A new dawn: moving towards a healthier countryside

Farmers and landowners carry an awesome responsibility. England remains a

beautiful country, and in our biodiversity resides the gene bank that

will sustain us as finite resources decline. Our job, as stewards of the

countryside, is to make sure this vital national asset is sustained.

While we still have countryside to be proud of – stunning landscapes,

rich wildlife and productive farmland – we need to recognise that its

health has deteriorated, and no one should be under any illusions about

how important it is to arrest the scale of biodiversity loss that we

have witnessed in recent decades.

The State of Nature, a report published by 25 conservation and research bodies earlier this year, found that 60% of the species studied have declined in recent decades. We need to take these warning signals seriously. Yes, we want a living countryside with vibrant communities and thriving businesses. But we also need to proceed with real care so that the countryside works, both for people and for nature.

Encouragingly, there are signs that attitudes to the environment are changing. The days of the Government and the EU paying farmers to produce food that nobody wanted, at huge cost to the environment, are behind us. Permanently, I hope. Instead, we’ve seen an increasing take-up of Environmental Stewardship schemes, with more than 44,000 farmers and landowners signing up to make their contribution.

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We’ve seen promising voluntary initiatives such as the Campaign for the

Farmed Environment, supported by the NFU, CLA, Natural England and others. Excellent progress is being made across our network of SSSIs, thanks in large part to the success of the partnership with the 26,000 individuals who have SSSIs on their land.

We’ve learnt lessons over the years. Increasingly, it’s clear that the post-Second World War framework of wildlife protection based on isolated enclaves of highly protected sites cannot on its own prevent the losses we’ve seen in recent decades. I’ve been privileged to work at a time when we’ve seen a

real shift in environmental thinking- the emphasis now is on the wider

landscape, and there’s a recognition that wildlife can only flourish if

it has the ability to move across this. In the words of RSPB

vice-president Prof John Lawton, we need ‘more, bigger, better and

joined up’ conservation sites that link up with each other. The farmed

environment is vital, especially now we understand much more clearly

that the natural ‘services’ a healthy environment provides (clean water,

flood alleviation, resilience to climate change) can only be secured

through joined-up management of the countryside.

CAP reform is the big issue on the horizon. All the signs suggest that both our Government and the EU want to see European agriculture become more globally competitive, producing more and impacting less on the environment. These negotiations offer a real opportunity to work out a long-term exit strategy from an unhealthy reliance on public subsidy. I hope we’ll see a CAP that is as simple, effective and affordable as possible. One that recognises and rewards farmers for all the environmental goods and services they provide: the food and the views, the wildlife conserved, the carbon and water stored, the woodland planted and the soils protected.

There are challenges ahead if we are to produce more and impact less. But there is opportunity, too. Technology is transforming the way we manage the land, and we need to embrace change to work with nature. I’m also proud to have taken on the role of president of the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs, where I can lead the debate with the next generation.

Sadly, many children still don’t know how their food is produced or where it comes from, and nor do they understand how the natural world works. I’m very pleased that we are tackling this. Through the Natural Connections Demonstration Project (which we launched this summer), Natural England, Defra, English Heritage and Plymouth University will work with 40,000 children in more than 200 schools across the South-West over three years. It is one of the largest outdoor learning projects in the UK.

NGOs do an excellent job, as do an increasing number of farmers, of enthusing young people by taking them out onto natural reserves, country parks or farms to give them a taste for the outdoors. It’s great to see that these initiatives are working – more people are visiting more often.
Farming and conservation have come a long way in recent years. There is now far more genuine collaboration, more mutual respect for knowledge and expertise, and greater recognition of achievement.

Hearteningly, there is much more to agree on than to argue about. Many of the recent successes in conservation have come when landowners, conservation groups, local people and Government work together. We’ve learnt about the limitations of regulation – it has its place in stopping bad practice and penalising those who won’t take seriously their responsibility for the environment. But to see the scale of action that is needed, we need to build partnerships, work with people from all walks of life, enthuse and engage them.

These are exciting times. A new consensus is emerging. People in Britain understand that the natural world is one of our most important assets – it is the basis of our wealth and the cornerstone of future prosperity. We must take good care of it.

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