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


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

Attempted Coups, Pariah States and Brexit-Trump

Writing this in the aftermath of the attempted coup in Washington on Wednesday is difficult and perhaps premature. Difficult because I, like I am sure many of you, am still processing what’s happened, the enormity of it. Premature because President Trump is still President and still wields a great deal of power, both domestically, but perhaps more alarmingly, at the global level. There are still 12 days before President elect Biden takes over. But I feel compelled to write something, as usual. It’s probably for my benefit rather than yours, but you’re welcome to read it.

It’s interesting that the BBC feels reluctant to call a spade a spade, currently describing what happened as a riot. Now I have been present at a few riots – and these were always peaceful demonstrations that became riots as a result of police brutality. Riots do not involve inciteful speeches from the leader of a country telling his armed followers to attack the parliament just as it’s going through the legal process which ends with that same President having to leave office because he lost a democratic election.

That is the very definition of an attempted coup. It doesn’t have to involve the army turning up with tanks  – although in this case it’s becoming clear that someone within Trump’s circle made sure that the forces of law and order were chillingly absent, or complicit with the coupists. Where was the National Guard, who had been so brutally evident at so many Black Lives Matters protests through last year? Evidence is also emerging that ex-military personnel had some serious plans for hostage-taking, which were not successful.

Speaking to a friend yesterday who has followed US politics for decades as a journalist/broadcaster, his view was that the Republican Party will now split into a Trumpist extreme right wing party and a rump Republican group looking back to the golden days of Bush and Reagan, and seeking to maintain the neoliberalism that has dominated America for the last 40 years. I think this is very plausible.

The question remains to what extent the Trumpist group will work within or outside the law, or indeed adopt a Sinn Fein/pIRA approach of Armalite and ballot box. SF/pIRA had a clear goal of uniting Ireland (and thanks to Brexit that may now be much closer), but what are the goals of the Trumpist movement? White supremacy is clearly a key element of their beliefs, but alongside this are other weirder beliefs such as the QAnon conspiracy theorists, and the out and out neo-fascists/neo-Nazis – it’s unclear whether the US christian evangelical right which had ridden Trump’s coat-tails for the last five years will stay with him or go with the rump Republicans. Perhaps the Trumpists’ ultimate goal is the destruction of liberal democracy in the USA. If so, this failed attempted coup, alongside all the other damage wrought by Trump on the structures of the US state, is a good start for them.

Meanwhile back home Brexit has happened. It’s finally happened. Except of course it hasn’t finished, it’s only started. We have now left the EU and the transition period is over.  I’m not going to dwell on what is becoming clear – that businesses and individuals are now discovering just how much we are going to lose as a result of leaving the EU. That’s old news and we are really only just at the beginning of the process. Although now the fishing industry is discovering that perhaps they were better off inside the EU than outside of it. What I wanted to explore a bit is the way it was done and what else is happening to our democracy. The deal was agreed at the very last minute and perhaps it always was going to be – partly because of negotiating tactics and partly because Boris  Johnson cannot resist creating political theatre, wanting to present himself as the great hero of the hour. If that was what he was planning, his theatrical flourish was completely blown away by the dramatic increase in Covid19 cases which was happening at the same time. But this last minute essay crisis approach to negotiating the Trade Deal meant that the legislation making it law was rushed through Parliament without anything more than a rubber stamp.

As other much more expert commentators have pointed out, in the process the Government gave itself executive powers to retrospectively change whatever laws they felt like changing, in order to maintain the Level Playing Field with the EU which underpins the Trade Agreement. Readers will recall that the previous Government made extensive use of the same “Henry VIII” powers to amend legislation with minimal Parliamentary scrutiny, as a result of us leaving the EU. Readers will also recall Johnson’s very deliberate ploy of announcing that the Internal Markets Bill would be illegal under international law, and his illegal shutting down of Parliament last year. Perhaps less well known are the Johnson’s Government’s plans to remove the rights of individuals and organisations to take Public Bodies to Judicial Review, as a way of seeking legal redress (and indeed forcing changes to legislation). There are other examples of plans already in place to erode the legal basis of our Parliamentary democracy and I recommend you keep on eye on David Allen Green’s blog for updates on these.

Add to this the appalling stench of cronyism and corruption which swirls around Johnson and his Government, just as it does around the Trump Crime Family. In addition to the eye-watering sums handed out in secret contracts to Tory party friends and family as a result of the covid pandemic, just the other day the BBC announced that in addition to its new Director General being a conservative activist, the new chair will be Rishi Sunak’s old boss from Goldman Sachs, who has given considerable amounts of money to the Tory party. As former Tory Leader in the Lords Baroness Stowell finishes her stint at chair of the Charity Commission, we can no doubt expect another political appointee to replace here, to continue her culture war attacks, discouraging charities from doing their work to change society for the better, and concentrate instead on helping poor souls in difficulty – as the Victorians would have seen Charity.  Perhaps Toby Young is available. Or if Andrew Neil isn’t too busy setting up Brexit TV, he could have a go.

And this is the rub. While it seems more likely than not that the US will rid itself of the toxic influence of Trump and his extremist followers  – at least from positions of power – we are stuck with Johnson and his cronies, pursuing their Brexit agenda. Brexit was always about removing the regulatory influence of the EU from the UK. In that sense it is by definition a deregulatory agenda. On tuesday Johnson asked business leaders (£) for their suggestions about what regulations – many of which are there to protect citizens and employees from malign business activity – should be culled.

Those of us who happen to believe in the rule of law, in the rectitude of regulation as a force for good, protecting the environment, protecting workers, making people’s lives better, are not going to storm Parliament. That isn’t how we work. Ironically the only non-terrorist group who have attacked Parliament in the last 150 years were the Countryside Alliance, protesting against the Fox Hunting ban.

But it does strike me that there is more than a little linking this Government’s actions, systematically stripping away the layers of Parliamentary democracy and Governmental accountability, that have built up over centuries; with Trump’s attempted coup and everything else he has done to lead up to this point.

Of course many will point out that Brexit and Trump are inextricably linked – through Steve Bannon,  the self-styled far-right revolutionary; Cambridge Analytica and the “Bad boys of Brexit” – Farage, Banks et al. If they have a long game, it appears to be to turn the UK and the USA into pariah states, just short of Rogue State status, as far as the rest of the democratic world is concerned.

I certainly don’t want to live in a Pariah State. So the fight goes on, through legitimate means.


Posted in Brexit, Tory Party, Trump, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

What a Year

Sunset, Freshwater Dorset ©Miles King

I think “what a year” is how most people feel about 2020.

It started with us wondering whether we would crash out of the EU without a deal, and ended with a deal being rushed through Parliament not only without our elected or un-elected politicians having any way about its contents, but also with them being effectively held hostage and forced to introduce sweeping and deeply undemocratic powers to the Executive.

It started with alarming stories coming from a Chinese city about a mystery virus…and ended with over 86,000 dead in the UK from Covid19 and perhaps another 200,000 chronically ill with longcovid; a mental health crisis the like of which we have not seen since the Second World War, with millions left without a job as their sector of the economy collapsed, many of them destitute.

These two calamities are how 2020 will be remembered – the year the UK finally ended its dysfunctional relationship with the rest of Europe (a 60 year project) and the year we were hit by the biggest pandemic since the deadly 1918 flu. The effects of both will reverberate through British society for years, perhaps decades to come. Of course the much bigger calamity, Climate Chaos and the global extinction crisis, will be with us for much longer and have a magnitudes greater impact on society, both here and abroad. And perhaps, just perhaps, the crises of Brexit and Covid, have brought this fact further into the front of people’s minds, or at least the very small group of people who now make the decisions about such matters, in what is fast becoming our post-liberal democracy.

There are some small signs that this may be happening – for example the Government’s decision to bring forward the phasing out of fossil fuel driven vehicles to 2030 (apart from hybrids). The new Agriculture Act, which replaces the Common Agricultural Policy and will primarily pay farmers and landowners for providing society with “public goods” like clean water, more wildlife, more carbon sucked out of the atmosphere and so on. Not that any of these things are happening anywhere nearly fast enough to address the crisis which is here with us now.

Another sign of encouragement is the public’s shifting attitude towards environmental damage – I have written a number of times this year about the damaging impact from the wrong kind of tree planting – most recently the terrible case at Berrier End farm in Cumbria. The public reaction to this was impressive and undoubtedly brought about the Forestry Commission’s decision to reverse ferret and work with the landowner to start restoring the land – not that they’ve agreed to restore all of the damage, but it’s still a serious victory against the dinosaurs in the forestry industry. Similar scenes played out in Herefordshire when it was discovered that a local farmer had laid waste to the River Lugg SSSI north of Leominster. Public outrage quickly translated into criminal investigations and we shall see how this one proceeds in 2021.

And of course thanks to lockdown; and people’s inability to travel, initially anywhere and then abroad for holidays, interest in nature in Britain has mushroomed this year as never before. I don’t mean rare species but common ones, ones that might be seen on a daily local walk. The appreciation of nature in people’s back yard and the recognition that being out in nature is good for you – this has been one of the highlights of 2020 for me. Yes we have seen some examples of people who are not used to being out in the countryside or at beauty spots behaving ignorantly, abandoning their camping equipment after a weekend as if they have just left a festival site. Yes there has been more litter (mainly discarded face masks). But overall there has been a marked increase in the number of people visiting nature places and appreciating the nature that is there. It will be interesting to see whether this interest is sustained next year.

We will also eventually see the multiple vaccines, that have been developed at remarkable speed, deployed so that the pandemic will be controlled. Given this Government unprecedented combination of grift, corruption and ineptitude, there’s every possibility that the vaccine deployment will be screwed up (eg). I’m anticipating some combination of Serco, Baroness Claire Fox and Chris Grayling being given the job of vaccinating the population, with inevitable results. Regardless, eventually by the end of 2021, it is highly likely that covid19 will be under control in the UK. Assuming it doesn’t have a really big mutation which renders our current vaccines useless. And that indicates something else. We’ve seen how the virus rapidly replaces itself with new variants – it’s happened twice already this year. As we start to tackle the virus with vaccines, that will drive viral evolution perhaps even more quickly. The idea that covid19 will become a distant memory is unrealistic. It’s going to be with us for a very long time, perhaps in a milder form, and as a seasonal virus like  seasonal flu.  Personally I would like us to adopt the East Asian approach to wearing face masks in the winter, every year. I expect that this year we will have a non-existent, or very mild, seasonal flu season.  But we have anti-maskers, just as we have anti-vaxxers, and these are the same people as the climate denial people. They will always be there, but can we hope that the media will stop giving them a platform? That may be too much to ask.

I can’t say I’m looking forward to the next few months – the dark cold rainy days of Winter, a rampaging deadly virus, the children missing more of their education; and work continuing to be pretty restricted (though I am lucky to be working on a local project.) Still, Spring is now just around the corner and perhaps by then my 90 year old mum will have had her vaccination. I am really looking forward to catching up with friends and spending lots of time in nature, perhaps having a bit of a shindig somewhere. And getting back to playing live music again.

Whatever happens, I will continue to write about stuff that interests me, and hopefully interests you. I will continue to fight for the importance of nature in people’s lives, as I have been doing for coming up to 35 years now. Why would I stop now?

Happy New Year and thanks, as always, for reading.

Posted in 2020, Brexit, covid19, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Farming After Brexit: Golden Age or Great Betrayal?

maintaining hedgerows provides public benefit – should farmers be paid to do it sensitively?

It’s now just 30 days until we leave the transition period (we already left the EU last January) and, depending on how you look at it, are once again a Sovereign State able to take back control and make our own decisions, or are now drifting loose in the open sea, about to be buffeted by global trade winds. At the same time, the Government has published its vision for how it sees agriculture in England over the next seven years. For during these years the farmers of England will transition, from a system they have grown used to, and indeed many have grown up within, to brave new world. Whether this future turns out to be closer to 1947 or 1921 will have a great bearing on all of us, because we all have to eat food.

Why 1947 and 1921 I hear one of you muttering, “what’s he on about now.” “Oh no, not another cod history lesson.”

In 1947 the farmers of Britain were given their prize for heroically helping to feed the nation (and the troops) through the Second World War. That prize was generous support in the way of grants (including grants to plough up ancient pasture, rip out hedgerows and destroy ancient woodlands) and Government support for research to increase productivity – more cows per acre, more wheat per acre, fewer animals dying of disease and so on. The Green Revolution was beginning and Britain was at its heart; not only would we be able to provide food for everyone, at a reasonable price, but we would also help to Feed the World, by creating new ways of farming. Scientists and industries that had worked so effectively at developing new inventions and technologies during the war would be repurposed to create effective and affordable pesticides and fertilisers, new machinery to replace back-breaking work; and new ways of breeding crops and animals. Starvation, even hunger would be consigned to history.

In the aftermath of the earlier Great War, the opposite happened. Farmers who had heroically helped feed the nation (and the horses that powered that war) during the First World War, had been promised that Government support, through payments to increase production and price controls on key crops, would continue for at least four years after the end of the war. But as global supply lines opened up again after the war and the great Flu pandemic of 1918-19, and very large wheat crops in North America drove global wheat prices down, the Government reneged on its promises and withdrew their financial support. The combination of a withdrawal of subsidy and price supports; and low global commodity prices, precipitated a deep agricultural depression across Britain which lasted until 1939. This came to be known as The Great Betrayal.

Now that the Agriculture Bill has been made law and Defra has set out its stall for how they see things happening in the coming years, we can start to see glimpses of the future. The way that farmers and landowners are supported by the taxpayer is changing. For the last fifteen years landowners and farmers have been paid mainly according to how much land they farm – so-called area payments. About a quarter of the total has gone towards “agri-environment schemes” which are supposed to deliver benefits for the environment. Paying around £200 for every hectare of farmed land just for owning the land, with few strings attached, is a very inefficient and ineffective way of getting public benefits from farmland in return for the money paid out.

The new scheme, which is being introduced slowly to lessen the pain of withdrawal, will eventually pay farmers only for providing public benefits to society. Public benefits, or “public goods” as they are known technically, cover a broad range of things, but they don’t include growing food. This is because farmers grow food to sell on the market, at the best price they can get. That makes food a private good. Public goods are things like the joy of hearing birdsong or a beautiful landscape. More prosaically public goods include storing lots of carbon to counter climate change, or actively preventing floodwater from whooshing down into the houses of the town downstream from the farm. There are of course grey areas. Is “rural vitality” a public good? If you were living in a small remote village where farming was the principal livelihood of many residents, you could well argue that it was.

There is also a question about what public goods should be paid for and what should be required through regulation. After all we are all constrained in our behaviour by rules and regulations and that must equally apply to the owners of 72% of the country that is farmland. The Government’s plans are clearly to leave the bureaucracy of the Common Agricultural Policy behind, but it seems clear that their intention is to reduce the regulatory burden considerably, leaving farmers and landowners to operate in a sustainable manner, on trust, or via ineffective schemes like Red Tractor, which, as it is part-owned by the National Farmers Union, is the epitome of marking your own homework.

Let’s also not forget that in addition to the farm subsidies received, landowners also benefit greatly from a highly favourable tax regime. Exempt from Business Rates, exempt from Inheritance Tax, running on cheap fossil fuel Red Diesel, and a range of other tax breaks, farmers receive in total as much from tax breaks as from the subsidies they receive. There is practically no linkage between these tax breaks and any public benefits arising from them.

It has long been argued that farmers and landowners should only receive public support for farming (and more broadly looking after the countryside) in ways which are environmentally friendly, but with decisions being made about UK agricultural policy happening in far off Brussels, these arguments have mostly fallen on deaf ears, until now. So it’s not surprising that the Government’s plans have been welcomed by environmental groups who have campaigned for exactly this sort of change, for decades. Farmers, on the other hand, are staring down the barrel of a gun. And the reason is this. Farmers at least in most sectors, have become entirely dependent on those subsidies to keep their businesses going, as these figures from this Government report illustrate.










While a few sectors such as Pigs and Poultry are not so dependent on subsidies, others such as livestock enterprises are entirely dependent on them. Cereals and cropping farms tend to have more volatility from one year to the next, and increasingly so as the climate becomes more unstable. And this is where two other factors come into play. Firstly the stability that membership of the EU Single Market has provided. Our sheep industry is entirely dependent on tariff-free exports to the EU (and the freedom of operating within the same rules on things like animal health) – more than a third of sheep are exported there – or they were until this year. So even if the price was low at least the sales were guaranteed. And the opposite also applied in that the Single Market provided a protective (some might say protectionist) barrier against cheaper lower quality (less safe) food imported from outside the EU. As the arguments about Chlorinated Chicken illustrate, being outside the EU and opening our markets to cheap imports might be exactly what some in the Government want, not least via a UK/US trade deal.

The other factor is that farmers are beholden to the supermarkets, and more broadly to the food industry, for the prices they are paid. Farmers get very little of the retail price of food they produce – it varies from one product to another. And they have to accept lower prices if their products are put on discount by the supermarkets. Taking advantage of a BOGOF offer just takes money out of the farmer’s pocket. This is just one of the many costs of “cheap food”. And if you think people paying more for food will lead to more hunger, I have several thousand food banks to show you.

Unless we are able to come up with solutions that prevent UK producers from being undercut by cheaper lower quality imports on the one hand, and also ensuring that farmers get a fairer share of the retail price of their products, then this exciting experiment with paying farmers to provide public benefits to society, is likely to be seen as just that, an exciting experiment that ultimately did not deliver. And that could lead to something closer to 1921 than 1947.


Posted in Agriculture policy, Brexit, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments