We could say that the UK is suffering from agoraphobia – anxiety where sufferers perceive a space over which they have little or no control.
The word originates from early Greek when citizens would gather in the agora, a wide open gathering place, to hear news. It also served as a marketplace where merchants sold their goods.
To my left-field lateral thinking brain, I could not help but think of the collective skills or ‘goods’ that farmers have in store when dealing with the wide open environment. The trouble is that current anxiety is causing some environmentalists to think that only use of ‘the stick‘ (enforcing regs and tightening up prescriptive schemes) will ensure wildlife is protected. Perhaps we can’t blame them after the stitch-up as part of the last CAP reform when ‘greening’ ended up as a red herring that blacked out any real benefit to biodiversity.
But waving a stick is rarely conducive to encouraging long term delivery of wildlife.
Falling back on regulation misses a trick on promoting voluntary low monetary cost, high environmental outcome works by farmers.
There is plenty of research that proves voluntary works; a paper in May (Voluntary non-monetary approaches for implementing conservation) concludes, in a ‘clarion call to scientists’, that ‘nudging’ rather than ‘shoving’ farmers might facilitate more conservation on private land. (Pdf here)
It’s been mooted for years. This paper 15 years ago is still relevant but neglected as no one has really bothered to ask: ‘Behavioural ecology of farmers: what does it mean for wildlife?’ It explains farmers’ attitudes towards conservation, and, as with all good science, it can be replicated. New research just out on ‘Engaging farmers in environmental management through a better understanding of their behaviour’ (pdf here) shows that empowering more equal partnerships with govt agencies and NGOs could deliver more wildlife. Farmer clusters, self-propelled groups of land managers meeting in pubs, choosing their own advisers, are proved to work well.
“In my view once you understand what you have got, you don’t need countryside stewardship. People in general do not want to screw up the environment and if farmers and landowners actually know what they have got, their behaviours will change. We want to demonstrate why this place is special and why we as a private landowner can be trusted to look after the land” An estates director
All of this could result in less dependency on public funded agri-enviro schemes – a boon at a time of great anxiety around post Brexit.
Let’s lose the phobia and find that space to understand farmers, to work jointly to enable them set out their collective stall of environmental skills.
PS Letter in The Times 31.8.17 on the subject