Bwlchwernen Fawr is a 135-acre hill farm in West Wales. To enjoy a continuous working relationship with a farm for over forty years is a rare privilege, and affords the opportunity to assess the impact of our farming practices against a number of different outcomes, particularly, the impact on nature and biodiversity.
I have always believed that it is possible, if we farm in harmony with nature, for the vast community of bacteria, fungi, soil-invertebrates, wildflowers, insects, amphibians, birds and small mammals to coexist in a balanced way with a food production system – even if the farmer, in this case me, is determined to produce as much food as possible.
When I was at the Soil Association, we tried to persuade a number of Britain’s leading conservation organisations that instead of developing stewardship schemes to protect what was left of wildlife, it would be better to introduce incentives to encourage farmers to work with the grain of nature. For example, by avoiding the use of nitrogen fertiliser and pesticides over the whole farm area.
These suggestions fell largely on deaf ears. Instead the focus of the conservation organisations has been on highly prescriptive stewardship schemes, which pay farmers to manage 5% of the so called ‘sensitive habitats’ on their holdings for wildlife, whilst allowing the use of chemical inputs on the other 95%. This arrangement could be seen as a kind of pragmatic trade off – with farmers effectively saying, “keep off the lion’s share of our land, don’t tell us how to farm, and in return we’ll allow you to pay us to manage a sacrificial 5% exactly as you wish.”
I was always convinced that such an approach would eventually fail. Although one can create ‘islands of diversity’, if they are surrounded by seas of monoculture, regularly dosed with various biocides, the outcome will be like countryside zoos or museums. This approach treats nature’s priceless fabric of diversity as a sentimental relic of a bygone era, which you might visit with your family on high days and holidays. Though we can visit for now, these ‘preserves’ will not flourish and their future will not be a happy one.
I accept that even if you produce food less intensively on a farmed area, this would not be a complete solution. There are of course, some plant and animal species which do need special management, and that won’t be protected automatically on an organic farm. Obvious examples are the more rare and delicate wildflowers that don’t seed till late July, and ground nesting birds like Skylarks and Meadow Pipits that can’t survive the silage or haymaking undertaken in May or June. Some of these species are almost at the point of extinction, but to preserve only these is to miss the bigger point. We need both volume and diversity of wildlife at the heart of the food producing habitat.
The wider point I’m making here is starkly illustrated by the catastrophic and seriously worrying decline of bees and other pollinating insects, but it is also present in many other areas, through less obvious breaks in the intricate web of nature upon which we ultimately depend for our survival.
Britain’s conservation organisations recently acknowledged in their State of Nature report that despite their best intentions to design stewardship schemes to protect our wild plants and animals, there has been a relentless decline in all the key indicator species over the last 50 years. All this raises the question of whether there is a better way of encouraging an abundance of wildlife on Britain’s farms? And that is where my experience at Bwlchwernen Fawr comes in!
Obviously it would have been ideal if the farm had been subjected to a rigorous and on-going biodiversity audit over the last four decades, but regrettably it hasn’t been. Instead it’s been bits and bobs. A British Trust for Ornithology survey back in the early 90s, and currently a mini-audit of the biodiversity on a small segment of our land, undertaken by the Welsh Assembly Government on behalf of Glastir, their latest stewardship scheme. So I’m left with the old tried and tested direct observation approach.
It’s not good science, it’s not peer-reviewed, and arguably provides, at best, only anecdotal evidence of the point I’m trying to get across. But I will say this: come and stand in our yard and listen to the incredible abundance of bird song, or take a plunge, as I did earlier today, in our spring-fed farm pond and witness the incredible diversity of nature, including hundreds of freshly metamorphosed toads and mating dragonflies crawling up the banks, all flourishing in the very heart of our farm.
It’s not that we’ve got every species in the book, but I’m certain that we have much higher numbers of birds such as house sparrows, starlings, chaffinches, owls, tits, swallows and house martins, that feed on the countless species of insects (which gravitate to our cows) that aren’t, of course, killed by wormers such as Ivermectin, and which proliferate and co-exist where nitrogen fertiliser and pesticides are not used. Why is this the case? Because if you don’t use chemical inputs, each field becomes a food source, rather than a monoculture of ryegrass, or wheat, or oilseed rape, where virtually nothing lives except the cultivated plant.
What can we do?
There are other things we do, which are not specific to organic farming, but that make a difference to biodiversity. Our policy of growing as much grain as possible for our animal feed, and then milling and mixing it on the farm creates a fantastic food source for our 200 strong colony of house sparrows. I could go on, but you get the picture. Being on my farm reminds me of an idyllic year I spent with my family, while my father was doing his medical training, in the tiny Hertfordshire village of Hexton in 1957. It was a time just before the major transition to intensive farming really got going. I spent evenings and holidays roaming the fields and woods with my friend Helen Patey, and falling under the intoxicating spell of nature which was entirely coexistent with the farming practices that were being used at that time by Lady Ashley Cooper who owned the estate which surrounded the village. Am I seeing all this through rose tinted spectacles? There’s no way of proving it, but I don’t think so.
What we have lost in the intervening period is quite literally, beyond measure. The conservation organisations are right to be concerned, as every one of us should be. But their approach is not working and it has to be changed.
Thankfully, nature is resilient. From my own experience, I know it is possible to manage my whole farm in harmony with wildlife, to see it go on from year to year as it always did. I have seen examples of how under sympathetic management, threatened species can recover and thrive. But until we recognise that protecting and enhancing wildlife on farmland can only be achieved if all the land is farmed more sustainably, then the situation will continue to decline.
This article was first published on 18th July 2013 on the Sustainable Food Trust website.
Photograph: Steph French