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.

 

 

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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

A further peep behind the curtain of Defra’s thinking about Environment and Agriculture after Brexit

Thanks to the impending General Election, Defra has allowed us another peep behind the curtain to show their thinking about the Environment and Agriculture after Brexit.

A hastily thrown together response to the House of Lords EU Environment and Energy sub-committee’s inquiry into the Environment post-Brexit was published yesterday on the HoL website. To be fair to the author, who appears to be Defra Heeran Buhecha Head of Nature Planning and Biodiversity, the response must have been cobbled together during a time of chaos at Defra. The 25 year plan for nature, which had been promised nearly 2 years ago, was going to be published, then it wasn’t, then it was again. By March it seemed the plan was dead (or languishing forever at the back of a filing cabinet).

The House of Lords published their inquiry on 14th Feb. What should Defra do? It couldn’t reference the Plan, because it hadn’t been published.  But it couldn’t ignore it either, in case Defra Ministers decided that there was an opportune moment to publish it (perhaps during a nuclear war when no-one would notice). So they decided to copy and paste lumps from the unpublished plan and promise to publish it. According to the HoL sub-committee, they received the response on the 16th April. That is Easter Sunday. Either the HoL cttee tweeter got it wrong, or Defra had sent their response in the middle the Easter Holiday (when no-one would be there to receive it.) There is another oddity about that – the document (a pdf) indicates that Ms Buhecha last saved it on the 26th April at 1733pm. The Govt response appeared on the HoL website on the morning of the 27th.

The Govt response claims that the 25 Year Plan will be published “in this Parliament.” This Parliament was pro-rogued yesterday afternoon. As a former senior Defra civil servant commented yesterday

 

 

What of the response itself? It has been hurriedly put together. If the time stamp is correct the election announcement caught everyone off balance, and Defra may have decided to throw together something in the way of a response to the HoL to save them having to do it after the election. Evidently Purdah was not seen as an excuse for inaction in this case, as was tried (unsuccessfully) elsewhere in Defra.

I don’t have time to show all the examples of repetition in the response, but this stock phrase is from page 2

 

 

and here it is again on Page 3. If you think I’ve just used the same screenshot twice, note the double space at the end of the first sentence.

 

 

One particular vexing issue is how, when the EU derived environmental laws are transferred into domestic law, they will be enforced. Currently, UK failure to implement EU law means the Government ends up in the European Court of Justice. But the Govt has signalled its intention to remove the ECJ as the last step on the road of legal accountability.

 

 

 

Defra explain that there will be no new mechanism – an Environmental Court for example. Instead it will be left to Civil Society to challenge failures in law through Judicial Review. This is the same JR procedure that the Government has made more and more difficult for Civil Society to use. Defra finish with a flourish, suggesting that Parliament hold the Government accountable. I can only assume the Defra author wrote this with a wry smile, given that it was the Courts (The Enemy of the People) who forced Parliament to take up this role, not 6 months ago.

On Agriculture, Defra has indicated that it is going to take its time in developing a new Agriculture Act.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We shall see to what extent the last sentence turns out to be accurate, or whether the policy is shaped by the National Farmers Union alone. But I think its safe to say that Defra is signalling there will be less money available for agriculture and rural development than the £3Bn a year currently forked out.

With that funding in mind, the Government has given an indication that new Countryside Stewardship agreements signed after November 2016 will only be honoured beyond 2020 if they provide “strong value for money and are in line with domestic strategic priorities.”

On monday I wrote about a case of a Dorset farmer who in 2016 left a 10 year agri-environment scheme covering an area of nationally important wildlife habitat supporting threatened species. Within a year that habitat was damaged by agricultural intensification. The Government are signalling to farmers that there is no guarantee of funding for Stewardship Agreements being signed off from now on.

This means that every piece of nationally important wildlife habitat and their species, which is currently unprotected (not SSSI) and coming out of an AE scheme such as Entry Level (yes that would be a lot of sites) will have no guaranteed support beyond 2 years. Farmers plan in the long term. Who would choose to do all the hard work of applying for a scheme which might be cancelled two years later?

I haven’t written about the 25 year plan for nature, but I have read it. I can tell it’s pretty dire. Hopefully it will be consigned to the back of that filing cabinet, and we have a new Defra Secretary of State after the Election, who does care about the Environment.

Posted in agriculture, Brexit, Common Agricultural Policy, Defra, environmental policy | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Dorset Chalk downland damage: Natural England respond.

 

 

 

 

Following yesterday’s story about the damage to chalk downland in Dorset, I’ve been contacted by Natural England and I thought it would be useful to let you know what they have said. I approached the EIA team to inform them of the damage and ask them to keep me updated with what action Natural England were taking.

Natural England national comms team said that because of the purdah restrictions which operate in the run up to the General Election, the couldn’t comment (on twitter) until there had been further investigations. I then received a phone call from the local team who explained that staff had been to the site to investigate the incident. They were following up multiple inquiries and seeking information about the site. Local team members had spoken to the landowner and they will be working with them to find a solution to the problem. Natural England confirmed that the site was on the Chalk Grassland Inventory, which means that it is high quality chalk downland.

I guess things will be fairly quiet over the next few weeks until the election is out of the way. I will be keeping an eye on the site to see if the farmer does anything else which might damage the downland, though I think is unlikely, now that Natural England have visited them.

 

 

Posted in chalk downland, farming, grasslands | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

this is what the downland looked like in 2010, courtesy of the Teagan Times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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.

Before (courtesy of the Teagan Times)

 

 

 

 

and After

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. © Miles King

Ryegrass that has been seeded into the downland is now germinating. © Miles King

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 , , , , , , , | 13 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 , , , | 15 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 , , , , | 31 Comments