Some thoughts on the #Glyphosate Saga

arable field sprayed with glyphosate ©Miles King



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



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

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

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

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

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







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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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




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

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

Owen Paterson – the gift that keeps giving

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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







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

The state of UK nature


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


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


Critiques of agri-environment


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


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


Species-rich grassland options – design


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

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




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


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


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

Change in condition 2006 to 2014

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


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


Generic quality problems


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

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


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

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

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

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


Learning the lessons


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


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


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

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


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


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


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



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

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

Committee on Standards in Public Life 1995.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UK Parliament 2016.

UK Parliament 2017.

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


Posted in Agri-Environment Schemes, agriculture, Brexit, Common Agricultural Policy, guest blogs, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 59 Comments

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 , , , , | 14 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 –, CC BY-SA 2.0,

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 , , , , , | 7 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 –, CC BY 2.0,

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