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 This is understandably going to bring a lot of rapid change as agriculture support is withdrawn and there will rightfully be some Industry push-back and debate; I suspect the current smear campaign portraying farmers as wealthy, unproductive and holding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:

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(2018 hedge planting in pasture)

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(Well established double hedging)

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(Former arable area planted to trees and fenced)

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Establishing Hedging

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Newly planted hedging

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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:

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  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:

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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:

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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:

pie4 

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.  

 

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