Illustration of farming
© Jane Smith

A report released last month by the wild plant conservation charity Plantlife presents great swaths of the UK as green but far from pleasant land. It details the transformation of the Welsh countryside from a once richly coloured tapestry of wildflower meadows to one of blanket uniformity, the result of large-scale cropping and grazing. According to this report, 98 per cent of hay meadows have disappeared over the past 40 years, and – a reminder that extinction does not only happen elsewhere in the world – of the 1,467 flowers in the Welsh flora, 38 have already been lost.

These figures mirror the shocking findings of last year’s State of Nature report, compiled by 25 wildlife groups. Here, too, a dramatic fall in plant diversity was charted, alongside a corresponding and related fall in insect, bird and mammal populations across a range of habitats, including the farmed environment, which makes up about 75 per cent of the UK’s landscape. Of the 3,148 species assessed for population and distribution trends, 60 per cent have declined over the past 50 years; further research shows turtle dove numbers have plummeted by 80 per cent since 1995, hedgehog numbers are down by a third since 2000 and the high brown fritillary butterfly by 70 per cent since 2001. Of the 6,225 species assessed using modern red-list criteria, 12 per cent are now threatened with extinction.

In the UK, and elsewhere across the US and Europe, research points to the detrimental effects of intensive agriculture. The result is a seemingly impossible dilemma. If we accept that food production must meet the demand of growing populations, and believe in the importance of food security within our own countries, and at the same time wish to halt – and begin to reverse – the huge environmental damage that has already been done, then farming must somehow become both productive and ecologically sound.

Action is being taken. Reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy, the complex, EU-wide system of farm subsidy payments, which amounts to more than 40 per cent of the EU’s annual budget, are due to be implemented from 2015 and will involve stricter environmental requirements. These “greening” measures, announced last month, include rules to encourage larger areas of permanent grassland, crop diversification and the creation of ecological focus areas. For many farmers, the reforms mean further practical and administrative burdens; for many environmentalists, they do not go nearly far enough.

Clearly, new and more creative paths need to be pursued – and a more open and constructive dialogue between environmentalists and farmers/landowners is a good place to start. In the UK there have been considerable efforts on this front. In 2005, Natural England introduced a new and much larger stewardship scheme that provides government funding for environmental land management. Nearly 60 per cent of England’s agricultural land is now involved at entry level, where points are awarded for options, such as grass field margins, which are intended to improve plant diversity and provide wildlife-friendly habitats. However, research suggests these changes are too piecemeal and too fragmented to have clear benefits.

More hopeful is the prospect of “cluster farms”. The Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area, one of 12 case studies being piloted by Natural England with government funding, is a trailblazing scheme in being farmer-led. The initiative, which covers 25,000 acres in south England, involves 42 farmers, alongside environmental groups including Butterfly Conservation and the Wiltshire Botanical Society. As well as enhancing existing conservation sites, it is creating a “necklace of traditional dew ponds as stepping stones for wildlife, strung on a ribbon of wildflower-rich habitat”. The scheme aims to improve plant and wildlife by taking a wide-reaching, bottom-up approach to land management, but also by connecting local communities with each other and the landscape.

Research by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust has shown the sowing of game crops, together with targeted, legal predator control, can significantly increase numbers of songbirds and ground-nesting birds. Golf courses, which now cover more of the UK than nature reserves, and are popular with farmers seeking to diversify, can be transformed into ecologically rich sites. An award-winning golf course near Boston, in Lincolnshire, has created a series of wildlife habitats, including reed beds, ponds and about 100 nest boxes, in “out of play” areas that would otherwise be barren. The site now has more than 38 bird species confirmed as breeding on the site. Many such projects are small-scale but enterprising, and they must be built on.

Like it or not, large-scale environmental progress will only be made if farming remains a commercial business. Organic farming seemed to offer a solution of sorts, albeit with lower yields, but this market has struggled to recover since the downturn in 2008.

What is needed now is a sense of shared responsibility. Farmers and landowners must commit to environmental management schemes, seek wherever possible to reduce their chemical dependency (already, many are using “cultural” controls, such as spring cropping, to combat the herbicide-resistant black grass weed) and support environmentalists with research on the ground. Environmentalists, in turn, must look to incentivise farmers, rather than criticise the industry for its preoccupation with profits.

Both groups need to streamline their approaches and look beyond the confines of individual farms, estates and reserves. Only then will “agri-environment” efforts prove more than an awkward oxymoron.

Laura Battle is deputy editor of House & Home. Her family farms in Lincolnshire

Illustration by Jane Smith

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