Panic Ploughing

The BBC revealed yesterday that grasslands had been ploughed up, thanks to the European Commission’s Common Agricultural Policy proposals on “greening” – oh, the irony  – to protect grasslands from being ploughed up.The EC had made the fatal mistake of giving a 2 1/2 year advance warning they were thinking about (but in the end didn’t) bringing in stricter rules to protect grasslands.

I raised this story with Defra and the press back in 2011. Defra rejected that there was any problem. Indeed the EFRA Select Committee raised it as a concern with Government nearly 3 years ago and their report was published in June 2012. This from the exec summary

Similarly the requirement to retain permanent pasture is likely to have unintendedand perverse consequences. The

measure would not only fail to deliver environmental benefit but also act as an incentive to remove environmentally important semi-natural grassland“.

At the time NFU was publicly imploring its members not to plough up old meadows. In private on the message boards of farming internet forums all were agreeing ploughing up unwanted grassland was the best thing to do. Indeed, their professional advisers were advising them to do just that. As the Guardian piece mentioned, Strutt and Parker’s advice was “You may want to keep your grassland area to a minimum between now and 2014, or ensure that grassland is rotated before the five-year point, to prevent it becoming permanent pasture and landlords should also give consideration to what their tenants are doing”. No ambivalence there.

Fast Forward 3 years. The Minister, George Eustice, was interviewed by Sarah Montague on the Today programme.  Eustice said “Anecdotally, there were comments in 2012, which maybe sparked a bit of panic ploughing”. He went on to say that only 1% of permanent grassland had been lost per year; and that the Govt were doing really well because half of all surviving wildflower meadows were SSSIs. Finally he reassured Radio 4 listeners that everything was really just fine, as “72000ha of grassland is protected in SSSIs” and 700,000ha of grassland is protected through the Campaign for the Farmed Environment.”

Eustice only says what his officials feed him. Why should he know any better? It’s worth noting that 1% of permanent pasture equates to 39,000ha a year. So we are looking at loss of around 100,000 ha of grassland since the EC announced their intended protection measures.

How many wildflower meadows are left? It’s a difficult one as the definitions are not as easy you might think. But it’s around 7000ha of the very best for wildlife. Half of which are protected by SSSI designation. How many were lost as a result of the panic ploughing? It’s impossible to say, because not all of them are known about, and for those that are, many do not get visited from year to year. it’s only on a return visit that a surveyor might discover the meadow has been ploughed up in the meantime. And this exactly what the Wildlife Trusts found when they investigated what had happened to wildflower meadow wildlife sites over the past 10 years. In Worcestershire, the county of wildflower meadows, 75% of wildflower meadows had been lost between 1975-2000. Another 25% were lost in the last 10 years.

Of course it’s a nonsense to suggest that the CFE protects wildflower meadows. CFE is a voluntary unpaid initiative, set up by the farming industry in a largely successful attempt to see off moves towards a more regulatory approach to farming and wildlife under the previous government (note to CFE – your work is done, no need to worry about anything pro regulatory for now), driven by the ongoing disappearance of Farmland Birds.

Roger Harrabin’s piece for the Beeb mentioned Keresley meadow which had been sprayed off and destroyed by a farmer in Warwickshire. The local community were extremely upset as they regarded it as a community asset. The farmer claimed it was just “a worn out old pasture”. The community tried to get Natural England to apply the EIA regulations for agriculture. I have blogged about this so many times….. needless to say, the meadow did not meet the EIA test – well it wouldnt, because it would have to be SSSI quality to be protected by the EIA Regs.

The NFU have been somewhat stung by the criticism of farmers and have unusually launched a rebuttal. Their main point seemed to be that the Warwickshire farmer was not an NFU member! And presumably was therefore not acting like their members? I think not. He was doing exactly what any NFU member would have done in the circumstances ie following the advice of his agronomist, agent etc. Indeed he did approach NE to check whether the meadow fell within the EIA regulations, presumably confident in the knowledge that it would not.

NFU then trotted out their usual palliatives – the wildflower meadows were all lost long ago (as if it happened in a fairy tale) “since the pre-war period” and it was all different now. They reassured everyone that the EIA Regs are there to protect wildflower meadows and that there was nothing to worry about. In fact the NFU has repeatedly campaigned to have the EIA Regs killed off.

Where does this leave us?

Despite the great work being done by Plantlife (Saving our Magnificent Meadows) and The Prince of Wales (Coronation Meadows) and The Wildlife Trust’s vanishing grasslands campaign, we still have a long way to go. Meanwhile Meadows continue to be lost, year in year out. Why?

It’s worth considering this esoteric fact. During the First World War, Britain shipped nearly 2 1/2 Million Tonnes of hay abroad, mostly to France. The hay was so important, there were fierce debates in the Cabinet, over whether the holds of ships should carry hay or ammunition. The hay won. Hay was the fuel which drove the Imperial Army, indeed it drove all the armies of the War. The First World War was a horse-powered war.

A rough calculation indicates that 600,000 acres of hay meadow were needed just to feed the Army’s horses.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in Common Agricultural Policy, deregulation, George Eustice, grasslands, meadows, NFU, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Panic Ploughing

  1. Owen Davies says:

    You are quite right to say that more grassland was re-seeded last year than in the previous year. We have complained about the artificial distinction between permanent grass and temporary grass ourselves. I would point out that much more “wildflower” seed is being sown than ever before. Even Prince Charles bought his meadows back to life by bringing in seed a few years ago.

    It is a fact of life that much of the national area of grassland has poor botanical diversity because it is not getting the return of seed it needs to maintain itself. The seed banks in the soil are both weak on their range of meadow species and out of balance, with large numbers of problem plant seed such as thistle or bracken. In the past farmers have been advised to solve their problems by using herbicides.
    I respectfully suggest that you should be rejoicing that more farmers have attempted to improve their meadows by re-sowing them.

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks for your comment Owen.

      I am afraid I do not rejoice at farmers improving their meadows by re-sowing them when they are old flower meadows. These are quite different from sown meadows and some are hundreds of years old, even thousands in a few cases. There are only a tiny handful of these old wildflower meadows left in England and each one is equivalent to an ancient church or a thatched cottage.

      Why are they so much less valued? It’s remarkably easy to destroy a wildflower meadow and replace it with something more profitable. I understand this. Farmers should be well-paid, from the public purse, to protect and manage these national treasures.

      I agree that sowing new wildflower meadows is a good idea, as Prince Charles has promoted – although these are actually being created from seed directly harvested from existing wildflower meadows and sown directly, rather than from a seed merchant’s shelf.

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