What will happen to farming in Devon post Brexit?

Yesterday I attended the Devon Local Nature Partnership conference ‘New Horizons for Devon’s Natural Capital’. Great speakers, well attended and well organised. Whilst there are many exciting initiatives happening right now in Devon and the ‘Green Brexit’ mission of Michael Gove gives environmentalists much to be optimistic about with the mantra of ‘public money for pubic goods’, I nevertheless left the conference with a sick feeling in my stomach. What does the future hold for Devon’s multitude of small family farms?

Most of my friends are not rural policy wonks and therefore they are unaware of the situation that farming in Devon (and elsewhere) finds itself. Read on.

Here is Professor Matt Lobley from the Centre for Rural Policy Research (where I work) at the University of Exeter talking about  Farm Business Income. Matt told the audience that the bottom 42% of small farms in England contribute just 2% of agricultural output…. There will be those who say these farmers are inefficient and a widespread re-structuring of the industry is required, I say be careful what you wish for. The consequences for the natural character, landscapes, biodiversity and social fabric of counties like Devon in losing 42% of its small family farms would be immense and would led to outcomes which would fly in the face of the Green Brexit objectives.

The rest of this blog attempts to explain the predicament that farmers in Devon now find themselves and gives a small insight into what has to be done over the coming 5 years. The following data comes from various Defra Farm Income reports.

This graph shows the average Farm Business income in England for the various different types of farming. It shows that across England cereals, grazing livestock (lowlands), grazing livestock LFA (Less Favoured Areas) and  mixed farming all lose money on the agricultural side of their businesses.

This table gives the actual figures included in the above graph. So if we look at Grazing Livestock (lowland) i.e. much of Devon that isn’t on Dartmoor or Exmoor, the figures show that the agricultural business lost £8,700 but agri-environment payments (money for looking after wildlife) generated £3000, diversified income (e.g. running a B & B on the farm) produced £6500, the Basic Payment Scheme (subsidy for owning land) provided £15,300 giving an overall Farm Business Income of £16,100. So £24,800 comes from grants, diversified non agricultural businesses and the Basic Payment Scheme to offset the £8700 agricultural loss giving the family farm an income of £16,100. That is not a living wage, i.e. the income provided is unable to pay the farmer, spouse and other working family members a rate of pay equal to the minimum agricultural wage.

The above figures are the 2016/17 figures for England but if you look at the regional numbers other trends emerge.

These are the 2015/16 figures: the average England FBI figure for grazing livestock is £14,400 but in the south west this drops to £10,300. The dairy sector on the other hand is stronger in the south west.

Here are the summary forecasts for 2017/18.

And here are the detailed forecast figures for 2017/18 along with the trends since 2012/13, an 8% decline for upland hill-farmers (LFA) and a standstill position for lowland grazing livestock. A major increase for dairy and a substantial one for cereals. A volatile market but a very precarious one for livestock farmers.

There are some pretty stark numbers in these datasets. Many farms, particularly small farms make small margins and many others are very reliant on agri-environment grants and the Basic Payment Scheme. After we leave the EU the Basic Payment Scheme will be phased out and public money for farmers will be provided in return for the provision of public goods (e.g. wildlife, access, looking after the historic environment, carbon storage, flood prevention, provision of drinking water etc). The following table shows the scale of the shift in policy and the implications of what might happen if it can’t be achieved.

The column titled CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) Subsidy is the sum of the agri-environment grants and the BPS subsidy. This is the amount of money therefore that farmers will have to earn via the provision of pubic goods if they are to maintain their current income levels. The final column shows what the impact would be on their Farm Business Income if they are unable to do this.

And here’s the rub – some farms on account of their location are much better placed than others to provide a suite of public goods and therefore receive public money. So for example hill-farmers in National Parks have made a very strong case that they can provide these public goods as these areas are rich in natural capital and this has been acknowledged by Government. On the other hand lowland graziers perhaps will find it much more difficult to provide public goods as they are not situated in National Parks with Bronze Age landscapes and Special Areas of Conservation where millions of people go for access and recreation.

The stated aim of these changes is to leave the environment in a better condition than it is in now, this means changes to the way things are done. Judging by the conversations that I’ve heard hill-farmers might be able to provide £22,800 worth of public goods to make up for the loss of their Basic Payment Scheme subsidy, the question is whether for example lowland graziers can provide £15,300 and dairy farmers £25,300 worth of public goods in return for the money.

I had a conversation with Robin Milton, Chair of Exmoor National Park, hill-farmer and NFU Uplands chair about this very topic yesterday and that was why I left the conference with a sick feeling in my stomach.

A Black Fox Running

I was passing Waterstones in Exeter on Saturday and saw a window display for this book.

If you love Dartmoor and wildlife I suspect that this book is for you. I’m halfway through it and am spell bound.

Here is what Waterstones have to say about it – it will give you an idea of what to expect .

A beautiful lost classic of nature writing which sits alongside Tarka the Otter, Watership Down, War Horse and The Story of a Red Deer

This is the story of Wulfgar, the dark-furred fox of Dartmoor, and of his nemesis, Scoble the trapper, in the seasons leading up to the pitiless winter of 1947.

As breathtaking in its descriptions of the natural world as it is perceptive its portrayal of damaged humanity, it is both a portrait of place and a gripping story of survival.

Uniquely straddling the worlds of animals and men, Brian Carter’s A Black Fox Running is a masterpiece: lyrical, unforgiving and unforgettable.

The 25 year Environment Plan and National Parks

One part of the Government’s 25 Year plan for the environment which has received very little attention or comment is their plan to commission a review of National Parks in England. The Council for National Parks have broadly welcomed the plan but have also raised some concerns – see here.

Reviewing National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty
The UK’s first National Parks were created by an Act of Parliament in 1949 following the government’s 1947 Hobhouse Report, which remains the basis for most protected landscape designation in England today.

Now, 70 years on, the Government will commission a review for the 21st Century. This will consider coverage of designations, how designated areas deliver their responsibilities, how designated areas are financed, and whether there is scope for expansion. It will also consider opportunities to enhance the environment in existing designations and expand on the existing eight-point plan for National Parks to connect more people with the natural environment.
A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment pp65-66

Five years ago, commissioning a review into National Parks would have been a recipe for their further emasculation (see here for example) but this announcement makes me feel that they are going to be strengthened and properly funded. Who is to chair the review? Dame Fiona Reynolds would be a good choice in my view.

So, what exactly does the second paragraph above from the 25 Year plan actually mean? At this point, as with many things in the plan it is unclear but here are a few thoughts of mine as to what might be around the corner.

The coverage of designations
I’m assuming that this means geographic coverage. There have been recent calls for the greenspace in London to be designated as a National Park – see here. As a plan it perhaps isn’t as counter-intuitive as it first sounds as it would certainly further encourage a great many people to engage and connect with the natural environment.

I have been struck for many years by the huge hole in the Midlands which is devoid of any landscape designation. I used to work in Northamptonshire for many years and believe a case could be made for designating the Nene Valley or Rockingham Forest as AONBs.

It would be somewhat strange for the Government to include this question if it didn’t have something in its mind about new areas.

How designated areas deliver their responsibilities
This question is a fundamental one. I’m not familiar with the situation regarding AONBs but for National Park Authorities (NPAs) this matter is critical. Currently NPAs have powers relating to planning and strategic planning issues but no real powers when it comes to enhancing the landscape. They can attempt to influence things by acting as the ‘ring master’ but they have to rely on other bodies who have power and the funding (through the agri-environment schemes) such as Natural England and Defra.

There has long been criticism that these national schemes do not always take account of local circumstances and are viewed as being run by ‘outsiders’ who do not understand the specific issues within a regional National Park.

As a result, National Parks England (NPE) have been looking at the future of farming within National Parks – see here for the outputs from a recent task and finish group.

NPAs regard traditional approaches to livestock farming as essential for the management and conservation of landscapes, habitats and the cultural heritage that makes National Parks special. NPAs see themselves as having a central role in shaping the future of farming and land management so that a ‘triple dividend’ results: enhanced environment, improved productivity and more vibrant communities.

They argue that the current system is silo-based (different funding streams being poorly integrated), management is by prescription rather than the use of local knowledge and empowerment and that currently schemes are risk averse rather than innovative.

As a result, they propose 3 new initiatives (what follows is taken from NPE document above)

1. National Park FARM Scheme [1]
An entry level voluntary scheme, open to all farmers for which there would be certain management obligations and some cross compliance. The scheme tailored to individual National Parks.

2. National Park FARM Plus – locally led agri-environment schemes
A higher level, locally-led agri- environment scheme. FARM Plus would be focused on enhanced levels of environmental management to deliver public goods.

These schemes would be focused on delivering multiple environmental benefits with options that allow for delivery of:

  • Landscape
  • Biodiversity and geodiversity
  • Carbon management
  • Water management
  • Woodland management (and creation)
  • Historic environment
  • Access and education

Whilst also facilitating the production of high quality food through sustainable farming systems.

The aim is to maximise delivery across all these benefits rather than a narrow focus on one or two and to allow local flexibility in setting priorities (my emphasis).

The scheme should:

  • Be focused on local needs and opportunities whilst recognising national priorities.
  • Encourage collaboration between farmers or within farm clusters to deliver sustainable improvements at a landscape scale.
  • Be outcome focused – engaging with farmers to involve them in agreeing environmental outcomes that they will deliver mechanisms and take part in the monitoring of outcomes.
  • Be evidence-based – ensuring that monitoring results are understood and used by the farming community to inform management in a virtuous circle of innovation and learning and offering reassurance to the public that they are delivering the agreed outcomes or identifying actions to address any concerns.
  • Be proportionate – as far as possible light touch, easy to understand and to sign up to, with common sense flexibility on measurement and reporting.
  • Offer multi-year agreements with the length of agreements related to the outcomes being delivered (i.e. long-term agreements for complex landscape-scale delivery on areas such as commons).
  • Include the potential for capital as well as revenue payments (e.g. capital payments for key landscape features such as stone walls and hedgerows or investment in water source protection and natural flood management).
  • Provide the opportunity to integrate private sector payments for natural capital/ecosystem services alongside public payments, following the Natural Capital Committee’s recommendations.
  • Integrate with other environmental and rural support programmes to multiply benefits and avoid perverse incentives.

3. Wider Rural Development
A key part of our vision is for local delivery of integrated solutions to deliver a triple dividend: enhanced environment, improved productivity and farm profitability and more vibrant communities. National Park Authorities are well placed to facilitate community-led local development programmes that link environment, economy and community. These programmes would include grants but should also include loans (i.e. a revolving fund rather than one-off injections of capital). There should also be the opportunity for revenue spend.

This sounds like an integrated scheme which would put NPAs in a much stronger position than the one they currently occupy. The implication also appears to be that NPAs would run and administer the schemes – this has the advantage of ensuring that all public goods are included as outputs but does beg the question as to where this leaves Natural England in the overall scheme of things. Would such an approach favour National Parks to the detriment of the wider countryside?

I’ve seen people furrow their brows at these proposals and heard others say ‘things have moved on’ since NPE published their ideas. It will be interesting to see whether these plans re-emerge during the NP Review hearings.

How designated areas are financed
Funding for NPAs over the past few years has been a roller coaster, for example Dartmoor NPA has had its funding cut by 40% since 2010. This has led to a dramatic cut in staffing levels and various work streams. Whilst many NPAs have been able to access other funding streams such as from the Heritage Lottery (e.g. Dartmoor’s More than Meets the Eye Project) and private sector money (e.g. Dartmoor’s Mires Project) this has not made up for the earlier cuts.

If NPAs are to play a role in delivering the Government’s 25 Year Plan they undoubtedly need stability in their funding.

Is there scope for expansion?
And if NRAs are to take a more active role in future agri-environment and wider rural development schemes they undoubted will require additional funding and staffing. Efforts have been made to increase income streams via fund raising and in Dartmoor’s case through the introduction of car parking fees, but additional Treasury revenues will also be needed.

Opportunities to enhance the environment in existing designations
I’ve outlined above the opportunities to enhance the environment via the NPE’s FARM and FARM Plus schemes above. Whether these specific proposals are adopted or not it seems more than likely that enhancing the environment will be publicly funded as it delivers public goods. The current direction of travel also seems to indicate that schemes will be locally led, use local knowledge by engaging with farmers to involve them in agreeing environmental outcomes which can then be monitored. With regards to biodiversity outcomes this may prove somewhat problematic and the search for ‘favourable condition’ [2] on Sites of Special Scientific Interest has proven to be very fraught over the past 30 years. A combination of atmospheric pollution, climate change and disagreement about appropriate grazing regimes has meant that the desired ‘habitat outcomes’ may no long actually be achievable.

Time and effort needs to be spent to ensure that thought is given to what ‘reconfigured’ landscapes in our National Parks might look like, if this isn’t done an ‘outcomes with monitoring approach’ is meaningless and potentially disastrous for hill-farmers. Hill-farmers need to be able to ‘enhance’ habitats to something beyond ‘favourable condition’ – otherwise there is a great risk of failure.

Expand on the existing eight-point plan for National Parks to connect more people with the natural environment
Defra published its 8 point plan for National Parks in 2016 – see here. The 8 points can be summarised as follows:-

  1. Connect young people with nature
  2. Create thriving natural environments
  3. National Parks driving growth in international tourism
  4. Deliver new apprenticeships in National Parks
  5. Promote the best of British food from National Parks
  6. Everyone’s National Parks
  7. Landscape and heritage in National Parks
  1. Health and wellbeing in National Parks

I’ve given a lot of thought to this and to be honest I really don’t know what this means. The plan already covers young people, international tourists, apprentices, NPs for everyone along with recreation, health and wellbeing ……. I will be interested to see what is proposed.

Who knows what will finally emerge? But gauging by the language and various speeches by Michael Gove there is enough wiggle room to make hill-farmers, NPAs, traditional nature conservationists, historic landscape people, peat conservers, water suppliers and the cultural historians feel optimistic.

But what of those who want to see a more rewilded series of landscapes in our National Parks? It would appear that they have been dismissed. The 25 Year plan doesn’t mention it and the NPAs are signed up to ‘pastorally managed cultural landscapes’. However, there is an increasing push for a rewilding agenda – indeed my own views on the importance of cultural landscapes are being increasingly challenged as being old school and reactionary. I do believe  in ‘soft’ rewilding (see here) which could be achieved through agri-environment schemes such as FARM Plus, and I would support full blown rewilding if:-

  1. There is consent of the people involved to be rewilded (i.e. the hill-farmers and the land owners)
  2. That the landscapes that are created via rewilding are more important than those that they replace.

Point 2 asks whether replacing an open Bronze Age historic and cultural landscape with a modern rewilded wooded landscape is a gain or a loss? The answer to that question will depend on which of the various upland narratives you support but the dominant policy narrative is of ‘pastorally managed cultural landscapes’. In my experience from Dartmoor there might be a small number of landowners who would support some rewilding but I know of no hill-farmers on the Commons who do. However, of course over  time and changing circumstances this may change.

Interestingly the paleoecologists Ralph Fyfe and Jessie Woodbridge, published some research which showed that woodland communities persisted on parts of the high moor well into the Iron Age (2500BP) [3], demonstrating that 2500 years ago the ‘moorland’ of Dartmoor was much more diverse than it is today. The conclude their paper by stating:-

Linkages between palaeoecology and ecology are increasing, and the results presented here demonstrate that palaeoecological methods can be used to determine dimensions of past spatial patterning in addition to the temporal trends that are usually offered by palaeoecological study. In particular, the results are useful for conservation strategies by demonstrating variability in spatial diversity of vegetation patterns in the past and pointing towards opportunities to recreate and maintain diverse vegetation mosaics.

This suggests that in some parts of NPs it might be possible and indeed desirable to allow some form of rewilding to occur if there was local consent. Others will disagree with this notion stating that the cultural landscapes of today have of course continued to form since the Iron Age and were not just created up to it. Nevertheless, the Fyfe and Woodbridge research is important as it identifies that in certain areas the recreation of more diverse vegetation mosaics has historic precedent.

Perhaps NPAs should give some thought to Fyfe and Woodbridge ideas as it might help them with the reconfiguration issues discussed above as landscapes continue to be altered by atmospheric pollution and climate.

[1] FARM – Farming and Rural Management

[2] Favourable condition is the expression used by Natural England to determine whether habitats are being adequately conserved. On Dartmoor currently of the 20,673 ha of common land SSSI, only 1.68% are in favourable condition.

[3] Fyfe R & Woodbridge J. (2012) Differences in time and space in vegetation patterning: analysis of pollen data from Dartmoor, UK. Landscape Ecol 27: 745–760


Landscape conservation and nature conservation: uneasy bedfellows?

Two perspectives – one from Europe and the other from Dartmoor.
On the face, of it you would think that all those who want to protect the environment get along with each other working towards a common goal. This can happen especially if the nature conservation of species is dependent on traditional farming practices in culturally developed and ancient landscapes, but when conservation relies on process driven rewilding there are huge consequences for landscapes and the traditional cultures that sustain them.

I recently came across a couple of essays, an editorial and opinion piece about this very topic from a mainland southern European perspective. You can download the four pieces here. I was struck how the perspective essay by Mauro Agnoletti ‘Rural landscape, nature conservation and culture: some notes on research trends and management approaches from a (southern) European perspective’ shared many of the same concerns as those held by Tom Greeves who has written on the subject from a Dartmoor perspective. You can download Tom Greeves’ paper ‘Dartmoor and the displacement of culture: analysis and remedyhere.

This blog reviews the assertions of Agnoletti and Greeves and discusses the future for landscapes and local cultures in the face of the globally driven economic, social and environmental pressures and changes.

Rural landscape, nature conservation and culture: some notes on research trends and management approaches from a (southern) European perspective
Agnoletti says that landscapes are largely a cultural construct i.e. they have been created over time by the people who have inhabited and farmed the land. A cultural landscape is fashioned from a natural landscape by a cultural group: culture is the agent, the natural area the medium and the cultural landscape is the result.

He argues that whilst the importance of landscapes is acknowledged at an international and European scale the policies required to conserve them are largely lacking. He suggests that if a landscape scale approach was adopted across Europe a new paradigm for a development model could harmoniously integrate social, economic and environmental factors in time and space.

But as the globalisation of agriculture has occurred during the 20th century traditional farming practices have collapsed leading to cultivatable land being industrially intensified whilst the pastoral landscapes which are on poorer land, and therefore unimprovable from an agricultural perspective, are being abandoned.

These trends are therefore leading to a cultural globalisation (i.e. homogenisation). The idea of nature has been overlapped with landscape and this is leading to re-naturalisation (what in the UK we would call rewilding) and increasing forest cover which overlays the ancient landscapes patterns along with their associated long and rich cultural history that led to their creation.

Agnoletti argues that there is a growing tendency to see a scientific approach to the study of landscape as a natural resource opposed to a cultural phenomenon. The workstreams that flow from this are ecological in nature with little cultural focus. Academic journals see landscape as an ecological issue largely in the context of nature conservation and he suggests that scientific publications have a higher academic credibility than chapters and books in the Humanities which therefore establishes an ecological bias.

Agnoletti states that such an approach causes three problems:

a) Degradation of the rural landscape
Farming per se is considered damaging to nature: 20th and 21st century approaches to traditional pastoral farming methods are lumped in together with modern intensive agricultural methods. Pastoral landscapes do not receive the financial support they require to remain sustainable and are abandoned either to be re-naturalised or afforested. Cultivated land is intensified agriculturally – both phenomena lead to a loss of local knowledge, cultural landscapes and the rural population.

b) Abandonment and reforestation
The abandonment of European landscapes has also been encouraged by European Union set-aside policies. As a result of this and globalization it is estimated that 400-500k ha of forest advance occurs per annum – partly through abandonment and partly through active re-afforestation.

The dominant narrative of European ecologists is that the environment needs to be returned to the natural state, partly because Man has destroyed nature and partly because the EU Habitats Directive has an emphasis on natural habitats.

How can it be logical to want to return to the natural state in landscapes that haven’t been natural for 8000 years? Nevertheless, re-naturalisation has been aligned in Europe with nature policies and the promotion of rewilding and afforestation in the fight against climate change through increased carbon sequestration.

c) Rural landscapes, history and biodiversity
Whilst the re-naturalisation of closed forest landscapes provides new habitats for some wildlife this is at the expense of the wildlife which already lives in the historical and largely open landscapes. A greater diversity of wildlife will be conserved if many cultural landscapes are protected.

Agnoletti summarises his argument as follows:-

  • Landscapes need to be viewed for they are i.e. their cultural origins
  • Europe needs an adequate characterization of rural landscapes
  • Support for traditional agriculture is required to halt further losses
  • Nature narratives need to be combined with cultural ones to create biocultural diversity
  • Natural habitats need to be prevented in unnatural places
  • Achieving these things will help maintain rural communities

This is an interesting and informative perspective from Southern Europe however it contrasts markedly with the situation found in the UK for the following reasons:-

  1. The UK values its Cultural Landscapes and has categorized them in great detail under the Natural Area Profile assessment (see here).
  2. The abandonment of land seen on marginal land in Europe simply hasn’t happened on anything other than a minor scale in the UK
  3. Marginal land particularly those in protected areas have received considerable sums of subsidy through the agri-envionment schemes to ensure that traditional management practices are encouraged and continued so that the landscapes, the cultural groups that produced them and the biodiversity are protected.

On the face of it then, it would appear that in the UK, the conservation of landscapes and local farmers was working in harmony with the objectives of nature conservation. However, this is not the case in the uplands of Britain where their special landscapes are deeply contested today by various groups of interested parties. Tom Greeves, argues very strongly that culture and landscape on Dartmoor have been detrimentally out manoeuvred by advocates of the natural environment.

Dartmoor and the displacement of culture: analysis and remedy – conservation imbalance
Greeves points out that the post-war conservation movement has been dominated by the natural environment and is heavily skewed towards nature. He argues that nature and culture should be given equal balance. He says that even the name Natural England reinforces the belief that the environment is natural. The 25k ha of Sites of Special Scientific Interest on Dartmoor are all about animals and plants and no mention is made about culture.

In 2006 when the Dartmoor Vision was published, areas called ‘Premier Archaeological Landscapes’ were introduced – these were areas where the historic landscape would be given primacy over wildlife. Greeves dismisses this concession as he argues that no part of the moor is without cultural value. He goes on to argue that the era of ‘overgrazing’ (i.e. circa 1950-1980) was actually revolutionary for the historic environment as it revealed many archaeological features and sites which had become lost in the vegetation. Once the agri-environment schemes were introduced and the numbers of grazing animals were reduced gorse and unpalatable grasses took over in many areas and hid and in some cases damaged the cultural landscape. Greeves argues that Natural England have ‘clung on to the concept of overgrazing’ and as a result ‘awareness of the cultural riches of Dartmoor has not yet impinged on Establishment thinking.

Policies of Natural England and the destruction of neighbourliness
Not only does Greeves loathe the agri-environment schemes for their stocking reductions he also blames them for creating divisiveness amongst the hill-farming Commoners. The subsidy money was handed over to the local Common Associations who then had to decide how to allocate sums to individuals, this practice lead to arguments and squabbles where none had existed before. Without doubt Natural England’s policies in the latter parts of the last century and earlier parts of this one created great resentment as Commoners considered they were ‘fighting for their rights’ against the Natural England ‘dictatorship’.

The Mires Project
The Dartmoor Mires restoration project, a £1.1 million scheme which ran between 2010 and 2015 also comes in more considerable criticism from Greeves. He states that no evidence was ever presented to suggest that the moor was in fact actually damaged and therefore needed restoration. He was particularly incensed that large tracked machines were taken into the ‘wildest parts of the moor’ to carry out various works to impound water and rewet the peat. He calls it ‘one of the least prepared and worst pseudo-scientific projects’ that Dartmoor has ever seen.

With regards to calls to rewild Dartmoor as a result of ‘sheepwrecking’ he dismisses these ideas as they take no account of ‘the significance of the cultural landscape of Dartmoor and what it means in terms of the human story over the last eight millennia or so’.

Greeves suggests that radical reform is needed underpinned by research. The stranglehold of Natural England must be challenged and removed as they have no right to upset the age old social fabric of hill-farming and they have no right to obscure the archaeology of the moor. With regard to how the moor should be managed he urges that Commoners be asked for their views and then allowed to enact them. He urges that culture, flora and fauna are respected in equal measure and that the existing designations such as SSSIs and Scheduled Ancients Monuments are replaced with a new overarching protective mechanism and that Dartmoor is viewed in the future as an ecocultural zone. Finally he recommends that the National Park Authority is replaced by a Dartmoor Assembly which consists of elected local people.

There is much passion throughout much of Tom Greeves paper and it is fair to say that it has not been well received in a number of places! But rather like the Agnoletti paper it does raise a number of important points. Amongst the displeasure of the status quo raised in both papers there is a plea that cultural landscapes are given equal consideration to biological landscapes.

This of course sounds entirely reasonable but in practice achieving this has historically proven to be extremely difficult. A heavily grazing and swaled Dartmoor landscape (the over grazing over burning narrative) is good for the cultural landscape but bad for the biological one and of course was the exact scenario that led to the introduction of the agri-environment schemes.

Conversely a less grazed and less burnt Dartmoor landscape, even one which contains Premier Archaeological Landscapes, currently pleases no one completely as the effects of climate change and atmospheric pollution are reconfiguring the moors in ways that satisfy very few. However, the search for a better consensus must continue in the brave new world of Brexit and the ‘public money for public goods debate’, for most agree (with the exception of the rewilders) that a world without hill-farmers will create a new Dartmoor landscape that the majority don’t want.

The end of livestock farming? A world of narratives and counter narratives

There has been a lot of coverage in the media in recent months about the global impact of the livestock industry. For example, New Scientist (27th January 2018) led with ‘Living on the veg – is veganism just a fad or should we all give up meat and dairy?’ The article states that 25% of the ice-free land on the planet is devoted to livestock grazing and on top of that 33% of all cropped land is used to produce food for livestock. It goes on to ask whether instead of producing animal food we should in fact be using that land to produce human food.

The UK Government in 2011 produced a foresight report called The Future of Food and Farming which suggested that by 2050 we needed to produce 50% more food than we do now in order to feed the growing global population and their increasing preference for a meat diet.

But Colin Tudge (the environmental journalist) and Ruth Tudge from the Campaign for Real Farming, quoting Professor Hans Herren,  Director of the Millennium Institute in Washington DC, state that globally we already produce enough food for 14 billion people i.e. twice the number of people on the planet, see here.

Producing protein via livestock production is inefficient when compared to plant production. As the graphic shows over 1 m2 of land is required to produce one gram of beef. By comparison wheat required 0.04 m2 and pulses need only 0.01 m2 – a 100 fold difference between beef and pulses.

George Monbiot suggests that sheep in the UK provide 1% of our diet but occupy around 4m hectares of the uplands. Monbiot has also stated that as a result of the large number of sheep in our uplands they have been effectively ‘sheepwrecked’ (see here, here and here). A paper in Science of the Total Environment suggests that if we want to reduce biodiversity losses globally the answer is to reduce meat consumption as the eating of meat is increasing dramatically and as a result more ‘wild’ land is required for domestic stock..

The New Scientist article also reviews the impact of livestock farming with regard to climate change. 14.5% of global greenhouse gases are emitted by human livestock – an equivalent amount to that produced by all trains, cars, ships and planes.

The discussion around meat consumption is now to be found in the agricultural mainstream as well as the environmental arena. In January this year the topic was debated at the Oxford Farming Conference, the UK’s leading agri-business forum. The motion put forward was ‘This House Believes Eating Meat Will Be A Thing of the Past By 2100’ – you can read about it here and here and watch the debate here. Prior to the debate commencing only 20 of the audience of farmers supported this motion, but after the debate led by George Monbiot and Philip Lymbery (Compassion in World Farming) against hill-farmer Gareth Wyn Jones and farmer and researcher Emily Norton, 100 additional farmers ended up supporting the motion. The motion did fail with 276 nos and 120 ayes but it was an unexpected result considering the audience.

There is a growing and convincing body of evidence which demonstrates that intensive cattle rearing which is reliant on cereals for sustenance is damaging to the environment, detrimentally affects the climate and is ultimately unsustainable with an increasing world population where the growing ranks of the middle classes are turning to a more meat rich diet.

Running in parallel is the trend of veganism, in 2014, 1% of the US population were vegans, by 2017 this has risen to 5%. Likewise in the UK  the number of vegans has risen threefold in 10 years (New Scientist article). The UK there has also seen the emergence of a more radical form of veganism, albeit a small minority, who believe in direct action against farmers and abattoirs, to highlight what they believe as animal cruelty. In some instances, this has turned confrontational and unpleasant – see here. A topic discussed here by my colleague in the Centre for Rural Policy Research at Exeter University Charlotte-Anne Chivers.

So, should we all give up eating meat? Well, without a doubt the consumption of grain fed beef needs to decline dramatically in my view and that would mean that we would eat less meat which would probably also be quite good for us.

Or would it? Graham Harvey, the agricultural writer and script advisor for the Archers has produced a short film which argues that eating meat is actually good for us and that the increasing prevalence of cereals and sugar in our diets from the 1970s onwards is what has caused the health and obesity crisis – see here.

However, as Harvey’s film shows, grain fed beef is not the only type of meat available, there is also pasture fed meat as well. This is the prevalent type of farming that we find, for example on Dartmoor.

At Challacombe Farm on Dartmoor, Naomi Oakley and Mark Owen run a pasture fed system for their sheep and cattle under the Pasture Fed Livestock Association scheme. On their website they say:

Extensive grazing is essential to conserve the archaeological features of the farm and maintain its wildlife habitats, so the care for our livestock is at the heart of our work.

 Cattle, sheep and ponies all graze in different ways and their activities maintain a diverse range of habitats which are important for many rare species of flowers, birds and other wildlife.  Cattle graze using their rough tongues to wrap around and tear up vegetation, will eat coarse long grasses and so are particularly good at grazing our marshy areas and creating tussocky grass. Being heavier than the sheep they can push their way through scrub and get into rougher and wetter areas, opening it up and creating niches for wildlife to colonise. Sheep are nibblers, nipping grass off quite tightly and creating lawns, this can be great for fungi such as waxcaps. Much of the farm is scheduled as an Ancient Monument and without livestock grazing, features such as the medieval strip lynchets (the terraces on the hillsides) and the tin mining remains would become hidden and damaged by encroaching gorse, bracken and other scrub.

Challacombe is accredited with the Pasture Fed Livestock Association – this means our livestock only eat grass or grass products, never food, such as cereals, that could be eaten by humans. This pasture-based system means that our animals have access to grazing all year, with hay or haylage made on the farm being fed to them in winter when it is cold and wet to supplement their diets.

However, there is a counter narrative which suggests that pasture fed animals are worse for the planet as they produce more greenhouse gas emissions (see here) and of course there is George Monbiot’s counter narrative (already alluded to above) that grazing animals in the uplands – particularly sheep, destroy habitats and reduce biodiversity. As a result, the narrative goes, the uplands should be rewilded. The rewilding narrative is addressed by Naomi and Mark above and I have written about cultural landscapes before and the challenges of managing them  (see here and here).

As with so many issues to do with farming, food and the environment it is mighty complex and confusing, most people choosing the narratives which support their values and worldview to the exclusion of those that don’t.

The 25 year Environment Plan – the wait is over

After months of waiting the Plan has finally been published and launched by the Prime Minister. So ….. has the wait been worth it? Of course this is just a plan BUT if it is delivered an awful lot to do with the environment will change for the better. There will of course be those who say it doesn’t go far enough here and opportunities have been missed there – they will probably be right too. BUT, my goodness who would have thought a plan such as this would have been published during the Paterson or Leadsom eras? I’m not going to systematically review the document I’m just going to pull out a few bits and pieces that caught my attention and made me smile.

You can download and the the 25 year plan here and I recommend you do 

To start with I wonder whether the cover of the report contains a Defra joke? This is Mam Tor in the Peak District with the sun rising in the background (at least I assume it is rising). It is owned by the National Trust who are developing plans to encourage hen harriers and peregrines back into the area. A new dawn is breaking …. hang on …. that was somebody else.

Back to Gove, he repeats in his introduction this –

We will support farmers to turn over fields to meadows rich in herbs and wildflowers, plant more trees, restore habitats for endangered species, recover soil fertility and attract wildlife back. We will ensure broader landscapes are transformed by connecting habitats into larger corridors for wildlife, as recommended by Sir John Lawton in his official review.

In the main report we are told again that subsidies are on the way out.

£3.2bn is spent in the UK under the CAP. £2.59bn of this is spent under ‘Pillar 1’ – the ‘basic payment scheme’ (BPS). This pays farmers according to the amount of land they own, rather than the outcomes they achieve. It concentrates money in the hands of those who already have significant private wealth, without improving environmental outcomes.

And that the ‘greening’ measures have failed and that only a fraction of the money has been spent on things that make a difference.

There have been efforts to improve this by ‘greening’ one third of BPS payments – but scholars have recently found these to be largely ineffective. Just £0.64bn – 20% of the total – is spent on environmental stewardship programmes under ‘Pillar 2’.

The principle public good ….. that is progress!!

After a period of stability to ensure a smooth transition, we will move to a system of paying farmers public money for public goods. The principal public good we want to invest in is environmental enhancement.

OK nothing specifically about uplands, hill-farmers or Commons but Gove covered them in his OFC speech last week – see here. These topics will be specially covered in the Agriculture Command paper due in the Spring and all will be well! Hill-farmers will be supported and the uplands will be restored.

Incentives ….. and ….. the ‘polluter pays’ – I never thought that I would read that regarding fertiliser and pesticide usage

We will introduce a new environmental land management system to deliver this. It will incentivise and reward land managers to restore and improve our natural capital and rural heritage. It will also provide support for farmers and land managers as we move towards a more effective application of the ‘polluter pays’ principle (whereby for costs of pollution lie with those responsible for it).

Here is the strong influence on Government that the Natural Capital Committee has had. Before the NCC ‘externalities’ were just jargon from economists but now it looks like we will all be using the word to reduce pollution.

Farming can be a powerful force for environmental enhancement but it currently generates too many externalities such as emissions from livestock and pollution from fertilisers and pesticides. Overall, farming is now the most significant source of water pollution and of ammonia emissions into the atmosphere in the UK. It accounts for 25% phosphate, 50% nitrate and 75% sediment loadings in the water environment, which harms ecosystems.

Finally a clear and not tacit admission that atmospheric pollution harms soils and alters vegetation.

By ensuring fertilisers are used efficiently, we can cut the air and water pollution that harms public health and the environment, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Poor storage of manure and slurry can lead to the release of harmful chemicals and gases such as ammonia (in 2015, more than four-fifths of ammonia emissions in the UK stemmed from agriculture). This can cause acid rain, combine with pollution from traffic and industry to form smog, and harm soils and vegetation.

A clear indication that peat bogs will be conserved and managed better in the future.

Our peat bogs and fens are important habitats that provide food and shelter for wildlife, help with flood management, improve water quality and play a part in climate regulation. Most peat soils support ecosystems that are sensitive to human activities including drainage, grazing, liming and afforestation. This makes them susceptible to degradation if poorly managed.

If I were still working at Wicken Fen on the National Trust’s Vision or the Wildlife Trust’s Great Fen project I would be very excited about this – opportunities, opportunities, opportunities.

Over the last 200 years, we have lost 84% of our fertile peat topsoil in East Anglia. The fens there could lose the remainder in just 30-60 years given current land management practices and a changing climate. In view of this, we intend to create and deliver a new ambitious framework for peat restoration in England.

Habitat creation on a grand scale …

Through changes in the way we manage our land, we will develop a Nature Recovery Network providing 500,000 hectares of additional wildlife habitat, more effectively linking existing protected sites and landscapes, as well as urban green and blue infrastructure.

Five years ago commissioning a review into National Parks would have been a recipe for their further emasculation – this can only mean they are going to be strengthened and properly funded! Who to chair the review? Dame Fiona Reynolds would be a good choice in my view.

The UK’s first National Parks were created by an Act of Parliament in 1949 following the government’s 1947 Hobhouse Report, which remains the basis for most protected landscape designation in England today.

Now, 70 years on, the Government will commission a review for the 21st Century. This will consider coverage of designations, how designated areas deliver their responsibilities, how designated areas are financed, and whether there is scope for expansion. It will also consider opportunities to enhance the environment in existing designations, and expand on the existing eight-point plan for National Parks to connect more people with the natural environment.

To my eyes much of this plan looks excellent, of course it will only be effective if things happen – that is the next stage.

This tweet which I posted earlier sums up my feelings

There is also an annex which was published alongside the main report – this is also very good – it is full of useful data with url links to the sources. You can download the annex here.

I can’t see the Defra joke though in this image – can you?

Gove’s Age of Acceleration

Michael Gove spoke yesterday at the Oxford Farming Conference -the Age of Acceleration. The general consensus from those interested in the environment is that Gove is the best Defra Secretary of State for years. He has a clear understanding of the issues involved and he seems to really get it! You can read his full speech here.


Gove highlighted the priority areas for the forthcoming White Paper on Agriculture and the Environment: driving change in 4 ways

  1. Develop a coherent food policy
  2. Give farmers the tools to adapt to the future
  3. Move away from subsidies for inefficiency to public money for public goods
  4. Ensure we build natural capital thinking into our approach for all land use and management

I’ve picked out a few sections which caught my eye.

Gove – the deep green!

Without action we face the progressive loss of the natural capital on which all growth – natural, human and economic – ultimately depends.

Because we cannot expect to live prosperous and civilised lives in the future unless we recognise that we have to care for that which gives us all life – our planet.

Gove on changes to the subsidy system

Paying land owners for the amount of agricultural land they have is unjust, inefficient and drives perverse outcomes. It gives the most from the public purse to those who have the most private wealth.

The principal public good we will invest in is of course environmental enhancement.

Gove on tackling the power of the supermarkets and processors

Government can also intervene closer to home where there is market failure. When, for example some powerful players in the food chain use the scale of their market presence to demand low prices from primary producers who are much smaller and dis-aggregated. That is why my colleague George Eustice is looking now at overall fairness in the supply chain.

And indeed I also have a responsibility to ask if all the incentives and Government interventions everywhere in the food chain work towards economic justice and social inclusion.

On hill-farmers

So that does mean …. asking how we can support those farmers, for example upland sheep farmers, whose profit margins are more likely to be small but whose contribution to rural life and the maintenance of iconic landscapes is immense.

Rural resilience as a public good

Finally there is rural resilience. There are any number of smaller farm and rural businesses which help keep communities coherent and ensure the culture in agriculture is kept healthy. Whether it’s upland farmers in Wales or Cumbria, crofters in Scotland or small livestock farmers in Northern Ireland, we need to ensure support is there for those who keep rural life vital. The work of the Prince’s Countryside Fund has been invaluable here and the kind of enterprises that it supports are, I believe, worthy of public support.

And finally, a message to the NFU?

And there are huge opportunities for those in agriculture to play the leading role in shaping this strategy. Rather than devoting intellectual energy and political capital to campaigning for policy interventions designed to insulate farming from change, agriculture’s leaders can respond to growing public interest in debates about food, animal welfare, the environment, health and economic justice by demonstrating, as so many in this room are doing, how their innovative and dynamic approaches are enhancing the environment, safeguarding animal welfare, producing food of the highest quality, improving public health and contributing to a fairer society.

OK we are going to have to wait until 2022 for some of this to fully appear but it really does seem that change is on the way.

Or does it?

Gove’s leadership at Defra has been immense and shows what an individual in Government can achieve. But what would happen to all of this if there is a Cabinet re-shuffle and the ambitious Gove ends up in say, the Foreign Office?

Would his successor have the same zeal? The previous two Secretaries of State at Defra certainly didn’t.