Friday, November 18, 2011

Biodiversity vs Productivity?

Who can save the Turtle Dove?

We all know there is a biodiversity crisis in the countryside; twenty years ago our farm had Grey Partridge, Lapwings and Yellowhammers- now it doesn’t, it’s very clear that the environment has suffered. To deny what is so obviously true seems a bit odd. To acknowledge species decline isn’t to accept blame or slash productivity it’s simply the first step in reversing the downward trend.

Reversing the decline is a complex business. I can't save the Turtle Dove; Lord knows I would if I could. The reason I know I can't save them is because I've never seen one on our farm. Whether or not my ancestors saw Turtle Doves as they farmed this land I don't know. We live in a very different world now and all the evidence from my time here would suggest that these 200 acres of Derbyshire aren't really what a Turtle Dove is looking for.

It's the same story for Yellow Wagtails, we get the odd one drop in on passing, they usually favour feeding among the very short grass after the cattle ground has been winter grazed by the sheep. But the grazing habits of our dairy herd and the pressure for a good silage crop mean our fields don't have the varying sward heights, the bared patches or the presence of standing water that really benefit the Yellow Wagtails- for that these birds have to head down to lowland wet grassland.

The farmland species that are thriving here are birds like the Goldfinches, the Greenfinches, the Jackdaws and the Stock Doves- the 'generalist' species that are doing well everywhere. Our farming operations crawl onwards and some of the commoner farmland species seem ok with that- but I am helpless to save the 'specialist' species such as the Turtle Dove and the Yellow Wagtail.

Listing the birds I can't help may seem rather defeatist, but sometimes we all need to use our common sense. Of course the neighbouring farmers and I could switch our whole farming system to arable and leave nice big field margins, or we could raise the water table, tear up our drainage and graze a few cattle at very low stocking rates. We may attract the odd Yellow Wagtail to stick around but it would be financial suicide.

Biodiversity vs Productivity

Of course no-one is suggesting for one moment that we should carry out these measures- but there is a general consensus among farmers that too much emphasis is being placed on farming for biodiversity while farming for productivity is expected to play second fiddle.

This sentiment has been particularly prevalent since last months announcement that the European Commission was looking to 'green' the Common Agricultural Policy. Of all the proposed criteria the requirement by farmers to leave 7% of their land fallow has perhaps produced the most comment.

Many farmers are not opposed to rewarding sustainability- but for some this will come at great cost to productivity- for them this is a case of being paid hand-outs to 'farm badly' a notion that doesn't sit too comfortably with their aims as business people. In effect they see this as being forced to come back to the EU cap in hand (no pun intended) when really they would like to be allowed to boost productivity in an economically viable, competitive and profitable way.

Equally there are other farms, farms like ours, which are trying to make ends meet on a small acreage. We understand that the halcyon days of booming profits and growing productivity have long gone. Small farms tore up their hedgerows, fitted shiny new milking parlours and doused the land with new fertilizers but our time at the forefront of a post-war productivity drive was short lived. Economies of scale and a strong pound meant larger holdings and foreign farmers were able to do things much more efficiently. Although average farm size had increased- we were soon struggling to compete. Farmers who share our position acknowledge that we rely on the subsidies to allow us to keep 'maintaining' the countryside, and we accept the conditions that come with this payment.

And here-in lies the problem: as a rule the farms opposed to the CAP reforms i.e. those that feel they stand a chance of being able to make a profit without the 'restrictions' of a greener policy are in many cases the ones that are best placed to help specialist species like the Turtle Dove and the Yellow Wagtail.

It's hardly a surprise that nationally the species with more specific habitat requirements are fairing much worse than the more generalist species- but the problem is being compounded by the fact that the specialists inhabit the parts of the UK with the largest, most industrialised farming operations- the areas that could make a living from farming.

It's a bit of a conundrum isn't it.

Farming with environmental restrictions means these larger (typically arable) farms could become less economically viable while smaller (mostly pastoral or mixed) farms may be less affected. Numbers of both the more specialist and the more generalist farmland bird species that inhabit these two farming models respectively should fair better.

Turtle Doves and a farming future?

I can’t deny that coming from a small farm and enjoying seeing the farm's birds as I do- I am perhaps biased towards a more sustainable, less intensive way of farming.

And it’s not just our farm. Pastoral farming covers vast swathes of the UK. It’s intensive farming by historical standards but not by modern standards. Our farming operations are always going to be limited by the land we farm so being paid to ‘maintain’ the countryside might not be the future many pastoral farmers had hoped for, and nobody enjoys being dictated too by bureaucrats, but it is a means to an end.

I can sympathise with those farmers that are responsible for growing the majority of the food, fodder and fuel we as a nation consume, and I can understand why they oppose the CAP reforms. In light of spending cuts it does seem that the economic scales are being balanced by taking away from the one side rather than adding to the other.

Our farm can provide the Goldfinches and the Jackdaws, but these are the men and women that can save the Turtle Dove- we just have to find a way of helping them do that without causing too much damage to their businesses.

It's important our farms remain as productive as possible and it's vital we don't allow species to disappear from our countryside. It's not an easy trick to pull off but can achieve both. Our smaller farms may be more accepting of environmental restrictions but we need to actively work with our larger and more productive farms to ensure compromises are seen to come from all sides.

Farmer's must accept that all businesses will increasingly face environmental restrictions and as a result productivity potential will be affected- subsidised farming will always come with terms and conditions. Equally ministers and conservation groups must acknowledge that frustrating as it may be, measures to help the Turtle Dove and our other farmland species will be slow, at times difficult, and must (where possible) work around a productive farming system.

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