For people who love the natural world, each new season brings new excitements. We are a nation of nature lovers. We feed the birds in our gardens and we revere David Attenborough. Which makes it surprising that – until now – governments have not cottoned on to how much of a vote-winner concerted action to restore and protect nature can be.
Year in year out the abundance of life around us diminishes. Most adults can remember car windscreens splattered with dead insects after even the shortest of summer journeys. No longer. Insect populations are crashing almost everywhere, and with them everything else. Starlings, which were once so numerous that their vast flocks, known as ‘murmurations’, became a single creature, a huge genie in the sky performing acrobatics in one of nature’s most remarkable sights, have declined by 66% since the 1970s, according to the British Trust for Ornithology. The humble house sparrow has halved in abundance during the same period. 65% fewer cuckoos, whose iconic call heralds the arrival of spring, arrive back in Britain each year than when I was born in 1980. Everywhere you look, the great tapestry of life is becoming ever more threadbare.
The farming industry must take a significant share of the blame for this. Nearly 70% of our country is farmed, and the decline of the species that live on farmland has been especially stark. There are plenty of farmers who long to be the careful stewards of the land that farmers should be. But a radical industrialisation of farming has taken place largely as a result of EU Common Agricultural Policy (known as CAP) subsidies which first dished out vast sums taxpayers’ cash to farmers according to how much food they were able to produce, irrespective of the cost to the natural world, and more recently on the basis simply of how much farmland they own. These cash handouts from the state, combined with the increasingly centralised buying power of supermarkets and an expectation of ever cheaper food by us consumers, have driven most farmers to grub out ancient hedgerows, remove trees, ponds, rough margins and any other natural features in order to maximise space for harvesting both crops and subsidies. On these industrial farms a relentless chemical warfare is waged on nature – with land repeatedly soaked in cocktails of herbicides, fungicides and pesticides, many of which were originally designed for human warfare. The soil is stuffed with artificial fertilizers, much of which is swiftly washed by rainfall into water courses, causing eutrophication which smothers the life out of our streams, rivers and estuaries. And the soil – on which our civilisation depends utterly – is literally being washed away from our fields before our eyes. Just look at a Google Earth image of our island from above to see the brown smudge of sea that perpetually surrounds us.
As people have grown steadily more vocal about what’s happening in our countryside EU policymakers have responded with the creation of a second ‘pillar’ of agricultural subsidy, known as Pillar 2, which allows 12% (currently) of the total budget to be used to reward those farmers who are fixing some of this damage inflicted on the natural world – by restoring hedgerows and trees and wildflower-rich rough margins and ponds. But the remaining 88% of the subsidy budget pays virtually no attention to any of these issues – as anyone who has travelled anywhere in the British landscape can attest. No matter how much destruction you wreak on the environment, no matter how great your contribution to soil erosion and flooding, no matter how few birds and other wildlife find a home on your farm, the cash keeps on flowing. In this way, the CAP has brought about an annihilation of nature in Britain’s productive, farmed lowlands.
The impact of the CAP has been even worse in our colder, wetter, windier uplands, where farming is uneconomic to an absurd degree. Have you ever wondered why Britain has none of the great, genuinely wild spaces that you find in other countries, in America, across mainland Europe and even Japan? With around 12% woodland cover, Britain is one of the least wooded countries in Europe – principally because our uplands, once a great mosaic of open woodland, and, in the west, temperate rainforest, have been cleared for sheep. It’s hard to think of an industry anywhere in the world that causes greater destruction for so little production than British upland sheep farming. For an output that is statistically irrelevant to our total food production, by an industry whose participants earn next to nothing even including the subsidies heaped upon them, our uplands are kept in a state of miserable, overgrazed denudation. EU farming subsidies for upland sheep farming are conditional upon the land being kept in this appalling state, and the result is that you’ll see more wildlife on London’s Berkeley Square than you’ll ever see in one of our upland deserts. If you doubt this, take note of the fact that the emblem of the so-called Yorkshire Dales National Park is a sheep. We have no national parks – not in the sense that anyone from any other country would recognise. Our naked hills have the added disadvantage of being unable to trap and store rainfall, so whilst wooded hills act like sponges, holding and gradually releasing rainfall throughout the year, ours are the source of deluges which periodically flood our lowland towns.
Leaving the EU and its appalling CAP allows us to end this madness. It is so obvious that public money should receive public benefit by return. Farmers who, as well as fulfilling the crucial role of food production, take seriously their responsibility to be stewards of our landscape, who manage their land in way that helps to prevent flooding, who work to restore and protect the soil, and who make space for nature and the landscapes that are valued by so many of us, should be rewarded for doing so. Those who are not willing to do these things, and in the absence of proper regulation forcing them to do so, should certainly not receive public funding. This needs to be the guiding principal of a post Brexit British agricultural policy. And in those places where farming just makes no sense at all – principally the British uplands – taxpayers’ money should be used to support its replacement with activities that pay, that create jobs worth doing, and that restore these landscapes to their former abundance and beauty. North Western Spain, Asturias’ Cantabrian Mountains, once one of the most ecologically and economically deprived places in Europe, provides a model of how ecological regeneration can deliver real and rapid economic regeneration. The descendants of impoverished sheep farmers who left the unforgiving land in droves a generation ago are returning to open small hotels and restaurants and to work as guides to the nature tourists who flock to the area in ever growing numbers each year.
Fortunately it is hard to find anyone who disagrees with this vision. Aside from the National Farmers’ Union, which really speaks only for the largest subsidy-junky farms, organisations from across the spectrum of concerns are lining up to support our current Environment Minister, Michael Gove, who has described Brexit as ‘a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform how we care for our land, our rivers and our seas, how we recast our ambition for our country’s environment, and the planet’. Gove has already made it clear that farm subsidies will have to be earned rather than just handed out in future, and that farmers will only get payouts if they agree to protect the environment and enhance rural life. It is critical that as many people as possible make their voices heard on this, in support of Michael Gove.