With 70% of it being farmed, it sometimes seems that our countryside is a battleground between food and flora and fauna. Farmers have different objectives for the land than nature conservationists, and often the two groups are at loggerheads. Earlier this month though they seemed to be coming together, or at least expressing much the same hopes for the future of this green and pleasant land.
First came a major speech by Environment Secretary Michael Gove at the farmers annual shindig, the Oxford Farming Conference. His underlying theme was the future of Government support for farming after we leave the European Union. Whilst we are still members the Common Agricultural Policy will continue to pay out billions of euros to support farmers and landowners, some of which is directed towards helping wildlife and other vital activities, such as improving soil and water quality.
Surprisingly, in this austere, small government, and minimal regulation world, Gove actually used the phrase ‘public money for public goods’. However unfashionable this principle is now, it was an entirely apt description of the position the farming industry is and will continue to be in for the foreseeable future. Gove spoke at length about environmental pressures, the unjustness of the current system, and ‘the imperative to husband and enhance natural capital’. He said that the principal public good to be invested in is ‘environmental enhancement’.
Secondly, at the so-called Real Farming Conference the same week, more than a thousand farmers launched the Nature Friendly Farming Network. This is calling on the Government to ‘restore British wildlife, reverse declines in soil quality and help to manage the impacts of climate change.’ They in fact espoused many of the same things as Gove, including working within the context of producing good quality, affordable food.
Perhaps the two sides are not so far apart after all. (There are already many examples of wildlife-friendly farmers.) The example of the forestry industry should encourage them. Once the bane of nature conservationists, it is now a willing partner in the restoration and expansion of woodlands and forests for nature conservation, improved air and water quality and recreation. The recently announced Great Northern Forest, and the National Forest (partly in Staffordshire) are examples of this change.
Mind you, aspiration and ambition are one thing, commitment and delivery is quite another. Will wildlife notice any difference in ten years’ time?
Gove has since launched the Government's 25 year plan for the environment, incorporating much of the above, and a lot else beside. Another tick for him, and something to be returned to at a later date.