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CPRE report: Does our farm landscape need more diversity?

A farmer ploughing a field at Great Ryburgh. Picture: Ian Burt

A farmer ploughing a field at Great Ryburgh. Picture: Ian Burt

Campaigners say post-EU farming policy must give more support to smaller farms - and cut subsidies for large agricultural estates - in order to create a diverse and resilient countryside. But does size matter when it comes to good stewardship?

There are undoubtedly many complex arguments ahead as lobbyists, industry leaders and politicians begin the arduous process of developing a new post-EU farming policy for Britain.

The common goals include protecting the competitiveness of our farms and the security of our food supplies, while maintaining the high standards of quality and environmental protection which consumers demand. But striking the right balance will be difficult.

Central to these arguments will be the degree to which farm subsidies – currently worth £3bn a year to British farmers through the EU – should continue after Brexit, and what conditions should be set to ensure public benefit is derived from public expense.

And this week the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) entered the debate with a report which argues that a more diverse sector is needed to break the pattern of “ever larger agri-business, less connected to communities and out of kilter with nature”.

The New Model Farming paper suggests trends of industrialisation and short-term efficiency have inflicted damage on vital natural assets, from landscapes and wildlife to soils and water.

That’s a picture which has been vehemently disputed by farming leaders, who argue that modern practices, with the help of EU stewardship grants, are already reversing the damage of the past, with large farms able to carry out cohesive conservation work on a landscape scale.

But the CPRE says diversity is the best way to ensure a resilient countryside, urging the government to address a “bias in policy” towards larger farms by “tapering” public funding, so smaller farmers get a greater proportion of available money, rather than an acreage-based basic payment subsidy which gives huge sums to larger estates.

Chris Dady, chairman of CPRE Norfolk, said: “Traditionally we always had small farms, surrounded by hedgerows, each field small enough for one man with his horse and plough to manage. This approach certainly helped protect against soil erosion, and gave much more flora and fauna diversity. We certainly agree that government should address this bias in policy towards larger farms through the tapering of public funding to benefit smaller farms. It is currently thought that around 80pc of CAP payment goes to the 20pc largest business.

“You have to think about the economies of scale which larger farms can take advantage of, but also you have to make sure you get the balance right. We do need some large crops, so it is about finding the balance.

“This is not to say a larger farm which practices good husbandry and does not ‘industrialise’ their land is not equally good, and in Norfolk we have some excellent examples. However the risk that farms will move to a more industrialised approach is higher with larger land holdings as the farmer struggles to make his land pay.”

Mr Dady said a particular factor in Norfolk was that unrealistic housing targets had led to huge land allocations, but as land was only being developed very slowly, large swathes of farmland were being used on a temporary basis, and farmed in a non-sustainable way as a result.

“Whatever you think of Brexit, this is a real opportunity,” he added. “CPRE Norfolk has always said the way forward is to reward farmers properly through food prices and subsidise if they demonstrate good stewardship.

“The CPRE paper is looking at the value of small farming units. Not everyone will agree with that, particularly if you are a landowner, but it is certainly one way to protect against the industrialisation of farms where chemicals are king and we strip all we can out of the land.”

While campaigners including the CPRE are putting their case ahead of the future Brexit negotiations, rural business groups including the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) are consulting their members, aiming to ensure the commercial case is also high on the agenda.

CLA East regional director Ben Underwood said: “CPRE is right to identify the fundamental importance of having a resilient and productive agricultural sector as the starting point for delivering a working countryside and supporting our environment. However there is a confusion within their message about where support needs to be targeted.

“The size of a farm does not predetermine whether it is achieving good or bad outcomes for consumers or the environment. What matters is the production of high quality affordable food for the UK population and a strong export market at the same time as improving our natural environment.

“When it comes to achieving vital environmental objectives, size often matters – whether it means improving water quality, which often has to happen at the level of a whole river catchment, or increasing farmland bird populations across miles of open countryside, the investments required need to take place over large tracts of land and so the levels of investment necessary are the same irrespective of who they are paid to. What matters is the outcome.”

CASE STUDY: The Elveden Estate

The manager of one of East Anglia’s biggest farms said the scale of the conservation work at the estate could only happen alongside viable commercial agriculture.

Andrew Francis is senior farms manager at the 22,500-acre Elveden Estate, which spans the Norfolk-Suffolk border near Thetford – one of the largest beneficiaries of the current basic payment scheme, with £915,000 received in 2014.

About 10,000 acres is farmed, but the estate also comprises a mosaic of habitats including 3,600 acres of Breckland heathlands, designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), and managed for their specialist plant life and rare birds including woodlark, nightjar and stone curlew.

Mr Francis said: “We are able to manage a very large block of land with a single integrated approach that looks at short, medium and long-term outcomes for the sustainability and enhancement of the environment. I would suggest that if that land was split into 20 different blocks, you are going to have 20 people who are not going to have the same level of involvement or influence.

“There is less and less money in what we are doing, so as margins tighten the only way to keep being able to make long-term investments is to have viable commercial agriculture.

“I can understand why the CPRE might want to taper things according to size, but the main reason for the size is to make commercial agriculture stack up.

“These (subsidy figures) look like big numbers, but when you divide it by a big area, it is a very small number. If you stopped all the farming at Elveden and just took that area payment for conservation, then there would not be enough money to do what we are doing. Conservation like that only happens because of viable commercial farming.”

What the campaigners say

The CPRE report says the post-war industrialisation of farming has caused “serious damage to nature and the diverse character of the countryside”, and although green policy changes in the 1980s have slowed or reversed some trends, “significant damage has yet to be repaired”, including:

• A homogenised landscape as farms have specialised – generally arable in the east and livestock in the west – and mixed farming has largely disappeared. More than 200,000 miles of hedgerows no longer needed to retain animals were removed between 1947 and 1990, creating bigger arable fields.

• The merging of farms has left fewer smallholdings and more part-time holdings and hobby farms, while active farms and herd sizes have become larger.

• A “dramatic loss of wildlife” such as farmland birds and insects, particularly pollinators including butterflies and moths, and wildflowers.

• High use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides has displaced processes such as long rotation of crops, fallow land and animal manures common to mixed farming, allowing monocultures to dominate large areas of the countryside, and contributing to water pollution.

• Use of ever-heavier machinery compacts the structure of soil, with damage from erosion, degradation and compaction is estimated to cost £1.2bn a year.

What the farmers say

The National Farmers’ Union disputed the “dated viewpoint” that industrialised farming is damaging the countryside.

The NFU says around 80pc of England’s landscape character is now in stable or improving condition due to the conservation efforts of farmers, much of which is funded through EU subsidies and agri-environment schemes. The union’s response to the CPRE included the following figures:

• Over 30,000km of hedgerows have been planted or restored by farmers.

• Pollen and nectar mix planting has gone up by 134pc in the last two years.

• 130 species of birds were recorded voluntarily by 970 farmers in the 2016 big farmland bird count, run by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust..

• Total greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture have fallen by 16pc since 1990.

• Approximately a third of farmers have invested in renewable energy projects.

• In 2013/14, more than 40pc of all anaerobic digestion plants were on farms, recovering over 3.2m tonnes of waste per year.

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