Farming with nature

Farm landscape

In a different time, as a farm manger for a well-respected university farm, my work examined the small efficiencies we could make to produce more per cow per sheep or per hectare. We paved the way for new ideas to produce food that used the latest technologies in breeding, feeding and understanding farm animals. There was little time in this process to sit back and ask the question ‘Is there another way that we could do this that could have a wider benefit to the environment?’ There was little contact with the ecologists at the university until I did something wrong.

That approach looks set for radical change – as this week the Government announced its Agricultural Transition Plan. The new Agriculture Act has been introduced as we move away from the EU-wide Common Agricultural Policy. A new Environmental Land Management Scheme focused much more on environmental improvement will be introduced over the next few years.

A system that side-lined the environment

So, looking back at my time as a farm manager, what was the problem? We are always limited by constraints – and this includes what we know and what our targets are. I was very proud of my cows and sheep but looking back I was guilty of not thinking that the way they were managed was having a wider impact beyond their growth and good looks.

To give an example, I was using a new wonder drug on the cattle that eliminated the parasites that were slowing the growth rate of my much-loved cows. Walking the pastures one day with a university vet, he remarked, ‘Tim have you noticed that the dung is staying on the pasture for a long time?’ I had but not thought too much about it – then. It is now well accepted that this drug has a negative effect on dung beetles and probably other soil dwelling invertebrates that rely on such organic matter for their diet.

Common Dumble Dor (Dung beetle)

Common Dumble Dor (Dung beetle)

Thinking differently

This tale is reflected in many farming practices. Sometimes in our striving to produce more and better food, we took our eye off the environment ball. The impact of the environment is now well known and with the announcement on Monday of ‘public money for public goods’ we have the opportunity to make amends. The direction of travel here is right – and the principle of using public subsidy to support nature’s recovery on farms, rather than a blanket payment for land area, is something we support.

We need to feed ourselves but the systems we use need to make space for nature. With some thought we can produce food using techniques that work with nature rather than against it. An example may help here. If we spray a crop with a general insecticide, we may kill the crop pest but often we also kill the predators that feed on that pest which can come back with a vengeance.

An understanding of ecology can help with a sustainable solution to our crop pest; growing flower margins around the crops can be designed to favour pest predators and reduce or eliminate the need for a pesticide. These flower margins also benefit pollinators and can provided cover for birds and mammals so a huge gain for losing some headland that is generally the least productive land in the field.

Our farming systems post war were generally led by a single tenet of increasing production and the UK and Europe were very successful at this. Remember the butter mountains and wine lakes of the then EEC? Our task now with the support of public money for public goods is to produce food and wildlife from the same square of land.

Flower margin

Flower margin

Testing new models

Over the past couple of years at GWT, we’ve been working with farmers around Gloucestershire testing how the new Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs) might work. Farmers we are working with are happy to put wildlife centre stage but they need to be supported to do so.

We know that nature’s recovery is not going to be possible unless we work in partnership with farmers and landowners. But we need to understand how their business on the farm will change as we work through these new schemes – and work together on farmer-led solutions.

The detail on these schemes is a bit – and farmers need clarity and a timetable so they can plan for their future. Producing food and restoring nature can absolutely work in tandem – as so many farmers in our county already demonstrate. Our countryside will inevitably change as a result of these changes, but there is also a real opportunity here to reverse the declines in wildlife. Farmers could well be the new heroes of nature’s recovery.

Tim Bevan is GWT’s lead farm advisor. Want to find out more and join the debate? The Wildlife Trusts will be holding the next Wild Live debate on this evening at 7pm discussing what will happen to nature-friendly farming post Brexit.

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