Originally from England, Anna Wyeth grew up internationally before settling in Tucson, Arizona in the US for most of her later schooling. She came to UEA because of the strong environmental science department and interdisciplinary course options. Anna wanted to talk with TMAF Farm Manager David Jones as part of her research into what can motivate farmers to put effort into conservation. While government may have previously played a major role in instigating changes in agricultural practices, her study suggests it may be time for regional organisation and collaboration to provide a solution for the failings of current political institutions.
“Agriculture has shaped British landscapes for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Unlike other regions of the world, we cleared our ancient woodland during the neolithic era and never looked back. Ancient forest clearing surely resulted in several extinctions, but we’ve still been able to uphold significant levels of biodiversity in the past centuries.
The ecosystems that we all know and love, from grasslands and meadows to ponds to peatlands and moors, are managed by humans to stop trees and larger bushes from growing. These habitats have proven their ability to support wildlife alongside neighbouring crop fields. In fact, the rare and important species that the UK still supports are dependent on early stages of succession. If we tried to let it all go back to overgrowth and woodland, we would lose what we have and surely not get back all we lost thousands of years ago.
Time for a different kind of change
But despite the harm mindless tree planting would result in, it would still probably be better than what we’re doing now. Agriculture continues to be the most significant factor contributing to biodiversity loss in the UK. For the past 70 or so years, we’ve seen drastic declines in species populations of almost all types. Understandably frantic efforts to ensure food security after World War II meant that the initial iterations of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) incentivised and sometimes enforced the use of chemical inputs and obliteration of field boundaries. Although this increased yields in the short-term, the resulting soil degradation and declines in surrounding pollinator biodiversity means long-term reliability is sacrificed. Our continued reliance on imports also puts into question whether food security goals have ever really been reached.
Persuading farmers through policy
As an undergraduate student in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, I’ve been undertaking some research on how to support or incentivise farmers in Norfolk and Suffolk to improve conservation efforts on their land while continuing to produce food. Such agri-environmental management is currently important among policy makers as the UK abandons the CAP and phases in the Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) and the Sustainable Farming Initiative (SFI). These schemes come with the promise of improvements to the way that agri-environmental funds are distributed. Considering recent political turmoil, it is hardly surprising that the implementation of ELMS and SFI have been inconsistent, confusing, and generally disappointing. With the phasing out of Basic Payment Schemes (BPS) happening at the same time, many farmers have been put in a difficult and unstable position.
Apparent in my research were sentiments of distrust and annoyance towards the government and its implementation of agri-environmental incentives and restrictions. National policy is broad by definition because it must hold broad relevance. This means that important regional considerations are overlooked. The result is policy that lacks flexibility and specificity.
Farmer collaboration for positive change
It is unlikely that sufficient changes in policy will be pioneered by the current government. If nothing else, ELMS has indicated that even seemingly ambitious changes to agri-environmental policy are unlikely to be implemented effectively. Rather than looking to the government to initiate change, perhaps it is through regional organisation and collaboration that barriers to shifting agriculture can be overcome. This is already starting to happen in the form of Farmer Clusters. These are groups of regional farmers that come together to share information and support each other in regional biodiversity projects.
After all, there is only so much one farmer can do, even on thousands of hectares. Such initiatives have the potential to expand biodiversity benefits to a larger area of land while strengthening farmer communities and social incentives for conservation. Potential for financial income are also expanded through the possibility of collective funding applications for larger-scale conservation projects. It may even be that a refocusing on regional autonomy can influence the way that government funding is distributed. This has happened recently in the Netherlands, where agri-environmental funding is distributed by regional farming organisations rather than through direct application to the central government.
As climatic uncertainty worsens and we continue to lose the biodviersity that is central to the British landscape, it becomes increasingly important to rethink what we have begun to take for granted. It is, after all, unlikely that the top-down and individualistic approaches that got us in this mess in the first place could also provide a solution to get us out of it.”