Can Lapwings Ever Again Be Truly Wild?

Jamie Curtis Hayward finds that attempts to save one of our most striking birds are heroic – but very sad Every year the RSPB posts a new cohort of fresh faced field researchers to the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts to count lapwings – and this year I was among them. With binoculars and telescopes we scanned coastal pastures for their crested heads, peering through tussocks as they guarded the nests, or scrapes, that they dig into the turf. Once pinpointed, the nests are mapped, staked, and ibuttoned (ibuttons record nest temperature, giving scientists insight into how often the Lapwing come on and off their eggs). Each nest should hold four mottled eggs, which are weighed and measured to predict their hatching date. This year as every year, some eggs were pecked apart by crows but others hatched to provide a new generation of fluffy chicks that are masters of disguise – indistinguishable when stationary from the lumps of cow and sheep dung amongst which they spend their formative weeks. A field scientist must watch her feet: sometimes you won’t see a chick until you have stepped on it. For a month after hatching we bore witness to the vagaries of nature red in tooth and claw. Many chicks are carried off in the beaks of herring gulls whilst others succumb to the arctic winds that scour the east of England. But within four weeks the survivors have outstretched their clumsy new wings and are making short, unsteady flights across meadows and ditches. The adults are among our most remarkable birds. For the most part they move through the air lethargically, flapping their oversized black and white wings whose tips are splayed like an outstretched hand. But come the mating season they tumble and spin through the air with strange and discordant hoots, somewhere between a jammed radio and a kazoo. Hence another of their names: the peewit. Their plumage matches their rakish manner — the heads crowned in a quiff and the outer wings shining like green velvet. They are the dandies of the avian world. But the lapwing is in serious decline. The RSPB’s scientists will tell you that it is too early to draw conclusions, but we know that fewer lapwings fledge each year. Numbers have crashed by eighty percent since the 1960s. Today the species has an ageing population and there is little sign that numbers are recovering. In my particular corner of Suffolk, of the 50 nests we documented this summer, just 18 birds fledged successfully. Their decline has been wrought by a catalogue of misfortunes. Numbers first started to fall as a result of large scale egg collecting at the beginning of the twentieth century, a practise which was banned in Britain in 1926 thanks to the Lapwing Act but continues today in the Netherlands. Unfortunately this legislation was not enough to secure a safe future for the birds. Since then intensifying farming practices have squeezed food sources and destroyed nesting sites. Lapwings nest in a wide variety of habitats, both arable land and pasture, and should thrive on farmland. I have even seen one plucky individual hunkering down on a shingle beach. They’re not fussy eaters either; worms and insects make up most of their diet. But drastic upheavals in agriculture have forced the birds from farms. The ideal lapwing habitat is a mixed mosaic of spring tillage to nest in and grassland on which to fatten chicks with insects. Such mixed farming has become increasingly rare as the supermarket-industrialised farm nexus has made inroads into the countryside, displacing heterogeneous agricultural systems in the name of economies of scale. The vogue for autumn sown crops has hit lapwing particularly hard. Despite their willingness to nest on different substrates, the species is fussy when it comes to vegetation height. A nesting bird needs to be able to scan a wide area for predators. By the time lapwing start rooting around for nest sites in April, autumn sown wheat has grown tall enough to hide hungry foxes. Even if those arable sites are successful, the use of unscrupulous pesticides like Neonicotinoids, deprive young birds of insects. Lapwings that breed on pasture have had more success but even these birds are not spared from hardship. Large swathes of wet pastureland has been drained, enabling higher stocking rates of cows and sheep but reducing numbers of water-borne insects and increasing the number of egg-trampling hooves, delivering a double blow to nesting lapwing. Britain’s remaining lapwing are scattered across sympathetically managed pastureland and nature reserves. But even in these places you are unlikely to see the large flocks whose formation once marked the end of spring. Nor are the pockets of survivors spared from misfortune. Predators: foxes, badges, stoats, gulls and raptors, are eating almost all of our new lapwing broods. This phenomenon has prompted the erection of predator fences in nature reserves along the coast of East England. These wire and moat ringed compounds keep chicks and eggs safe from plundering predatory mammals. They are a short term solution to plummeting wading bird numbers. My trips to such compounds are always tinged with sadness. They offer a dystopian vision of the future: a world in which wildlife can only survive in spaces which we have fenced off from the toxic farmed environment. Curlew, green sandpiper, redshank and ruff potter behind mesh fences, unfazed by the flocks of bird watchers who scrutinise them from spacious hides and delight in the now rare sight of birds which were once commonplace in much of the British Isles. These high security nature reserves remind me of the enclosure at London Zoo. Their design is informed by cutting edge science: artificial islands are topped with gravel and sand to encourage high rates of reproduction in birds such as ringed plover. But they are also built for the human spectators. Seeing a lapwing in a purpose-built environment such as this can is never as enchanting as watching them pirouette through the skies above open country. Unlike the winged clipped birds in zoos, these waders are free to come and go as they please. But as the surrounding landscape bristles with more foxes, densely packed cattle and neonics-soaked crops it seems that the birds have few other places to go. The predator fence is a short term solution to a problem, it is also a monument to our inability to live and farm alongside wildlife. In the long run the fences will not save the lapwing. The birds’ only hope lies in changing the farming practices which precipitated the species decline. Were our large blocks of wheat prairie and overgrazed grassland broken up into mixed farms with fields of spring grown crops aside wet pastureland then perhaps we could expect to see hundred strong flocks of lapwing once more. Such changes are much harder to make than erecting a fence. They require new attitudes in the NFU, more regulated supply chains and more political will. But if these changes are made we will be rewarded by the return of curlew and ruff to our countryside and the ecstatic screech of hundreds of newly fledged peewits.

Fields of Gold

by Garry Jones

October 27 2012

Last time I wrote I encouraged conservationists amongst us to say something about the middle of the field and how it is possible for fields to be edible and biodiverse. Before I explore that, we need some context to explain why the two concepts now seem so very distant from one another.

What does a biodiverse field look like? This is actually rather hard to answer, because there are so few of us who have ever seen one. If you can, ask your grandparents or great grandparents. Those who were around before the Second World War are few and far between; though children of the 40’s and 50’s may also have experienced wild meadows. Perhaps they played in one near home, or when visiting country relatives. Some may have been lucky enough to live there, though unlucky if they or their parents were farmers, dependent on the land as government and corporations moved into the food market. If you can find an eyewitness, ask them what it looked like? Better still, what it sounded like, or smelt like or even tasted like?

They’ll describe a countryside literally squirming with life. If you sat down in a field, you’d find yourself covered in grasshoppers, surrounded by butterflies, buzzing with bees. The reason for all of this invertebrate fervor? The plants. Take a walk in a local nature reserve today and you’ll be delighted to see cowslips, cuckoo flower, meadow cranesbill and several more. But this is poor by comparison- for each and every meadow before the war was brimming, overflowing with flowers, not a handful, not even a dozen or twenty different kinds. It was perfectly normally, so normal that few even questioned it, for an ordinary meadow to have fifty, sixty, seventy different species of flowers and grasses. This is biodiversity and it used to be common as muck.

Ok, so what is a field today? A field is for growing a crop. A crop is a single species. In fact more than that, it is a single variety and usually a single genotype. A field full of cloned individual plants; all identical in their genetic makeup or very very similar. This is important for two reasons: firstly, the farmer that grows it knows exactly what they are selling and barring a bad season, they also know exactly how much. Secondly, the company that buys from them and lots of other farmers has an equal measure of control and can therefore also control how much they pay for this specific crop or commodity as it has now become. They don’t have to bargain, trade or barter, they just demand a specific amount of a specific crop at a specific price. The farmer has little room to manoeuvre, as his customer goes elsewhere if he does. Furthermore, the farmer has to buy the seed that grows his crop in the first place and because he needs to ensure he gets as much as possible from his harvest, the same companies sell him fertilisers to ‘feed’ his crop and pesticides to ‘protect’ it.

All very interesting you may say, but at the end of the day, I am happier eating his crop of wheat or potatoes or rice or whatever than munching on flowers, however biodiverse they may be and whilst it’s unfortunate that the crop field is devoid of wild nature, what can I do, I have to eat! True, you do have to eat. But let me pose two questions… do you have to eat only what you currently tend to eat? And second, do the things you tend to eat even now, have to be grown in single crop fields?

The answer for me and a growing number of people (no pun intended) is no. Even if you really like wheat, oats, potatoes and rice, most people also like vegetables of several kinds and salad leaves and meat for that matter. We humans are omnivores and contrary to popular misconception this means we can and do eat a variety of things – we are very versatile, flexible and open-minded when it comes to food (as opposed to the common usage of omnivore; that we are ‘meant’ to eat both meat and veggies). In Europe and North America we have become used to a very much reduced range of foods compared to other parts of the world. We rely very heavily on a few high carbohydrate crops such as wheat and potatoes. We have also become very used to a narrow range of fruit and vegetables, dominated by a few roots such as carrots and leaves such as cabbage, spinach and lettuce. I don’t have the space here, but suffice to say, there is so much more out there. One man who has taken this concept and explored it with enthusiasm is Martin Crawford. In his ‘garden’ in Devon, Martin is growing over 200 species if edible plants, most of which you won’t find in a regular farmers field. But what you will find amongst his food is masses of biodiversity. Even if you take the sixty-species strong meadow described above, you will find more there to eat than just some distant relative of wheat or rice. And this is the point, it was fine, perfectly reasonable to take those plants which were most edible and try to breed and make more of them, so that the flower rich fields were able to better sustain us. But, we took it too far and made it too simple, wiping out all but the one or two species we desired the most at that particular time. It was unnecessary and short sighted. If you feel like having coffee one day, you don’t throw out all your other drinks, chuck out every tea bag, wash away the fruit juice and fill every cupboard with coffee! Why? Because tomorrow you might want something different, your mood and taste may change. The trouble is, our cupboards are now full of only a few things and we’ve forgotten it could ever be different. Some people are waking up to this, and what a marvelous discovery it can be for all of us. A whole new world of taste and texture and flavour.

To return to the second question- we will probably still want a lot of the ‘staples’ such as wheat and potatoes. So, do we have to grow them in the way we do now? No, we don’t and in fact this way has become very expensive and harmful. Another inspirational figure and another Martin, is showing us one way to do things differently. Instead of planting acre after acre of mono-crop wheat, Martin Wolfe intersperses rows of wheat with alleys of trees and wildflowers on his farm, Wakelyns in Suffolk. His farm is still buzzing and humming with wildlife as a result too. But, what is more, his yields are high and sustainably so, no fertilisers or pesticides so no worries if or rather when the oil runs out and no contribution to climate change either. The wildlife that surrounds his ‘crop’ helps the crop to function without all that artificial extra help. The trees shade the crop from excess heat in the summer and save water stress. The wildflowers attract pollinating insects but also control the pest population as they allow a diverse and therefore competing group of bugs to live on the farm – rather than a locust like swarm moving through in one foul swoop. The plants also benefit the crops because of what goes on underneath the ground. Without constant ploughing, the wildflower alleys establish deep and complex relationships with each other and the fungi in the soil. Together they draw up nutrients from deep in the earth, share resources and protect one another from pests. They are so healthy they can share this nutritional and health advantage with the surrounding soil and organisms, including the crops.

And so, the art of the possible- we can easily grow a wider diversity of crops that can be eaten by us whilst also being eaten by wildlife and providing habitat. Plus we can continue to grow some more intensive plantations of carbohydrate rich crops intermingled with wild spaces that actually support the crops. So why don’t we?

Because everything I have talked about above would allow for food production, good farming and maintenance of farmer livelihoods but none of it allows for profit, for wealth and riches. The biodiverse way is an equitable way. It rewards farmers, but not too much. It rewards consumers, but not too much and it keeps the land itself in balance- taking a little, but not too much. The system I describe is a way of life for feeding communities. The system we have is a business for feeding the rich with money and their interests are strongly defended. A system without much need for oil, pesticides, fertilisers, transport, seed ownership, marketing, is a system without much need for them (at least as they currently are). So, it is perfectly possible for us conservationists to have a biodiverse middle of the field and get along with small scale farmers and eat the fruits of all our hard work. What is not possible is to have this whilst large corporations continue to dominate and control the food market.

If you are a conservationist, then please remain a conservationist when you buy your food. Buy it local, buy it organic, support small farmers, avoid supermarkets and large corporations. Better still, grow a little or a lot of your own and reduce the demand in the first place. At work, seek out these farms and farmers, support them, learn from them and each other, even run a farm or two and let them run a nature reserve on their farm. And please, please, please keep talking about the middle of the field because the food we all eat is our biodiversity, or at least it once was… and it could be again.

Middle of the Field

by Garry Jones

July 26 2012

Sorry for the recent absence but a new house and garden proves quite a distraction. The excessive rain was less welcome however and although the peas and lettuces are doing well (shh don’t tell the slugs), the leeks, carrots and beans just aren’t playing… but then it is all learning. Last time, through reasonably logical means I proposed that the future of nature conservation ultimately lies in the hands of farmers, because most of the countryside is farmland. This has really got me thinking about the role of conservationists like me.

To start with I considered what it is we do now: we directly manage land for nature, providing a refuge, and more positively a haven, a reserve (in its original sense) from which nature can expand and regroup back into the wider countryside – conservation bodies own perhaps 1% of the countryside. We also talk a lot about nature, we try to inform and inspire people- a la BBC Springwatch. To secure membership income to buy and manage more nature reserves, but also to encourage volunteers to give their time and so that people value and act for nature more. Occasionally we also use this backing to advocate for new laws or changes in public spending on nature conservation. Last but not least, we advise other land owners and sometimes work with or for them; including lots of farmers. This last group of conservationists are arguably those that have the most direct contact most wildlife out there.

So, my original assertion about farming really throws the spotlight on our conservation colleagues who already work with farmers. At present they advise farmers on lots of different wildlife friendly approaches including surveying farms to see what lives there already, restoring habitats such as hedgerows for farmland bird cover, ditches for water voles and wet meadows for wading birds. Sometimes they also encourage different or lower usage of fertilisers to reduce run-off into local water courses. Sometimes they might even talk about reducing pesticide and herbicide usage to encourage invertebrates or promote set-aside on field margins. The more extensive this advice the more likely it is to go hand in hand with a government subsidy such as a stewardship scheme; because it often means doing something that is not about growing food, and therefore is not about generating income from selling it. It is all good stuff and helps to reverse some of the most damaging practices of the so called green-revolution when hedgerows were ripped out to make bigger fields, water was drained to increase productivity and both fertiliser and pesticide was applied liberally to increase yield. I would like us to do more of it, on more farms, more fields, more hedges, more birds, more bugs.

But… and if you are a conservation officer or similar please bear with me here as I might be a little clumsy… the evidence suggests there is something missing (the Lawton review described in my last post outlines the failure of nature conservation to do much more than slow the decline in biodiversity). On top of this I ‘feel’ like there is something missing in our approach. It is not that what we are already doing is wrong- it’s not, it is very much right and we should still be doing it, with gusto. But I have long had a sort of intuition that there was a missing element and I think it has slowly dawned on me what this is.

I think it’s the wheat. The corn and the maize too. Most probably also the potatoes and the rice. It’s the middle of the field. The crop, the food, the thing that makes up most of the actual countryside; the middle of the field.

We don’t say much about the middle of the field. The ditches, yes, and the hedgerows, the set aside, they all matter. But why don’ t we say much about the actual crop? Even when discouraging fertiliser or herbicide or pesticide, we comment little on the actual crop; the reason why these agrochemicals are so tempting, the thing that fills the middle of the field and most of the countryside.

If nature needs more land, bigger areas, better managed and connected; this means farmland. If we mean farmland, we must surely mean the middle of the field as much as the edges? So why do I feel so uncomfortable talking about it in conservation terms? I don’t have a full answer to that question. I’d love the conservationists out there to join me in this being a valid question and then trying to answer it, because it seems to me very important. Here are some thoughts:

1. Farming is a livelihood for small and medium sized farms and big business for larger farms. Farming for wildlife traditionally means less crops so it will reduce livelihoods and profits. Can I really advise people on this basis and if I do will they even listen. Answer: no, so I don’t bother.

2. Big business and profit-driven growth has caused the decline in biodiversity. I find it hard to engage in conversation with people who have played a part in that – my colleagues might think I am selling out.

3. The middle of the field is a monoculture, it has no biodiversity, it is barren. There is nothing to work with; my efforts are better expended on the hedgerows, on the ditches, or even in urban areas.

4. Crops themselves are not wildlife; they are either cultivated or non-native.

5. Conservation is a science and a profession. It seeks mutual respect with other sciences and professions including those involved in food production. It is not really our profession. The overlap occurs at the edge of the farm; that is where we have something to share.

6. A truly wildlife friendly approach to the middle of the field will not work because it will not provide enough food for the growing population.

7. A truly wildlife friendly alternative is too alternative, it would mean a revolution in food growing. Some people might characterize these ideas as ‘hippy’ or ‘wacky’. We have struggled for years to become mainstream; we don’t want to risk losing our members, income and our influence.

Small sigh, then some initial responses:

Small and medium farms are livelihoods – not profit factories. Big businesses have driven down prices so low that it is actually quite difficult to make a living, let alone a profit if you are a small producer. However, those that remain still have a connection to their land and many recognise there is a problem; the fact there families depend on the land makes the problem emotive and acute but it doesn’t mean they don’t want to talk about it – quite the opposite in many cases. Anyway, just talking about the middle of the field won’t make things any worse and might, just might be worth a try. Big agribusiness is generating profit for the few and still not feeding the world. Farming should be about producing food, not profit and should give a livelihood to the many farmers, not a big profit to the few agribusiness owners. Ultimately food is more important than profit. I can’t eat profit. I can eat what is in the middle of the field- I have a right to talk about it as much as the farmer. We all have a responsibility to talk about it.

The field is a monoculture. But it was not always that way and it need not be that way in the future. Plus it is the biggest area so has the most potential and it is still full of soil, not concrete. Nature is resilient; it can come back quite quickly if given the opportunity. Food is wildlife; crops were not beamed down from outer space even if they have been cultivated y people. It is life, it lives; that is why we eat it! Modern food is a very narrow sample of all the possible foods. If we opened up these possibilities it would be far easier to recognise food as wildlife and I should say wildlife as food. Cultivation is merely the interaction of one form of life (humans) with another (plants and animals we can eat). As we are now discovering, many if not most forms of life ‘cultivate’ others by affecting their evolution. Non-native is all relative to time but essentially non-native just means something has not settled in yet. Invasive is another matter, but it is much rarer and should not stop us from considering food as wildlife.

Conservation is about life. Life is about everything. Conservation = economics, politics, farming, culture, society- it is all ours to talk about if we choose to. The professional silos have probably contributed to the current state of the planet – now is as good a time as any to start breaking down some of those divisions and working together across disciplines to solve major issues.

Even today most of the world is not fed through industrial agriculture. By all measures that include proper consideration of energy input, ie ones that do not ignore fossil fuel inputs; it is non-industrial, human labour intensive, local, largely organic, low input, mostly perennial, mixed crops and small scale food production, that produces more food over all. We have both forgotten how to do it this way and been fed a stream of propaganda from big corporations telling us it won’t work. It can, it will, it does work if your aim is food production. What it does not do is make profit. I prefer food than profit. Farmers have the capacity and can rediscover the skills to farm this way if we all support them to do so.

It is alternative, because the current system is failing. We can either continue to influence a failing system or we can influence something that will work. Most of our current work remains relevant; hedgerows and ditches and set aside and nature reserves and inspiring events are still needed. This is renaissance, not revolution. It need not be violent or disruptive. It can be creative, innovative, joyful and successful.

To finish, we conservationists can and should be concerned with the middle of the field and the economics, politics, and social implications of such a conversation. We don’t have to have all the answers to start talking about it. So I invite you to talk about the middle of the field, talk to me, talk to each other, talk to farmers, talk to politicians, talk to everyone who is interested in food, in wildlife, in a future.

I will be talking about the middle of the field next time and how it can be both biodiverse and edible.

The Future of Conservation — Landscape Scale

by Garry Jones

May 24 2012

One of the last acts of the Brown Labour government (Environment Minister Hilary Benn actually) was to initiate a review of nature conservation in England. Thankfully when the coalition government finally worked its way out of the 2010 general election, the new Minister (Caroline Spellman) decided to see the review through to its conclusion. The basic question was: ‘Do England’s wildlife sites comprise a coherent and resilient ecological network?’, or ‘is that 12% I mentioned last time really enough?’

The review was undertaken by a panel of eminent figures drawn from the world of conservation and headed up by Professor Sir John Lawton (who also happens to be Chair of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust). This was the first thorough look at the subject in over 60 years and to some extent it placed the entire nature conservation sector on trial. It is a very comprehensive report and well worth a read – ‘Making Space for Nature’, more commonly being referred to as the Lawton review. It breaks things down to 4 simple questions:

  1. Have we maintained England’s’ diversity of species?
  2. Are they of sufficient size to be sustainable going forwards?
  3. Are they protected from harm and being supported to flourish?
  4. Are they joined up and connected?

The answers are stark and pull no punches:

  1. Yes… just about, but with significant losses
  2. No, they are too small
  3. No, they continue to be damaged and mismanaged
  4. No, they are disconnected and connections are being lost

The report effectively says that 60 years of nature conservation have failed to do anything more than slow a sure and steady decline in biodiversity.

The good news… bear with me some more. The report called for a step change in nature conservation. It demands that we protect more sites; that these sites are bigger; that they are managed and looked after better; and that they be connected up- both geographically and through greater integration into sustainable social and economic usage. The report called upon government to establish ‘Ecological Restoration Zones’ across the country where this could and would be made to happen. In truth this sort of thinking has been around for about a decade or so. The Wildlife Trusts call it ‘Living Landscapes’, the RSPB call it ‘Futurescapes’, and others call it other things such as rewilding, landscape scale conservation or whatever. It all adds up to the same thing- we have to turn around from looking inwardly at small, isolated, nature reserves and look outward across the wider countryside; that is the only thing that will work.

The good news: government listened.

In 2011 it published a white paper called ‘The Natural Choice’ and amongst a lot of other guff, it set into action the creation of 12 (now rebranded) ‘Nature Improvement Areas’, each to be governed by a partnership of organisations. Perhaps predictably the cheque fell short at only £7.5 million (Lawton forecast the cost of restoring nature would be around £1 billion per year). Since then a national competition has established the first 12 sites (from over 70 applications) and they have already begun their work. The 12 sites can be found on the Natural England website here. It is hoped that many of the others will get funding from elsewhere and also get started soon; some had already got underway without government help.

Ok, so where does farming fit in? Firstly, importantly, these areas are not nature reserves; they include substantial areas of farmland, forestry and some urban areas too. I repeat, these are not nature reserves, Lawton did not say we should or could simply have more, bigger and better nature reserves: the government would simply have said no. So, what sort of land are we actually talking about? Well, in short, a lot of farms.

They will not be protected with fences or reserve wardens or even laws (there has been no new legislation to create Nature Improvement Areas). This is a sea change because it places the emphasis upon everyone involved to recognize the value of nature and work together to make more space for it, to manage land for it, to join it up across land ownership boundaries and to integrate it, sustainably, into whatever social or economic purpose the land is used for… and the land is mostly used for farming.

Now I think about it, I am not entirely sure we conservationists have really, fully appreciated the consequences of our lobbying for landscape scale conservation. I feel sure it is right, the only thing to do against the backdrop of our all too clear failure; but is this really what we intended- we have just placed the responsibility for restoring nature into the hands of farmers!

We’ve just said, ‘hell, we’ve failed, we can’t do this on our own, we need you.’ Ok, not so dramatic perhaps, we have in our own way ensured there is at least a reservoir, a deposit if you will, of nature from which to re-inoculate the rest of the countryside. And we have skills, knowledge and some means to help along the way. 12% of the land is still a lot of acres and we do have something to offer. But still, we are saying that the future of nature is no longer solely in our hands ( we may not be branding it like that; that would never do of course; we have to show our paid up members something for their direct debits).

And so, this begs the question; just who or what have we gotten into bed with? Can farmers be trusted to restore nature? After all, wasn’t it farmers that poisoned the land with pesticides, that polluted it with fertilisers and then destroyed it with monocultures, ripped out hedgerows and drained wetlands within an inch of their life?

Well, yes, and then again, no. You can read elsewhere on this campaign site how the individual farmer was gradually beaten into metaphorical submission by the corporation, so I’ll not labour the point here. But the importance should not be lost; the individual farmer who works and lives from the land, who cares about his soil, who knows his landscape and tends to his craft as much as his livestock – actually when it comes down to it, I can’t think of a better pair of hands in which to place the future of nature – because it was only when nature was wrested from the individual farmers control in the first place that it all started to go wrong.

Let’s hand it back, willingly and see what we conservationists can do to help along the way… the subject to which I will turn next time.

Part-time farmer update: I am moving, out of the city and into the countryside! With a front garden and a back garden, a veggie patch, a herb garden and I hope farmers for neighbours… wish me luck.

Why Conservation needs Enlightened Agriculture and Enlightened Agriculture needs Wildlife

by Garry Jones

Why conservation? This is about food isn’t it?  Well, farming — but farming is about food?

My name is Garry Jones. I read zoology at Cambridge and have spent most of my career ever since — almost ten years – as a nature conservationist, in various guises and for several organisations. I now work for Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. And here is my confession; I want to be a farmer. I haven’t always wanted this and don’t get me wrong, I will still always be a conservationist, but over the last year or so, a few things have clicked into place for me. So, when I met Colin Tudge recently (for me, the author of Variety of Life fame) and realised it had clicked for him some time ago, I could not resist his invitation to say something about why?

I’ll try to keep this simple and spare you detailed accounts and references (though they are there if you want more). Before I get too ahead of myself, there are two things I need to say. The first is to say something about nature, the thing we conservationists are trying to conserve – where is it? What is it? What has happened to it? The second – why it matters?

First, what are we talking about? We are talking species (animals, creatures for sure, but plants and fungi and bacteria too!) and assemblages of species in habitats (the places where things live) – ecosystems, some may say: woodlands, rivers, fields, mountains, seashores to everyday folk and all the stuff that they hopefully buzz and hum with. In England this means perhaps 55 thousand species, not counting all the microscopic stuff (because it is hard to count). So, everything from blue tits to caterpillars, hedgehogs, red foxes, oak trees, cod out at sea and rustling grasses halfway up a hill.

In the UK, we first started to seriously consider, perhaps worry, about all this stuff after World War II. We started building a lot more houses and we now had big industries and a large labour force to keep in work. So, in 1949 the fore-thinking (Labour under Atlee) government brought into place the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act which kicked off the whole idea of statutory protection for important wildlife sites. Though there has been tinkering of sorts, this remains essentially what we still have today. So what do we have?

We have what are called tier 1 sites. These are the National Nature Reserves (NNRs), Local Nature Reserves (LNRs), the Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and more recently the European designations; Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and the globally recognised RAMSAR sites, specifically concerned with wetlands. We usually add to these those sites owned by nature conservation organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB and the Woodland Trust. All in all, acronyms to one side, these sites make up about 7% of the land in England. On top of these are tier 2 sites; predominantly ancient woodlands and what are collectively known as ‘local sites’- and specifically known as Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINCs) or some other acronym. Not quite so well protected, these add another 6.5% or so, though there is some overlap; so for the sake of argument let’s call it a round 12%.

There is also such a thing as tier 3, which is the National Parks themselves and the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). These add a whopping 23.5% — but hang on a second. Many of the tier 1 and 2 sites are within National Parks and AONBs, so there is quite some overlap. Besides, tier 3 designations are not made for wildlife, they are made for landscape, so you can still have building and intensive agriculture, forestry etc. within them. For the purposes of describing the very best places for wildlife I have therefore discounted them and stuck with 12%. Urban gardens are also playing an increasing role, but have also been discounted for now.

Okay, so we have a pretty good idea of where the best wildlife is. We have monitored and recorded and identified and protected it… well sort of. Because actually there has never be a completely comprehensive survey of the entire countryside and maybe that’s just a ridiculous idea. But of the 12%, only 1-2% is in the hands of bodies that exist purely for nature conservation and we know this matters. For example, about 300 SSSIs are damaged every year in one way or another. So, even the most special, most protected sites are vulnerable.

Well, it’s still 12% I hear you cry, we have to farm and build and live somewhere. So, let’s try to put that into some context. If we try to compare things to just after WWII, it is not a good picture. We have perhaps 50% of what we used to have in terms of ancient woodlands, the same for marshes and fenland. It’s worse for chalk and limestone grassland (the sort that ripples its way up the A1 corridor near me), only about 20% of that remains and most shocking of all; flower-rich meadows, the sort that used to dominate the great English countryside and has inspired painters and poets for hundreds of years – just 5% remains intact. On a species level it is pretty bad too; only about a quarter of butterflies remain, little more than a tenth of water voles (think ratty from the children’s book, wind in the willows) and here’s a killer — just 3% of tree sparrows. Three percent, that means 97% have been wiped out. A quarter of all species, that’s more than 13,000 different sorts of plants and animals, are gone or under serious threat in England. The mass destruction of wilderness is not restricted to the rainforests.

So to my second point – why does it matter? First and foremost, if you have read this and taken it on board, there is a little bit of your heart, your soul (perhaps big for some) that pangs a little at the thought of such destruction. I am of no particular religion, but whatever way you look at it, this feels like an immoral act against the earth, against those with whom we share our planet. Okay, more practically, I look out the window, I see a tree, I feel better. I walk to work, I hear a bird sing, I feel good. I do this most days, it adds up, nature is good for me. You may do it too; if not, try it, it works.

Even more practically, natural systems, habitats, ecosystems, are really clever at doing stuff that we spend a lot of time and effort (and money) doing artificially. They clean water, they purify air, they keep places warm and sheltered, they keep places cool in summer. These things have been given the hideously human centred term ‘ecosystem services’ of late, but terminology and human importance aside, they do it anyway and it would and does cost us more, much more to reinvent it. [Serious experts have calculated that the total value of nature’s “ecoservices” is worth at least two or three times the combined value of the GDPs of all the world’s nations. Ed.]

And talking of things nature does rather well, we finally come to food and farming. Everything good you have ever eaten has come from nature. Every vegetable, plant, meat, milk, you name it has its direct origins in nature. Nature is the ultimate at making soil and growing stuff in it; farming is imitation, good imitation for sure, but let’s remember that nature and wildlife are presented to us, gifted if you will three times a day, every day to most of us and the other seven billion humans on this earth, almost without fail, by nature. I could go on, but suffice to say, it matters very much indeed, nothing could matter more. And that is why I want to be a farmer.

I have spent years observing, measuring, tinkering with and communicating nature to others. For years I did this without stopping to think about my place in it. Every species, every plant and animal has a role, a place, a habitat; that’s why we try to save, protect and conserve them. Then, about a year ago it slowly began to dawn on me; and it came back repeatedly, and stronger each time… what is my habitat? Why do my actions take without returning and why do they damage the environment around me where every other creature I can think of is in ultimate harmony —  give-and-take; part of a system, a complex, interconnected system. Why am I, we, the odd ones out in nature?

I don’t have all the answers as yet, but I and more importantly others, do have some of the answers. The reason we feel out of place is that we have squished and squeezed and side-lined nature into 12% of the land and gone on building and taking in the form of intensive agriculture and forestry from the remaining 88%. The forces were huge; two world wars is not a trivial excuse. But it was the wrong solution and we need a new one, or rather we need to rediscover an old one, one that we already know works. One where nature has a place in the 88%, where there is complexity, give and take, where individuals are part of, not apart from their habitat – where they share habitat with everything else.

So, I want to be a farmer, a part-time farmer actually, and a part time conservationist; though one day I hope to have a word that that will allow me to say, I am a full time ‘x’, and it just mean both.

All very well, but how and  where next? That’s what I’d like to open up some discussion upon right here. What ideas do we have to expand this 12% into something more sustainable? How can we make room in the 88% for nature? Where will farming (inevitably?) come into it and in what format? What about animals, both wild and domestic? What about people? I’ll start with some good news, because last year, only 62 years after the 1949 act, we finally got a bit more help from government…