), the consequences of such overgrazing persist, in the form of altered habitats. Overgrazing by sheep contributed (and still does) to the decline in upland breeding birds. The impact on vegetation is profound: heathland has been replaced by grassland dominated by a few species. Even now, Natural England is recording areas of nationally important wildlife habitat as being overgrazed, such as this recent assessment of the Buttermere Fells SSSI.

Now George Monbiot, who often appears in these pages, has recently written another polemic against the proposal to designate this landscape as being of global importance and value and worth giving extra special protection. Monbiot argues that the Lake District is “sheep-wrecked”, that real natural value only resides in the fells being allowed to revert to forest, with or without Lynx, Wolves etc. This is hardly the first time he has attacked the Lake District and notions of natural beauty developed by the Romantic Movement  – a movement the Lake District WHS bidders seek to use to justify the global significance of the landscape.

I must admit that I also have difficulty with this line of argument. While I can understand the importance in art and literature (and therefore our culture and to an extent global culture) of the English Romantics and their associations with the Lake District, I don’t necessarily see that that association gives the landscape global value. Writers, Artists and the like take their inspiration from a wide variety of sources – including nature, wild or tamed.

The First World War poets and artists were inspired (if that is the right word) by the horrors of the trenches and the destruction and loss of life wrought on an industrial scale never before seen. Does that justify World Heritage Status for what remains are left from that apocalypse? Perhaps.  France has put forward on the WHS “tentative list” the  cemeteries and memorials (not battlefield remnants though) associated with the First World War, though this has not been taken forward to a full bid yet (as far as I can see.) Still, this may be quite different from the idea that the art inspired by the event was a reason for WHS status.

I would be the first to admit not having an expertise in this area, and am very happy to be corrected on this.

Let’s go back to the idea that the Lake District as it is now is worthy of WHS status because of its centuries of previous agro-pastoral systems. Can it really be true that the farming system that operates in the Lake District today has any tangible link with what was happening a thousand years ago?

In the past the Lake District farming system would have included  hardy sheep (which lived on the fells year-round) and cattle breeds grazing on the hills in the summer and being brought off the fells in the winter. Hay Meadows and special pollards were grown to produce winter fodder called tree hay. In the past small-scale arable cultivation was also an important element of the Lake District landscape (obviously not on the high fells) – going right back to Roman times.

There is another aspect to the Lake District landscape though  – and that is its long history of industrial use. I think it’s fair to say that, as with many English upland landscapes, the Lake District is as much a post-industrial landscape as it as a pastoral one. Because of its geology the Lake District contains some very valuable minerals and these have been known about for millennia. The mining quarrying and processing of ores has greatly influenced the modern Lake District landscape  – but imagine what that landscape must have been like when those industries were flourishing. It would have been very different, with chimneys belching smoke, strange smells and of course the many people who would have come to the Lake District to work in those industries. And the imagine all the fell ponies which would have been working hard to power these industries and haul their lodes. Where did they graze, what were they fed on?

I’ve seen a couple of pieces of “backlash” against Monbiot’s sheepwrecked claims in the press. I enjoy reading Private Eye but often wonder who writes the “Agri-Brigade” pieces. Here’s the latest one:







leaving aside the MoD’s plan to enclose a common (perhaps for another time), the author claims that the Foot and Mouth crisis led to “irreversible losses” of grazing and conjured up the demon of Gorse. I took a rather different view back in 2001 in a piece for ECOS called “any room for scrub?”.  Back then George was staunchly defending the upland farmers!

The Guardian also published a couple of letters responding to Monbiot’s latest article.

It’s what you would expect from the NFU, and the Hill farmer Louise MacArthur flatly rejects any suggestion that the fells are overgrazed.






But when you look at statistics for how many sheep used to be around and how many are around now, it does paint quite an interesting picture. I had a look through Defra statistics (so you don’t have to.)

The Lake District National Park was designated in 1951, just four years after the Hill Farming Act gave the Government powers to fund hill farmers to “improve” hill-land for agriculture. Improvement in this context means fertilising and re-seeding wildflower meadows and pastures, draining bogs, removing woodlands and so on. Payments continued to be made to hill farmers to increase the numbers of sheep on the fells through the next four decades.

In 1940 there were 13.17M sheep and lambs in England. Bear in mind this would have included many lowland sheep flocks which effectively disappeared after the war.

By 1950 England sheep and lamb numbers had more than halved to  8.5M in 1950. This had gone up to 20.8m in 1990 and had declined to 14.2M by 2010.

Cumberland supported 576,000 sheep and lambs in 1905 , 723,000 in 1935 and this had not really changed in 50 years, with 611,000 sheep and lambs in 1950.

Westmorland, which together with Cumberland formed most of Cumbria after the 1974 reorganisation, had the following populations of sheep and lamb. 1905 385000; 1935 465000; 1950 419000.

so Cumberland and Westmorland together had 961000 sheep and lambs in 1905; 1,118000 in 1935; 1,030,000 in 1950.


By 1985, at the height of the intensification funded by the Common Agricultural Policy (and preceding UK farm subsidies), this had increased to 2.04m sheep and lambs in Cumbria.

By 1995, when reforms were being brought in to reduce overproduction, there were  2.66M sheep and lambs in Cumbria.

Most recent figures for Cumbria (2013) show 1.95M sheep and lambs.

So this suggests that for Cumbria there are pretty much as many sheep and lambs now as there were at the height of food over-production in 1985 (the time of wheat mountains and wine lakes). And that there are  twice as many sheep and lambs now as there were in 1950 when the National Park was established.

Compare this with what has happened to cattle numbers. Cumberland supported 153000 cattle in 1905 and Westmorland supported 71000 giving a total of 224000 cattle. The figure for 1950 for these counties was 327000 cattle.

The total figure for Cattle of all kinds across Cumbria in 2013 had declined to 143000.

There are now less than half as many cattle in Cumbria as there were in 1950.

There is also a big change in the number of dairy compared to beef cattle – there were 75000 dairy cows in 1905 in Cumberland & Westmorland and that figure is now 85000 across Cumbria. Most cattle in Cumbria now are dairy cattle, with only 57000 beef cattle. Whereas in 1905 or indeed 1950 there would have been far more cattle on the hills (in the Summer) now there are very few.

what does all this slightly amateurish number crunching show?

With the sheer number of sheep in Cumbria nearly as high as it ever was, and around three times as high as it was before agricultural intensification took off after the war, it is difficult to see how an argument can be made that the current farming system is essentially unchanged from the previous thousand years of pastoral farming. Combine that with the change in the grazing system, where cattle (and ponies) are no longer part of the grazing system; and I think it’s reasonable to say that the farming system in the Lake District, while on the surface appearing to be unchanged, has actually undergone a fundamental transformation in the last 70 years, and especially so in the last 40.

This is not to say that I want to see all of the Lake District converted into a rewilded landscape, and I also believe that there are good arguments for supporting farming systems which conserve rare breeds such as the Herdwick Sheep.

I just think that we need to be honest about what modern intensive farming has done to landscapes like the Lake District and how those farming systems have affected things like wildlife and historical features. Only then can we think about what public money, through for example farm support schemes, should be being used for.



Posted in Common Agricultural Policy, farm subsidies, farming, George Monbiot, Lake District, Uncategorized | 25 Comments

Tory Manifesto commitments on the environment and farming: is this the end of direct farm subsidies?


The Tory Manifesto has been published and you can read it here.



“we are committed to grow more, sell more and export more great food.”

Does this mean food that isn’t regarded as great will not be grown?

There is a commitment to continue paying out the same amount for farm support (around £3billion a year at present) “until the end of the Parliament”. This extends previous commitments to support basic payments and rural development payments beyond the current commitment of 2020, to 2022 (assuming a full 5 year parliament).

While there is no commitment to continue with a basic payment scheme beyond 2022, the Manifesto commits the Government to “work with farmers, food producers and environmental experts across Britain (not Northern Ireland?)

“to devise a new Agri-Environment Scheme”, to be introduced after 2022.

Natural England gets a specific mention (is this the first manifesto where NE gets a name check?) and it will “expand the provision of technical expertise to farmers to deliver environmental improvements on a landscape scale”. Apparently this involves “enriching soil fertility”, “planting hedgerows” and “building dry stone walls”. Nothing about nature, wildlife, species or habitats though.

Natural Flood Management also gets an explicit mention – “improving the quality of water courses to protect against soil erosion and damage to vulnerable habitats and communities”.

This doesnt exactly sound like Natural Flood Management to me – but there is no detail.

The Forestry Commission will be retained (and the Public Forest), along with a commitment to “stronger protection” for our ancient woodland.

On animal welfare – there is a commitment to introduce mandatory CCTV into slaughterhouses, not before time.

And of course, the already trailed commitment to a free vote on repealing the ban on hunting. Interestingly, there is no mention of the badger cull though.

There is a promise to publish the long-delayed 25 year plan. Let’s hope that after the election this will be revisited, as the version I saw was rubbish.

On Housing, the Manifesto recognises that poor quality housing development (including lack of public open space) affects people’s quality of life.


But then makes no proposal to address this


Then they go on to commit to building 160,000 houses on “Government owned land.” Presumably this still includes the 5000 planned for Lodge Hill in Kent.

The only other bit I want to mention now is the Great Repeal Bill. There doesnt appear to be anything new here, from what we already know  – though there is a commitment to increase the devolution of decision-making powers, at least for some things. Equally it’s possible that the devolved powers over things like Agriculture could be reversed, but there doesnt appear to be any detail on that.



Posted in 2017 general election | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Four Years of a New Nature Blog

I can’t quite believe it but I wrote the first post on this blog four years ago today.

Since then I have written 387 different posts with a total of over 250,000 page views.

You can see which posts have gained the most views from this table.

Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 15.13.44

Far and away the most read was this post published just after the Brexit vote. In a similar vein one of the other most popular posts was about current (just) Defra Environment Secretary of State Andrea Leadsom‘s intentions for agriculture support in the post-Brexit brave new world of Free Trade.

Still in second place after quite some time is this post about UKIP’s strange environmental spokesman Andrew Charalambous. And UKIP also figure largely in a post about their links with the right-libertarians known as Spiked Online, who originally dwelt on the far-left of politics as the Revolutionary Communist Party. Politics eh?

Flooding has been a popular topic as posts about the Somerset Levels, The Environment Agency’s absent Chair and the former Prime Minister’s apparently poor understanding of Water Vole ecology attest.

Fieldsports have also provided popular topics, covering the Countryside Alliance and its easy relationship with the Tory party and uneasy relationship with charitable status, as well as their unusually close connections to Tory environment ministers.

Two articles in the top 15 have been about important wildlife sites in Dorset, either threatened with destruction or subject to damage. Rampisham Down and the controversial plans for a solar farm (thankfully abandoned now) is a case where Natural England took action to notify the site as an SSSI to protect it. The recent case of SSSI quality chalk downland in Dorset being damaged by agricultural intensification is a less happy story, though we not yet know how the story will turn out.

Some other popular posts have covered the former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, and his links to private healthcare company Randox (which recently resurfaced in two consecutive editions of Private Eye); and Natural England chair Andrew Sells and his links to neoliberal thinktank Policy Exchange (and the housebuilders lobby).

Finally I was very pleased that so many of you read the piece on “A Pebble in the Pond” the first report from Charity People Need Nature, where I work part-time (when not writing here).

While it’s great that these posts have been read by so many people, many of the posts I have written have only had a small readership. Sometimes it felt a bit frustrating to have spent several hours researching then writing a piece only to find 50 people had read it. As the past few years have gone by, the readership has increased which is great, but I find the act of researching and writing to be the most important thing, not how many people read an article. Having said that, please do keep reading!

It’s great to be able to make a small contribution to raising awareness of the topics about which I write.

I want to thank everyone who has read a post, or is a regular reader, and especially those who leave comments. There is nothing better than seeing a lively debate develop in the comments after I’ve posted an article. Thanks also in particular to those who have written guest blogs for me. If you would like to write one, please get in touch.

I hope to continue to write on here for the foreseeable future. There’s certainly plenty of material to keep me inspired.

One small request. If you enjoy reading (or find it stimulating but annoying) what I write here, please consider making a donation to support People Need Nature. I don’t write here to make money (and no it doesnt make any money), but because I enjoy it and it feels like I am contributing to public debate about nature and politics (I may be deluded of course).

I would like to try and increase People Need Nature’s resources so we can develop new work areas and perhaps increase my hours, or even take on some staff.







Posted in blogging, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments