Brexit-free zone; Christmas reflections!


I’ve used the Christmas period to wind down a bit, read a few books, get in some local family walks and stop worrying about Brexit! Christmas is a great time for thought and reflection. There seems to be mixed views on 2018’s legacy on Twitter but despite some ups and downs for me it has been a vintage year on the farm with good memories centred on the hot, sunny summer which made harvest operations so straightforward. Despite ongoing concerns about forage stocks I’m going into 2019 in a positive mood and full of new ideas. Despite this I have two concerns outside of the navel gazing of the Brexit impasse:

  1. In recent months mainstream media have taken repeated ongoing swings at farming (particularly livestock agriculture) which I’ve found enormously frustrating mainly because these accusations are being formed from world view generalised perspectives and not tailored to the specific circumstances of the UK. For example; trees are not being cut down in the UK to create pastures for livestock and yet this assumption is being included in greenhouse emission calculations. There seems to be an agenda to firmly place agriculture in the naughty corner as part of the whole climate change debate.
  2. The government are using the withdrawal from European CAP agricultural control as a convenient excuse to reboot objectives and priorities under a ‘Green Brexit’ banner. This is understandably going to bring a lot of rapid change as agriculture support is withdrawn and there will rightfully be some Industry push-back and debate; I suspect the current smear campaign portraying farmers as wealthy, unproductive and holding entrenched views is quite deliberately being run to ‘butter up’ the public for the seismic changes being considered. Most unreasonably there seems to be a deliberate attempt to ignore and forget all the environmental work that has already been done over the last decade.

During my Christmas family walks on neighbouring farms I was struck by the huge run of hedge and tree planting, as well as habitat creation happening locally around Wiltshire. The Pewsey Downs Farmer’s Group (PDFG) is coordinating local ambitions to do some really impressive projects and fast track Countryside Stewardship initiatives. Here is a selection of some of the planting projects spotted over the last few days:


(2018 hedge planting in pasture)


(Well established double hedging)


(Former arable area planted to trees and fenced)


Establishing Hedging


Newly planted hedging


Flower margins below Pewsey Hill

On our own farm we have done:

  • 3 Miles of new hedges
  • 5 miles of field margins
  • 7% of arable area in HLS options for wildlife:
  • 12 ha Wild Bird Covers
  • 6 ha Fallow for Stone Curlew plots
  • 12ha Annual Field Fallow area
  • 2 ha Unharvested cereal Margins
  • 10 ha Field Corners

and many overwintered stubbles with green cover used for spring cropping. Our farm is not unusual; along with others we have been thinking about environmental enhancements for a long time. You might not think so though with the media continuing to portray inaccurate outdated mindsets. I have no doubts that our own regional efforts are reflected across the country and not atypical.

I mentioned I have done some reading over Christmas and this was the book I enjoyed most and would (perhaps surprisingly) recommend to farmers:

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It might come as a surprise to some after what I’ve said so far but I found this book an excellent read for several reasons:

  1. Knepp demonstrates the essential roles herbivores play within a healthy, balanced ecosystem.
  2. Knepp demonstrates that grazed environments have more valuable biodiverse and complex habitats than closed-canopy forest alternatives.
  3. Knepp is an excellent case study of the problems arising when you try to mix public goods (such as access) with wildlife’s needs for seclusion
  4. Rewilding Knepp style represents a benchmark for the limits of what a farm can do for wildlife enhancements but tips the balance away from food production priorities.
  5. Wilding makes a convincing case for including meat in modern diets.

Yes; this book doesn’t have any kind words for the necessities of intensive conventional agriculture and also fails to point out that Knepp-style transitions are entirely inappropriate for most of the UK’s farms but it does trigger the farmer reader to think what more could they do on their own farms? Should I even consider re-wilding a small part of my farm? In practice I can continue to tweak the balance to do more of what I’m doing already and hold my head high that I’m playing my part; more hedges, trees, ponds, margins and bird habitats. As long as the farm remains profitable the resources to do these projects will be forthcoming. Perhaps I can look at doing more flower hay meadows instead of ryegrass leys? I will also look again at legumes such as Lucerne to see what role they can play for my livestock nutrition. In principal though I do not need to consider radical changes to still be holding the environment on my farm in high esteem and as a nation how fast do we really expect our farms to change?

The public have falsely been led up the garden path to believe UK farms are currently in a really bad place environmentally and that Europe has done little to set sensible agendas:


  I don’t believe this is actually true and from my own experiences and efforts I’d say farmer’s mind-set balance between food production and environmental projects is a more reasonable and practical 60/40 split:


My concern is that our Secretary of State seems to think the environmental tail should be wagging the food producing dog as some form of Knepp-style utopia:



This is flawed for many reasons not least that the UK is already only 60% self-sufficient for food for its 66 million inhabitants. Importing significantly more of our food equates to exporting our environmental footprint elsewhere with no net biodiversity benefits and will lower our self-sufficiency further. Production standards of imported food may also not be as good as our own (think welfare or antibiotic use) so there are hidden issues too. In practice a re-nationalisation of agricultural policy will quite reasonably show a priority shift but it’s about getting the balance right and what’s not to like about a 50/50 balance aspiration:


I’m quite happy to shift the emphasis of our priorities from a bit less food to a bit more environment if this is what the public wants but there has to be a reality check too. If the taxpayer is no longer willing to pay farmers support payments (I prefer to think of them as rural investments anyway) then the consumer will have to pay larger food bills to foot the environmental costs. Lower agrochemical and fertiliser inputs could all be achieved too but if we have lower yields our food has to become more expensive to settle the differences. I’m all in for pushing up the numbers of red-listed birds on my farm and helping out pollinators and insects too but the great British public have to realise they can’t have their cake and eat it. Elmley and Knepp are both exciting thought-provoking projects which have shown me what can be achieved if farmers focus entirely on environmental dreams but the reality of modern life is that our burgeoning population and their bare necessities need servicing. More Yellowhammers and red-tailed bumblebees on my farm would be great and something to talk about but these valued species won’t pay the farm rent or fill the supermarket shelf.  





Brexit Part II – Reasons to be cheerful?

Back in the distant past in the referendum campaign there were things I don’t remember talking about like the now centre-stage Irish border. Other topics changed focus; when talking about migration back then conversation was always dominated by the Calais jungle (which we never hear anything about now) but now a key issue is the realisation that filling unpopular roles such as those in healthcare and fruit/vegetable picking requires some tolerance of economic migrants. There was one question I do clearly remember regularly asking friends to ask themselves : “What do you think Mr Putin wants to happen?”   I would answer by telling them he wanted disharmony and instability in the West to cause disillusionment in our political systems; clearly I was sure he’d be gunning for Brexit and in response it was one of the reasons I voted Remain. Over the last two years those conversations stick in my mind as I see positions becoming more and more entrenched and a growing cancer of instability. Mr Putin must be laughing his socks off watching our Westminster pantomime performances.

            I don’t intend to go over the ground of my last Brexit blog (every Brexit blog has  only a one week shelf life before becoming hopelessly out of date anyway!) except to emphasise that I still fully accept the outcome of the 2016 vote and the necessity that we do leave in March 2019 to honour that clear mandate. I have no desire whatsoever to see a People’s Vote crashing into the party at this late stage; this would be an extremely dangerous political act and open the road to even more division and delay. The principal change between the last blog and now is that leaving with an agreed deal (with a soft Brexit landing) now looks very unlikely due to the constipated state of the UK Parliament. The deal on the table is not up for negotiation but is unlikely to ever achieve a parliamentary majority due to its Backstop flaws. Any attempt for renegotiation would imply an extension of Article 50 and as such would be a national humiliation in not being able to ratify the agreement that 27 other countries were able to sign off. So it looks like to still leave in March 2019 a ‘no-deal Brexit’ is now the most likely scenario. Not what I had hoped for.

Putting on my farming hat on I recall the clear words of the NFU President on a no deal outcome; “a catastrophe for farming” so rightly I am really concerned about this probability. However, and I choose my words carefully here, it is important to realise that a no-deal state is not automatically something which runs for a very long time-period. There is no need to set No-deal in concrete!  In fact a disorderly no-deal reality could well be the trigger for a new phase of EU-led negotiations and proposals for a lighter touch membership rearrangement. A no-deal Brexit clearly comes with potential risks and shocks but it is not the end of the world some are claiming. So in an attempt to look on the bright side of things here are a few thoughts on a no-deal dawn:

  1. The UK would not be a ‘muted’ rule-taker but free to make decisions on science and technology to suit our own interests.
  2. A No-deal Brexit will likely trigger a further fall in the £ making exports more competitive (Yes I do know about the tariffs but we do sell goods outside the EU too).
  3. Sometimes giving things a good shake-up can be a good thing; new and established businesses can find new economic opportunities and markets to tap into. The UK economy will adapt and evolve. Perhaps a trend towards more ‘staycations’ will rejuvenate the domestic tourism industry.
  4. Perhaps a no-deal Brexit can instil a greater sense of national identity and common purpose and boost sales of domestically-sourced goods and services (including food).
  5. £39 Billion is a lot of cash.

Am I trying to polish a turd here; perhaps!

There are really two likely outcomes for a no-deal reality: either the hard Brexiteers are right and it will not be an economic catastrophe but a tolerable re-boot or alternatively six months of no-deal will be enough to make it abundantly clear that we would’ve been better off staying in the European fold. Either way a six month no-deal trial period should be enough to settle this argument once and for all.

From the European perspective the worst eventuality would be if the UK actually manages to hold things together and make a go of it. Would that not put huge pressure on their leaders to get on with a round of trade negotiations before our independence becomes set and a model for other members? We may well have the upper hand in these talks as other EU countries observe our plight and wonder about themselves.

If the no-deal reality is clearly an economic disaster a six month toe-dipping should be sufficient time to settle these arguments. Would Europe throw us a lifebuoy and help us out of the quagmire if we need this; probably as it will still be in their own interest to see us return with our tail between our legs and full-reverse our decision. If there is future People’s Vote (sometime in 2019 after the 1st referendum has been enacted) I want to see a result with a massive majority this time; no 50/50s but 80/20 to settle this for a generation!!

I guess my hope for 2019 is that Mr Putin doesn’t get what he wanted for Christmas. All of us need to be open-minded and respectful of views contrary to our own. My wish is for a more tolerant and respectful 2019; further polarisation will get us nowhere. No-one really knows how a no-deal future will unfold but it doesn’t have to be permanent if we don’t like the way it shapes up; there will be options. There are ways we can all help the most vulnerable in society if there are hard times and we should strive to do so.

The recent French riots were a fresh sign that all is not well in the European core; Spain, Italy, Greece, France, Germany and even Belgium have seen riots or have underlying core problems. My natural instinct is to work with people and collaborate for the common good but perhaps the European project really is heading for the rocks and we are better to sail a different path. An important attribute is to always be prepared to listen to others and more than that to be able to change mindset when the need arises and as circumstances change.

We must not all allow our opinions to become further entrenched but respect alternative views; both camps must be prepared to be open-minded! We all want the same outcomes; a successful UK and a good place for our children to live and work and I really hope we can find a path towards that common goal.

Soon time to jump off the diving board and find out if we sink or swim….