Thursday, November 24, 2011

Bringing about change...

It seems to me that the key to a farming system that benefits wildlife is to create a mosaic. A farmed landscape pieced together from smaller constituent parts that creates a diverse and living environment.  These small scale activities are what ensure that somewhere within a relatively small area there is always a suitable habitat for bird species to make a nest, find a supply of food for growing chicks and find a source of food during the lean months.  These are often referred to as the ‘big 3’ when it comes to the conservation of farmland birds.

I know I have a habit of banging on about the farming of days gone by but when small and medium farms dominated the industry this mosaic was maintained. Looking back may not provide all the answers, but it provides us with an example of a farming system less harmful to the natural world.

Go back several decades and Farmers A, B and C all earn most of their living from milking cattle, farmers A and C have a flock of sheep, and Farmer C even has pigs. Farmers A and B might well grow silage, but Farmer C would maintain a hay meadow and besides, Farmer B always mowed late in the year anyway because her fields were less fertile. Farmer A’s farm may have been a model of tidiness but Farmer B was a bit more messy and Farmer C was near retirement and didn’t lose any sleep about the weeds or the small size of his fields. It may sound like a complicated mosaic but that was good thing for the individuals and a great thing for wildlife.

Today Farmer D  (a perfectly nice person by the way) farms the area that was once farmed by Farmers’ A, B & C, and in order to make a profit Farmer D has to grow silage on most of the land and get at least two crops per summer, the rest of the land is grazed intensively. They have only cows and they must milk far more cows than Farmers A, B and C combined.

Of course I understand as well as anyone that there was plenty wrong with farming in days gone by, it wasn’t ideal for all wildlife but it suited most. I also understand that the way the industry works now means that farming on that size and scale won’t be seen again but this means we have to try to recreate elements of that landscape within a modern farming system.


Thinking of the changes that have taken place made me realise that all the conservation measures we put in place these days are effectively attempts to re-mosaic the countryside. Whether it’s set-aside, buffer strips, beetle banks, Skylark plots, orchard restoration or relaxed hedge flailing cycles- it’s all about trying desperately to shoehorn some habitat variation into a near-monoculture. 

This in turn got me thinking about just how reactive farming and indeed conservation are being- they are effectively picking up the pieces left behind from a system operated by the powers that be. Trying to solve a problem using only what’s left behind is a bit like putting a bucket under a leaking tap and declaring it fixed- you’re not solving the problem you’re tackling the mess. The conservation of farmland birds is about root causes and the answers lie in the bigger picture.

The bigger picture...

We the public demand our cheap food, we care where our food comes from- but only if it is at a price we can afford. We all want the standard of living we feel we deserve- and there's nothing wrong with that.

In order to appeal to us the supermarkets and their suppliers want to sell us our daily bread as cheaply as they can- they want us through their sliding glass doors in droves- there's nothing wrong with that either.

Supermarkets and suppliers are keen that they shouldn't have to bear the burden of this bargain food, after all they have bumper profits and world domination to fund. So how do they sell cheap food and yet make bumper profits? It's simple, they pay the farmer less- there's nothing wrong with that... well actually...

By transferring the cost cutting to the producer the farmer has two choices. Either grow more food for less or quit farming, and let another farm absorb your land in order to make more food, for less. Our demand, and the need for supermarkets and suppliers to make profit from our food is what drives the intensification of British agriculture.

There are lots of issues arising from a more intensive farming but the three key issues are:
  • Issues of animal welfare
  • Biodiversity decline
  • The loss of small/medium farms

The public are right to be concerned about these issues, they're things that people feel strongly about and there are lots of ways these problems are addressed.

Tax payers money (in the form of subsidies) is used to reward farmers for farming in a more environmentally sensitive way to help offset biodiversity losses. We join charities and make donations to support those working to help our farmland species and we support organisations that lobby governments and policy makers to bring about changes in animal welfare standards or address biodiversity loss. In short, a lot of people pay a lot of money to put these things right.

We argue about these issues, with heated debates throwing the blame back and forth. We pit farming against the environment and production against biodiversity in an increasingly polarised debate that doesn't really benefit anyone. Sometimes it feels like we're arguing for argument's sake.

All the time we're doing this we pass the blame up the chain. For many of us we see the intensive farming systems that increasingly dominate our countryside and the buck stops there. Farming causes biodiversity decline- it's true, it's a simple answer and it means we have our culprit, but farming is the product of our demand. The argument gets a bit more messy when we look at the bigger picture but until we do we're just trapped in a vicious cycle of eating cheap food, species decline and blaming farmers.

I know what I say is sometimes idealist and I don't have the answers.  I understand that economic systems and market forces make the world go around. I realise that if milk companies paid us a few more pence per litre for our milk that we wouldn't somehow be thrust back into some golden age where hedgerows groaned under the weight of Yellowhammers and Bullfinches. But having said this if farmers weren't forced to produce food for such little reward they wouldn't be forced to transfer their loses onto the natural world in order to make a living. We need to acknowledge that the causes of biodiversity loss are many, varied, and a result of the way our society works.

It's absolutely right that we the public should question where our taxes are spent. Some may feel the UK farming industry is something of a black hole when it comes to the millions and millions of pounds in publicly funded subsidies- particularly as farmland bird species continue to decline.

So where is this money going? I can't speak for the big landowners or the 'grain barons' but it's certainly not into the pockets of the farmers around here. Maybe when we're scratching our heads and pondering where this money goes, we should have a think about the bumper profits those supermarkets are enjoying. Money handed over by the public and squeezed from the producers. It sometimes feels like they are the only ones doing well out of the farming industry.

I'm not suggesting we should march on our nearest Sainsburys, but you have to ask yourself if when you're reaping the benefits of that cheap food at the checkout- maybe you're helping pay for it with your taxes. And who benefits? It's not the farmer and it sure isn't the wildlife. A cheap pint of milk means short term gains for long term losses.

What to do next...

When we look for accountability in the decline of biodiversity in our countryside we need to think more about where our food comes from, the journey it takes beyond the farm gate and who makes the most money from this process. There are issues here that cannot be solved simply by switching to the Tesco Finest range.

I know supermarkets make commitments to help British farmers, they are working on the traceability of their food and the welfare standards under which it is produced. They are working on these welfare issues because their consumers demanded it. This is a good thing- it shows they will respond to public pressure. Therefore we also need to ask our supermarkets and their suppliers what they're doing to help address the other issues arising from intensive farming: biodiversity decline, disappearing habitats and the loss of our small/medium farms.

Showing off publicity shots of the happy cattle that are minced into their premium range products is all well and good, but we mustn't become complacent, we must not forget that there are other problems the supermarkets need to help us address.

So when it comes to halting the decline of farmland species the millions in subsidies, cooperation between the farming and conservation communities, and the tireless work of wildlife charities and organisations are all vital- but, they're all about tackling issues on the ground, from the bottom-up. Equally important, but massivly overlooked is  the opportunity to tackle things from the top-down. We can do this by looking to those companies that pass food from the farmer to the consumer and make billions of pounds in the process.

We all have a responsibility to help us restore that lost habitat mosaic and try to save our farmland birds, we just need to ask those who are in a position to implement real changes on our behalf.

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