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Norfolk’s “world-class environment” faces fundamental change, conference told

A conference in Norwich discussed how to balance the needs of agriculture, the environment, wildlife and tourism within the Norfolk countryside. Pictured: Cattle grazing at Reedham. Picture: Archant library

A conference in Norwich discussed how to balance the needs of agriculture, the environment, wildlife and tourism within the Norfolk countryside. Pictured: Cattle grazing at Reedham. Picture: Archant library

Archant © 2010

Norfolk’s “world-class environment” faces a period of fundamental change which will demand closer industry and nature partnerships, and a “brutal focus” on the profits of farming businesses, a conference heard.

The Norfolk: A World-Class Environment conference at the King's Centre in Norwich. Picture: Chris HillThe Norfolk: A World-Class Environment conference at the King's Centre in Norwich. Picture: Chris Hill

Senior representatives from agriculture, wildlife, tourism and pubic sector bodies gathered at the King’s Centre in Norwich to discuss the implications of the government’s 25-year environment plan.

Hosted by the Norfolk Rural Strategy Steering Group, the event aimed to establish a new partnership to develop a local environment plan for Norfolk and Suffolk, which could become a vital tool in prioritising initiatives and securing future funding.

Speakers from organisations including Defra, the Broads Authority, Norfolk Wildlife Trust, the University of East Anglia and the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) explained the work already under way to reduce farming pollution and biodiversity loss, and balance the demands of industry and nature amid the challenges of climate change, limited water resources and post-Brexit funding uncertainties.

Pamela Abbott, chief executive of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, was among the conservationists keen to work more closely with farmers to protect the county’s “awesome biodiversity”, including more than 400 species of birds, globally important habitats and 166 Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

The Norfolk: A World-Class Environment conference at the King's Centre in Norwich. Pictured: Norfolk Wildlife Trust chief executive Pamela Abbott. Picture: Chris HillThe Norfolk: A World-Class Environment conference at the King's Centre in Norwich. Pictured: Norfolk Wildlife Trust chief executive Pamela Abbott. Picture: Chris Hill

“We already work with the usual suspects – the other NGOs and statutory bodies with a particular focus on biodiversity – but we want to work more with land managers, with farmers, and we want to work across all sectors for the benefit nature and biodiversity,” she said. “I think this is the beginning of a really exciting and hopefully fruitful conversation that we are having today.

“We know that agriculture, globally, drives a lot of biodiversity loss. I suspect it drives a bit less biodiversity loss here in Norfolk than it does globally, but it is the main driver and it can use a huge amount of water in doing that so I think we have some choices to make around some of our really special sites.

“We need to have some balance and we need to work with the agriculture sector so if you are near some of those special places, how can we work with you to make sure that your farming still makes the food we need, and still makes the profit that you need, but actually saves the environment and some of the cost of looking after your soil and your pollinators.

“We want to work on nature-based solutions and we want to work with nature-friendly farming and we want to see where we can build people into communities and businesses where they can contribute to saving and benefiting from Norfolk’s awesome biodiversity.”

The Norfolk: A World-Class Environment conference at the King's Centre in Norwich. Pictured: Charles Whitaker, managing partner of Brown and Co. Picture: Chris HillThe Norfolk: A World-Class Environment conference at the King's Centre in Norwich. Pictured: Charles Whitaker, managing partner of Brown and Co. Picture: Chris Hill

Rob Wise, environment adviser for NFU East Anglia, said farmers were “up for the challenge” of protecting the environment within a profitable farmed landscape, and reminded the audience that renowned wildlife areas such as the Broads and the Brecks were man-made, resulting from the management of the land.

“People need to work with the landscape so we can all eat and live and make a living,” he said. “Someone asked earlier whether farmers are up for the challenge of the ‘fourth crop’ in terms of the environment. Well, farmers are up for the challenge of any crop that can help them make a living and help them protect landscapes and the environment.”

FARMING’S ECONOMIC CHALLENGE

The stark economic challenges facing Norfolk farmers was outlined by Charles Whitaker, a managing partner of agri-business consultancy Brown and Co in Norwich.

He said the phasing out of the EU’s “basic payment” subsidies after Brexit – to be replaced with new Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) under the emerging domestic Agriculture Bill – could lead to an erosion of profit margins and land values.

“I cannot stress enough that major strategic decision-making is needed from all landowners, because if we lose support from the basic payment and we don’t get that plugged in the same level from ELMS – and I can’t see we will on a farm by farm basis – the fundamentals of most farm businesses is going to change dramatically,” he said.

“There is an urgent need for a brutal focus on net profits from many land types and existing land uses. Land types that can’t yield over-average levels of production performance are going to have a negative or zero operating return and land users will wake up and smell the coffee and decide they cannot do this any more, it has got to change. So now is the time to make those changes.”

The conference was opened by Andrew Proctor, leader of Norfolk County Council, who said he expected the government to look for regional plans from Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) areas to feed into its 25-year environment plan – which, in the case of the New Anglia LEP area, would mean a response incorporating Norfolk and Suffolk.

Defra policy adviser Adam Stewart said the department hoped to deliver its green goals through “Local Natural Capital Plans”, bringing together regional stakeholders to find the best plan to protect and maximise natural assets in their area.

• For more from the Norfolk: A World-Class Environment conference, see Saturday’s EDP Farm and Country Pages.

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