For the past 84 years, January, in the farming calendar, has seen the Great and the Good gather together for the Oxford Farming Conference. For the past 9 years, those Great and the Good have been challenged, heckled, and generally ribbed by the very different group of farmers, growers and rabble-rousers who meet down the road, at the Oxford Real Farming Conference. I was lucky enough to go along this year, on behalf of Lush Times.
Amongst the many fascinating talks and discussions – all (as far as I could tell) exploring what happens to the future of farming after Brexit – I was particularly taken by a session on land taxation. This pitted Country Landowners Association Policy chief Chris Price against Green MEP Molly Scott-Cato. This was also the only event at the Conference where singing was obligatory – led by the inspirational Robin Grey of Three Acres and Cow. Elsewhere, conference goers enjoyed hearing about how Beavers have been introduced to farmland in Cornwall, to reduce flooding in the nearby village of Ladock; and the importance of the Microbiome (all of the microbes living in one place) in the Soil, in farm animals and inside us.
Perhaps the most extraordinary event of this year’s conference was that Environment Secretary Michael Gove came along, for a Question and Answer Session with green Tory MP Zac Goldsmith (whose uncle founded The Ecologist magazine.) Mr Gove spoke eloquently, persuasively. The sometimes rapturous applause that met his pronouncements, was suggestive of a religious revivalist meeting. There was almost no heckling, which was in itself extraordinary. He was also very adept at deflecting awkward questions from the floor: I asked how the aspects of nature which cannot be given a monetary value by the Natural Capital Accounting approach would be valued and protected. He responded by quoting Monty Python, before imploring everyone to take responsibility for protecting nature. We can all do our bit.
This message was repeated in the 25 Year Plan for Nature launched last week (which I wrote about in last week’s Column.) We can all do our bit. Just yesterday the Prime Minister tweeted, asking
“what will you do to cut down avoidable plastic waste?”
While on the one hand Michael Gove accepts that the market cannot provide all the solutions to society’s needs or ills, the suggestion appears to be, that, where the market cannot provide, it our own responsibility to take action. And of course this is true, up to a point. One particularly effective organisation working to help reduce waste is WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme). This started out life in 2000 as a publicly funded campaign, working to reduce waste. In 2014 it became a Charity. Westminster Government funding has been cut (though Welsh Government funding has increased) and now 15% of its workforce is going to be axed. While the Government talks a good talk on reducing plastic waste, it cuts funding for the very organisation created, by Government, to lead that campaign.
The Hen Harrier may not be threatened by plastic waste, but it is on the very edge of extinction in England. This is due to its persecution at the hands of game-keepers on upland private estates managed for Driven Grouse-shooting. This is not something where we can all do our bit, as Driven Grouse-shooting takes places on private land, by individuals paying a great deal of money for the dubious pleasure.
Campaigners have repeatedly pointed out that the single most effective way of preventing these beautiful birds from being wiped out in England, is to enforce the wildlife crime laws. But no. Instead, the Government has decided to licence the removal, from Grouse Moors, of Hen Harrier chicks. They will then be reared in captivity, before being released somewhere else. Presumably that somewhere else will be a place where they are less likely to be shot, snared or poisoned – perhaps on an RSPB nature reserve? Except the RSPB has condemned the proposal. And it’s easy to see why.
Natural England, the Government’s wildlife experts, suggest that Brood Management (as it is known) is good because it will
“reduce hen harrier predation of grouse chicks on driven grouse moors, leading to an improvement in the conservation status of hen harrier.”
This is a euphemism for “if they don’t eat the grouse, they won’t be killed.”
The 25 Year Environment Plan fails to mention the fact that the Hen Harrier is on the brink of extinction, thanks to wildlife crime. Instead it suggests that Hen Harriers need more new habitat (when they have plenty already) and that re-introductions (returning the bird to areas where it has become extinct) are the answer. This is called displacement activity. Rather than tackle the difficult problem of wildlife crime on estates owned by the immensely wealthy, alternatives are put forward which are unnecessary and a distraction.
What do about plastic waste and the plight of the Hen Harrier might not seem like they have any similarities. But they both illustrate the inherent risks of talking a very good, while doing the precise opposite. This is exactly the sort of thing which made the Government’s announcement yesterday, that it was setting up a unit to counter fake news, so risible.
But if Michael Gove really wants to leave a political legacy from his time at Defra – that he shifted the debate about how important the environment is to everyone – that he took action – then he will need to resolve these dissonances, and fast.
first published on Lush Times, No Tern Unstoned. with a few updates