Re-wilding: joined-up thinking needed

Last week I went to Rewilding: From Vision to Reality – a thought-provoking film and discussion panel with a group of people involved in the rewilding movement in Britain, played out in front of a packed and appreciative audience. George Monbiot, author of the book Feral and fellow-soldier in the battle against ‘eco-modernism’ was there, as was Colin Tudge, my colleague from the Campaign for Real Farming and wise voice in the alternative agriculture movement, along with various other interesting thinkers and practitioners. The event was filmed and is available here.

I came away from the evening thinking that what was being proposed could be really, really good. And alternatively that it could be really, really bad. Like almost everything in life, changes in one domain knock on to changes in other apparently unrelated ones, and in order to achieve the really, really good outcome changes in wildlife policy will need to be accompanied by appropriate changes in housing policy, tax policy, planning policy, food policy, farming policy and trade policy. A prime case for ‘joined up thinking’ in fact. I’m a great admirer of George Monbiot’s writing, and it’s to his credit that he writes thoughtfully and persuasively about all of these areas. The other participants, too, made a lot of subtle and convincing points. Nevertheless, I left with a few nagging doubts, centring mostly on the relationship between rewilding and agriculture, so here I want to work through them. I’ve got to admit that I’m not hugely up to speed on the rewilding movement – George’s book has been sitting in my in-tray for a while – but if you can’t think out loud on your own blog site, then where can you…?

Just the briefest of summaries of what’s on the table: ‘rewilding’ involves restoring to parts or all of Britain species that have been casualties of modernity – top predators like lynx, wolves, maybe even bears (a matter discussed on this site recently with Andy McGuire); keystone species such as beaver; and a huge variety of other organisms, birds, fish, invertebrates and the many plant species which have suffered huge losses as a result of modern fishing, farming and other land-use practices. George presented rewilding as a positive environmentalist agenda which ordinary people could rally behind, rather than the doom-and-gloom negativity of much environmental campaigning. He identified upland sheep farming as a particular problem: an environmentally-destructive yet economically marginal practice which is only sustained by EU subsidies. And he raised one of the greatest cheers of the evening with his attack on the EU farm subsidy regimen: a hugely regressive tax that rewards landowners the more that they own land. In the uplands, he argued, the subsidy incentivises ecological destruction, while in the more productive lowlands farmers don’t need it.

For his part, Colin inveighed against the fear-based productivist paradigm of mainstream (and indeed ‘ecomodernist’) agricultural policy in its obsession with raising productivity. We know how to produce enough food while farming in wildlife-friendly ways, he argued. And he raised a big cheer in turn with his comments on land reform and the possibilities for a people’s takeover of rural landownership through collective and commoning models to produce food and wildlife benefits locally.

I’m pretty much with them on most of that, but I think too glib an interpretation of these arguments can lead us astray and…well, those big cheers worried me a bit. Although I was impressed by the subtlety of the panellists’ thinking – none were arguing for a naïve rewilding uninformed by the needs of agriculture – I nevertheless sensed a possibly somewhat naïve anti-farmer and anti-private property sentiment underlying some of the proceedings. Most of us nowadays are so divorced from farming that it’s easy for misunderstandings to build up, and I for one have become less inclined to be critical of farmers since I switched from the lectern to the plough. Sheesh, it’s been an education. And while God knows there are farmers (and farm organisations still more) who deserve the opprobrium of anyone who cares about the land, let’s pause a moment to reflect on what we’re asking of our farmers – to be financially successful self-employed entrepreneurs, to produce healthy food at high volume and unprecedentedly low price, and to safeguard the environment, the landscape and its wildlife within those parameters. Is it any wonder that so many of them fail at some or all of those onerous demands? Or that there’s a recruitment crisis in farming, with a new cohort substantially failing to replace the old? As I’ve said before, a country basically gets the farmers it deserves.

So now let’s look at how a rewilding programme might pan out in a bad way. Over the next few decades, EU farm subsidies (Pillar 1…and Pillar 2?) are slashed to zero. Not a bad thing in many ways – it’ll end the scandalous subsidy of rich land speculators and have the effect George desires on upland sheep farming (I do have qualms about the upheaval in hill country pastoral traditions, but I think he’s right that things have got to change somehow). I haven’t looked in detail at the data, but I suspect however that without concomitant changes in food and trade policy it’ll also put paid to a lot of lowland farmers, including quite large-scale conventional ones, because I don’t really agree with George that lowland farmers don’t need a subsidy to stay afloat in present economic circumstances. Bear in mind that farmers are often selling below costs of production, working crazy hours and doing non-food production related things to stay in business. In this sense, in contrast to the wealthy landowner, the jobbing family farmer is not the real beneficiary of the EU subsidies. That honour goes to the processors, retailers and consumers who aren’t paying a realistic price for their food. Without subsidies or any protection from global commodity markets, agricultural margins will be shaved still further, putting family farmers out of business. Once in the hands of the corporates, I suspect that local agri-environmental outrages of the kind recently identified by George may diminish. Global agri-environmental outrages, however, will surely increase.

The ending of subsidies may disincentivise land speculation, but not too much – without wider land reform, rural landownership will still be a pursuit of the rich. Doubtless some landowners will be happy to rewild their estates. Doubtless too there’ll be local community buyouts. But if the lottery’s Local Food programme is anything to go by, these projects will likely do a much better job at making their lands wildlife friendly than at producing much food. It’s noteworthy that social enterprises set up with complex community management structures under the programme are now seeking individual entrepreneurs to make the farming work. In that sense, while I agree with Colin that it’s not so hard to farm in productive, sustainable and wildlife-friendly ways it is quite hard, and to be sure of success it involves a lot of hard work from people with strong personal motivations and incentives to do it over the long haul. I’ll wait to read Colin’s new book on these issues with interest, and I’ll talk in more detail about tenure systems and sustainable farming in future posts. For now I’m inclined just to say that anyone contemplating the establishment of a community food-producing social enterprise will probably find that obtaining the land is the easiest part of the struggle. And also that while commoning and collective land tenure systems can be very effective, things are more complex than ‘common good, private bad’. Let me put it this way: would the cheers that evening have been quite so loud had the suggestion been to socialise private home ownership rather than private land ownership?

Still, it won’t really matter if agricultural productivity in the UK goes down. There’ll still be high intensity farming in parts of the country that are well suited to it, which will gladden the hearts of the ecomodernists and the ‘land sparers’. The rest of our food we can buy from abroad. It may be produced in ecologically vulnerable regions (notably the semi-arid continental grasslands, of which I’ve written previously) and by economically vulnerable people, but that’s not really our problem. Or at least not for the moment it isn’t. The main driver of food production will still be price. Without reform of housing and planning policy, most people will remain crippled with massive expenditures to keep a roof over their heads and so will be looking for savings in other areas, such as food. The land-sparing, labour-shedding, capital-intensive model of agriculture will win out. Indeed, perhaps an omission in the discussions around agriculture at Vision to Reality was the issue of arable cropping, and even horticulture, in contrast to pastoralism which is probably an easier form of agriculture to rewild within extant agricultural thinking, but makes a relatively minor nutritional contribution to overall agricultural productivity. How should we rewild and reform lowland arable farming?

There’s always been a loose confederation of folk with an interest in keeping the hoi polloi out of the countryside and the result of the ‘bad rewilding’ that I’m imagining here is that the re-wilders will throw their lot in – deliberately or not, knowingly or not – with rich landowners, housing speculators, ecomodernist ‘land sparers’, agricultural ‘improvers’, rural heritage geeks, crusading planning departments and seekers after pliant urban wage labour to keep people out of the countryside, living in expensive and dysfunctional urban housing, eating cheap and questionably produced food, but at least with the opportunity to see more wildlife in the British countryside than presently on their occasional visits there.

However, I can also foresee a much more positive way in which rewilding might go if other policies move with it. To do so policymakers will need to place joint emphasis on food sovereignty, social equity and ecological restoration. In this scenario, housing and planning policy are reformed, partly along the lines admirably sketched by George here, to make housing more affordable, end land market speculation, revitalize market towns and small villages, and sponsor appropriate rural development. Agricultural emphasis shifts to the sustainable production of most food needs as locally as possible, with appropriate price supports, agricultural extension and so on, rather than being dictated by world market prices. What this looks like on the ground will be quite varied, but generally speaking it will involve a shift towards smaller scale, more labour intensive, more agroecological and more mixed farming methods, probably producing less meat, less simple carbohydrates and less food waste than at present, all of which would be no bad thing. The return of small fields, arable weeds, hedgerows, fallowing and cover cropping, small farm native woodlands and the like will be what Ivette Perfecto et al1 have called the agricultural ‘matrix’ which is a necessary complement to wilder wilderness. In this sense, the land sparing vs land sharing duality will come to be seen as a false and ideologically-driven opposition: as I argue here, as George argued at Vision to Reality, and as Joern Fischer argues in this nice essay drawn to my attention by Jahi Chappell, we clearly need both ‘land sparing’ and ‘land sharing’ simultaneously.

But all this will require more people living and working in the countryside. On that point, I feel obliged to note with some concern that one of the distinguished panel members at Vision to Reality objected to my planning application for residence on my small mixed farm on the grounds of its wildlife impacts. I think instead he should have supported it for that very reason. So I think there’s a job to do in steering the rewilding movement away from ecomodernist affectations concerning urbanisation and decoupling, and towards a rethinking and re-peopling of agriculture. More farmers in the countryside are needed for the sake of both rewilding and sustainable agriculture.  They’ll come if we create the right policy and economic environment. They’ll provide the demographic injection that farming needs. They’ll learn how to farm productively but sustainably. They’ll be deeply grounded in the life of their land, and they’ll become a keystone species opening a new niche for knowledge about wildlife, farming and the countryside in the wider society, which will run much deeper than if rewilding is only a matter of urban tourists going off on jaunts to look for wolves in the Scottish Highlands.

I think rewilding will probably work best long-term if it’s built upon that backbone – cheaper housing, dearer, better food, local food security, more labour-intensive, agroecological production and wider societal knowledge about both farming and wildlife. It may be difficult to set up the incentives correctly to discourage speculative landownership while encouraging productive, sustainable and wildlife-friendly farming. But economists are good at figuring out that sort of thing. We just need to get them working on problems like that, rather than on setting economic policy itself – something that, for wildlife, for farming, for social justice, and for the reasons set out in my previous post, is much too important to be left to the economists.

Reference

  1. Perfecto, I. et al (2009). Nature’s Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation and Food Sovereignty, Earthscan.

 

26 thoughts on “Re-wilding: joined-up thinking needed

  1. Well, I for one would welcome experiments that put land (which should not be owned by anyone) back in the commons. with local community leasing it out for long term leases, and people only owning their houses. But if you leave, you leave the house for the next owners. (I think of it as usufruct ownership. So you can do improvements etc like owners can nowadays, but once you are gone, your house goes to the next person who wants to live there, and whom the community finds agreeable). This is the only way I can think of that would encourage tiny houses. And frankly, unless humans shrink their housing footprint, how can you rewild?

    It is not easy psychologically speaking, but it would give the local community self-determination, being able to choose one’s neighbors. Rich people already can, in their gated communities. Anyone ought to be able to. Nah?

    • Yep, I don’t much disagree with that Vera, and I certainly don’t want to suggest that private ownership is intrinsically better than collective. However, private ownership can be and already is socialised in various ways – I think people can get too hung up on the form of tenure as if that’s the whole solution to the problem, which I’d argue it rarely is. But I think I’m going to hold fire on this issue until I’ve written about it more directly in some future posts. Certainly a problem with private ownership is the accumulation of personal advantage, and that needs rigorous checks. So I pretty much agree with where you’re coming from in your comment.

  2. Ha. He agrees with me, dang! Where else can I stir up trouble? Oh, right, re-wilding. Well, my dream is this.
    https://www.vectorstock.com/royalty-free-vector/foliate-arabesque-motifs-in-a-diamond-pattern-vector-1876853

    Picture this diamond pattern as a way to build a better civ. The filled out diamonds are the villages and towns, with their fields, roads, houses and all, and the white surround are the wild corridors. And you travel from place to place by a balloon. 🙂 Or hanging gondolas.

    I think that the wild creatures need their own spaces, and these spaces need to connect. It would not be off limits to humans, just off limits to civ and its endless busyness, endless projects. Foraging humans could live there, and primitivists. And trade with the farmers… Is this a land sparing strategy? I am confused on that point.

    Oh, and humans need to be away from the infernal roads. Alaska kinda works like that. Small planes connect the communities. And boats.

    • Interesting. I’ll have to think about that one. But in the meantime, I think I’ll provisionally agree with you…

      • Cool. And I meant to say, it would do us good, in the sense of wellness, to have spaces away from the roads.

        I lived for a time at an ecovillage, and when I was there, I saw that what was formerly a fairly pristine, regenerated landscape, became degraded. The abundant creeks silted in. Trout populations crashed. So I kept thinking why this is so, and concluded that as long as you keep building more roads, along with bare ground building sites, and agriculture (with its almost inevitable runoff), you get problems. It did not help that these folks drive through the creeks also.

        So then I wondered how you can build roads and not have runoff. I did a lot of observations of rural roads. And concluded you can’t. Roads depend on the relatively smooth ride on bare ground, gravel. You can do things to ameliorate runoff from slopes with swales and little dams and building up the soil, but it’s not doable to prevent runoff from roads. The best you can do is have permeable pavement, but that does not help enough.

        That means to me, that we gotta have another model, where the roads themselves are limited. So I combined the Alaskan model with some stuff Earth First said years ago into this diamond pattern of wildlife corridors. It’s not so much to make the areas pristine, but rather to come up with a model of coexistence of the wild world with the tame world that would protect both humans’ and nature’s interests, and safeguard diversity.

        And I want to live there already. 🙂

        • Interesting points about roads, and convincing I think. I think there’s evidence here that it’s made worse by large modern agricultural equipment which is too big for small rural roads, so the road edges and verges get eroded and compacted. So maybe you’re right – I like the idea of going to the supermarket by balloon, though of course you’d never know which supermarket you were going to end up in, and whether you’d be able to get home again. Perhaps another good reason to grow your own and do away with the supermarkets…?

          • You’d be ordering over the local internet, and only items that needed to be “imported” — preferably in bulk, delivered by transport zeppelins. 🙂

  3. There does need to be a proper debate including hill farmers. I live in a part of North Wales where most of the farmers are sheep farmers and struggle to make a living. They are not keen on the idea at all and I have some sympathy. We live
    in the foothills of the mountains and I’d have mixed feelings about having any more predators around. I’d be OK with them being in the North of Scotland, but that is classic ‘nimbyism’! It is easy to talk about the problems of sheep but when it is part of the fabric of the community and a way of life over several generations any solution is not easy. It’s not just economic either. Farmers tend not to talk about this but they do have an attachment to their stock so seeing lambs half eaten by foxes, or sheep with their eyes pecked out by crows is naturally distressing. Most farmers round here work very long hours and often rely on another income too, in spite of EU subsidies. The way the debate is going now is causing a lot of bad feeling. I’m not sure where I am going with this so will leave it at that.

    • All good points, and you’re right that there needs to be a proper debate. I’ve got to say though that I admire George for giving talks to hill farmer associations about his thoughts… I’d be interested to hear more about the bad feeling you mention and whether there are ways to try to overcome it. Farmers have often been at the sharp end of government policies, including laissez faire economics – I can see why upland sheep farmers may dislike rewilding proposals, but it’s not as if their current situation is that great and the subsidies probably won’t hold out indefinitely regardless of the rewilding movement. Might it be possible to move towards a more mixed and forested upland agroecosystem while retaining a certain level of sheep farming?

      • I follow the Facebook page of Gareth Wyn Jones, a local farmer turned TV celebrity, There was a programme called ‘The Hill Farmer’ on BBC Wales, which I think, has been aired in England too now. I agree with quite a lot of what he says but he doesn’t have a kind word to say about ideas like rewilding or people who are anti fox hunting. Many of the people who comment on his page agree, He loves the mountains and his job with a passion. He has also written a book ‘the Hill Farmer’
        http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/profiles/18HS0nvx1Nl11pj4gNClPxL/gareth-wyn-jones
        or
        http://garethwynjones.co.uk/home/

        • For many farmers around the planet, some wild animals cause direct and sometimes large economic losses. Herbivores eat and damage crops. Carnivores eat livestock, or, in some ways even worse, leave a trail of maimed and badly injured animals. A pack of wild dogs in a sheep paddock can cause horrific damage. The response of sheep farmers to re-introducing wolves is quite understandable.

          Rewilding in or close to existing farmland might be one of those ideas that come from folks with little understanding of how hard farming is already without adding extra difficulties.

          • Yes, the damage and distress can be awful. It’s not just economic loss either, that could easily be compensated for. There is very real emotional distress seeing your animals maimed and killed in that way too.

          • I take your point, and I agree that there are dangers in a naive rewilding movement that pays no attention to agriculture. On the other hand, I’d make the following points:
            – rewilding isn’t just about reintroducing large predators; it’s also about reintroducing biodiversity, and this can often be agriculturally beneficial
            – in the UK over the last 200 years or so there has been a massive onslaught against small predators (otters, stoats, weasels, raptors etc) for reasons that have little or nothing to do with agriculture, and indeed are probably disadvantageous to it
            – even species like foxes that do cause direct agricultural losses also bring agricultural benefits (controlling rabbits, rodents etc). I can’t really agree with ‘varmint’ narratives that paint any species as wholly negative (though as a veg grower I admit slugs are a stretch…)
            – I agree that farmers are at the sharp end of this debate, and it’s not fair for them to have to bear the costs of pest damage as well as public opprobrium for pest control. On the other hand, the subtlety of analysis in the farming community isn’t always all it could be. Culling badgers because of TB in dairy cattle is one example that springs to mind. I’m not against pest control – I use it myself, like all farmers – but I do think we need a subtler debate about it than we tend to have at present.

  4. I like the idea of rewilding where it makes sense, like on marginal lands, but then the production would have to be shifted to non-marginal lands to at least maintain total production levels. Don’t you think that, based on the history of population growth and the expansion of agricultural lands, that the “fear-based productivist paradigm” might be at least somewhat justified? How much more wild land would be gone without the productivist green revolution?

    • Hi Andy, yes I think ‘productivism’ in the sense of taking seriously how to produce more from a given area is justified. I coined the phrase ‘fear-based productivism’ in my battle with the Breakthrough Institute folk & their criticisms of what they call ‘fear-based environmentalism’. The widely-cited notion that the world needs to produce 70% more food on the same land area by 2050 is what I’d call ‘fear-based productivism’ and it isn’t true. I’m not sure about the green revolution – I’m not convinced that a full environmental & social audit would come out with an especially positive assessment, but I’d need to read up a bit more on that. Generally, though, I think there are lots of demand side issues we need to be looking at – consumption & urbanization in general, meat, waste, biofuels, carbon price etc. which the BTI ignore in favour of increased agricultural productivity. I don’t find that convincing.

      • It would be nice to see the BTI folks addressing food supply chain issues and waste thereof. It’d difficult to get good quality data but various reports estimate up to 50% of food grown is wasted for human consumption through insect and rodent damage, perishables rotting and so on. Supply chain improvement is mundane but can give immediate cost-effective benefits. With obvious implications for how much land is required to grow the food actually consumed by humans. This can be very simple stuff. In some parts of the world grain is stored by the side of the road after harvest. Which is vulnerable to weather damage, aforementioned rodent and pest insect damage and so on. Using weather and pest-proof silos gives an immediate benefit.

        In the developed world there’s a bunch of stuff food retailers can do to minimise their waste,

  5. good article Chris – unfortunately I wasnt able to make it to the debate and am commenting belatedly on your piece as I only saw it today.

    I think you have laid out a pretty robust argument, as to whether rewilding could be the panacea George is looking for, or be an unmitigated disaster. Your vision of lowland farmland transformed into vibrant rural communities and more sustainable agriculture is also an attractive one and something I too would love to see.

    I think where we differ is where urban and suburban land goes from here. It seems likely that, in England at least, this is where most of the future urban development will take place. If it is possible to integrate “wild” land, sustainable food production and housing together in these areas then we can have many gains complementing each other. People benefit from time in nature, whether through working the land agriculturally, or by visiting it outside work. So it’s essential that wild land is near to where people live. There is little to be gained, for people, by having large areas of upland rewilded, with or without bears, if only a few rich tourists get to visit it.

    There are obviously arguments for rewilding based on the intrinsic value of nature, but as George has said repeatedly, rewilding has to start with people, and people will not be able to find the wild, or connect to nature, or whatever phrase you want to use, if it is hundreds of miles away up a mountain, never mind whether they are worried about being attacked by a bear.

    I am not as optimistic as you are that we will see a reversal in the fear-driven productivist paradigm; and find it difficult to see how the losses in farmland wildlife will be reversed – it seems like a one way track to me. The semi-natural farmland created by past farming practices, has all but gone from most of lowland England and Wales, outside protected areas (but not landscapes).

    Where nature is “rented” via agri-environment schemes, it vanishes as quickly as it appeared (see what happens as ELS schemes finish). Instead of fields of arable weeds, they are now sown around the field margins. Instead of flower-rich meadows and pastures, we have sown grass margins, with maybe a few legumes if we are lucky.

    Much simplified versions of former semi-natural farmland habitats are created from seed, with the most honorable of intentions, and fitted into the existing production systems. These are not going to be sufficient to support the wide range of species that occupied their semi-natural forebears – I’m not being unduly pessimistic, all the evidence points in this direction.

    Even if it was possible, through land reform, to move foreward to a future where farming was much more sustainable and wildlife-friendly, these semi-natural habitats are not going to return. So we need to think about what future wildlife-friendly places might look like. Rewilding is one approach to do this – but its relentless focus on succession and large predators does not lend itself to future agricultural landscapes. Away from agriculture, we also need to be advocating for large natural areas within urban and suburban landscapes – not farmed land; and not slavish recreations of past semi-natural habitats. At the moment, urban green spaces are still too small with too many competing users to allow the natural or the wild to develop. And that leaves a future agriculture which does create sufficient room for nature alongside food.

    Although I have written a book about arable weeds and love them dearly, I do not see much to be gained from sowing seed around arable fields; most of these species are from the middle-east and arrived here by accident. Would anyone really want to eat corncockle-contaminated bread if they had a choice? Better to protect the very few existing sites where they have survived, as showcases to show people what an exceptionally hard time past farmers had!

    Pastures could certainly be made more friendly for nature by incorporating legumes and a variety of different types of grass, and I can see a day when the rye grass deserts are replaced with something more valuable for nature. Again though, a newly created pasture is unlikely to include plants which may be very valuable for other wildlife, but toxic for stock (eg water dropworts). So the nature-friendly pastures of the future will be quite different from those of the past.

    And, as you say, we need somehow to reinstate the matrix of the landscape, the ponds, streams, hedgerows, flushes, scrub and copses. Although they arose organically, or at least as a result of interplay between planned interventions and natural processes, they can be engineered back relatively easily.

    Creating the right framework of policies and incentives to do all this will be fiendishly difficult and will take a long time. You are right that economics and especially land reform, lies under all of these factors, and the political will is not there to make it happen – quite the opposite in fact.

    We have a vicious circle at the moment, where people here are very disconnected from nature, but that reconnection is inhibited because of the lack of public groundswell for action to make the reconnection. So that is where I am going to focus my energies, through People Need Nature.

    sorry for the long and rambling comment!

    • Thanks for that, Miles – very interesting comments, obviously from a much more expert position than mine. I agree with you about ELS etc – it’s quite strange really to pay people to do good things and then just pull the rug out so the whole thing is piecemeal and pointless. Your points on the suburban edge also make a lot of sense. I’m not quite sure what your stance is on arable farming – are you saying that there’s no point having a bit of diversity in the form of arable weeds just around the field edges, or no point having them in the fields either where they’ll interfere with the crop? I agree that the portents aren’t good in policy terms, but then that’s true of just about everything I write. At least the world is beautiful here on my blog! My holding is a mix of very intensive market garden cropping and very extensive pasture and woodland. I wonder how the wildlife value of that, if it were more generalised, would compare to the extant arable situation?

      • thanks very much Chris. No I would avoid being labelled an expert thanks but experience suggests to me that I have been on the wrong track for the last 25 years, trying to stop the loss of the semi-natural; and I almost feel like I am starting again!

        If I had to come up with an ideal arable farming system or more specifically for cereals and oilseeds, rather than eg maize, it would be clean ie without weeds in the crop, min till, minimal inputs ie not going for the best yield.

        I would certainly provide support for spring crops and especially mixed systems where manures from livestock enterprises are used in the arable system. Rather than sowing arable weeds, I would support 12m margins (with well developed hedges), or 6m margins on small fields, sown with or relying on natural regeneration of wild plants such as legumes and other species to benefit pollinators and pest predators. I would have absolutely no support available for biofuel crops or sugar. I would have a tapering support system with most support for minimal input crops (though not necessarily organic) and for crops such as Rye and Oats which I’d like to see more of, as much as anything for the benefits of a diverse landscape. I’d also provide support for farmers to reinstate fallowing as a standard element of the arable system (with or without grazing). Neonics would be banned (hopefully will be before too long). The polluter pays principle would operate, so farmers who did want to produce more intensively would have to pay extra to compensate societal costs in mitigating external costs such as downstream pollution, loss of carbon from soils etc. How does that sound?

        I think that small scale intensive cropping for vegetables/market gardening is something we miss hugely from the British scene. As I understand it at the moment this type of agriculture is unsupported by the CAP system, which is just another aspect of its absurdity. But, as your previous commentators have noted, almost the entire system of land tenure and farm support system operates against what should be a central part of how we produce our food. This is partly because the big farmers and landowners are in charge of course, but also the way that most fresh produce is now bought from supermarkets, and their supply chain requirements etc.

        We are lucky in Dorchester to have a weekly market with a greengrocers who produce much of what they sell, but I know this is now pretty unusual.

        Go to a rural French market (as we did last week) and most fresh food has been produced locally by smallholders. Yes the French are a much more rural country than we are, but is it really beyond our capability to restore this food culture?

  6. I agree with most said here, however I take issue with the universally accepted notion that hill sheep farming is uneconomical without subsidies, and all parties have a vested interest in perpetuating the myth to suit their various agendas.

    It is the subsidies that CAUSE hill farming to be uneconomical (I am a hill sheep in the Yorkshire Dales)…… In most cases most or all of the subsidies are either taken directly by the landlord or through artificially increased rental values based on the subsidy they attach, yet the farmer tenant has to bare the cost of the onerous restrictions imposed by the subsidy claim such as massively reduced sheep stocking rate often been 90% reductions over long term historic levels to maybe 1 sheep per 12 acres (owner occupier farmers not paying rent on reasonable sized farms are cruising on long nicely actually on the compensation, and that includes me, but it’s a shameful demoralising existing). A farm that once made a living from 1000 sheep maybe restricted to an unworkable, uneconomical 100 sheep and forced to rent extra land at great cost just to keep a workable number of ewes. With so few sheep to farm the next generation is driven off the land, into the towns and communities are destroyed (I’ve never known a farmer to be happy to live in a town). This is a new wave of cynical state sponsored high-land clearances driven by the unaccountable quango Natural England’s covert re-wilding agenda.

    If the subsidies and the restriction they bring were gone tomorrow sheep number would recover to historic levels within two years and we could start farming properly and profitable again. In fact is could be argued that hill farming can be the most financially viable of all British farming.

    My family are documented to have been farming sheep in the same parish since 1535 (the document don’t go back any further) and still are, so if anyone thinks that we’re just going to pack up and tootle off to the town, they’ve another thing coming: The government expected that to happen after foot and mouth, instead farmers used cull compensation to expand! Much to the government’s dismay.

    There seems a pervasive condescending attitude towards hill farmers as somewhat pathetic hapless fools who just need to be ‘re-educated’ to the ‘correct’ way of thinking and saved from their retched lives, but you fail to see hill farming is a culture, and many hill farmers have experienced other (urban) cultures and choose to come back at the first opportunity, often willing to sacrifice material wealth in the process, which only serves to reinvigorate and reinforce the hill farming. There seems to be a perception that land is all owned by large estates and all family farms are tenanted; this is nonsense, many family farms if not most are owner occupied, so who exactly do you want to take the land from? And what size of holding? Does it include George Monbiot’s allotments (and rental properties). So, unless the idea is a Stalin/Mugabe-esque forced land grab the upland are not yours to re-wild, in the same way as your back garden is not mine to concrete over. And once we get rid of subsidies and Natural England’s cynical ethnic cleansing in the uplands policies we can regain our livelihoods, our pride and prosper

    • Robert, thanks for commenting. It’s good to have an upland sheep farmer’s perspective on here. I’m interested in your points about the loss of subsidy through tenancy arrangements and imposed stocking rates. So in the tenancy situation you’re describing the landowner is getting the money and the tenant is left to deal with the cross-compliance? Sounds harsh. And you think that you could set much higher sustainable stocking densities and make the farming more profitable? Interesting. I suppose the remaining question is about the ecological implications of heavily stocked uplands in terms of water & woodland management and nutrient runoff. I’d be interested in your thoughts on that.

      I’d be interested at some point in discussing these issues in more depth with someone like you who’s at the sharp end of it, so I hope you won’t mind if I email you about it at some point in the future?

    • interesting comments Robert – some which I sympathise with. The problems tenants farmers have with the current subsidy/compliance system are very serious – and I hear stories that the big landowning conservation NGOs are just as bad landlords in this regard as the big commercial estates. What surprises me about this, is why the TFA ally themselves so closely with the NFU/CLA – who through their lobbying are causing exactly the problems you describe.

      I don’t think the evidence supports your view that long term historic stocking densities were ten times higher than now, though I guess it depends on what you mean by long term.

      Without wishing to appear as a grandmother teaching anyone to suck eggs, so just for those readers who are not aware, it was another subsidy regime, broadly named the headage payments system, which supported very high stocking densities in the uplands until they were abolished, I think, in 2004? Before that, subsidies to support higher numbers of stock, especially sheep, in the uplands had been introduced in around 1980. The effect of these subsidies, paid per animal, was to significantly drive up the number of animals on upland pasture. But how many sheep were on the hills before that? I am sure I can dig out some statistics, but hearing a real story about a real farm from you would be much more interesting and powerful. How many sheep did your grandfather have, on how many acres. How much inbye did he own and rent, how much hay was produced from Dale meadows before the change to silage. How much arable did he have, and what was he growing.

      As you will know far better than I, upland farming systems were far more mixed in the past (say before 1970) than they are today, and the combination of sheep, cattle and arable farming contributed to a far more diverse landscape which produced high quality food, was better for wildlife, produced fewer downstream problems, and employed far more people.

      I am not in any way suggesting we should or can turn the clock back. Instead, I think we all need to think about how the uplands can have a better future – better for upland farmers, better for citizens and consumers of food and better for society in general. I understand you feel there is a covert rewilding agenda – actually I’d suggest for most people it’s not an issue.

      There is a lot of talk about rewilding at the moment, but there are also many (more) people who want to see farming continue in the uplands, but in a way which is more in keeping with the amazing wildlife, history, landscapes, and the communities which live there. And this is the same across Europe. The difference is upland and mountain farming communities are rapidly disappearing from many places in Europe and there is rewilding by default. That’s not to say there isnt room for some rewilding, alongside high nature value farming and commercial farming.

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