Opinion: It shouldn’t be a case of farming OR the environment — both sides will get more done working together

'Recently, we’ve talked about farming and the environment,' says Cumbria-based farmer Douglas Chalmers. 'The truth is that they are one and the same.'

As I did my annual ‘long-shadowed walk’, when I go around every part of our farm on New Year’s Day with only the low winter sun for company, my thoughts were unusually full. I had managed to leave behind bulletins about high food prices, climate-change catastrophe and war-induced shortages. I had time to wonder if two Large Black sows would confirm their expected farrowing and to appreciate the condition of the newly tupped Herdwick ewes. However, I was concerned about how to engage with Defra’s new Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMS).

In the past, our passion to bring visitors of all ages and abilities onto our Cumbrian farm meant we were accepted into Higher Level Stewardship despite our relatively small size, but, since that agreement ended, we haven’t managed to find a good fit with any scheme. Our early optimism in the post-Brexit opportunities has been knocked and we remain unsure about our options.

My worries have increased as I listen to the arguments made and the language used by some organisations. Recently, I heard an environmental body discussing ELMS. Everyone there accepted that these payments were essential to many farm businesses and that they were a fair payment for the stewardship of land, but then the mood seemed to change; the view was that of course they would support the farmers, but only if farmers did what their members wanted. Then, in the Christmas Farmers Weekly, I read: ‘Green groups have won the ELMS argument’ and ‘the farming interest in England has been almost totally eclipsed by the conservation lobby’.

“Without a critical mass of farmers who work closely with the land, what are the alternative methods of delivering environmental benefits?”

How has this become an either-or, them-or-us, we-want-to-win game? Even as Farming Minister Mark Spencer announced increased payments that might bring better prospects for many smaller family farms, some environmental and conservation groups complained that attracting more farmers into the sustainable-farming incentive scheme will damage their ambitions of larger-scale projects. I can see the value of landscape-scale schemes, but not at the cost of smaller family farms and the social and economic contributions they make to the wider rural community in addition to environmental management.

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These farmers’ landscape management should not be diminished. Without a critical mass of farmers who work closely with the land, what are the alternative methods of delivering environmental benefits? Even those organisations and charities that own and manage land, often with large numbers of committed and knowledgeable volunteers, cannot be ‘on the job’ every hour of every day. Wouldn’t that cost more and deliver less? Surely, providing farmers with public money for the public goods we would all like is a fair deal for everyone.

Farmers are responsible for looking after more than 70% of the countryside. The author Bill Bryson is associated with a number of environmental groups, yet acknowledges that: ‘One of the primary reasons so much of the British landscape is so unutterably lovely and timeless is that most farmers, for whatever reason, take the trouble to keep it that way.’ Indeed, the first line of most farmers’ job description is ‘Produce food’, but there needs to be a realistic and cost-effective way for them to manage the landscape with public money.

Who else has both the holistic and detailed appreciation of an area of land, built up over many years, if not generations of experience? Who else knows which low-lying piece of land could be temporarily flooded with no long-term damage done, which awkward gusset at the edge of the field is perfect for wilding, where to plant the right tree in the right place, as well as which areas are highly fertile and must remain in food production?

For years, discussions were about farming or the environment. Recently, we’ve talked about farming and the environment. The truth is that they are one and the same. Our best hope for Nature recovery is to enable land managers with the local knowledge to do the work. Mixed farming used to mean crops and animals. Now, it should stand for food production, environmental schemes, water management, carbon storage, energy production or tourism, all farming led and supported by clear policies and funding where necessary.

The farming lobby will argue for the importance of food production. We must realise how vulnerable we are and how dangerous is the old ‘we can import’ policy. Those imports are threatened by economics, climate, politics and, currently, war. World-wide food production is becoming harder, markets less dependable.

Talk of ‘winning’ means that someone is losing. Wouldn’t it be terrible if, despite everyone saying that they care for it, the landscape is the biggest loser? If that happens, everyone loses out.

Douglas Chalmers farms near Appleby-in-Westmorland, Cumbria, and is a former chief executive of Friends of the Lake District.