Earlier this month we were very pleased to welcome Martin Lines, co-founder and Chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN), as our speaker on a very important topic – ‘The Future of Farming and Conservation’.
I think I can safely say Martin’s talk was one of the highlights of our entire talks program for a number of reasons. The presentation and delivery of the material were of a very high quality but even more important than that is the topic itself.
Farming has a huge impact on the landscape and ecology of these islands, and the recent State of Nature report laid much of the blame for wildlife declines on the intensification of agriculture. The way that it has been supported by the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) has been widely criticised for causing environmental degradation; first by encouraging over production of a number of food stuffs and then to solve that problem paying landowners a subsidy based on area instead of production.
The inequity of that method of support has become more apparent over time as it raises the price of agricultural land and rewards the largest landowners the most. At the moment the area payment costs £3.5 billion a year and another £1 billion is paid out for environmental support such as Higher Stewardship schemes which have been shown to be effective in attaining their biodiversity goals. Conservationists are therefore asking why not re-allocate more of the area support to the environmental schemes?
Brexit has provided the UK Government with the opportunity of replacing area payments with a different model and the Agriculture Bill area support (or the single farm payment as it is known) will be replaced by payments for public goods after a phased in transition period. Public goods include such things as biodiversity, carbon capture and amenity to name just three. The Bill has for the moment fallen due to the pro-roguing of Parliament but it is planned to be resubmitted in the new Parliament.
Martin told an audience of nearly 100 that farmers need to prepare for the new model of support now, that it is no good pretending support was going to carry on the way it has since the UK came under the CAP. If they do not prepare they are at risk of finding they will lose around 50% of their farm income as that is the fraction that the area payments are for most farms in East Anglia.
Martin then gave a detailed description of how wildlife has increased on his own family’s farm and some of the land he rents and contracts for. Martin is the contractor for the RSPB’s Hope Farm and it was seeing how wildlife has been enhanced there on what is a commercial arable farm that made him realise that it is possible to reverse some of the declines caused by intensification.
He applied for a Higher Stewardship Scheme, got selected and began to implement the methods the RSPB is using. This involved making detailed maps of the soil quality across each field. The purpose is to see which areas are best suited to take out of production. There is a focus on the financial bottom line rather than concentrating solely on yields. Some parts of fields cannot produce enough crop to justify the cost of cultivation. Effort is concentrated on areas where the profit margin makes it worthwhile.
The result is that pollen and nectar strips, beetle banks and hedges are sited in the places where the environmental payment income outweighs what could be earnt from a crop. Then there are other advantages. The pollen strips and beetle banks have also led to a reduced use of pesticides because of the insect predators living in them and as pesticide use has declined the insect populations have increased. It has become a virtuous circle. Rape and bean crops have higher pollination levels leading to increased yields and pesticide costs are low or non-existent. Additional benefits are things such as the strips providing barriers to the entry of fields which dissuades illegal fly tippers and also dog walkers letting their dogs run loose during the ground nesting bird season.
Then there are the reduced costs that come from converting from ploughing to minimum till. Martin said this reduced his fuel bill by half, increased the earthworm populations, increased carbon storage and improved soil structure.
Martin gave us heaps to think about and follow up on. We’d like to thank him for his time and thank everyone who attended, from farmers to conservationists, for turning out and showing their interest in this important approach to managing our landscapes into the future. Visit our Wild Patch website to find out how you can do your bit for our wildlife.
Initially written by Rodney Aldis.