We should not simply sweep aside farms to make way for wildlife. Instead, says Rebecca Hosking, we should see agriculture—and ourselves!—as part of nature, and integrate accordingly.
Since the early 1970s, the monitoring of UK wildlife populations has consistently proven one fact. The wild plants, birds and animals we share this island with are in steep, perpetual decline. Each year we all get older, each year they all become fewer. If you allow yourself to fully take onboard what’s happening, you can’t help but wish for just one year when that loss would stop.
According to the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, UK agriculture is the biggest destroyer of UK wildlife, placing the blame firmly at the farmer’s door. But I would be a little more precise than that: I’d say the market requirement for cheap, industrially produced food has been the destroyer. Land practices always follow market demand.
No matter who any of us blame or how it is swung, there is no getting around the fact that wildlife in this country is crashing. Due to the severity of the decline, many have called for dramatic solutions. The practice of rewilding parts of our countryside, allowing areas of farmed land to revert to a completely feral state not managed by humans, is most commonly put forward.
But in doing so, it has directly pitched farmer against conservationist. Farmers foresee their livelihoods being destroyed by this practice. And conservationists foresee wildlife populations being further destroyed if this land practice is not implemented. Sadly, it’s polarised views, deepened animosity and embittered camps.
However, there is bizarre commonality between these two groups. We can see the natural world as something to control, or we can see the natural world as something to protect. To me these are two sides of the same coin, and in both cases, humans are placed separate from nature.
There is a different perspective, a third way, and it’s in this middle ground that I’ve been working. To use Albert Einstein’s words, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
To explain, I returned to farming because of my love of the natural world and desire to find a way of ‘farming with nature’. As the years passed, I began to understand the way my colleagues and I were interacting with the landscape. We weren’t with or beside nature; rather, we were blending/intertwining the domestic animals and ourselves within our ecological land base. Put simply, we weren’t ‘with’ anything. We were part of it.
One of the greatest changes in getting to this stage was in our thinking. So much of farming is about domineering landscapes, plants and animals. In our farming, we wanted to bring our egos down and view ourselves not as the pinnacle of dominance, but more as one of many ecological players. An easy entrance into this mindset is the daily language we use.
Language and metaphor are the keys to how we perceive the world. So, we happily decided to self-impose a farm ban on words such as ‘weed, pest, vermin and game’. By banning these words, it psychologically meant we instantly had none of them on the land. Instead, all were ‘species’. From then on, when a certain species seemed suddenly abundant, we learnt to view their presence as a message to tell us either something about our management that was amiss and needed to change, or something about the greater biosphere that was changing.
We also changed the language we used about sharing the land with all other life, using the term ‘cohabiting’ rather than ‘coexisting’. To coexist in a home is to tolerate; to be in a welcoming home you naturally cohabit. When you include all the insects and soil life, we realised we cohabited with trillions!
By viewing ourselves as another species on the land, we were made to evaluate our own actions, and we took a cue from rewilding. In UK rewilding discussions, there is frequent reference to ‘keystone species’. In northern Europe, these are species such as wolves, golden eagles, lynx and beavers. These creatures are either at the top of the food chain and regulate the species below them, or they have a profound effect on their surroundings, as beavers do.
What is rarely considered is that we humans entirely match the keystone species description – because we are one! We seemed to have forgotten it on this side of the pond, but American ecologist Bob Paine, who coined the term ‘keystone species’, described us humans as ‘hyperkeystone species’. Of all the species on this planet, we have demonstrated the ability to profoundly change ecosystems, but unlike other species we can and do change habitats to the detriment of all others. The trick is in realising we have a choice.
We are always told that to be sustainable, we must tread lightly on the land. But just as you would not expect or desire a beaver to tread lightly and not change its surrounding habitat, I believe neither should we. When we do make those land changes, they should be carefully planned for the benefit of many and not just us humans. Changes such as tree planting, sowing wild flowers, herbs and shrubs, slowing streams, digging ponds and carefully managed grazing to restore habitat are all a good start.
With our current culture skewed towards exploiting the natural world, the only solution offered is to exclude us from certain areas to stop that happening. It seems to me there is a real need to demonstrate how we can be an ecological force for good. It’s all about being aware of your own agency within an ecosystem.
Lastly, we should understand that there is a balance to be made between our needs and the needs of others. We may be land sharing and cohabiting, but like any shared home we all at times need our own space—recognising that at certain times we need to pull back and give space for wild seed to set, nests to be made and young to be raised. Financially we found this the hardest practice to put in place, but we also knew those species would be gone from the land if we didn’t, and that would be a far greater loss.
We coined the term ‘agriwilding’ for this way of sharing land for food production and wildlife, and we set out the lessons we learnt as principles.
Am I confident that this is the ecological way forward?
This is certainly not ‘the’ way but it is ‘a’ way, and it’s still work in progress. When dealing with the complexity and fluidity of ecology, nothing should ever be fixed.
My feeling is that we have a wonderful diversity of habitats and landscapes in this country, and each has its own ecological niches for species to survive. Just like those species, it requires many ecological ways of working in different environments to see which practices can and do survive. With a backdrop of constant wildlife decline, we have nothing to lose by trying everything to win.
You can read more about Rebecca’s work here.
Teaser photo credit: Dave Barker