Monday, April 9, 2012

Putting a price on our farmland birds...

Money makes the world go round. It's no secret and it's not ideal, but it's a fact and it's the reason why so much is wrong with the world.

Take for example the decline of our farmland birds. The demand for cheap food and the post-war subsidisation of our food production led to their decline, and in a way it's my fault, and it's your fault, and the fault of everyone that's eaten anything in the last 60 years (which is most of us).

Our farmers were the ones doing the producing that led to this decline and are the ones we all blame for the fact that these days if want to see a Corn Bunting I need a train ticket and a lot of luck.

As a nation we like to think that we control our farmers, because their work is subsidised. Rightly or wrongly we feel a degree of ownership over them and the countryside they manage. Since we pay our taxes we feel they should farm how we want them to and not how the rules of capitalism dictate they should.

In many ways that's not a bad thing if people feel connected to their countryside and feel impassioned to seek change for the better.

Whilst we seek that change we must also remember that it's money  that makes the world go round. Goodwill can go a long way, and our farmers have bucket-loads of it, but farming remains a profit-driven industry.

This isn't a thinly-veiled appeal for more Government money as cynics may believe, I'm simply highlighting the fact that if our farmed environment is to support the species we would like it to then we have to find the best way to make that happen with the limited resources we have- this also HAS to be viable when compared to farming the land for maximum output.

This isn't easy. In fact it's bloody tricky, and made all the more difficult by the fact that in many sectors the price paid for our food is now slowly increasing, making more intensive food production an ever-more appealing option for someone looking to make a living from the land. And who can blame them, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to work for a lesser salary to stricter guidelines dictated by someone else.

The simple answer is not to offer any form of subsidisation to those that don't farm in an environmentally-sympathetic manner, and that's logical. But if food prices continue to increase it's not going to be enough of a disincentive to put people of farming for a higher profit.

It's a  bit of a conundrum- not least because it leads us to question what price we would pay for our farmland species. We HAVE to know what to do if subsidising the environment cannot compete with the demand for food.

It's not all bad news- there are things we can do to farm the land for profit AND wildlife- some of them remarkably simple and effective. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and the RSPB have worked hard on finding practical solutions, their work has correctly focused on the evolution of our farming practices rather than a revolution within the industry.

What we now need to think about is how we encourage and inspire farmers to adopt the successful measures- and it's not always that farmers are unwilling to do these things. If I went to my local livestock auction and spoke to those assembled around the sales ring about Lapwings I don't doubt they'd all lament their demise, but probably all be unsure if and how they could do anything to make a difference.

The other thing they'd all be pretty sure of is that they were to blame for the Lapwings disappearance- they've been told it enough.

I see the farming community as a huge pool of neo-conservationists- they have the potential to be the Corn Buntings best friend. Because of existing environmental subsidies, the good work of groups such as the RSPB and The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, and the will of the farming community we have the potential to apply the brakes to (and where possible reverse) species decline- depsite the increased demand for affordable food.

We now need all those concerned to make a concerted effort to implement the findings of these trials, they need to disseminate their results to farmers and not just fellow conservationists, and where possible pull out all the stops to help and encourage farmers to take up new methods. Offering incentives to farm for wildlife may convince some- but for others just showing that farming for wildlife will not hinder profits is more effective.

Helping to save our farmland birds is all about looking to the future and not the past. It's about working with farmers and not standing on your soapbox, pointing the finger of blame and repeatedly telling them it's their fault. Especially when we've all so clearly dined on the fruits of their labour.

So money makes the world go round- and we have to accept it. So subsidise the farmers or don't subsidise the farmers- the sustainability of subsidised agriculture is always questionable and as demand for food increases it may end up being irrelevant anyway. Working with farmers for a profitable AND sustainable countryside will be better for all of us in the long run.

1 comment:

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