Does this report signal the resurrection of Natural England and the revitalisation of rural communities?

Today saw the publication of a House of Lords Select Committee report – The countryside at a crossroads: is the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 still fit for purpose? – you can download it here.

On the surface this may seem like a rather dry and obscure topic but this 96 page report analyses how policy work in government has further marginalised rural communities and details how Natural England has been emasculated since May 2010. The report explores why these two issues are important and explains the impact that this has had on rural communities, biodiversity and landscapes. It goes on to make a number of recommendations which aim to rectify the situation. It is a withering critique of the policies of the Coalition and Conservative Governments that have overseen a catalogue of changes which have diminished the quality of rural life and the conservation of biodiversity in England.

For me there is considerable irony in much of this story – the 2006 Act was passed under Tony Blair’s government and was championed by the then Secretary of State David Miliband, Labour were not naturally seen as the party of the countryside. The demolition job that has been carried out since 2010 has happened under political parties who are purported to support country life and the countryside. The main suspects involved were four Conservative Secretaries of State: Caroline Spelman, Owen Paterson, Liz Truss and Andrea Leadsom.

The best way for me to summarise this report is to print below the first five paragraphs of it. The emphases within the text are mine and not those of the Select Committee.

Twelve years have passed since the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act received Royal Assent in March 2006. This legislation built upon institutional changes that began with the creation of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in 2001. The Act introduced major structural changes, abolishing the Countryside Agency and English Nature and transferring many of their functions to a new body, Natural England, which was charged with conserving, enhancing and managing the natural environment. The Act also sought to promote the interests of rural areas by establishing an independent Commission for Rural Communities, charged with raising awareness of rural needs, and passed responsibility for some elements of rural delivery to the Regional Development Agencies.

Since 2006 many of these provisions have been hollowed out. Natural England has been subjected to severe budget cuts, leading to concerns regarding its ongoing ability to perform core regulatory functions. The Commission for Rural Communities has been abolished and was replaced by a unit within Defra—the Rural Communities Policy Unit (RCPU)—which has itself subsequently been abolished. Rural society, the rural economy and our natural environment have not been well served by these changes.

The Act gave Natural England a broad remit, including the promotion of nature conservation, protection of biodiversity, conservation of the landscape and promotion of public access to the countryside. To deliver against this remit requires adequate resources and—within the recognised procedures applied to non- departmental public bodies—a good degree of independence from Government. Natural England currently enjoys neither of these essential prerequisites.

The Government must address this situation urgently. We recommend that Natural England should be funded to a level commensurate with the delivery of its full range of statutory duties and responsibilities. We share the concerns of witnesses who have told us that Natural England no longer has a distinctive voice and urge the Government to take action in recognition of these concerns. We also make specific recommendations that seek to improve Natural England’s performance of its planning obligations, particularly with regard to conserving the landscape.

The Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) performed an important role as an advocate for rural England. Abolition of the Commission has left a number of gaps in the Government’s understanding of the needs of rural areas; of particular concern is the loss of the CRC’s independent research capacity. More broadly the closure of the CRC and the RCPU, combined with the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies, means that most of the NERC Act’s provisions pertaining to rural communities have now been annulled. This has had a profound negative impact upon the way in which the Government handles rural needs and has diminished focus on the economic potential of rural areas, to the cost of us all.

The Report contains 45 recommendations. 5 about Brexit and the natural environment, 23 about the role of Natural England, 6 around the biodiversity role, 9 about rural communities and 2 about green lanes and rights of way.

In essence the Report states that the Government needs to effectively fund and allow Natural England much more independence and ensure that rural communities are given a voice at the heart of Government.

To achieve this the Report urges that Natural England’s budget is increased significantly, that the rural affairs remit of Defra (Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) is shifted to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and that the responsibility for ‘rural proofing’ future Government policy is taken from Defra and given to the Cabinet Office.

It is easy to forget that before Natural England was emasculated and had its work framed as ‘the badger cull’, ‘sorting out the mess in the uplands’ and ‘hen harrier re-introductions’ it was a strong and powerful voice for nature as was its predecessor body English Nature.

This Report if implemented would make a massive difference to biodiversity and to rural communities in England. I wonder how Michael Gove will react? Will he allow some parts of the Defra empire go so that he and it can focus on the massive task of Brexit, agriculture, the environment and food and will he adequately fund Natural England or will he ignore the recommendations and file the report?

Ben Goldsmith joins the Defra Board – look out Dartmoor!

Ben Goldsmith is a well known environmentalist, he is the son of James and Annabel Goldsmith and brother of Zac Goldsmith, the Tory MP for Richmond Park. He has recently been appointed to the Defra Board. He is also a financial supporter of the Tory group of modernisers known as the Notting Hill set, which includes Michael Gove MP and Secretary of State for the Environment as a member.

This series of tweets about Dartmoor may give us an insight into some of the thinking currently taking place within Defra.

 So is this what ‘public money for public goods’ looks like or we might be going to see some rewilding too?

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


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.

A tale of two speeches

Today sees the beginning to the NFU’s 2 day annual conference, being held in Birmingham. The event started with an opening address from NFU president Meurig Raymond which was then followed up by a speech from the Defra Secretary of State Andrea Leadsom.


It wasn’t long before Raymond was asking for more action on badgers and bTb including an extension of the geographic area where culling could take place. He then went on to make an impassioned plea to allow the continued us of glyphosate. He talked about a new report that the NFU had commissioned  ‘Contributions of UK Agriculture’ by Development Economics which suggested that for every £1 invested in British agriculture the country saw a return of £7.40 – you can download the report here. This led him to call for  continued farm support / subsidy post 2020.

He also set out a ‘recipe’ for success post-Brexit which consisted of the following three ‘ingredients’

  • Access to the Single Market
  • Access to labour
  • A new agricultural policy which facilitated productive, progressive and profitable farming

A classic NFU / Raymond performance which left me feeling rather uncomfortable, the implication being that if the Government doesn’t listen, then the farming industry will face disaster. You can read his full speech here.


Andrea Leadsom then took to the stage and whilst most, if all all, of the questions that the NFU delegates wanted answering were not I thought there were some interesting little nuggets. (You can read her full speech here.)

She posed the question ‘What kind of industry to be want agriculture to be post-Brexit?’, to answer this she said Defra would be guided by  5 principles:

  • Trade – tariff-free and frictionless cross-border trade with Europe.
  • Productive and competitive – improved skills, leadership and innovation with technology
  • The Environment – a fair return from the market but incentivised and rewarded for caring for the environment
  • Trust – New agricultural support policy which promote  animal and plant health and welfare
  • Resilience – to commodity prices fluctuations, bTb and flooding

Regarding the Brexit negotiations she said “Those negotiations will take time, and change is, of course, inevitable”, prepare yourselves the status quo will not continue.


About the call for seasonal workers she said “we mustn’t forget that a key factor behind the vote to leave the EU was to control immigration”, you can read into that what you will, but I took it to mean that agriculture was going to have to find new ways of solving this problem, she later alluded to the use of new technologies.

When talking about future policies for farm support / subsidies she said  “And how do we devise a system of support that properly takes into account the diverse types of farming, and the challenges unique to each? So, for example, how can we ensure a more tailored approach – one that recognises the needs of hill farmers alongside those of arable farmers and protects our precious uplands as well as our productive fenland?”. The use of the language ‘precious uplands’ is important and I think signals again that hill-farmers will be supported in return for looking after the uplands. Interesting she also mentioned the protection of our ‘productive fenlands’ I have written before about how intensive agriculture in the fens is leading to the wholesale loss of the peat based soils (see here). Is this remark a signal that in future these soils must be conserved and not just allowed to oxidise and blow away?

When it came to the environment she said “British farmers don’t only produce world-class food, but as part of that process, they care for and shape some of our most iconic landscapes. Yet, whilst 70% of our land is farmed, just a small percentage of funding is directed towards the provision of these environmental services.” 

“So, alongside a fair return from the market, farmers must feel incentivised and rewarded for caring for the environment. The current CAP has improved over recent years, but in trying to do more for the environment, farmers have found themselves confronted with unnecessary bureaucracy.”

“So as we leave the EU, we have an opportunity to take a fresh look at these schemes and think about what mechanisms are needed to promote the twin goals of productive farming and environmental improvement. I want to consider, for example, how we will strike the right balance between national frameworks for support measures whilst tailoring them to local landscapes and catchments.”

This is the clearest articulation of ‘public money for public goods’ stated by Defra to date.

I predict a battle royale now between Defra and the NFU. Yes, Defra will negotiate for access to the Single Market – tariff free, but they won’t cave in over migrant labour and future farm support will be for ecosystem services.

This is not what the NFU wanted to hear but in return Defra will sweeten the bitter pill by extending the badger cull, permit the continued use of glyphosate, will provide bridging loans for those yet to receive their Basic Payment Scheme money and in some circumstances pay farmers who allow their land to flood under the auspices of ecosystem services.

I will be interested to see if anyone else has this take on the two speeches!

Trying to make sense of farming and the environment one winter morning

I can’t remember a day when there was so much going on in the world of farming, the environment and Brexit. It is only 10am and I’m currently trying to follow at least four different stories.

  • The Oxford Farming Conference kicked off this morning with a key note speech from Andrea Leadsom, which was followed by George Eustice – both Defra ministers.
  • The Oxford Real Farming Conference is also taking place – almost in a parallel universe – at midday they will be debating rewilding.
  • The Environmental Audit Committee have launched their report on ‘The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum’.
  • And there is a headline on the front of the Western Morning News saying ‘Moors could be left to Nature’ following a leaked draft of the Government’s 25 year plan for Nature.

Leadsom and Eustice
Andrea Leadsom started and said ‘As we prepare to leave the EU the fundamentals of the sector are strong’ – really? In December I wrote a piece about the state of English agriculture – see here – the Defra figures show that not one sector of English agriculture, other than poultry is viable without the Basic Payment Scheme, agricultural-environment money and diversified income.


How can these figures be made to suggest that the ‘fundamentals are strong’?

To see how important the Basic Payment Scheme money is you only have to look at the campaigning (quite rightly) by the NFU to ensure that payments are made in a timely fashion.


Leadsom went on to talk about red tape ‘My priority will be common sense rules that work for you’. Again I find this odd – surely the rules should work for the tax payer and the environment?

She also returned to her dual commitment: the environment and profitable farming ‘We can do more for our stunning natural environment and we can export more of our food, drink and innovations to the entire world’. There is a lot in her speech about exporting and I am left rather confused about what has happened to domestic food security.

As to specifics though e.g. post Brexit CAP, trade and farming policies these will have to wait as a Green Paper will be launched on these matters by Defra later in the year. You can read Andrea Leadsom’s full speech here.

George Eustice said ‘Brexit is an opportunity to take a more holistic approach to the environment’. He also began to give an insight into what post Brexit agricultural support might look like.


Eustice also revealed this bombshell!


George Eustice also suggested that future monies would be targeted at farmed land

An interesting development for those campaigning against Driven Grouse Shooting and the conservation of Hen Harriers!

Environmental Audit Committee & the Future of the Natural Environmental after the EU Referendum
The EAC published this report this morning – you can download it here

The report highlights three main threats to farming as a result of our decision to leave the EU

  1. leaving the Common Agricultural Policy will threaten the viability of some farms
  2. trade agreements which impose tariffs or non-tariff  barriers to UK farm exports similarly threaten farm and food business incomes
  3. new trading relationships with states outside the European Union could lead to increased competition from countries with lower food standards, animal welfare standards and environmental protection

The report also highlights ‘The EU provides a number of strong legislative protections to the UK environment. The Birds and Habitats directives will no longer apply in UK law even if the UK remains in the Single Market, which has the potential for far-reaching negative impacts on the UK environment.’

As a result they make 7 recommendations

  1. The Government must commit to a new Environmental Protection Act before triggering Article 50.
  2. Access the resources necessary to replace CAP funding to ensure farm remain viable.
  3. The Government must ensure that the 2 Defra 25 year plans (Environment and Farming) are fully co-ordinated
  4. If the UK leaves the Single Market then the Government should state clearly what new measures need to be put in place to maintain food safety and security, protect British agriculture from tariff and non-tariff barriers and ensure the UK maintains our current level of environmental protection.
  5. Before Article 50 is triggered the Government must identify legislation which may be diffcult to transpose to ensure full public and parliamentary debate and scrutiny.
  6. Before Britain leaves the EU the Government must have clearly established the environmental objectives and governance model to be used for any future land management payments.
  7. Defra must, as part of leaving the EU, ensure that plans for post-EU environmental coordination between the countries of the UK is sufficient to ensure that funding is allocated fairly and transparently, with shared strategic objectives complemented by minimum environmental standards, so that the UK can continue to meet its international obligations.

This is a good report and it has been widely welcomed – the question remains though does the Government want to strengthen environmental laws? And does Defra have the capacity to do what the report suggests? This will keep the environmental NGOs busy over the coming months.

The Real Oxford Farming Conference and rewilding

I have been impressed with the CLA’s Christopher Price (standing and talking) for many months now when it comes to his attitude towards nature and the environment. Here he is talking about rewilding – 10 years ago you wouldn’t have heard such a view from the CLA – all very interesting.

The man blowing his nose is Charlie Burrell from Knepp, next to him is the National Trust’s Patrick Begg and next to him is Derek Gow – the ‘beaver man’.





Twitter is a wonderful thing but it’s not the same as being there! But at least I’m getting a flavour.

Moors could be left to nature

This is the front page of the Western Morning News – Moors could be left to Nature – I haven’t been able to track down this article yet but it appears to be based on a leaked draft of the Defra 25 Year Plan for Nature. It suggests that subsidies could be removed from parts of the uplands of the south west thus allowing rewilding to occur on a landscape scale.


This is my initial response from earlier today. I think it is far to say that this will not go uncontested!

So ……

How do we make sense of all of this –

the strong fundamentals of agriculture, no subsidies, public money for ecosystem services, a stunning natural environment, strong exports, rewilding, a New Environmental Protection Act

Catch 22 meets Brave New World?

What a morning and no doubt much more to come.

The Cabinet re-shuffle and the environment

Yesterday saw a ruthless day of high politics in Westminster as Theresa May appointed her new Cabinet. David Cameron’s Cabinet has been routed and replaced. The new Cabinet consists of 13 ‘Remainers’ and 7 ‘Brexiters’. May has astutely appointed the Brexiters to Departments which will play the key role in negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU.

Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 15.45.39This tweet effectively sums up the strategy.

The key Brexit appointments are David Davies who becomes the new Secretary of State (SoS) for Brexit; Liam Fox, SoS for Overseas Trade; Boris Johnson, The Foreign Secretary; Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary; Priti Patel, International Development Secretary; Baroness Evans, Leader of the Lords and Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary at DEFRA

There are some very tough jobs in this list, Davies, Fox and Johnson have entered entirely new territory and will have to all work closely together and work out who is doing what – this will be the area where Britain’s relationships and trade agreements with the EU and the world are negotiated. Grayling as Transport Secretary will have to sort out ‘Heathrow’ and HS2, two hugely controversial infrastructure / environmental battlegrounds. Priti Patel has already stated her desire to scale back international aid and abolish the Department she has now been appointed Secretary of State at! Baroness Evans is the new Leader in the Lords – a chamber where there is not a Brexit majority. Finally Andrea Leadsom’s role is to phase out the Birds and Habitat’s Directives as well as working out what is to replace the current agricultural subsidy system.

Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 22.17.02
This was fellow Tory MP Nicholas Soames’ tweet regarding Leadsom’s appointment!

The Leadsom appointment was correctly predicted by John Rentoul, the Independent’s Chief Political Correspondent, he suggested that Leadsom would be offered a ‘humiliating junior post’ as a result of her Brexit views and her ‘motherhood’ comments – see here. The DEFRA posting has always been seen as a lesser role (look how little the environment featured in the Brexit campaign for example), but nevertheless it is a Department which will be massively affected by leaving the EU and will in the future be the subject of a great deal of lobbying from  environmental and agricultural interests. Add on top of that the fact that Leadsom has publicly stated that she would go about repealing the ban on fox hunting and that DEFRA is about to roll out a full blown badger cull campaign (of which she is a supporter) the Department will become a lightning conductor of protest and anxiety.

If it is true that she pulled out of the Tory Leadership campaign because of the criticism and ‘black ops’ surrounding her ill-judged and politically naive ‘motherhood’ comments, then that does not bode well for the future, that was a walk in the park compared to what is to come.

To be honest I know very little about Andrea Leadsom, I had never heard of her until she emerged during the Brexit campaign and the Tory Leadership battle but we all know a bit more about her now as a result of the debate around her CV. The only other thing I could find about her environmental views is this, which she said during the Brexit campaign.

Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 15.41.42
It is worth reading this several times, it contains a lot.

A lot of what though is difficult to understand.

Firstly, the ‘50% back of the money that they paid in the first place‘ implies that farmers are getting back their money – it is in fact tax payers money.
Secondly ‘will absolutely continue in the short term to provide these subsidies‘ will send a shock wave through many farming communities especially those in the uplands who need long term support.
Thirdly ‘those with the big fields do the sheep and those with the hill farms do the butterflies‘ – is this a rewilding agenda or does it mean a better environmental farmed future for the uplands? No doubt the NFU and the Upland Alliance are now in overdrive!

On the positive side the Brexit campaign also said this  ‘in the event of a Brexit vote, £2bn would be earmarked for conservation spending out of the money it expects to recoup from payments to Brussels“. Will this promise be kept or will it go the way of all the other ones?

Today and tomorrow will see the appointment of the Junior Ministers. What will happen to George Eustice, the Farming Minister and vocal Brexiter?  Eustice  said the following during the Brexit campaign “The birds and habitats directives would go….”   and “a lot of the national directives they instructed us to put in place would stay. But the directives’ framework is so rigid that it is spirit-crushing….” and “if we had more flexibility, we could focus our scientists’ energies on coming up with new, interesting ways to protect the environment, rather than just producing voluminous documents from Brussels.”

If we follow the motto ‘You Brexit, you own it’ I would put my money on Eustice staying on in DEFRA and joining Leadsom.

And what of Rory Stewart, the DEFRA minister who dealt with the floods? His fate is perhaps more complicated (he was a low profile ‘Remainer’) because of what has happened to Oliver Letwin who was the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and was leading the government National Flood Resilience Review: Government action to tackle floods see here. He has now been sacked by May and has been replaced by Patrick McLoughlin. With Liz Truss having left DEFRA and with Letwin sacked it only leaves Rory Stewart standing re. the floods. He has done well regarding his brief around flooding so it would make sense if he stayed within DEFRA.

And finally we get to climate change …… The Department for Energy and Climate Change was disbanded yesterday.

Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 22.54.22
This is what former Liberal Democrat MP and DECC Minister Ed Davey had to say about that

On the surface this looks very depressing – no Government Department dealing with the most pressing issue of our age. However the 2008 Climate Change Act set the plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in place and also set up the Committee on Climate Change which is chaired by Lord Deben (John Selwyn Gummer, the former Tory Secretary of State for the Environment). Lord Deben has yet to comment publicly on the demise of DECC but the legislation to take action remains.

Finally we should remind ourselves of Theresa May’s comments on climate change as they should give us some comfort perhaps? Perhaps also something Chris Grayling should note too regarding Heathrow (a project he supports).

“I am thrilled to see that after years of Conservative pressure, we have finally passed a necessary and ambitious piece of legislation on Climate Change. Britain is the first country in the world to formally bind itself to cut greenhouse emissions and I strongly believe this will improve our national and economic security. To stay reliant on fossil fuels would mean tying ourselves to increasingly unstable supplies which could endanger our energy security and the Climate Change and Energy Bills mark an important step for both the health of our economy and the health of our nation. It is now vital that we stick to these targets. I will continue to put pressure on the Government over the third runway at Heathrow as an extra 222,000 flights a year would undermine our national targets and seriously damage the health of the local community.”


Some progress on the maize front

Avid readers of my blog will know I have been campaigning about the detrimental impacts of maize cultivation in Devon, in particular its implication in local flooding – see here for blogs on that topic. Well, some progress appears to have been made. Last week the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) published a consultation document entitled “Review of support for Anaerobic Digestion (AD) and micro-Combined Heat and Power under the Feed-in Tariffs scheme” – you can download it and read it here. Be warned – it is mighty hard work …. Much of the document relates to proposals to reduce the ‘Feed in tariff’ payments but part of it relates to maize.


The document states “It is also Government policy that the primary purpose of agricultural land should be for growing food. Data published at the end of 2015 suggests maize is increasingly being grown for AD installations.”. This conclusion mirrors exactly what I have been saying!

As a result the following two options have been put forward:-

  • Option 1 – Restrict FITs payments to electricity generated from biogas derived only from wastes and residues
    If implemented, only electricity generated from biogas derived from wastes and residues will be eligible for generation and export tariff payments.
  • Option 2 – Limit FITs payments in relation to electricity generated from biogas not derived from wastes and residues to 50% of the total biogas yield
    If implemented, electricity generated from biogas derived from wastes and residues will be eligible for generation and export tariff payments. Electricity generated from biogas derived from other feedstocks will be eligible for generation and export tariff payments but only up to a maximum proportion of 50% of the total biogas yield produced in that quarter.
    The maximum is set at 50% because crops such as maize tend to have a higher biogas yield compared to typical farm waste feedstocks such as manures, resulting in a relatively low ratio of crop to waste per tonne of feedstock.

Option 2 is currently the preferred option because it provides for payments for electricity generated from biogas with high carbon abatement costs, but offsets some of the risks associated with investments and feedstock support from only using waste and residues.

What this means is that DECC intend to cut the subsidy paid to maize farmers by probably 50% (i.e. option 2) in an attempt to discourage them from growing maize as a source of biogas in Anaerobic Digestion (AD) plants. The question is therefore, will a 50% cut be enough to change land use? Will this mean that the amount of maize grown in Devon will reduce and therefore will the amount of flooding experienced by local communities reduce?

This is undoubtedly progress and is to be welcomed.

Maize field mud

DECC must have been privy to the report of the Environmental Audit Committee on Soil Health which was published today because there is much mention in that report of this very topic. You can download that report from here. The problems caused by maize are mentioned on pages 26-28 and pages 34 and 37. The recommendation of the EAC is that subsidies should be removed from maize cultivation when it is grown for AD biogas production.

The EAC took evidence from a number of specialists in the field (who are quoted in the report) including the Soil Association, Rothamstead Research, the Committee on Climate Change and the National Trust, all spoke about the problems related to maize cultivation, soil health and flooding.

However this single recommendation relating to maize and AD plants will not be enough on its own to safeguard soils and reduce flooding risk. Maize cultivation has grown from 8000 hectares in the UK in 1973 to 183,000 hectares in 2014. In Devon maize cultivation has rocketed 89% between 2000 and 2013. The vast majority (80%+) of maize is grown as feed stock for cattle and not for AD plants. The DECC proposals will therefore only apply to 20% of the maize grown in the UK.

Rory Stewart, the DEFRA minister responsible for the other 80% of maize grown in the UK also gave evidence to the EAC Committee and said “maize planted incorrectly, harvested at the wrong time of year or in the wrong climatic conditions can contribute to soil erosion” and “If your maize processes are contributing to soil erosion, that is in breach of your cross-compliance regulations and the RPA can then fine you for doing that.

He then went on to say this “That is really an issue for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. It is predominantly about energy policy, renewable energy policy and the different types of renewable energy policy, but we certainly within the Department are looking closely from our point of view at the costs and benefits of that kind of activity“.

In effect Rory Stewart said that controlling soil degradation and flooding as a result of maize cultivation needed action from DECC regarding subsidy levels. The problem is that 80% of the maize in the UK is regulated via his Department’s cross compliance rules which are clearly not working effectively.

To be generous to Rory Stewart one might say that Government works in a highly choreographed fashion. We are awaiting the publication of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee Report on the recent winter floods (where maize again was much discussed) along with the Government’s report on flooding and DEFRA’s 25 year Environment Plan – all expected this summer. Let’s hope that the impact of the ‘80%’ of maize is covered in those reports and changes are made as a result.

Exton maize

My friend and co-maize campaigner Miles King has also blogged on this topic today – see here. He also kindly alerted me to the DECC consultation which I otherwise would have missed.

The harvest mouse and the tale of Beatrix Potter

DEFRA recently issued a press release announcing that the harvest mouse had returned to Hampshire in the villages around Selbourne after it went extinct 25 years ago thanks to ‘an innovative new farming method’ which involved a group of individual farmers working together on a landscape scale. This is excellent news and has added poignancy as in 1767 the famous naturalist Gilbert White actually discovered the species for the first time in the Parish of Selbourne.

The press release has been picked up by many media outlets including one in China and this is perhaps due to the strap line of the press release “Iconic harvest mouse immortalised by Beatrix Potter returns to Hampshire village where it was first discovered“.

Harvest Mouse
By Reg Mckenna [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

This got me thinking – which Beatrix Potter character was a harvest mouse? I have looked at all her books again in search of the harvest mouse but to be honest I can’t find one. I’m happy to be corrected but the mice in the books are either house mice, wood mice or dormice.

The nearest fit superficially is Timmy Willie – ‘the little country mouse’ in the Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse.

Timmy Willie 1-2
This picture shows Timmy Willie (on the left) and Johnny Town Mouse (on the right) holding and eating some ears of wheat – a favourite food of harvest mice.

The fable is basically a satire of town and country life – Johnny Town-Mouse is different from Timmy Willie Country Mouse – in fact Potter has made the difference even greater by painting Timmy Willie as a field vole and not a mouse at all! He has a short tail which the mice are too polite to comment on.

Timmy Willie 2
Would be rather amusing if Timmy Willie was DEFRA’s harvest mouse!

If not who is?