Is this British agriculture’s chance to be more nature-friendly post-Brexit, or will the efforts of more than 100 farmers, with a new vision to ‘restore British wildlife, reverse declines in soil quality and help manage impacts of climate change’ fall on stony ground?

I’ve written numerous articles about farm birds declining by more than 50% since the 1970s. The problem is that we see this kind of figure brandished about so often that we eventually become immune to bad news, and then it becomes the norm – the new baseline data. In other words, birds can continue to decline by 50% – and it doesn’t sound any worse – until the last two songbirds remain.

I’m always on the lookout for news from those who are looking to challenge the status quo and interrupt the present pattern that’s paralysing the planet. Here’s the potential for something good to come from Brexit.

The encouraging news that “a group of more than 100 farmers with a new vision for the future of British agriculture launched the Nature-Friendly Farming Network (NFFN) on Friday 5 January 2018, at the Real Farming Conference in Oxford” hit my desk and I investigated immediately.

_1 Group NFFN Photo cred David Hartley

A recent press release (5 January 2018) confirmed that “The independent organisation is calling on the UK and devolved governments to create a post-Brexit framework that will help farmers restore British wildlife, reverse declines in soil quality and help manage the impacts of climate change, as well as growing affordable, healthy food.”

I’ve read several online articles about the pros and cons of the UK leaving the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and wondered if this could be the opportunity for a new approach to British farming policy. Certainly, the newly-formed NFFN seem to think there is, and I like the premise of a transition towards a nature-friendly farming future.

I hope the ‘transition’ wouldn’t take twenty-five years, though, as per Theresa May’s declaration of war on plastic.

“Thousands of British farmers already use nature-friendly farming practices,” says NFFN “but the scale of the decline in wildlife and soil quality and the challenges presented by climate change mean that this work needs to be scaled up rapidly with strong policy support.”

I think this is one of the most honest statements I’ve read from the farming community; whatever is being done, it simply isn’t enough. Could it be that the NFFN is offering an outstretched hand the government should seriously consider accepting?

The chair of NFFN, farmer Martin Lines, who runs an arable family farm in Cambridgeshire, says: “Brexit presents a once in a generation opportunity to create a new farming policy that will help farms evolve and thrive, at the same time as restoring and protecting our natural heritage. We can use this opportunity to create a long-term, stable policy framework that will drive a mainstream shift towards a sustainable, productive, nature-friendly future for British farming as well as protecting the landscape across the UK.”

The NFFN’s hope is that “Post-Brexit, agricultural policies need to help all British farmers to produce high-quality food at the same time as helping our soil, landscapes and wildlife recover and flourish.” Many will question why these aims weren’t pre-Brexit, too. “Among other things,” they continue “farming payments need to be continued and redirected towards mainstreaming nature-friendly farming across the UK. The NFFN wants this not just because the farmers care about nature – but because they firmly believe that a more nature-friendly approach will be key to the long-term survival and success of British farming.”

I think I would go a stage further and say that only nature-friendly farming is acceptable as the alternative is the snake that eats its own tail.

The Nature-Friendly Farming Network believes that post-Brexit agriculture policy should:

1. Help all British farmers to produce safe, healthy food at the same time as helping our soil, landscapes, rivers and wildlife to recover and flourish.

2. Maintain and redirect farming payments towards mainstreaming nature-friendly farming across the UK.

3. Recognise that the shift towards a more nature-friendly approach is not just good for wildlife but is key to the long-term survival and success of British farming, delivering broader benefits to the public [flood protection, water and air quality, and access to thriving natural landscapes].

Whether you agree with the NFFN’s aims or not it’s incontrovertible that Britain needs to change its approach to agriculture. “Existing farm practices often rely on the heavy use of chemical pesticides and herbicides, ” declares the NFFN “which have a profound impact on biodiversity and public health. Industrialised farming is responsible for 2.9 million tonnes of topsoil lost each year in the UK alone. Farm birds, a key indicator of the health of wildlife, have declined by 54% since 1970. Over the last 50 years, there has been a marked decline in over 600 farmland species across the UK.”

It’s a rare moment to see such acceptance and we can choose to boo, hiss, or call foul play and accuse the NFFN of protecting farm subsidies. We could. But where would that get us? Over 70% of the land in the UK is farmland. We need farmers on-board. We rely on farmers to do what they do. And if they can see an opportunity post-Brexit to farm more sympathetically, good for them.

But I would say that no-one should wait for the government to say ‘Go!” They should start today – in fact, many of them already have. We need more, though. And that’s why it’s good to read that “The NFFN aims to unite farmers who are passionate about wildlife and sustainable farming and who want to deliver rapid progress towards a future in which wildlife on farmland recovers and thrives.”

IMG_3041

“More than 4,000 farmers across the UK are already committed to nature-friendly farming with encouraging results for biodiversity, soil health, water quality, air quality and species that were formerly on the brink of extinction.”

The Network is welcomed by a range of environmental and conservation charities including Soil Association, National Trust, Woodland Trust, RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Butterfly Conservation, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust, Bat Conservation Trust, Buglife and Plantlife.

I look forward to seeing how the NFFN grows and you can do the same at https://www.nffn.org.uk/ 

Six-point Framework for Sustainable Farming:

The Nature-Friendly Farming Network has focused on six key areas where sustainable farming adds value, asking for recognition and support from the UK and devolved governments post-Brexit:

1. Growing healthy nutritious food.
2. Addressing degradation and improving the quality of the soil.
3. Helping wildlife to recover and thrive.
4. Reducing greenhouse gases and managing impacts of climate change, such as flooding.
5. Keeping our seas and rivers clean and reducing water-borne pollution.
6. Being custodians of the British landscape and enabling the public to enjoy and benefit from our natural heritage.

State of Nature – Facts & Figures

• Farmland bird numbers have halved in the last 50 years.
• Since 1990 the farmland butterfly index has fallen by 36%.
• 64% of farmland moths and 70% of carabid beetles studied are declining.
• Between 2009 and 2014, 49% of British bees declined.
• The national average for woodland cover in the UK is only 13% (10% in England) compared to an EU average of 37%.
• Yet despite the evidence that planting trees can help tackle some of the great policy challenges of our time (water management, soil degradation, fragmented habitats etc.) current planting rates have fallen over recent years.

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