Improving productivity of farming includes ‘intensification’ of conservation practices.
‘The countryside is my factory floor’ is how one farmer (now deputy president of the NFU) framed it to the audience at a Hay Festival debate I chaired a few years ago. Farming, like retail, recreation, and including conservation, is an industry (albeit a primary one) at the front line of resource management involving trade-offs, tough choices and ‘wicked problems’.
There are few easy single solutions to some of the environmental issues around improving efficiency around forage for cows while keeping curlew chicks safe, hedgerows as hedges (not a line of trees) for landscape purposes, yellowhammers in herb-rich headlands, effluent away from watercourses, reducing bovine flatulence, keeping insecticides away from bees – all the while putting affordable, nutritious food on our tables. UK farming has been forged in steel on this matter. Two world wars have made us flighty on food self-sufficiency, with early modern farming practices helping to feed us but at a cost to the environment.
Farmers must now take back control of the environment which is all about land, farm, wildlife management knowledge and practices.
Much of this is about productivity. Planting a new hedge is hard work and takes time to deliver quality habitat, whereas looking after existing mature hedges with improved cutting regimes may be more productive for wildlife. Allowing some areas to become more rambunctious – scruffier to some, wilder to others – while not feeling embarrassed in the pub when neighbours tease you about ‘your uncontrolled areas’.
It’s sometimes cheaper to let areas go than employ expensive labour and pesticides. At other times herbicide is required – tree planting in unproductive corners need judicious spot-sprays to provide saplings a headstart over vigorous rank grasses or bracken and flower-rich strips require weed control at appropriate times to enable pollinator-friendly arable ‘weed’ flowers to flourish. At other times, new research from Rothamsted is all about encouraging certain plants in headlands which prevent competitive weeds from encroaching into productive crops – much of which is down to the more precise use of fertilisers and herbicides while also instructing any visiting farm contractor to lift their boom or reduce application rates where required.
Improving productivity is vital to enhancing the environmental outcomes of farming today.
Capital grant payments under the auspices of the Agriculture Act are a key part in benefiting wildlife, preventing diffuse pollution, generating energy from waste and transitioning towards reducing emissions in agriculture under the 25 year Environment plan. New technology has a strong role to play for all farming practices which sometimes upsets bucolically backward-facing perceptions of agriculture in the UK seeking to return all livestock to being free-range with grain-wasting combine harvesters leaving overwintered stubbles.
A tightened regulatory framework can have unintended consequences – house sparrows are now not welcome in grain stores. So conservation now needs ‘to intensify’ action to put back habitat, offset the post-war push for efficiency in food production before the next State of Nature pillories farmers for declining populations of farmland birds (although recent Defra figures are showing short-term increases).
The ‘top-down’ prescriptive nature of agri-environment schemes has been slow to re-connect fragmented habitat, which in turn has made life easier for generalist predators such as carrion crows, badgers, magpies and foxes to have a disproportionately negative impact on farmland wildlife including hedgehogs, song thrushes and lapwings. There is hope that results-based environmental land management schemes (ELMS) may provide new ‘bottom-up’ ways for farmers to deliver more for the environment. This depends on trust being re-built by farmers getting more involved in their design, not always being paid for every action (how much surplus subsidy has been reinvested in habitat creation?), and working closer with both neighbours and external experts such as ecologists and grant advisers.
The phrase ‘wildlife-friendly farming’ applies as much to a hydroponic vertical farm unit (wildflower meadow planted on ex-salad growing land) as it does to a High Nature Value farm holding in the uplands (cutting and grazing rushes to benefit orchids and snipe). Both are about farmers revaluating their ‘factory floor’ in stepping up to own the conservation of both farming resources and wildlife habitat within the countryside.
First published in Farm Business Digital July 2019 – see page 4 here
Postscript – see my letter in The Times the subject Sept 19