Balancing economy and ecology – farm industry’s response to criticisms from wildlife reports

Gulls following a tractor as it ploughs a field near Barton Turf.Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Gulls following a tractor as it ploughs a field near Barton Turf.Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

The impact of intensive agriculture on wildlife and ecology has been the subject of several high-profile reports and statements in recent months – forcing a defensive response from farming leaders.

Poppies in a hedgerow near Buxton, North Norfolk. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Poppies in a hedgerow near Buxton, North Norfolk. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

It culminated in September with the State of Nature Report, bringing together data from over 50 conservation organisations and launched by Sir David Attenborough,which found 56pc of species have declined in the last 50 years, with one in ten at risk of disappearing from our shores altogether.

The study highlights 'intensive management of agricultural land' as one of the most important factors in wildlife declines, but acknowledges that working with farmers and wildlife-friendly farming schemes could help reverse this.

Farming leaders were quick to point out the time, money and energy invested in stewardship projects, installing buffer strips, planting wildflower margins and new hedgerows, as well as specific measures to help threatened species like stone curlews and turtle doves.

So are we striking the right balance between the economy and ecology of the countryside?

We asked a cross section of professionals working in conservation and commercial agriculture.

Contract farmer

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Kit Papworth is a director of L F Papworth, a contract farming company based in Felmingham, working on 1,250ha of land.

He said: 'The first thing to say is no, we are not getting a balanced picture. You are getting politics being played out here.

'Farmers are still farming in environmental ways, but you are not seeing enough people applying to go into stewardship schemes now because there is less money around.

'So fewer people are going into these schemes, and people are coming out of the higher tier schemes and taking out some of their environmental features on land which could be producing food, so sadly they are being ploughed up and returned to production. It is sad, but it is what we have always known since the war, which is that farmers do what the government supports them to do.

'These (environmental) groups are positioning themselves for where they think the money should go. They want to get rid of BPS (direct support payments to farmers) and go down the Pillar 2 road (payments for specific environmental schemes). All of these organisations want to make sure farmers are funded to do environmental work rather than being paid to be food producers. These reports are a gentle push in that direction.

'Farmers will always want to look after the countryside but (financial) support will push them down that road. I think farmers are good at looking after the countryside, but they will always do what they are encouraged to do.'

Conservation farmer

Nigel Bertram is an award-winning conservation farmer who manages part of his land at Kempstone Manor Farm in Litcham for wildlife, with financial help from an EU-funded stewardship scheme, while 500 acres are farmed commercially under a management agreement with a contractor.

He said: 'I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. Why can't we farm in a big way and have conservation at the same time? We are not ripping out hedgerows and trees any more. I think farming has gone a long way down the line of not just preserving conservation measures, but introducing new ones as well. I think it is a pretty poor show that everyone is painted with the same brush.

'There is no reason big contract farming cannot live alongside conservation. I think in 2016, with the yields down and the prices down, that my conservation measures have taken on a significant role as a component of farm income this year. That financial support needs to continue, because if you were reliant on goodwill you would see a hell of a difference in the countryside.

' I think a lot of people would take out their grass margins and stop having decent hedges and just do everything they could to farm as much land as possible, and that would be a disastrous backward step.'

Wildlife adviser

Heidi Smith is business manager for Norfolk FWAG, the farming and wildlife advisory group for Norfolk.

She said: 'The response of farming groups (to the State of Nature report) was predictably robust. They immediately claimed the report ignored progress made by farmers on conservation in the last 25 years, and reminded everyone of the need to produce more food.

'This frankly unproductive debate is all too familiar. A conservation group says X species is threatened and Y farming practices are to blame – and the agricultural community goes on the defensive and claims everything is fine and nothing to do with farming.

'Norfolk FWAG has always tried to place itself outside this sterile stand-off. Instead of attack or defend, it accepts that the science of species decline is a fact, but views farmers as the solution rather than the problem.

'Many of our members ruefully report how their farms are less rich in wildlife than they remember when they were boys. Much easier to find is the farmer who will tell you his neighbour's land has no wildlife interest at all.

'The State of Nature report seems to go to some effort not to blame individual farmers, but to criticise the policy framework which drives the endless quest for greater efficiency.

'Following the EU referendum result, this policy framework looks set to be dismantled in the UK. It would be refreshing if, as it is rebuilt, the farming community responded less defensively and more positively to make sure that the new schemes that emerge allow wildlife to flourish alongside productive agriculture.'


Andrew Holland, RSPB farm conservation officer in Eastern England, said: 'The State of Nature report's findings on farming and farm wildlife might not make for comfortable reading, but they send a clear message to wildlife-friendly farmers that they are on the right track, and to policy-makers that expanding and increasing wildlife-friendly farming practices is vital for a sustainable future for the farmed environment and healthy wildlife populations in the countryside.

'There are lots of farmers in the East of England where I work, and around the country, who do their level best to help wildlife thrive on their farms, and they have scored some fantastic successes for wildlife.

'In The Brecks, farmers have helped save stone-curlews from extinction; in The Broads and The Fens they are restoring lost grazing marsh habitat that is rich in bird and invertebrate life; and throughout East Anglia, farmers represent that last real hope of saving one of our most iconic birds of summer – the turtle dove.

'To see farmland wildlife declining despite the efforts so many farmers make for nature – whether it's creating nesting plots for skylarks, planting wildflowers for pollinators, or expanding hedgerows for dormice and farmland birds – is a clear sign that existing agricultural policy isn't providing the levels of support and incentives for wildlife-friendly farming that is needed to prevent the continued loss of wildlife from the countryside.

'Farming is a challenging business, and most farmers don't have the luxury of being able to choose to produce less in order to benefit wildlife – they just can't afford to do it. That's why agri-environment schemes that reward farmers financially for managing land for wildlife are so important.'

Machinery manufacturer

Thomas Sands, sales director at crop-sprayer manufacturer Sands Agricultural Machinery, said his industry was also working hard to reduce environmental impact through efficiency.

'We have invested in the latest technology to improve accuracy with our sprayers therefore decreasing the amount of chemical used today and increasing the accuracy of our sprayers via an in-house RTK (Real Time Kinematic) network which works within a 6cm accuracy.

'A large number of sprayers that are now produced at our Stalham site, have increased in volume, therefore giving the operator more output when spraying conditions are suitable. A further investment has been made in the latest tablet technology and working closely with farmers when we attend a yearly NSTS, which is a form of MOT. This makes sure accuracy of the sprayer and the latest nozzle technology is fitted to reduce chemical drift and completed to a very high standard.'