Ten years feels a bit like a significant anniversary – and a long time. Perhaps the last ten years feels longer than many decades have, given what has happened (and is about to happen) over that period.
Ten years ago I was working at The Grasslands Trust, a charity that was created in 2002 to champion UK wildlife-rich grasslands – and was folded in 2012. So it lasted ten years as well. I enjoyed working at TGT and had been there in various guises for nearly four years before I started the blog. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I had been vaguely aware of the blogosphere but was more interested in it as an outlet where I could write relatively freely about topics that were relevant to grassland conservation.
Looking back at what I was writing about – unbelievably – the first topic was all about food, politics and the environment. Friends of the Earth had a Private Members Bill going through Parliament – or rather not going through Parliament. So my first topic ever on a blog was writing about where your food comes from, the impact it has on the environment and allied things like animal welfare; and why it’s important. Funnily enough Vicki Hird, who has been so influential on the current Agriculture Bill, was working for FoE on that Bill back in 2010.
Exactly ten years later, to the day, what is the hot topic of the day in Parliament? Where your food comes from, and who decides what standards it is produced to. Only instead of a Private Members’ Bill, it’s a Government Bill, the Agriculture Bill. The Agriculture Bill is the first significant reform in UK agriculture since before we joined the Common Market, and arguably the most significant since 1947. It holds great promise, in the form of “public money for public goods”: changing the way society makes direct payments to farmers – so that they are no longer paid just for owning the land, or paid to produce more food whether it’s wanted or not & regardless of any consequences. Public money for public goods means paying farmers to farm in ways which support the environment and support other social needs.
However today’s uproar, which has led to the likes of Jamie Oliver and Prue Leith (despite supporting Brexit) calling for UK farmers to be protected, does not relate to public money for public goods, but rather it’s about amendments introduced into the Bill in the Lords, which would require the Government to give Parliament a say in future trade deals. Deals with for example the USA, which could mean allowing food into the UK that is produced to lower standards; standards that UK farmers are not allowed to apply.
So obviously the big difference between now and then is that the route to effecting change in something fundamental like how our food is produced and its impact on the environment, was via the EU. Back then …. there were various routes of influence eg via MEPs, via Defra or direct to Brussels. I tried all of these with the scant resources available at the time. But the Common Agricultural Policy is a juggernaut with its own momentum and inertia. Back then they couldn’t even cope with the fact that a great deal of land used for agriculture had a lot of trees on it – this was codified in the 50 trees rule. But actually perhaps our lobbying in 2010 did have some effect, as five years later the rule was amended – to 100 trees/ha.
And now…. it’s via Parliament. Except of course that with the current Government, they are actively working to take away any role for Parliament, when it comes to food and trade deals, for ideological reasons.
Ideology. I’d already had a taste of that earlier in 2010. I’d been writing a report on grasslands conservation, with funding from the Government nature agency Natural England. We’d agreed the report would include some advocacy – what policy changes are needed to give wildlife-rich grasslands a chance of a future. When the Coalition Government took power one of the first things they did was to tell, in no uncertain terms, every Government-funded Agency, that they could no longer fund any advocacy or policy development work. This obviously caused a big headache for us, but we went ahead anyway (I think there was some editing to tone down some of the recommendations). The result was Nature’s Tapestry.
Austerity was also ideological. My third TGT blog was about “Spending Cuts Week” with Defra having its budget cut savagely and threats of a sell-off of National Nature Reserves – and of course the infamous plans to sell off the Forestry Commission.
Little did we know back then just how far the ideological revolution would reach, although the Cameron Government already had regulation in its sights from the outset. They were even trying to crowdsource deregulation ideas in early 2011 – and by May that year it was starting to become clear just how radical that Government wanted to be. This was the time when the plans started to be put in place for the EU referendum. Some of the key players in Vote Leave cut their teeth on the “No 2 AV” campaign against proportional representation in 2011. How things might have changed if that campaign had swung the other way. The rest, as they say, is history.
Looking back, my time blogging for TGT was relatively brief, but I picked up the baton again with this no longer new, nor even particularly about nature, blog in May 2013; and also occasional ones on the People Need Nature website, a charity I set up in 2015. And I would certainly credit this blog with having led to my writing so much for Lush Times between 2016 and 2019 (also now ceased publication). I’m now also writing for West Country Bylines and perhaps the occasional article in British Wildlife.
Regular readers will have noticed I’m not writing anywhere near as much as I used to. This year of all years has been difficult, not for lack of topics to consider – quite the opposite in fact. Some days/weeks/months, there is just too much to write about and I get stuck, dithering between different subjects. And the relentlessly bad news can also be very demotivating. Perhaps I’ve written enough – or even too much!
Anyway, as I always I am grateful to everyone who has taken the time to read and comment on my ramblings over these past ten years.
Miles – I became aware of your blog probably five years ago and it has been a good read since, always enlightening and interesting. I know the effort that lies behind it and the research and awareness of what’s going on around you is considerable. It has really helped me on some topics put my thoughts in better order. Writing now is particularly tough: – as you say, there is so much and it is very difficult to remain upbeat and avoid being overwhelmed. However, I hope you can keep writing
thanks Jeremy, much appreciated. If you ever wanted to write a guest blog about the Wanstead cows (or anything else) I’d be very happy to host it.
I have always enjoyed reading your insightful writings, Miles. I hope you will find the strength to keep going.
I know that feeling of despair – there are so many things going wrong that my husband said to me only this morning ‘perhaps we should stop reading and watching the news…’. Put one’s head in the sand!
I find it hard to cope with what our own government is doing (or not doing) but watching the circus which is America strikes fear into my heart.
It is the feeling of helplessness that is so debilitating. Writing to my MP and signing petitions just don’t cut the mustard.
Congratulations on your anniversary! I do enjoy and appreciate your discourses – however irregular or infrequent. They are always insightful and thought provoking. Keep up the good work.
thanks very much Andrew.
I agree, keep up the good work.
I often find your blogs provide a useful alternative perspective on an issue, or link in wider contexts that I didn’t know about or hadn’t thought about. There are not so many independent voices in this area who write about and understand the big picture, and yours is a good one, so please do keep it up!
thanks very much Daniel.
Miles, I think what you write is essential reading for anybody interested in nature conservation in GB…… And really those that aren’t!
Of course not only nature but with digging up and presenting important, often hidden, deals and politics. Often eye opening.
thanks very much Julian.
This is an excellent post for all of us concerned with food security
Thing is, we don’t need meat from here or there. What could be better than to cut out the middleman and eat the product of the land. Phase out meat production and all that cruelty and waste. Oh what a future humanity would create and beautiful countryside.
I read British Wildlife, Mark Avery, Monbiot and you. Please keep going – we need sane and independent analysis of what is going on – plus advocacy for doing the right thing.
thanks very much Bill. I will try and keep going!