OPINION: Help feed nature recovery by eating 'proper meat'

Free roaming Dexter cattle ‘mutual grazing’ with wild ponies on Massingham Heath

Free-roaming, grass-fed Dexter cattle ‘mutual grazing’ with wild ponies on Massingham Heath - Credit: Olly Birkbeck

Consumers and farmers can both make 'small shifts of mindset' which could bring huge gains for nature writes Olly Birkbeck, director of the Little Massingham Estate and one of the founding trustees of the WildEast conservation movement.

Olly Birkbeck is a director of the Little Massingham Estate

Olly Birkbeck is a director of the Little Massingham Estate and a founding trustee of the WildEast nature movement - Credit: Olly Birkbeck

Driving round the farm at this time of year can be murder for the soft-hearted. All that brown soil.

But recently I was stirred from my eco-anxiety by the thrilling sound of a curlew.

Gawping through binoculars into the cultivated gloom, I saw there were about 100 of these tiptoeing dancers, their curved bills lancing the ground and their spooky call echoing over a soundless landscape, but for the skylarks bellyaching above. Not so much on the “rewilded” area – too many hawks.  

These birds have evolved with us over the ten or so millennia we’ve been farming. They coexist with us within a connected mosaic of cultivated land, animal-grazed pasture and wild natural habitat. It works for them.

But in the last few decades we’ve got out of step. Farming is engaged in a death spiral dance with the consumer, who’s insatiable demand for cheap meat, fed in sheds on our monoculture grain, is paying the demonic fiddler.  

The combination of chemicals and subsidies has enabled us to cultivate every inch regardless of natural productivity, breaking the age-old balance between nature and agriculture and threatening these birds and many others with extinction.

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A large proportion of our region, a landscape of extraordinary ecological diversity, is now farmed intensively for animal feed. 

Luckily for the curlews, the Basic Payment Scheme (which previously distributed EU subsidies) is on the way out, and with payments for protecting nature replacing those that subdue it, farming is facing change.

With a small shift of the regional mind-set, for both farmer and consumer, we could make huge gains for nature by adding a few stitches to its torn fabric, while making hardly a splash on the bottom line.  

So I asked my agronomist to help me find the sweet spot where acceptable yields can be achieved with a softer touch, in a system that our forefathers used for millennia. And it’s working pretty well.

I have to get up a bit earlier, but I’m saving big money on outputs and enjoying my rides around. Yields are a bit down but probably where they should be and the difference is made up with stewardship grants and organic beef. 

The cows have been the blue touch paper that has brought our heathland roaring back to life. By disturbing vegetation on this unproductive land and kick-starting the nutrient cycle, the land is changing before my eyes and local families bring their children to wonder at these free-roaming monsters, feeling a sense of connection to this East Anglian landscape, which makes me proud.

If something like this can inspire future generations to protect our natural world by spending a few extra quid, less often, on British grass-fed meat instead of the rows of farting wretches in sheds whose cheap feed fills our fields, we’ll solve the problem overnight.

This will give heart to even the most die-hard farmers who are investigating ways of strengthening the natural resilience of our farmland through regenerative farming, lengthening rotations, planting cover crops, and mothballing the plough.

I’m talking to my neighbours about connecting our boundary hedges to form huge corridors that eventually could intersect the whole region. These mighty, sprawling citadels will provide food, protection and the vital missing ingredient, nature’s ability to move and adapt to changing conditions to survive.

Nature-rich hedgerows at Little Massingham Estate

Hedgerows like these can provide a 'multi-layered superhighway for nature', says Olly Birkbeck - Credit: Olly Birkbeck

Just allowing our hedges to grow out two metres more on either side could double the natural habitat on your farm before breakfast, and make space for multitudes of natural predators that eat our pests for free. And it won’t cost a thing. 

Science is united in the view that natural habitat needs to cover 20pc of our landscape for nature to recover its regenerative capacity.

Rewilding is a fine thing, but the real gold is responsible farming and consumption.

If we want to restore our ailing landscape and reverse ecological decline, consumers and farmers together must dance to a different tune. And we’ll all feel a lot better for it.

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