Farmland nature is in intensive care

A week has past and I’m still at home. I finished my latest course of antibiotics yesterday (yay) and am drug-free for the first time in 3 weeks, for which I am very thankful. Now I need to start work restoring my gut flora. The thought gives a slightly different perspective on the phrase “People Need Nature”, but our internal ecology is as much part of who we are, as the external nature that lives around us.

Latest estimates suggest that for every human cell in our bodies, there is a bacteria living with us.  Some are helpers, many just along for the ride, and a few mean us harm (as I have found out.)

So many thoughts have been pinging around my head while I have been unable to do anything else, that I probably have 10 blogs worth to write. But I thought I’d start by following up from the State of Nature launch and the role of intensive farming in the loss of nature from England’s farmland. I wrote about the launch what seems like years ago now, but was actually only 6 weeks ago.

What do we actually mean by intensive farming? Rural commentator, surveyor and serial writer of letters to the Times, Rob Yorke, pointed me towards an interesting paper from Rob Fuller, Paul Dolman and colleagues, recently published in the Journal of Applied Ecology. In the paper, the authors question our preconceptions of what the semi-natural really is.

What is the semi-natural? For those unfamiliar with the phrase, the semi-natural or semi-natural habitats are those which have evolved as a result of human activity (usually agriculture or forestry) in such a way that at least some wildlife still flourishes while the land produces food, fuel etc. Semi-natural habitats include  flowery hay meadows, ancient woodlands, wood pasture, lowland heathlands, chalk downlands, arable fields with farmland birds and arable weeds, ponds, moorland and so on.

The authors of the paper suggest that what we now think of as the semi-natural is very different from what was actually going on on farmland before 1750. They use 1750 as a cut-off because around that time a complex set of changes started to take place in land use which “resulted in a massive reduction in the extent and quality of habitats.”

They rightly point out that farming underwent a significant period of intensification during the late 18th and early 19th century. Superphosphate for example was first manufactured in 1843 in Deptford, in response to the rapid exhaustion of “British” guano deposits off the coast of Namibia.  And of course even before that, farming could have been said to have been pretty intensive. Downlands were grazed by sheep until there was literally no grass left, commons were grazed as much as commoners could get away with. Heathlands were grazed hard, gorse was cut for bread ovens, peat was cut for fuel, gravel was dug when needed for building work or roads. You can imagine the scene.

This is all a far cry from the careful – not to say kid-gloved management of modern “semi-natural” nature reserves. And as the authors point out, the losers of this approach are those species which depend on things like irregular disturbance. The technical word is heterogeneity, but patchiness is just as good. Many species depend on disturbance at different scales (think a bare patch of ground a foot across, up to landscape patchiness over hundreds of square miles)  and over different periods of time – from a few months to decades (perhaps even centuries).

Juniper is a great example of this, which I spent quite a long time studying and working on its conservation (all the reports used to be on the Plantlife website but it looks like they have gone now). The seeds from mature juniper bushes need bare ground to germinate, but once they germinated they then need to be protected from being grazed off. In the long past this would have been achieved through occasional heavy grazing – which is why they did well on places like downlands, commons and heathland – places which would have been grazed very hard, then left for a long time before being grazed hard again. It’s likely that larger scale historic events – the agricultural depression following the Napoleonic Wars, the Great Agricultural Depression of the 1870s, the subsequent Agricultural Depression of the 1930s and the wholesale decline in rabbit grazing after the introduction of Myxomatosis in the 1950s, provided the big scale changes in grazing patterns that allowed waves of juniper populations to appear. Needless to say nothing has happened on this scale since the 1950s and the Junipers born then are now moribund and past reproductive age.

So it’s fair to say that there was plenty of “intensity” going on in farming in the past. Can anyone therefore claim that intensive farming, or intensification of farming, has caused nature to disappear from farmland?

NFU Vice President Guy Smith thinks not. In a recent opinion piece for Farmers Weekly, “Farmers take intensive care of countryside”, Smith railed against this accusation.

Farming has got less intense over the past 25 years, according to Smith, based on some rather crude metrics – kilo’s of pesticide used, areas of crops, numbers of stock kept. Smith suggests that, as British farmers are the best at fusing conservation and production,  increasing food production here will create a net benefit for global biodiversity, by displacing production elsewhere in the world.

There is some truth to the notion that if we produce less food here and import more, without worrying about where that food comes from, then we could be responsible for more environmental damage. But there are so many interlocking variables as to make that calculation an extremely complex one, far from the crude maths Smith applies.

Has farming become less intense in the last 25 years? It depends on which way you measure it. Glyphosate (round-up) use has increased by 400% in the UK over the last 20 years. Maize production has grown exponentially during the same period.


Maize for biogas grown in the Dorset AONB ©Miles King







Neonicotiniod pesticides weren’t being used at all 20 years ago. Now their use is widespread and their impact on insect life is increasingly being shown to be devastating.

But there’s a bigger issue here.

While on some level it could be argued that farming is less intensive than it was 25 years ago, is this even the right time frame to be discussing the issue? The main loss of semi-natural habitats took place from 1950 to 1970, just at the time when all the major recording schemes for things like farmland birds, for example, started. Dramatic though they are, the declines from 1970, detailed in State of Nature and elsewhere, only show a small part of the graph.

I would tentatively suggest that intensive farming may not be the right phrase to use to describe the reasons why farmland now has next to no wildlife in it. As Fuller, Dolman et al show in their paper, we now only have a small subset of the much wider spectrum of semi-natural habitats that existed pre 1840 (or 1750 – the cut-off date is pretty arbitrary).

While the area of land that supported nature hadn’t diminished particularly in the two centuries from 1750 to 1950, the types of habitat did shift. But their analysis ignores the fact that other places were created that at least provided a part replacement – in the new industrial landscapes – the legacy of which is now still with us on brownfield land. And while the authors are right to state

“the kinds of complex ‘traditional’ land management systems .. had largely disappeared in England before the adoption of modern, chemical-based farming systems in the middle decades of the twentieth century”

it’s also true to say that the losses of semi-natural habitat of any kind, since 1950 for example, have far outweighed the losses of semi-natural habitat quality, in terms of their impact on the nature of farmland generally.

Where does this leave us? Do we need to find an alternative lexicon to describe the reasons behind the loss of nature from farmland?

We certainly do need to continue to challenge the propaganda that Guy Smith, Robin Page et al put out, that somehow nature has disappeared from the farmed landscape due to other reasons – predators for example, or urban development.

No-one has yet managed to explain to me how 97% of wildflower meadows, or 75% of chalk downland, has disappeared in 70 years thanks to predators. And urban development still only covers 12% of England.

Whatever words we use, the facts are the same. Modern farming methods, together and individually, have caused nature to disappear from the farmed countryside. Nature on farmland is now in intensive care. And we don’t know whether the patient will pull through or not.


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 agriculture, agrochemicals, Intensive Farming and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Farmland nature is in intensive care

  1. vicki hird says:

    the gauntlet is laid down.. interesting re Juniper
    (and volume/weight of biocide use is not a good measure of impacts, as is well known, given the efficiacy and toxicity of tiny ammounts of modern formulas)
    I started to avoid the use of intensive farming when a very ‘intensive’ organic farmer showed me an abundance of insects and wildlife in his multicropping farm. I tend to use industrial which refers to scale.. and esp when referring to livestock.
    one thing that seems to be a factor (only one mind) is the size of farms and fields and the mixture of sizes. Years agio when preparing a report on small farms we looked at the data on passive and active environmental and wildlife benefit. would be good to redo that study as so often the passive benefits of smaller farm sizes (and in a matirx mix) are overlooked by conservationists.
    not really related to seminatural debate sorry just felt like musing

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Vicki. Yes I think the passive benefits of small farms/smallholdings are often overlooked by conservationists.

      • vicki hird says:

        when I reread my response it may be confusing – I have never ‘used’
        intensive farming but was referring to the use of words… hope clear!

  2. Miles. To continue your analogy, plenty of ‘drugs’ out there that work on offsetting the impact of changing farming practices. I know your ‘dislike’ of too much affection for the birds, but this 20 yr joint research between RSPB and GWCT demonstrates how farmland birds can be increased
    Hey, but guess what, as neither conservation NGO has the ‘sole patent ownership’ on it, it gets buried and land managers never get to see it.
    Beetle banks, bare land for solitary bees, selective use of herbicides enables wild flower weeds to spring up from under rank rye grass – can all be created. It’s in the book – but again passing this knowledge, via those who are trusted (not so simple, to those that can deliver it, is the ‘critical’ issue.
    Heterogeneity is important. Get away from this obsession over intense, small or large scale, organic or not.
    We need to learn to trust each other, nudge, suggest, share (not own showy-off ideas just to recruit new members) …so that the doctor can see that patients can heal themselves.
    All best on your recovery!
    Regards, Rob

    • Miles King says:

      thanks for your comments Rob.

    • Miles King says:

      I think this comment illustrates very well the problem with the “debate” between conservationists and farmers. All too often we are speaking the same language but failing to understand each other.

      Farmland birds can be helped to increase from their current levels – which are historically low because the habitats which used to support them have changed out of all recognition. They cannot be helped to return to the levels of 1970, let alone 1940, 1840 or 1750, for the same reasons. Beetle banks can help “in-field” populations of a tiny number of beetle species and other invertebrates, that are helpful to farmers being predators of crop pests. Flowery margins may or may not help support pollinators; or kill them slowly through neonicotinoid contamination. All these things may be good and worthwhile, or they may not.

      This is not the point I was making.

      This approach is akin to a family whose house burnt down, and someone coming along saying to them “there’s really nothing to worry about though because look how green your lawn will be after all that fire brigade water!”.

      The farmed landscape includes every habitat that used to occur within it; the farmyard with its own suit of weeds and birds, the untidy bits where tracks meet, small patches of scrub, ponds with muddy edges, little flushes and fens where springs rose up in pasture fields. But again and again the conversation is drawn back to wildlife in arable fields. This was only ever a part of the bigger picture – but now many farmers only see farmland wildlife as wildlife of arable land.

  3. tommfinch says:

    This is a bit about out of date, but might be of interest if you’ve not seen it already.

    The authors generate a composite variable of agricultural management, which increased from the early 70s but started levelling off in the late 80s. They generate an equivalent composite variable representing farmland bird population trends (based on CBC data), which remains stable through the early 70s but starts declining in the late 70s and through the 80s.

    The conclusion is that there is a ~6 year time lag between the onset of ‘intensification’ and the downward trend of bird populations.

    I agree that ‘intensification’ may not be a very useful term; it doesn’t really capture subtleties such as the shift from winter to spring sown cereals, for example.

  4. Nick Mann says:

    Hi Miles – very helpful read! I recently came across the urbanization issue arguing with anti-immigration “conservationists”. Where did your 12% figure come from?

  5. Christopher Hughes says:

    Miles, very glad to hear you are better. What should we be doing to influence the issue of farm subsidy when we leave the EU, I wonder? Obviously the RSPB & Wildlife Trusts will be lobbying, but maybe we will all collectively have to make a almighty racket. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. We should, for example, aim to get the public on side. All should be aware that food production is being heavily subsidised & if this were to continue, it should benefit nature. As far as getting the message over is concerned, I’ve been pondering about the RSPB’s new motto: Give Nature a Home & Devon WT has come up with: Nature is in Trouble. Both have merit, but maybe we should go one step further: nature is in serious trouble & we have a moral duty to protect nature for future generations. There is the possibility that this message would prick consciences, when we follow it up by saying that our short term economics is destroying nature.


    • Miles King says:

      thanks very much Chris. You’re right – it is the public that need to understand on what their taxes are being spent. The RSPB and Wildlife Trusts have far more resources and influence than I do!

  6. Thanks for this Miles. I think your last few statistics, which it is completely right that we continue to holler about, say it all. The 75% loss of chalk downland and 97% loss of wildflower meadows since the 1930s can only be the result of wholescale change in land use, driven principally by the ‘intensification’ of agriculture in the light of world war two and a post war ‘feed the nation, feed the world’ mentality. My grandmother, aged 94, still (after nearly two decades of involvement in various env schemes) finds it baffling that stewardship exists. In her mind, farming is about farming, and she seemingly takes it for granted that the wildlife will look after itself. I have had the conversations with her many times regarding the state that we are in, that farming practices have changed immensely and that the state of our soils reflects the state of nature. She acknowledges this of course but still shouts out that farming should be about production.

    Intensification is a dynamic word that means different things to different people, especially when it comes to conservationists and farmers. It usually comes to down to end goals and the priority of those end goals. For farmers this is generally an increase in yield (a rise in the bottom line helps as well but profit is seemingly, and bizarrely, less important than yields for many farmers). For conservationists it is increasing net biodiversity and the health of our domestic species and habitats. Then there is Guy Smith’s argument (which there is certainly merit in) that if we grow less of our food domestically, we will probably be having a far more significant negative environmental impact when we look at our global footprint.

    I think we need to reframe the discussion. As part of this reframing there needs to be a vision for the landscape. It is important to look back and to lok at trends, of course it is. However, it is also important not to lose track of where we are going. Smith et al need to accept that, even though stewardship schemes mean that agricultural landscapes are not in as bad health as they would be without them, there is still a long way to go and that farming is fundamentally intensive.

    Your points about the semi natural I find fascinating and absolutely vital to reflect upon. The semi-natural is in essence much of British landscape and its definition alludes to practical actions as much as the species and habitats it involves. We need to reflect on how the semi natural has changed over time and how it might be managed moving forward in the context of a need for food security as well as conservation.

    I wasn’t going to use the ‘B’ word, but it is inevitable. Brexit provides an opportunity for us to reframe our management and our conversations regarding landscapes, including agricultural landscapes. I remain a staunch remainer but can see the importance of this time in engaging with a broader debate. Questions about the semi-natural and intensification should be a central part of this, so thank you again for pushing these to the forefront Miles (at least for the blogging community!).

    • Miles King says:

      thanks very much Ben, for your thoughtful comments.

      Language is so important in this debate, where we are trying to find ways to help people appreciate how important nature is to them. So while we do need a vision, or even to be visionary, we also need to change the language we use, and the frames, which are even more important.

      I have written previously about the idea that we have to accept the semi-natural has gone (or all but) and we need to look forward to something positive and new. I got a few brickbats for making that suggestion, but it’s not that different from where the rewilders are.

      Where I diverge from the hardline rewilders, is that I still believe we should protect and cherish the very little that’s left of the semi-natural, while looking forward to new natural landscapes. These are probably not going to be on conventional high output farms though.

  7. Will Dias says:

    Thanks for a very interesting article, Miles.

    I worked for a few years in the 1908s studying Land Use Ecology at ITE (Merlewood) with Dr. Bob Bunce, recording the extent of land use change over the years. It was fascinating work, and fostered, like your article, a mixture of concern and alarm, tinged with the slightest glimmer of hope. One of the things I noted during our surveys was the change in an attitude in an increasing number of farmers from being tenders of the land, to being a food producing business; a narrowing of their remit, as it were, as the belief that agricultural technology could un-couple us from the shackles of nature (a belief that grew in all facets of life in the latter part of the 20th century). I believe that much work now needs to be done to reverse this perception, but it will not be an easy task (and upon whose shoulders should it fall?).

    Please excuse my ramblings.


    • Miles King says:

      thanks very much Will. The “decoupling” idea has been taken up with renewed enthusiasm by the ecomodernists – a topic about which I have written a few times eg here

      The well worn “we must feed the world” trope goes back much further though. That’s the topic of another blog, to come at some point.

  8. Pingback: Food or Fauna? - Habitat Aid

  9. robseago says:

    The comments about the structure of land is important. In my youth I was often found on farms which in some cases were accessible to children, in a sort of uneasy relationship with landowners. We used to creep across fields to ponds for fishing, or play on a knackered farm trailer. Nowadays such a feature would be disposed of by some of the powerful machinery always available to tidy up, whereas then it would get colonised by bramble or ivy from the neighbouring hedge. A vehicle would get stuck in soft ground, plough out great ruts before it was extracted and thus create bare ground and wet flushes. Nowadays it is normal to sort out such things straight away.

    In some army training areas tanks regularly create such features. Salisbury Plain is known for a wonderful assemblage of wildlife though a lot of it is arable. Around Colchester there is still this informal sort of structure courtesy of MOD.

    A recent talk featured Wood White, Grizzzled Skipper, Broad Bee Hawk etc, All benefited from the breaking up of dense swards using diggers. The woodland Heath Fritillary in a similar way did not want a dense sward of its food plant , Common Cow Wheat. It wanted individual plants in a generally sparsely vegetated situation. A few vehicle ruts give the caterpillars basking opportunities. We are afraid to make the wood look a mess after management?

    So many of our plants benefit from one off events. The Allseed on Tiptree Heath reappeared after a long gap when a football pitch was cleared. Native cornflowers appeared after deep land drainage, sadly not lasting more than a year.

    There are so many such examples.

    I have attempted to cause some of such stress management events on my patch. I have scraped a former lichen rich patch which was getting shrouded with grasses, briar and bramble and immediately got a lot of Creeping St Johns Wort, and lots of inverts are drawn there.

    The question is can we afford to create these frequent localised interventions? How can they be managed? Would rewilding with perhaps wild boar create micro habitats like the unintended tyre ruts.

    Which charismatic and visionary leader may be able to drive as-yet unthought of exciting possibilities forward to try to restore things in an affordable practical way?

  10. nirgunapa says:

    The Plantlife Juniper factsheet can be found here – More information and the species dossiers can be found here too –
    The Plantlife website is being updated shortly and species information should be easier to find on the new website. Indeed more historical information is being added to the website as part of this process as well.

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