State of Nature report strengthens the case for wildlife-friendly farming

An adult Lapwing

An adult Lapwing - Credit: RSPB Images

Farmers and farm wildlife advisers in East Anglia say the findings of a new report on the state of wildlife in the UK published this week strengthens the case for making wildlife-friendly farming practices the norm.

Brecks farmer Peter Smith at Hall Farm in Wordwell.

Brecks farmer Peter Smith at Hall Farm in Wordwell. - Credit: Submitted

The State of Nature 2016 report, launched by Sir David Attenborough and 53 conservation organisations at the Royal Society in London on Wednesday, highlights how UK nature is changing, and why.

The report found 15pc of the species assessed are at risk of extinction in the UK, and 40pc suffered strong or moderate declines between 1970 and 2013, adding that 'significant and ongoing changes in agricultural practices are having the single biggest impact on nature.'

The most influential factors included production-driven farm practices, intensification of grazing regimes, the loss of semi-natural habitats, such as hedges, ponds and field margins, and the increasing use of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. That resulted in the index of change in the abundance and occupancy of farmland species declining by 20pc over the long term and 8pc over the short term. UK biodiversity indicators show that farmland birds have declined by 54pc since 1970, and butterflies by 41pc since 1976, while bats have increased by 23% since 1999.

Andrew Holland, RSPB farm conservation officer in Eastern England, said the report showed increasing wildlife-friendly farming practices were vital, but added that progress was already being made.

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Successes in the East include saving stone-curlews from extinction in the Brecks, restoring lost grazing marsh habitat in the Broads and the Fens, and region-wide work to save 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. Ultimately, to have farming across the industry that is better for wildlife and the environment, agricultural policy needs to be designed to promote environmentally sound farming as the norm. When we have that, we'll see a State of Nature report that shows wildlife thriving on farmland.'

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CASE STUDY: Peter Smith

Brecks farmer Peter Smith has spent a lifetime farming with wildlife in mind at Hall Farm in Wordwell, close to the border of Suffolk with Norfolk.

He sees the findings of the State of Nature report as a sign that his commitment to wildlife-friendly farming continues to be vital for helping nature in the farmed landscape. Mr Smith said funding he had received for agri-environment schemes had been key, but farming in the most environmentally conscientious way possible 'always felt like a given'.

He said: 'Our environmental scheme has enabled us to focus on providing a range of extra habitats for declining wildlife on the farm – grey partridge, lapwing, tree sparrow, stone curlew. In addition to this we have pollen and nectar plots and field margins to encourage pollinators, insects and Breckland plants.

'I'd be very sad indeed if I thought I wouldn't see the variety of wildlife in the fields and hedgerows when I'm out and about on the farm.'

He added he was disappointed at the report's findings, but not surprised.

'For a lot of farmers, even if they would like to do more to encourage, bees, butterflies and birds on their farms, it's not easy to do and there are costs – in losing areas that would otherwise be cropped, and in work to manage those areas for wildlife,' he said.

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