Agricultural policy blamed for the sorry #StateOfNature

The inaugural State of Nature report was released this week to widespread debate on social media, and widespread coverage in national media. Though not all chose to dignify it, with the BBC in particular, and rather shamefully may I add, deeming the topic unworthy of a spot on the prime-time news. Combining the expertise and hard work of 50 conservation bodies, the report gives a brutally honest overview of the health of nature in the UK, and beyond, in her oversea territories. And, truth be told, does not make for overly pleasant reading, setting out a sombre tale of widespread and often catastrophic declines, and highlighting sorry state of wildlife populations in the British Isles.


Of the nearly 8,000 species assessed using modern Red List criteria, 15% are extinct or threatened with extinction from Great Britain.”

The overall message of State of Nature is not a positive one, with countless British species now at risk of extinction. With population trends suggesting that the UK has lost “significantly” more nature than the global average over recent years, and that between 2002 and 2013, that 53% of species have declined in the UK. A woeful set of observations by any standard, the blame laid predominately on the doorstep of policy-makers in the agricultural community, with changes in farming practice listed as a driving force behind many of the declines. And climate change coming in second, though the impacts of this have been mixed.

When talking specifically of farmland, the report states that “Over the long term, 52% of farmland species declined and 48% increased”, while over the short term, the overall picture was unchanged”. Ultimately reaching the worrying conclusion that, overall, “12% of farmland species are threatened with extinction from Great Britain”. With farmland birds and butterflies perhaps of greatest concern, declining by 54% and 43% respectively since the 1970’s. With the reasons for these worrying trends laid bare for all to see and including:

  • A switch from spring to autumn sown crops
  • A decrease in hay production and the subsequent rise in silage production
  • The increased use of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides
  • The loss of marginal habitats such as hedgerows and farmland ponds

If anything, State of Nature highlights a need for a rapid and radical overhaul of farming policy and a distinct change in how farmers  conduct their operations. No easy task, given the fact that we all need to eat, and that Britain’s population continues to increase each year. Yet I fear tough decisions must be made in order to protect species such as the High Brown Fritillary and Corn Marigold from further declines in the future. With many cherished species now standing on the edge of an abyss.

farmland

Obviously, the farming community did not take the findings of the report lying down, and many have come out fighting against the accusations. With both the NFU and former Environment Secretary Owen Patterson quick to highlight the beneficial changes in farming policy that have taken place in recent times. Which, to be fair, I agree with. Agriculture has, after all, come on leaps and bounds in the last few decades, through sympathetic management and environmental stewardships – which the report discusses in length. Though it is clear, to me, that this is simply not enough. And equally clear that Owen Patterson’s assertions that uncontrolled predator numbers are to blame for the downward trend in our wildlife, are completely ludicrous. Yes, predators can and will cause a problem from time to time – unlike many people in the environmental field, I accept this and often condone control – though would it not be better to tackle the fundamental, irrefutable problems faced by our farmland wildlife before shifting the blame?

I am not anti-farmer by a long shot, nor are those behind State of Nature it would seem. They do, after all, refuse to pin the blame on farmers themselves, choosing instead to tackle the dubious decisions of policy makers. Yet the findings of the report tell a worrying tale, and it is clear that action must be taken now. Action that I feel must centre on maintaining the existing subsidy system post-Brexit, and provide a clear financial incentive for farmers to make the right choice. Though the situation post-Brexit remains unclear, and the natural world could well suffer as a result of weaker environmental policies. Only time will tell.


It is important to remember that the situation on our farmland is not all doom and gloom. It is not great, by a long shot, but there are notes of positivity in which we may take some solace. As the Daily Mail (I cannot believe I am mentioning them here) were all too quick to point out in a recent article.

While the Mail’s apparent attempt to gloss over the woes of our countryside is troublesome, at best, and their dismissive stance in regards to the figures set out in State of Nature is nothing short of infuriating, I fear they do make a good point. For once. And one that fits with earlier statements made by high-profile members of the farming community. That a great deal of our wildlife is also increasing. Indeed, State of Nature shows that “44% of species increased, with 29% showing strong or moderate increases” with 48% of farmland species also increasingly over the long-term. With no change in the number of species threatened over a short-term period.

While “no change” may not immediately sound like a good thing, it is promising to learn that no new species have been added to the ranks of those facing impending doom, and with 48% of farmland species actively increasing, it is clear that some credit must be given to the farming community. So yes, Guy Smith’s statement that the “the environmental lobby should not criticise all the time but to also pay attention to the successes” may well be based in the realm of reality. Indeed it is very easy to criticise farmers, and I have seen many blog posts doing so over the past few days. Yet it should be remembered that they do, from time to time, conduct some wholly positive work, and, at the best of times, have a rather difficult job balancing the needs of feeding an ever-growing population with those of the natural world.

As Ben Eagle states a recent (and rather excellent) blog on the subject: “It is very easy to farmer bash and for farmers to take this personally and bring up the drawbridge“. Though in doing so, we shoot ourselves in the foot. The only way forward now is to build on past gains and work together, as a combined and effective force, to improve the state of nature. This will involve work with farmers, but also other groups with a stake in our countryside, and may prove difficult at times. It is, after all, not easy to forgive the slights inflicted upon the natural world. We must, however, pool our resources in an effort to sway policy in a more promising direction, and through education inspire cooperation, to achieve our goals in the future. Cooperation, of the kind demonstrated by the fifty or so NGO’s behind the State of Nature report, will be our only respite in the future.

Now many will disagree with me here, but to me it seems to that the time has come for conservationists to yield the moral high-ground, and take note of the positive achievements of others, and for additional factions, namely farmers, to take the warnings of conservationists on board. To abandon their entrenched positions and to help sway environmental policy in the right direction. The State of Nature report does not make for enjoyable reading, but it does contain glimmers of positivity and provides a basis for unified work in the future. Work which our embattled wildlife so desperately needs if it is to survive long enough to be enjoyed by future generations.

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James Common
Amateur naturalist, nature writer, conservationist, blogger and aspiring author. James is currently studying an MSc in 'wildlife management' and writes regular posts for Wildlife Articles, Conservation Jobs and Environment South Africa. He has been published, in print, on a number of occasions and tweets regularly at: @CommonByNature
James Common

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