In an insightful but concerning long-read, SFT policy director, Richard Young takes a look at the wildlife on his own farm and finds lessons for himself and the future of agricultural policy in the UK.

After the most difficult year in my 51-years as a farmer, the last week has seen Nature, Gaia-like, trying to compensate for the misery caused by the wettest winter and driest spring I can recall, plus a wet and delayed haymaking and harvest, as well as the wettest day ever across the whole country at the start of the month. Compared with the deadly floods on every continent, in countries too numerous to list, the fires in Australia earlier this year, the still burning fires in most of the West Coast states in the US, and the increasing problem of drought in the US, large parts of Africa, Central Asia and India, the problems for farmers in the UK, however big they may seem, are, of course, minor in comparison.

Kites Nest Farm

Warm October sunshine has gilded the farm on several days recently, and despite David Richardson’s recent warning in Farmers Weekly that ‘Hard times are just around the corner’, the thought of how lucky we still are in this country, has left me trying to look on the bright side. In countless shades of luscious green, the farmland looks better than it has done for a long time. Our cattle and sheep are also a picture of cleanliness, health and happiness. And while we have less hay and straw in store than we’d like, and what we have is of poorer quality than usual due to the delayed harvest, the grass is still growing, and better than it did in the spring. We’ve had bumper crops of cherries, plums, apples and pears, mostly now picked and consumed or carefully stored or preserved to keep us supplied until next summer, and we have almost finished lifting our potatoes. On top of that, the autumn colours are advancing very slowly this year, providing an ever-changing picture that one has to take time to analyse and appreciate, as with all great art.

hay crop

Due to the spring drought, hay crops were light this year

Flourishing wildlife

Kites, absent for 170 years, are now regularly seen again over Kites Nest Farm and seem to coexist harmoniously with our buzzards. Judging by their nightly calls our tawny owls are doing well, and three days ago, I saw a barn owl hunting low over one of our fields almost exactly where I last saw one about two years ago. We’ve seen our shy lesser spotted woodpeckers again recently, which we feared had died out and we still host at least one cuckoo every year. We have at least two sorts of bats, but I don’t know how to identify the larger ones. Our frogs gave us a shock in the spring when they spawned in a different part of our pond and we assumed they’d all gone. But we are now seeing young frogs and newts in abundance, perhaps, though, only because we’ve left their breeding area completely unmanaged and surrounded by brambles so thick that no predator ventures in. So, God, if s/he exists, is in heaven and all is right with the world? Well sadly, not quite.

Declining wildlife

While the trees have generally thrived, despite the weather extremes, two of the three self-regenerating elm trees that looked so healthy and got to a height of about thirty feet, have succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease, as others have done before at a similar stage, and there seems no chance now that I will again see these tall and most graceful of English trees that were so much part of my childhood. Our ash trees look healthy at the moment, but ash dieback has been found in the area and I have to wonder how long we have before the character of the farm will change irreversibly, as our ash trees go the same way as the elms?

Picking cherries at Kites Nest

Our 60-acre wood is less rich in bird song now than it was. Once home to the seemingly mundane: thousands of woodpigeons roller-coasting home individually in the early evenings and at the other extreme, the exquisite and tiny firecrest (less than a quarter the size of a robin) which honoured us with a few visits in the 1990s. Even our once numerous goldcrests appear fewer in number. Is that just the season or a sign of something more insidious? As for the pigeons, the wood now is lucky to get Airbnb bookings most nights from two or three couples. Our little owls have also gone. At dusk on summer evenings we’d sometimes see them sitting on the curved branch of the walnut tree in which they lived, two adults and three children, lined up in descending size order. Most telling of all, it’s now rare to hear a thrush singing anywhere on the farm, so rare in fact that when it happens, we text one another so we can all share the nostalgic pleasure of their seemingly infinite musical phrases. We still have yellow hammers and meadow pipits, but the goldfinches and greenfinches that used to come in their charms of 50 to 100 to eat thistledown and other seeds in the autumn, are more typically, now, just seen in threes and fours.

The snipe-like birds I never conclusively identified which used to sleep overnight in large numbers in our largest grass field have not been spotted here now for 20 years. Even the starlings I once considered a pest species have recently deserted us. In the winter of 2017/18, they treated us to displays every evening in their murmurating thousands (see the footage I captured on my phone, while standing outside the house). Starlings were the second most widely seen birds in the RSPB’s 2020 Big Garden Birdwatch, though the sightings were significantly down on the previous year. That leaves me unsure whether our starlings have just moved on to entertain others, or declined nationally?

According to Defra’s Wild Bird Populations in the UK, 1970 to 2018, for every 100 farmland birds in 1970 there are just 45 today, and while the biggest declines occurred during the late 1970s and 1980s there was a 6% fall between 2012 and 2017. But even these depressing numbers mask the fact that the populations of some species have plummeted while others have declined less rapidly or even increased.

While we still have many once common birds in reasonable abundance on the farm, the insect-eating garden warblers and spotted fly catchers, still regular visitors less than a decade ago, no longer come as they used to do. Could their breeding success have been affected by habitat loss and the increasing and poorly regulated use of insecticides in parts of Africa and elsewhere, where they over-winter? Or are we doing something wrong? Add to this that we’ve not seen a hedgehog, a stoat or a weasel now on our almost 400 acres for 25 years and it’s clear that something is out of balance.

Commercially reared pheasants

One species that has greatly increased in numbers, however, is pheasants. Birds released in very large numbers by two neighbouring commercial shoots seem to spend much of their time on our land and there is little we can do about it. Despite being reared like intensive chickens they are not even covered by the legislation that applies to farmed birds, because they are officially wild birds. Are they a factor in the decline of birds and some other species on our farm? I actually do not know, but I am delighted the RSPB has finally taken a decision to do what it can to regulate the excesses of this highly commercial industry.

I have previously found the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust to be a source of reliable information. Predictably it opposes the RSPB’s plans, but it does acknowledge a potential issue with pheasants depleting the naturally occurring seed reserves upon which many wild birds depend in order to survive the winter. We’ve long seen our inability as organic farmers to control all weeds as a benefit for wildlife, but the annual invasion of hungry young pheasants may be taking this vital food resource and leaving little if any for genuinely wild birds. Pheasants will also eat adders and other reptiles. Could this be why it’s now a long time since we’ve even come across any grass snakes, which were previously common here?

Betony in species-rich pasture at Kites Nest

It may be that we need more advice. When we entered the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme seven years ago, the only options for grassland farms in this area related to encouraging wild flowers. We have those in profusion and I’d assumed these would attract insects and that would also benefit birds. But maybe it’s not quite that simple? The farm has not received a teaspoonful of pesticides or artificial fertiliser in the 40 years we have been here. It is also rich in diverse habitats. Yet that has still not been enough to maintain all our bird populations. Another factor may be that few birds just stay on our farm, they like to travel. The robin I saw on the wall this morning ­– has he been here all summer unnoticed, or did he fly back from a risky holiday in Europe, like the tagged 19g robin that flew back 140 miles overnight from Germany in just 4 hours?

Many of the birds I think of as typically British actually spend significant periods abroad, others venture onto more intensively farmed land here in the UK. It seems likely to me that the dramatic decline in song thrushes, for example, is at least partly associated with the gross over-use of the molluscicide, metaldehyde. The need for toxic chemicals to control slugs and snails is surely a symptom of what is wrong with over-exploitative rotations and monocultures. But, after a failed attempt last year, it does at long last look as if metaldehyde will be banned in the UK, though not until 2022.

Glow worms

We spend hours after dark, late on summer evenings walking the farm tracks and field edges in the hope of finding glow worms, but we’ve not seen a glimmer now since 2012 when we found six. Glow worm larvae are a major predator of slugs and snails and since the females (the ones that glow) are wingless, I am guessing that the males don’t range far. Why then have they disappeared on our farm? Again, one possible cause could be the large number of pheasants. The broader point here, though, is that slugs are a major pest on arable farms and will continue to be so until we value glow worms and other predatory beetles that could keep their numbers under control naturally.

Sustainability Metrics

What’s obvious from all this is that I don’t have a clear idea of what is happening to wildlife on our farm because I have never systematically measured it. Given the significant decline that has occurred in farmland biodiversity in the UK, starting to measure it annually along with other farmers, and comparing my farm with theirs, as envisaged by the SFT’s sustainability metrics project, would give me a benchmark and an added incentive to make sure things get better, not worse in future years.

David Attenborough

The indications of biodiversity decline on our farm are, in fact, only the tiniest tip of the biggest iceberg imaginable. In his two great, recent documentaries, ‘Extinction: The Facts’, available on the BBC iPlayer and ‘A Life On Our Planet’, available on Netflix, David Attenborough provides all the evidence anyone could need to realise that we are now experiencing the ‘sixth great extinction’ at a global level, and while the previous five were all caused by natural phenomena, this one is directly the result of human activity. As he says,

One million plants and animal species are facing extinction…Biodiversity is vanishing at rates never seen before in human history.’ He adds that the diverse plants and animals on this planet lead ‘lives that interlock in such a way that they sustain each other. We rely, entirely, on this finely tuned life-support machine and it relies on its diversity to run smoothly.’

In ‘A Life On Our Planet’, Attenborough tries to end on a note of optimism. He shows how, left to their own devices, trees and wildlife are even colonising the deserted roads and buildings in the city of Chernobyl. He shows how population growth, the root cause of many of our problems, slows and even stops as people become wealthier and better educated. But he doesn’t look at the extent to which the wealth of countries in the global north still comes from exploiting the resources of the global south, reducing biodiversity in the process.

To feed the growing global population he gives his weight to the further intensification of agriculture in order to free-up land for rewilding. It’s easy to see why. To many people, it appears to be the only option. It’s the solution being promoted by the UK Government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change and despite the Agriculture Bill’s focus on public goods and Defra’s liberal use of the word ‘sustainable’. It is also the hidden agenda behind the UK’s agricultural policy outside the EU, which I fear will result in increased intensification of both livestock and crop production, an approach which is really a continuation of policies that have been disastrous for wildlife, which we have followed since the 1970s.

The SFT’s position

As regular visitors to the SFT’s website will know, our vision is very different. While we fully recognise the huge value of wilderness, we also know that wildlife does not stay put in reserves. As we cannot now afford to take vast tracts of land out of production due to the high and growing global population, the only viable option has to be to farm all land in harmony with wildlife and preserve what little wilderness is left. We have very limited room for manoeuvre and in the UK, we already import much of our food and timber.

Relentless attacks on ruminants

Conscious of all the issues I have mentioned and more, policymakers and many environmentalists see reducing the number of cattle and sheep as a key solution. They assume that because cattle are destroying the Amazon, we should no longer keep them here either, when in fact the exact opposite is true. In terms of protein and dietary fats, ruminants produce far less per hectare than crops like soya and oilseed rape. Unlike crops, they also produce substantial quantities of the greenhouse gas methane. But that is only part of the story.

In its report, Land Use: Policies for a Net Zero UK ,the Committee on Climate Change is calling for a 10% reduction in cattle and sheep numbers, in addition to the 20% reduction that has occurred during the last 20 years. They want the land freed up to be used for tree planting and bio-energy crops.

Sheep grazing lush autumn pasture at Kites Nest

Reducing ruminant numbers here and planting trees on the grassland may help the UK to meet its emissions reduction targets because the emissions associated with imports are not counted in our inventories. But in terms of global warming, this will make things worse not better. At the same time, most of the new trees will be conifers managed commercially. They will destroy grassland ecosystems and replace them with a biodiversity desert. Even where hardwood forests are created, it will be many decades if not centuries before they produce even a small fraction of the biodiversity benefits of a similar area of rainforest.

With the average carbon footprint of imported beef more than double that of UK beef and four times higher than UK organic beef (see tables 1 & 2) and the productivity of grassland on former Brazilian rainforest many times lower than in the UK, for every hectare of trees we plant here on productive grassland, someone somewhere, either as a direct or indirect consequence, will end up felling several hectares of rainforest to compensate for the loss of production. As such, the global impact will be negative in both cases. We currently import 25% of the beef we consume, 26,000 tonnes of it already comes from Brazil and that is likely to increase once we have completely left the EU.

We want to see all farmland producing food in harmony with nature. We want to see a major reduction in the onslaught on nature by herbicides, insecticides and nitrogen fertiliser. We also want to see a major reduction in meat consumption. However, unlike most UK NGOs, we believe the major cut should be in the consumption of grain-fed white meat and beef, but not red meat from cattle or sheep predominantly raised on grass. It would also be counter-productive, both in terms of climate change and biodiversity to make significant reductions to UK cattle and sheep numbers overall because it would increase the importation of beef and lamb, much of it with a higher carbon and biodiversity loss footprint. Instead, we want to see more grazing animals used to help restore degraded cropland soils, by introducing grass and clover leys into arable crop rotations to make them more resilient to climate change extremes and help address some of the persistent weed, pest and disease problems limiting productivity on a steadily increasing area of farmland every year.

These are very complex and controversial issues. Expanding on them and explaining our reasons in more detail will be the subject of future articles on the SFT website.


Teaser photo credit: Kites Next Farm, Sustainable Food Trust