I originally wrote this post almost a year ago, but given the focus of the RSPB’s ‘Stepping Up’ campaign on current plans to dismantle the ‘good’ parts of the Common Agricultural Policy (and that I’m pushed for time to be honest) I thought I’d re-post it as it is perhaps more relevant now that it was then.
- So, what do Redwings, public sector strikes, George Monbiot, and the Common Agricultural Policy have in common? More than you might think actually.
This morning I awoke to gale-force winds ripping at the windows, leaves tumbling across the sky, and masses of Redwings and Fieldfares gorging themselves on berries from a 400m long hawthorn hedge dividing two fields here on the Great Chalfield Estate where I live. Nothing too notable about that perhaps – winds blow this time of year, thousands of thrushes have arrived in the last week from the Continent, and those thrushes eat hawthorn berries. However, it IS notable, and the reason is that hedge.
I spent all day yesterday with Simon Tonkin (@SimonTonkin), the RSPB’s affable and extremely hard-working Senior Farmland Conservation Officer looking at farms on the Fens and Brecks. Simon spends his working days persuading farmers to farm in a more wildlife-friendly way, helping them get into agri-environment schemes like Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) and Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) which are paid for by EU taxpayers through the much-derided Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The CAP, which distributes €55bn (£47bn) a year, or 43% of the European budget, is up for major reform at the moment, with financially hard-pressed governments looking to slash their contributions. While everyone would like to see their taxes better spent, it would be disastrous for our wildlife to eliminate some parts of the CAP. Commentators that say that reform of the CAP would at last relieve some of the richest landowners in the UK of subsidies they don’t need (as George Monbiot in an article yesterday seemed to put it) is missing the point by a country mile.
Let’s back up a little and look again at that hedge here on the Chalfield Estate. An article on the RSPB website says that “An Institute of Terrestrial Ecology (ITE) survey of hedgerow changes revealed that between 1984 and 1990 hedgerow length in England had declined by 20% and in Wales by 25%. While outright removal of hedgerows accounted for 9,500 km per year, almost half of the loss was a result of lack of management.”
Other estimates say that over 300,000 miles of hedgerow have disappeared since 1945. Many hedges have been cleared to make it easier to farm. Larger fields without ‘obstructions’ like hedges mean more straightforward ploughing or cropping, which has led to ‘prairie-style’ fields in parts of the UK. While this has indeed led to more food production (and increased production is what farmers have been urged to achieve for decades) it has also led to less wildlife, because – as my Redwings and Fieldfares proved this morning – hedges provide vital food in winter when other food sources can be in short supply. Without berries in winter many bird will die. And hedges also of course provide protection, nesting sites in the summer, and the rough grassland cover along their edges that the plough can’t reach is critical for small mammals and insects.
It all makes great sense to keep hedges therefore. But – and this is where my reference to public sector strikes come in – who is going to pay to keep them there? More pertinently perhaps, why should it be us hard-pressed taxpayers?
Yesterday, as I was driving back from my day in the Fens, I was listening to an interview on the radio with a public sector worker who said she was going on strike because by changing the T&Cs of her pension what the government was asking her to do was in effect work a day a month for no pay for the next twenty years. Why should she do that? Indeed, but in the same way, why should a farmer keep a hedge in a field if it means he/she loses income through loss of food production?
I may not like looking at the countryside like that, but that is how many farmers view their farmland. Yes, as I’ve been told many times over the last few months and was told again yesterday, farmers recognise that biodiversity is way down on farmland (but shame on the NFU President Peter Kendall for comments suggesting biodiversity hasn’t declined when data proves so conclusively that it has) and many want to find a way of restoring it. But like the pubic sector worker on the radio, why should they lose money while they do it? Which is where the ELS, HLS and similar agri-environment schemes come in…
Great Chalfield receives subsidies under HLS, paid for through the CAP. The landowner is paid by us, the taxpayer, to manage the hedges here to be wildlife friendly (Chalfield’s would do it anyway if he could, but not all farms make vast profits and I personally believe he merits some support). He’s not paid much through HLS (several thousand pounds a year), but enough to compensate for NOT farming that strip of land the hedge occupies. In terms of what it costs each taxpayer in the EU it is so small as to be practically unmeasurable (and good value in my opinion). Added up across the countryside as a whole those tiny payments do add up to quite a total, but it also means that there are hedges. And that there are field corners left to go to seed (and along with hedges our birds need seed rich and insect rich habitats), and that farmers leave small squares (or ‘plots’) in crops for Skylarks to nest in. Those payments mean that farmers are helped to create botanically diverse field margins, and that wildlife isn’t squeezed off farmland totally.
It’s on this last point that George Monbiot – normally a safe pair of hands in term of ‘green’ issues – appears to come unstuck. The CAP certainly needs reform. There is vast waste and funding for many anti-environment ‘improvement schemes’, but before we chuck the baby out with the bathwater and slam into rich farmers for simply getting subsidies, let’s at least first ask whether any of this funding is being used to protect biodiversity. If it is (and it is), then we’ll have to swallow hard, agree to disagree about who owns all the UK’s land and why, and keep paying. If it’s not, then please let’s use the opportunity of CAP reform to find a way to make some of the payments farmers receive conditional on the implementation of measures that will protect biodiversity. Like it or not, simply stripping away the payments would probably mean farmers looking to replace lost income through more intensive agriculture. And that means less wildlife.
It’s not ideal (not by a long way) but it’s what we’ve got right now, and the situation is simply too urgent not look for practical ways to help farmers stay in business AND help restore farmland biodiversity. Next time you’re out in the countryside or driving from one town to another think about what you’re walking or driving through. Chances are that it will either be land utilised for food production or land adjacent to land utilised for food production. The reality is that more than 70% of the UK is now farmed in one way or another. It’s a vast acreage but let’s not forget it’s us, the ‘consumer’, that buys the food produced, and there are more and more consumers every day of every week of every month. Even so, even now we import food and the demand for increased UK food production is strong (if almost 1 in 4 people in the UK weren’t obese, more of us became vegetarian, and the UK didn’t waste 7.2 million tonnes of food a year that demand could be quashed but that’s another blog).
The truth, palatable or not, is that if we want wildlife to survive on farms, to see Redwings and Fieldfares eating hawthorn berries from healthy, well-managed hedges, to have arable plants and butterflies and bees, then we are going to have to pay farmers NOT to do what us consumers apparently want them to do: produce ever-increasing amounts of food from a finite area of land.