Tory Party Conference: Ten Years On

Ten Years ago to the day I was, for the one and only time, at the Tory Party Conference. In fact this was the only party conference I’ve ever attended. I had applied for and won a bursary to cover the conference cost, hotel food and travel expenses, from NCVO. The only requirement was to write a blog about my experience. The blog was on the NCVO website for many years but has recently been taken down. Thanks to the magic of the wayback machine I have found it again and reproduce it here for posterity.

NCVO bursary winners meet Nick Hurd Nick Hurd.

I should add that only a few weeks before this I’d had my first vestibular migraine attack, though I didn’t know it at the time. I still remember that Pendolino journey. Ugh.

MONDAY: 

5.30am

An early start today to get up to Manchester for mid-morning. Mercifully the tube is a bit cooler than of late and running smoothly. First time on a Pendolino – it’s fast and furious (leaning into the corners like a motorbike). I feel a bit sick. 

10am

I wander up to the main conference centre to soak up the atmosphere – it is strangely muted. I was expecting more of a protest outside but it’s calm. The main conference centre’s a large space and feels a bit like a hangar. I head off to check out a fringe event but the room is so hot I dip out and meet up with the NCVO staff and the other NCVO bursary winners. 

12pm

Straight off to The Palace Hotel for a fringe event on the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), organised by the planners body the Royal Town Planning Institute. Chatting to two people sitting next to me, who agree the NPPF is ill-thought through – turns out they’re both developers. Bob Neill the planning minister is resilient on the NPPF, but accepts the need for a transition period to the new system. Neill claims most criticism of the NPPF is “well wide of the mark”.  

2.30pm

Off again for the NCVO roundtable with Nick Hurd and NCVO chair Martyn Lewis. The minister is friendly and agrees charities should be campaigning, give governments a hard time and irritate them – this is all part of a democracy. I suggest Francis Maude doesn’t agree, judging by his language in the Inpendent on Sunday. Bigger charities like Cancer Research UK and Keep Britain Tidy also attend and question the minister. It’s good natured but gets quite lively.

7pm

NFU event ostensibly about sustainable farming. It has no surprises, though I have an entertaining conversation with a couple of farmers who are at the core of Eric Pickles’ local party in Basildon. Jim Paice suggests badgers and bats have far too much protection and a long-term wildlife management strategy is needed to get away from the species by species approach. There is a small anti-badger cull demonstration. 

TUESDAY:

10am

Miss out on the 8am fringe events but spot that Boris Johnson is talking in the main arena at 10am. How could I miss that? The arena is pretty full (though we are encouraged to fill up the seats at the front for the cameras –  I demur). Jeremy Paxman slips in at the last minute and sits next to me. Boris is typical – buffooning, ebullient, declamatory, extolling his version of one nation Toryism (but the nation is London, not the UK). He verges on demagoguery and plays the audience effortlessly, even giving a roll call to places around the country that have provided things for the Olympics (he calls for a snap Olympics – to get it over and done with), including rhubarb used to stain some decking. He slightly loses his thread as he doesn’t know where the rhubarb came from (the rhubarb triangle presumably) or who the rhubarb rubbers are. Paxman snorts quietly – he may be laughing or snorting derisively – it’s hard to tell. I suggest to him afterwards the whole speech was a lot of rhubarb and he chuckles. 

11am

Have a nice catch up with colleagues from Woodland Trust  – they are experts in schmoozing MPs; I have public affairs envy. 

12.30pm

The next fringe event is in Manchester Town Hall. This event is a water All Party Parliamentary Group event on the water white paper. The main point, though, is to catch Richard Benyon MP afterwards so I can ask him some grassland questions. 

Unexpectedly it turns out to be an excellent fringe event. I asked my first conference question about water companies paying farmers to manage their land more extensively, and how this squared with sustainable intensification (ie it doesn’t). All the water company chief execs agreed payment for catchment management should be universal, upland and lowland. Benyon agreed but didn’t answer the sustainable intensification question. 

I wandered back to the main conference area with Benyon but he had to dash off for another meeting so we then suggested to meet later to talk through my questions. 

2.30pm

I bump into my old mate Ruth Davis from Greenpeace. We meet Benyon at 3.45pm as agreed and I put my points to him. He’s receptive and asks me to send more detail by email. Ruth also gets her point across about Spanish crime families and illegal fishing. Benyon dashes off and Ruth is off to meet Greg Barker, the climate change minister. I say hello to him and remind him of his meeting with my chief exec next week about carbon storage in meadow soils.

5.30pm 

The last fringe event for me is the Daily Telegraph/National Trust event on the NPPF. This could be the high point of the conference. Fiona Reynolds (NT) and Shaun Spiers (Campaign to Protect Rural England) vs Oliver Letwin and Charles Moore. Turns out Moore and Letwin were at Trinity Cambridge together and are a couple of heavyweight intellects. Geoffrey Lean is an allegedly neutral chair. Just as the debate gets going I have to leave to get my train. 

Overall I found the whole experience very rewarding. The biggest benefit is having the opportunity to talk to ministers without the intervention of civil servants – that was extremely valuable. Also, fringe events can encourage vibrant and open debate within a small group with key players and experts and even with ministers who are listening. 

photo credits NCVO London – NCVO Bursary Winners Roundtable – CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82193662

Posted in Grasslands Trust, Richard Benyon, Tory party conference, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Guest Blog: Is Rebugging the Planet possible? by Vicki Hird

A guest blog today from Vicki Hird, whose new book Rebugging the Planet: The Remarkable Things that Insects (and Other Invertebrates) Do – And Why We Need to Love Them More has just been published.


My new book, Rebugging the Planet presents a proposition that we need to, and can, reverse the declines in invertebrates because they matter in so many critical ways.By ‘Rebugging’ I mean understanding and accepting and enhancing the role that bugs play. And it is not only about insects (or the true bugs – entomologists be kind) but the rest of the critical populations of worms, zooplankton, snails, rotifers, spiders and so on that make our planet liveable in. The book explores what they do for us, what we can learn from them and from rebugging and why we need to. The huge threats they face from pollution, climate change, habitat loss and new threats of light and noise pollution and even phone signals. 

Yes, some bugs can be a nuisance and worse, and we need to control them sometimes. But we’ve spent so many decades investing in science that is about how to eliminate or kill the few that cause problems that we’ve forgotten to ensure the good ones – ie most of them, can survive and thrive. Studies looking at local and regional abundance and diversity are suggesting some dramatic declines. Some suggest that we are seeing a major loss of numbers and diversity globally as well as local losses. More research is essential as too much is local and regional and there are huge gaps in the data, but we also need more people to care. This will drive the demand for research and ensure more action is taken by governments and businesses.

Vapourer Moth ©Vicki Hird


I have always loved bugs, from the ants in my garden to the huge rhinoceros beetles I encountered in Ecuador. I wanted to share that love, and what we can all do to reverse the alarming signs of their decline. This is a call to citizen action as well as citizen science and citizen sharing. The more people who understand how amazing these creatures are and what they do – from pollination and seed dispersal services to soils health and being a critical part of the natural food web to creating clean water and dealing with vast qualities of plant and animal waste. We are also learning so much from their design, activities and skills. I had too many examples to put in the book of how we can learn from bugs – not just in terms of materials design (like super strength spider silk, drone technology and so on… ) but from the way they communicate, organise and manage themselves, their fellow creatures and their environment.

Holly blue ©Vicki Hird

 
Conservation, restoration of nature and landscapes involve the complex interaction of many species. Invertebrates are a critical part of the puzzle but in the rush to rewild, they can be overlooked in favour of the bigger beasts. Often they provide a major surprise factor, causing a boom or bust in wild populations or proving to be a keystone species. Critically I argue that rewilding can take place at a personal and community level helping provide refuges and corridors for the invertebrates – something we know is needed. Studies are showing increasingly that urban environments can be a vital space for insects no longer able to thrive in rural areas. 

Southern Oak Bush Cricket ©Vicki Hird


Pesticides and intensive farming, loss of wildflowers, hedgerows shrubs, trees and forests, accelerating climate change, pollution of water and soils, plastic micro-particles, light pollution and so much more are causing problems. But we can all play a part in tackling these. Throughout my book I share tips and tools on rebugging – from things that take little or no time to those that need more and which start you campaigning. What we buy (and don’t buy), how we manage our homes and gardens and community spaces, and, as critically, how we interact with the politicians making decisions critical to the survival of bugs here and globally. We need policies that help farmers transition towards agroecological systems – building in the role of above and below ground invertebrates to successful, more diverse food production. We need to control far better the way in which the major agri-tech and mega food corporations activities result in homogenous, harmful food production practices. 

Bumble bee ©Vicki Hird


Readers of this blog will know much of this. But I hope you will find it valuable to promote this book, and the tips in it to the public, to gain better understanding, acceptance and action to support what you do. See my website www.rebuggingtheplanet.org for more info. 

Rebugging the Planet: The Remarkable Things that Insects (and Other Invertebrates) Do – And Why We Need to Love Them More now available in most good bookshops and online  (Chelsea  Green Publishing). You can get it from Waterstones via this link

Posted in bugs, guest blogs, Uncategorized, Vicki Hird | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

National Meadows Day 2021

today’s National Meadows Day blog is over on the People Need Nature website – here. Please head over there and take a look.

Thanks

Posted in meadows, People Need Nature, Poundbury, Prince Charles, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Where’s the Beef? the UK Australia Trade Deal and the desperate search for Brexit Benefits.

Aussie Cows, Grafton NSW ©Miles King

There’s been an awful lot of media attention focussed on the idea that the Government’s Trade Deal with Australia will lead to the UK being swamped with sub standard Australian Beef, pushing plucky British Beef farmers out of business. I’m afraid that there is more than a touch of the old colonial attitudes coming through in some of the commentary I’ve seen, plus a large dollop of British exceptionalism.

I have to start by declaring an interest. I’m half Australian and my mum grew up on a New South Wales dairy farm (milking the cows before going to school in the morning). That farm now produces Beef cattle by my uncle Ben. And my other (late) uncle Ted was also in Beef, as are some of my cousins (though more as a hobby than a business). I have been to the farm several times. It’s a pretty low key way of farming, at the very extensive range of the spectrum, though not officially organic. My mum was telling me the other day that my uncle buys calves, grows them on (on grass) and finishes them on grass plus some supplements (molasses was mentioned).

Beef is a huge industry in Australia, but also extremely varied. There has been a focus on the intensive feedlot system, where store cattle are finished in massive yards, fed on grains to reach the right weight (and conformity) before being slaughtered. About a million cattle are finished in feedlots in Australia, out of a total cattle population of around 20 million (though that includes breeding cows, heifers/bullocks and calves). So it’s not a massive part of the total system. But of course everyone focusses on that.

Also, some producers use growth hormones to speed up production – this has been banned in Europe for a very long time, though is common practice in the USA and other countries. A very long running trade dispute between the EU and the USA eventually saw the World Trade Organisation agree with the USA that the blanket ban on US Beef exports into the EU as illegal and now the US exports hormone-free Beef into the EU (and UK.) Interestingly China – Australia’s biggest export market for Beef (until last year) bans imports of hormone-fed Beef so Australia already operates a twin track producing hormone-free and hormone-grown Beef. Beef is a massive export industry in Australia – exports peaked at 1.23MT in 2019, falling back to 1.04MT in 2020. Most of this goes to Japan, the US, China and South Korea. A tiny 8500T went to the whole EU last year, though that was down on 2019’s 14000 Tonnes.

What I haven’t seen anywhere is the flip side of the story. In 2016, 27M ha of Australian farmland was either registered Organic or in conversion 7% of the total. Almost a third of all Beef producers were involved in the Organic Beef sector in some way. 65% of Australian consumers said they bought organic produce in 2019, with a market value of $Aus 2.6Bn a year (it was £2.8Bn in the UK in 2020). Organic Beef is one of the most sought after purchases, with nearly £A200M (£109M at current prices) sold in 2019. Australian organic Beef and Veal was also the most exported organic food product – worth $A350M (£191M) and “particular popularity in the US where the Australian reputation for high quality and supply chain transparency is prized.” Now it should also be said that the organic certification sector in Aus is clearly in a bit of a mess, but I don’t think there’s any question that the exported Beef is properly organic.

I have a fair bit of experience exploring the UK Beef industry, in particular its environmental impact – from 35 years working in nature conservation across the UK. I don’t think we have any right to criticise Australia for the environmental impact of their Beef industry. Most Beef in the UK is grown on a single species of grass – Perennial rye-grass. If you’re lucky there might be a bit of white clover in there too, but nothing else. The animals which are grown on grass during their first couple of years life, are then finished on a mix of silage, maize and grain – similar to Australia. The difference is that they aren’t housed in enormous feedlots – though feedlots are here . That grain and maize is grown on arable land across the UK. That’s millions of hectares of arable farmland, growing grain and maize to feed cows (most of the rest of the arable harvest that isn’t good enough for flour, goes to pigs and chickens.)

There is a movement, by organisations such as Pasture for Life, to increase the proportion of grass fed to cows here, and even to finish them on grass (and even other flowers!), with no grains. This has been going on in Australia for a long time. But both the grass-fed and organic Beef markets are tiny in the UK – in 2019 organic meat had a 1.5% market share in the UK. It’s actually pretty difficult to find out how big the UK organic Beef sector is, which I find surprising. If anyone can help me with some figures (without paying £100 for a Soil Association report) I’ll gladly put them in here. It’s clear that demand for organic Beef increased substantially during lockdown last year, but from what to what? I suspect it’s still a small segment of the overall market and certainly smaller than the Australian organic (and grass-fed) Beef sector.

update: figures released by Defra on 27th May reveal 2.8% of the total farmed area is organic – about a third as much as in Australia. Also 2.8% of the UK cattle population is reared organically – that’s 274000 animals. 80,000 organic beef animals were slaughtered for meat in 2020 out of 2.04M. that’s 4% of the total. Total consumer spend on Beef and Veal in the UK was £2.3Bn in 2019, with 75% of that coming from the UK – so the UK portion is worth £1.725Bn. 4% of that is £69M. Obviously organic beef is more expensive than conventional beef, so it may be worth £100M on the shelves (this assumes that no UK grown organic beef is exported). This compares with a £300M Australian Organic Beef retail value (domestic consumption and exports).

But anyway a section of the media has leapt on this vaunted Trade Deal to paint the Australian Beef sector as cheap and nasty and looking to undercut UK Beef producers and push them out of business. The NFU has also waded in waving the flag for UK Beef (perhaps no coincidence as President Minette Batters has a pretty extensive Beef farm).

Projections that as much as 2% of total UK Beef consumption could be provided by Australian imports, have led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth and evidence of a further nail in the coffin of the UK farming sector.

I think there are bigger factors already here that are driving multiple nails into that coffin. Firstly of course leaving the EU means that we have left the Common Agricultural Policy. This means that the money (£3.2Bn a year) funnelled to farmers via the EU is coming to an end. It is going to be partly replaced by Public Money for Public Goods – paying farmers for things the market does not pay for – and this may include support for the organic sector. But what’s clear is that there will be less money available for farmers in the way of public funding support. It should be noted at this point that the Australian Beef industry gets no subsidies (though it does get generous tax breaks just as the UK Beef industry does).

It seems unlikely, to say the least, that the Treasury will stump up £3Bn a year from the UK’s own resources, after the final payments linked to the old EU system stop in 2027. Less money in the sector, without it being replaced by any other source of income, means farmers will go out of business. That’s economics 101. The Beef sector of UK farming has been dependent on subsidies to continue for many years. Last year was a bit exceptional because of the weather (more on that in a bit), but as this graph shows, livestock farming income was substantially negative both in the lowlands and the uplands, with basic payments and agri-environment schemes keeping these farms going. They’d have been more profitable if they had no animals. While we would all love to see the basic payments and AE scheme payments replaced in entirety with Public Money for Public Goods payments, this seems unlikely at the moment.

The second point is that, having left the EU under almost the hardest Brexit imaginable (one stop short of a no-deal Brexit), the Government has terminally damaged the UK agricultural export trade. By refusing to sign up to the EU’s SPS rules, it is now much harder for UK farmers to export their Beef to the EU (down 75% compared with pre-Brexit trade). And it will remain so, until we do sign up to the SPS rules, which won’t happen.

The idea that the UK Australia Trade deal is some sort of stalking horse for the UK joining the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership, which would then replace our EU exports, is laughable – although joining the CPTPP could lead to other problems. Are the Australians really going to do anything which might threaten their enormous Beef Trade with other CPTPP partners? Of course not.

Another nail in that coffin is the climate. As well as our climate becoming more volatile, which always causes problems for farmers, we need to take drastic urgent action to mitigate the unimaginable climate chaos which is coming down the road towards us – and of course towards Australia. Arguably it’s already arrived in Australia. Taking drastic action could well mean eating less red meat – and dietary shifts are already happening. The market for Beef is going to shrink and with that there will be fewer Beef farmers. Methane from ruminants is a complicated story, and I’m not going to go into the detail of that here, but there will be a push to reduce Methane from Cattle, not least because it can have a rapid beneficial effect on the speed of climate change. Plus of course where are all these new trees going to be planted? Likely a lot of them will end up on pastures formerly grazed by Cattle.

So that projected 2% share of the UK Beef market in 15 years time seems smaller than the margin of error on all of the above factors – and assumes the Australian Beef industry hasn’t already rapidly contracted in the face of their own climate disasters.

I think the main reason why it’s become such a big story is because the NFU are very good at using the media to push their own particular (bucolic) view of UK farming and its importance to the country. The other reason is that the Government is now desperate to find anything which might conceivably be spun as a benefit of Brexit, as Chris Grey wrote, on “The desperate search for Brexit benefitsso eloquently, last Friday.

When the dust has settled, we will see that the UK Australia Trade Deal and the phantom Beef Menace, was just another of these Brexit fantasies, given a bit of a push by the NFU.

Although what it does illustrate is that the Johnson Government will happily throw any industry under a bus, in pursuit of these fantasies – and that applies as much to our Arts and Creative Industries, or our Financial Sector, as it does to Agriculture.

Posted in Agriculture policy, beef, Brexit, Common Agricultural Policy, NFU, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

On Death and Nature

It’s been a while since I wrote anything and I have a bit of time while I’m waiting for some people to get back to me with answers (or even some funding), and there are other reasons for the quiet period since I last posted anything.

My father in law died four weeks ago – he had a big heart attack and that was it. I’m not going to say anything else much at this point, because obituaries will be appearing and I will post links to them (or screenshot them on here). Other than he was an absolutely lovely, generous man and a fantastic grandpa to our girls. We are all very sad as you can imagine. The funeral is in 10 days time and covid restrictions have relaxed a little, but it will still be a small ceremony.

Chalk downland wild flowers Weymouth Avenue cemetery, Dorchester ©Miles King

But it has got me thinking about losing my own dad, and then my brother, in a relatively short space of time – just three years between them, both from cancer.

And that of course is now put in the context of 150,000 people who have died in one year in the UK, from Covid19 (and not forgetting the Duke of Edinburgh).

I wrote about my dad’s death – or rather I wrote about what happened to his ashes, in this piece from two years ago – and I wrote about losing my brother Simon in this post from just after I started this blog. Simon’s very good friend and fishing buddy Bob Hornegold also died just a few months ago.

It’s at times like these that things like belief in an after life – or in my case not having a belief in an after life, in the Christian sense, come to the surface. And I also ponder on whether we have some sort of visceral need to create physical memorials that help us remember those we have lost, outside of Christianity or other religions?

In an age when more and more people are not following the established customs of funerals or interments in churchyards, I wonder whether something is being lost. For those who do reside within the Church of England (or indeed opt for municipal burials), it is very clear that they value that capability to visit their lost loved ones and remember them – and in doing so benefit from the nature that is not just present, but thriving in churchyards and cemeteries.

This is something I explored with Mark Betson (now National Rural Officer for the C of E) in our 2013 project “The Nature of God’s Acre“.

I have also been thinking about memorials in relation to Covid19 and bouncing around some ideas for how memorials could be created in a way that specifically provides solace through nature. I hope to talk more about these soon, but you’ll have seen the National Trust’s Blossom Circles idea, which is not unrelated. I was interested to find out about a movement creating new long barrows, where ceremonies and interments are happening outside of any recognised religion, such as this one at Soulton Hall.

And purely by chance last Spring, I found a new wildlife site within a few hundred metres of where we live, in a local Town Council managed municipal churchyard. I think there must have been a slight interruption in the regular mowing regime caused by the first lockdown, coupled with the incredible Spring weather we had last year (very different from this cold one) which enabled a flush of chalk downland flowers to appear, just when I was really getting to know my local patch on incessant lockdown walks.

Death and nature (that is non-human nature) are intimately intertwined, but that relationship is not often articulated, at least not in Britain. This is partly because we don’t talk about death nearly enough, and I think this is a particularly British (or perhaps English) problem. I am old enough to remember when people didn’t use the word “cancer”, instead referring to “the c word”. Yes that phrase now means something else (or is that just the “c bomb”.)

Now we talk about cancer but even so conversations about death are problematical. And this year of all years, with so many families struggling to come to terms with untimely deaths in tragic circumstances, should be a massive kick up the backside for everyone to talk more about it. After all, it is the one inevitable thing everyone faces (yes taxes too). I speak from experience here, not having dealt with my father’s death, and having that come back and knock me down two years later.

I suppose nature and death are so closely linked, because death is one of the most natural things that happen to modern humans, living as we do, our very unnatural lives. We might have believed we’ve escaped the restrictions of the Nitrogen and Carbon cycle (no of course we haven’t) to produce more food than we can eat and create more energy than we know what to do with; beaten off formerly common diseases with vaccines and antibiotics (spoiler – new ones appear) but we haven’t escaped death.

Evidence for burials with flowers goes back to about 50,000 years – in our close cousins the Neanderthals, though this evidence may not be conclusive. Regardless, we know that flowers have played a fundamental role in ceremonies around death for millennia and continue to do so today. Those cut flowers sent to the grief-stricken may have been grown in a greenhouse in the Netherlands, but they symbolise a deep relationship between nature and death.

It’s become a bit of a cliche that people have found a new appreciation of, and value in nature in their lives, during this past Pandemic year. I wonder whether that appreciation and value will continue now we appear (I know it’s early days) to be emerging from the darkness, in both senses.

Perhaps strengthening that relationship between death, and the consolation and reassurance that nature brings, is something that we can hold on to.

Posted in churches, churchyards, covid19, Death, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Berrier End Farm Tree Planting Fiasco – update

You will remember the fiasco I wrote about last Autumn, of Berrier End Farm in Cumbria. This was about 100 acres of valuable wildlife habitat, including large areas of peat bog and wildlife-rich grassland, which was damaged by tree-planting, that had been approved and paid for by the state environmental body, The Forestry Commission.

Following the outrage about this case the Forestry Commission finally admitted it had made a mistake  and claimed (in the letters page of Private Eye, no less) that it was working with the landowner to restore 8ha of priority habitat. The fact that there was 17 or 18ha of priority habitat on the site which had been damaged, not 8ha, seemed to have passed the FC by.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So you might think that the restoration work has proceeded, and the damage, particularly to the large area of deep peat bog in the centre of the site had been rectified.

I’ve just been sent some photos of the site from a local resident.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I honestly can’t say I can see any significant restoration work having been done. The peat plough lines are still there, bleeding the bog dry. The trees are still there. The evidence of tree pits is clear.

It seems that despite the FC’s claims before Christmas, the site is as it was.

No restoration has taken place. Perhaps they are waiting for the ground to dry out.

 

Posted in Forestry Commission, grasslands, heathland, peat bog, tree planting, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Ten Years on – from Dark Days of Farming to a new Post-CAP future

Hay Meadow cut for haylage ©Miles King

Reading about yesterday’s launch of the Sustainable Farming Incentive Scheme –  the post-Brexit post-Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) farming support scheme for England we’ve been waiting for these past nearly 5 years – sent me off the archives, where I found this post – from exactly 10 years ago.

 

 

Dark Days Return: farm subsidies drive environmental destruction

You might have thought the dark days when agricultural subsidies drove the wholesale destruction of Britain’s wildlife, landscape and history, were behind us. You would be wrong.

A set of rules laid down by the European Commission govern which farmers can claim the Single Farm Payment (SFP), the foundation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and how those farmers must manage their farmland in order to be eligible for the payment.

This payment is not peanuts – many farming organisations, eg NFU claim that without single payment farmers would not be able to survive. SFP varies hugely but can be over £200 per hectare per annum. For an average size farm in England (around 60ha) this equals £12000 just to do farming. Bizarrely, SFP is more generous the larger (and more intensive) your farm is.

The EC has been stung by criticism that the CAP is hugely wasteful and they are tightening the rules on what farmland is eligible for single payment. As I have already blogged we have produced a report showing how Single Payment is being refused to farmers who are grazing highly valuable semi-natural grasslands and other habitats across Europe, because of these rules. The rules are biased in favour of farmers who have intensively managed highly productive grasslands.

The big stick that the EC can wave around has two prongs. Firstly inspectors visit farms to assess whether the farmers have correctly filled in their Single Payment forms. Even an accidental error can mean the farmer loses part or all of the SFP. If the inspectors find a systemic problem with the way SFP is being paid in a country, they can threaten that country with massive fines.

This is happening now in Ireland (both parts) and Scotland. As I mentioned last week, farmers are being forced to damage valuable wildlife habitats for fear that they will lose their Single Payment. I’ve just been sent this picture showing what is happening,

Now there are rules within “Cross Compliance” which are supposed to ensure that farmers who receive SFP keep their farmland in “Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition”. In the UK these rules include EIA for Agriculture (GAEC 5), and a requirement to protect landscape features (GAEC 140. Of course the ability to remove single payment from a farmer is a far great incentive than any set of rules for environmental protection, most of which are hardly ever enforced.

We, along with our colleagues in other wildlife organisations believe that Single Farm Payment is an anachronism, left over from the days when Governments paid farmers to increase food production at all costs (mostly environmental, but also historic and social), that does more harm than good. But it appears almost certain that SFP will survive into the next CAP after 2014.

At the very least we need to ensure that the SFP rules do not actively encourage environmental despolation, such as is going on in Northern Ireland, Scotland and elsewhere in Europe, right now.


Fast forward 10 years to the Sustainable Farming Incentive Scheme – a few things jumped out at me. The SFI

“will recognise the value of some of the natural assets that were dubbed ‘ineligible features’ by the CAP.”

This may seem a bit niche but it’s fundamental to the change in philosophy we have all been hoping for, now we have left the CAP. As I described 10 years ago, farmers could be fined or have their subsidies with-held if there was a bit of scrub, or in one notorious case a single stem of wild rose, on their land. So they cleared it away, destroying valuable wildlife habitat and historical features, in the process. The Rural Payments Agency spent millions hounding farmers for claiming subsidy on ineligible features, based on looking at aerial photos, where shadows can be interpreted as ineligible features. So this is a really important step towards paying landowners for their public goods, rather than some bone-headed bureaucratic system. I have to say I met with similar responses from those at Defra 10 years ago, when raising this problem, so this is also a welcome change.

The way the SFI is being rolled out, slowly, with lots of piloting and trials, working with farmers and experts, is also welcome – and reflects the fact that the UK is no longer just one voice (albeit an influential one) among 28, plus those at the Commission trying to act as referee (albeit with their own preconceptions), inevitably producing a dog’s breakfast of an agricultural support system that pleases nobody. All well and good so far.

The SFI breaks down into a series of standards – arable, grassland, woodland etc which can be mixed and matched. Each standard has 3 tiers so a farmer can choose how deep they want to go into public goods delivery. I was surprised to see the top payment rate for wildlife-rich grassland was £110/ha (though this increases to £149/ha for floodplain grassland). In comparison under the old Entry Level Scheme the top rate for wildlife-rich grassland was £150/ha, so £110 seems more than a bit meagre.

Tom Lancaster, farm policy expert at the RSPB, made a series of very cogent points on twitter yesterday, regarding the regulatory baseline. Under the CAP, the Cross Compliance system of regulation applied to landowners receiving Single (2005-2014), then Basic Payment (2015-2024). Now the SFI is paying for things that were previously part of the regulatory baseline, which means that the baseline has dropped substantially.  It reminds me of when Defra tried to pay farmers for things like manure management plans, via the Entry Level Scheme. Brussels slapped them down telling them that this was part of the regulatory baseline for CAP payments and they had to remove that option. As Tom says, isn’t this a return of pay the polluter, rather than the polluter pays.

Coincidentally (or not) the Government also released yesterday, their proposals for Environmental Principles to be enshrined in the stalled Environment Bill. These point to serious weakening of things like the Polluter Pays principle.

I want to give the SFI a chance to show it can work, but I also worry that by lowering the regulatory baseline a message is being sent out to farmers – we won’t pay you so much, but you can do what you like. As we saw with the Lugg last year, this can be catastrophic for what’s left of our farmland wildlife.

 

 

 

Posted in Agri-Environment Schemes, Brexit, Common Agricultural Policy, Defra | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

10 years after the Forestry Commission wasn’t sold off, the bad old FC has returned

Peat bog ploughed to grow commercial conifers in Cumbria.

Cast your minds back, dear reader, Ten Years. I have deliberately capitalised these words so please don’t send me any grammatical correction comments. Ten years seems like an incomprehensibly long time ago, considering what we have been through in the last month, six months, a year, two years and five years. But it was ten years ago that the Government – remember that Tory-LibDem coalition? – suffered its first major setback when it abandoned plans to privatise the Forestry Commission. The plan was to sell off the commercial forests to the private forestry industry and hand over the special bits where there was still some wildlife clinging on, to the conservation NGOs. I understand there was enthusiasm on the part of some NGOs at the prospect of being handed juicy large chunks of wildlife-rich land. There was a similar plan to sell of Natural England’s National Nature Reserves, but that’s another story.

Looking back at the Grasslands Trust blog (which preceded this one and where I cut my blogging teeth) there are three entries in February 2011 about the FC sell-off and I reproduce them here. An earlier longer post in January 2011 spelt out the plans and some facts about the FC.

The Governments claims that regulations will protect wildlife on privatised FC land are undermined by their own rhetoric

The Government claims that they will use regulations to protect wildlife and archaeology on land sold by the Forestry Commission as a result of the proposed privatisation. As I mentioned in my previous blog on this subject these regulations include felling licences, which control where trees may be felled, and what should be replanted after they are felled. Fines for contravening felling licences can be huge, running into ten of thousands of pounds. Felling licences tend to be about the scale of tree-felling and the requirement to replant following felling. They have generated controversy where former heathland sites, some even in Special Protection Areas are replanted with conifers.

But the regulations that are supposed to protect open habitats such as grassland, heathlands and moors are much, much weaker, and rarely enforced. These regulations stem from the EIA Directive enacted in 1985, and in particular projects where there is a significant environmental impact on uncultivated or semi natural areas as a result of intensive agriculture of forestry. Successive governments attempted to avoid implementing EIA for agriculture and forestry in the UK, until they were forced to, under pain of large fines from the EC, in 1999.

EIA for agriculture is weak, ineffective and rarely enforced. There have been more successful appeals against enforcement action than there have been successful cases – and as we have found, plenty of cases where semi-natural grasslands have been destroyed regardless of the regulations. It’s about as weak a piece of legislation as it is possible to have, apart from those old laws that sit around on the statute books for centuries, like witchcraft or setting fire to her majesties dockyards.

These EIA-derived regulations are what the Government in its consultation document states will be used to protect the biodiversity interests on FC land that has been sold into the private sector. For a start EIA for agriculture doesn’t even apply until a patch of top priority habitat exceeds 2ha. In forestry sites many open areas are small, well below 2ha, but together they create incredibly important networks of open spaces, where flowers provide nectar sources for insects like woodland butterflies. Butterfly Conservation has been working with FC to transform conifer plantations to restore these small open habitat to create conditions for threatened woodland butterflies like heath fritillary, to great effect.

EIA for forestry, which is supposed to protect open habitats from being planted with trees, only starts to apply after a huge 5ha threshold unless the site is in an AONB or National Park in which case it’s 2ha. habitats such as semi-natural grasslands mostly occur in small patches, especially outside protected areas. So there is even less chance of this regulation applying, to require an environmental assessment of a tree planting proposal on open ground. And sadly there are plenty of cases where tree planting has taken place on important grassland sites, not just in the past, but here and now.

Which takes us back to the Felling Licences. If the privatisation is pushed through, what will become of the FC staff who process felling licences? These are the last line of defence against damaging tree planting. Will they be able to spend the time looking at each proposal for felling and replanting – especially if there is a flood of applications from new owners of former FC sites?

But there’s a deeper problem, which is that this Government is enthusiastic in its rhetoric of de-regulation, that is removing what little regulation there is currently in place to protect the environment. A de-regulation taskforce was set up by Minister Paice charged with identifying those regulations which were stifling economic growth and innovation. I was part of a group from Wildlife Link’s agriculture group who met with the chair of the taskforce Richard MacDonald, before christmas. I was amazed to discover that the group were not even aware of the existence of the regulations on agriculture stemming from the EIA directive. That is how high profile they are! I was re-assured that the taskforce would now look into this issue and I await their findings with excitement, if not a little trepidation.

So that is the question I leave you with – how can a government on the one hand lead a crusade against red-tape on the grounds that it is preventing people from building new businesses, innovating and kick-starting the economic revival; and on the other hand claim that regulation will be strong enough to protect the important environmental and historical features on 250000ha of state land they are about to sell off – some of which will be bought by private individuals, companies, farmers, with plans to use it (even if that use is just commercial forestry or agriculture) to develop new businessess, innovate and contribute to the economic revival?

Posted in Forestry Commission, peat bog, privatisation, public land, tree planting, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Forestry Commission ignores pleas and replants conifers after Wareham Heath fire

Conifers on Wareham heath after the fire in May 2020 © Miles King

This press release was published this morning.

Wildlife charities call for new vision after Forestry England replant conifers on precious heathland

 

RSPB, Dorset Wildlife Trust, Plantlife, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation and Butterfly Conservation have today expressed concern after Forestry England’s (FE) decision to replant pine trees on precious heathland in Wareham Forest. In the current ecological emergency, they urge FE to begin working with them on a new heathland vision for FE’s estate in Purbeck.

 

In March (sic – it was May) 2020, 192 hectares of Wareham Forest was accidentally burnt, much of it a low-value conifer crop grown for timber. The charities had previously pressed FE locally to recognise Wareham Forest as a priority for large-scale heathland restoration. They also asked FE to hold off on automatically replanting the burnt area, pending a ‘root and branch’ review of FE’s Wareham Forest Plan and discussion with the charities about how best to restore the site’s outstanding heathland potential.  However, last week, Forestry England went ahead with tree-planting on a large part of the burn area, much to the concern of the wildlife charities.

 

Dante Munns speaking for RSPB said, “This was an excellent opportunity to expand and link the heathland in Wareham Forest with the Purbeck Heaths National Nature Reserve as part of an extensive nature recovery network. It was a great chance to boost populations of rare birds like Dartford warblers, nightjars and reptiles like sand lizards and smooth snakes.

 

“The RSPB and its partners have decades of experience in managing and restoring heathland at places like Arne and Winfrith. Having worked well with FE work to restore large areas of former heathland in Rempstone Forest, we don’t understand why FE rushed ahead with replanting. We’ve already lost so much precious heathland and opportunities like this don’t come along very often. It’s very, very disappointing.”

 

Imogen Davenport, Conservation Director, Dorset Wildlife Trust said, “All our charities are passionate about the need for more trees and woodland but there is growing concern that poor choices are being made in the push to do this quickly.  It’s crucial that we plant the right sort of tree in the right place, in Dorset using broadleaved trees like oak, willow and birch which are wildlife superstars, and avoiding planting on precious habitats like heathlands. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew have recently issued a ten-point guide to ensuring that tree planting does not cause more harm than good. Sad to say this planting fails on all ten points.”

 

The restocking of Wareham Forest comes at a time when there is growing concern over poor choices being made over the planting of trees in the UK.

 

Tony Gent, Chief Executive Officer, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation said, “The fragmented nature of our Dorset heathlands puts immense pressure on the rare wildlife that relies on it. We, along with many other wildlife charities, have spent decades protecting the remaining heathlands in Dorset and people really enjoy visiting them.  But we really need to work hard to create more, bigger, and better joined-up sites, new nature recovery networks. And places like Wareham Forest are crucial pieces in the jigsaw. FE has a huge role to play in restoring nature, but fundamentally change what is currently a very damaging direction.”

 

Jenny Hawley, Plantlife’s Policy Manager, said: “The Wareham Forest fire is both a disaster and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Rare at a global scale, Britain is home to a fifth of the world’s remaining lowland heathland. The unique character of Dorset’s once-vast heathlands and their rare and beautiful wildlife, such as pale dog-violet and yellow centaury, smooth snake and nightjar, could emerge from the blackened earth like a Phoenix from the flames.  With the combined experience of the nation’s conservation organisations for birds, butterflies, reptiles, and wild plants, in partnership with Forestry England, restoration at Wareham Forest could act as a shining example of a nuanced approach to regenerating magnificent wildlife-rich landscapes open to all.  It could be very exciting indeed.  We have to ask ourselves – is this really the best site for a conifer plantation?”

 

Dante Munns for RSPB added, “We’re keen to help FE redefine its vision and direction on these precious heathland sites. We have the knowledge and the practical experience of managing large open areas of heathland. We stand ready to help; we just need them to talk with us.”

The BBC published this story as a result, in which they characterise replanting conifers on lowland heathland, an internationally important and threatened habitat, as “restoration.”

They also include a quote from local Forestry England Director South Bruce Rothnie “Our work will ensure these young trees can reach maturity and really contribute to the goal of reaching net carbon zero.” This is arrant nonsense, but it does show how the Forestry Commission is reinventing itself (again) as the saviour of Net Zero.

Planting conifers on Wareham’s damp, organo-mineral soils – as much of the area previously coniferised is, will lead to substantial loss of carbon overall, as the tree roots damage the soil carbon and release it.

Rothnie also throws a meagre bone to the conservation NGOs “Also, we’ve left large areas unplanted to expand existing areas of heathland and connect them through unplanted corridors.” Not according to those who have seen the site and the areas replanted.

All of this drives a coach and horses through the Government’s own stated aims in the 25 Year Environment Plan and their vaunted plans for a national nature recovery network.

Meanwhile the FC wraps itself in the Net Zero flag and gets away with it.

 

Posted in climate action, climate change, Forestry Commission, heathland, tree planting, Uncategorized, Wareham Forest | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Vaccines and Variants point to two alternative futures.

VW Variant fastback Sedan. OSX, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Variant.

The word takes me back to sometime in the early 1970s and this car. Someone in the London suburb where we lived had a pale blue one, and I was fascinated by it. It certainly wasn’t a beautiful car, but it had character and was quite odd – for instance the entire back of the car behind the seats was carpeted, including up the sides. It certainly stuck in my memory.

Today variant means something else. It means “Kent”, “South Africa” and “Brazil”. For those with an interest in things biochemical (yes I did a biochemistry degree, though not very studiously) we have the B117 variant (Kent) and now the E484K mutation (common to both “South Africa” and “Brazil.” Yes of course I’m talking about new variants of Covid19.

We now have our own home-grown Kent variant, which is rapidly becoming the dominant Covid19 strain in the UK and indeed in 60 other countries so far.

Yes B117  is our first world beating post-Brexit export to the world.  How they will be pleased that our buccaneering spirit has been freed.

It’s now thought that B117 evolved in an immuno-compromised covid19 patient in Kent back in September, but in truth we are all potential new variant incubators – at least we are if we do anything which gives covid19 a chance to infect us. And even though the number of new positive tests reported each day is coming down quite quickly now, there are still around 20,000 new tests reported a day. That’s 20,000 opportunities for the virus to evolve, every day. But it’s actually much more than that, because these are only the reported positive tests. Nearly half people who get covid19 have no symptoms, so will not be being tested. And there will be a load more who understandably decide not to have a test because they cannot afford to stop working, because – a year after the pandemic started – there is still no proper system of financial support for people self-isolating.

Scientists here in the UK and elsewhere have achieved an incredible breakthrough, to have developed a range of vaccines so quickly. While there have been so many disastrous decisions taken by the Government over the past year, it’s still very impressive that 9.3 million people have had their first vaccination dose so far. This is down to the hard work of people within the NHS  – incredibly, the Government decided not to outsource vaccine delivery to Delottie’s or Crapita – and as a result it’s been an amazing success, so far. But there is something lurking on the horizon – immune escape. That E484k mutation provides the virus with some way of avoiding the immune system of people who have already had covid19, and, to an unknown extent, also to evade the effects of the vaccines. Some of the vaccines developed so far will be more effective than others at providing benefits for the vaccinated against the new variants. These benefits are beyond just not getting infected, but also how serious an infection you get if you do get infected (mild or no symptoms) and also the big unknown of whether you can transmit the virus on to other people.

We are being reassured that all that will be required is a “booster shot” of an updated vaccine to maintain high levels of immunity against new Variants.  If we go down this road, what this means is that we will be, for the foreseeable future, in a cat and mouse game, between the virus evolving new variants – and the pharmaceutical industry developing new vaccines to provide immunity against them.  And this certainly seems to be the approach that the Government has adopted, placing all of its chips on the vaccination spot on this particular roulette table. The hard right Covid Research Group (formerly known as the hard right European Research Group) Tory MP caucus demanding that everything goes back to normal on 8th March once the most vulnerable groups in society have had their first jab. That’s their first jab, not the whole vaccination programme.

They regard covid19 (in as much as they all believe it to be real) as something like a nasty bout of flu. Vaccination for seasonal flu is a regular normal feature of British winters and certainly reduces the number of flu deaths each year. Of course flu vaccination will not protect against a flu pandemic arising from a new mutation, as almost happened with swine flu 10 years ago. Remember all that panicking about sourcing anti-viral drug tamiflu?

Perhaps a better comparison would be with diseases like TB, smallpox and polio. These killed millions every year historically, and vaccination to eliminate, not manage, was the intention once vaccines became widely available. Mass vaccination is one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century. Smallpox is now extinct in the wild (there are still a couple of samples held in labs). Polio has been eradicated from most of the world, but lingers on in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with rare vaccine-derived outbreaks elsewhere. TB is not the massive killer it once was, but antibiotic-resistant TB is a major problem in parts of the world, especially in patients with HIV. Both Polio and TB continue to be big health problems in poorer or war-torn countries, where public health measures are more difficult to achieve. And the prevalence of covid19 in poor communities (and especially minority ethnic communities) in the UK reflects this reality.

There are now two avenues open to us, both in the UK and globally. One is vaccinate the vulnerable and keep vaccinating them as new variants come along. This is doable but will certainly mean that a significant chunk of effort and public expenditure will go on vaccine development, manufacture and distribution. I am sure that some will be looking at this as a big new post-Brexit, post-pandemic shot in the arm for the ailing British economy. It’s not clear to me how poor countries are supposed to pay for new vaccine supplies every year, let alone how they will be distributed annually. And none of this is going to happen in war-torn parts of the world. Anyone decrying the EU for vaccine nationalism needs to consider this. And that’s ignoring the real fact of longcovid – which is already placing a substantial additional burden on our healthcare and social support systems.

So it seems likely to me that adopting this seasonal flu approach to annual vaccination, ignores the fact that it will drive covid19 into becoming a constantly evolving endemic virus or family of viruses circulating in poor and war-torn countries – and perhaps poor deprived communities that already suffer from poor health in this country (just as TB lurks on here).  Would it be out of the bounds of possibility that under these circumstances a radical new variant emerges that achieves full immune escape velocity from all current vaccines?

The alternative is a global eradication programme as was achieved for smallpox, and has been almost successful for polio and TB. This would be a gargantuan effort and at great expense. It would also require global collaboration – something that for the past few years of Brexit/Trump, Bolsanaro and Putin, has seemed increasingly like a lost cause. Perhaps now Trump has gone we will see a move away from nationalist populism towards international co-operation again.

Covid19 has already killed over 2 million people worldwide in a year. As the new variants spread harder and faster throughout areas previously unaffected, that number will inevitably increase: 5 million next year, 10 million the year after? Isn’t it time we all agreed that the best approach will be to eradicate covid19 everywhere and it’s going to take a long time and a lot of money.

 

Posted in covid-19, covid19, Uncategorized, vaccines | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments