Hillside farming and the loss of biodiversity in National Parks

As I have mentioned before, I am very interested in sustainable agriculture. Whilst doing my usual morning sweep of tweets, I spotted a post about a recent report, ‘The State of Nature’, published on the RSPB website. This report looks at the current state of ecological decline in the UK, with worrying findings, such as 65% of UK upland species are in decline. The report was foreword by Sir David Attenborough and has received great interest, especially via Twitter. Attenborough suggests that increasing human population is one of the first factors affecting the loss of the UK’s wildlife.

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However, a report by George Monbiot, a writer for the Guardian newspaper and author of recently published book; “Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding”, states that increasing human population is not directly to blame, and instead pins the main blame on government hand-outs and hill farmers.

He backs this up by explaining that, when out exploring national parks such as Dartmoor, Exmoor, the Black Mountains, Brecon Beacons, Snowdonia and many more, it is becoming increasingly rare to see any wildlife. Indeed, on recent excursions to Snowdonia, the only wildlife I personally saw was the occasional dog (with owner!) and herring gulls, and on previous trips to Dartmoor, I saw absolutely no wildlife at all. In fact, the only animals you are almost guaranteed to spot are sheep, which graze the hillsides to destruction. These hillsides, therefore, are incredibly unproductive.

Common stereotypes of countries include France and garlic, snails and frogs legs, Italy with pizza, pasta and the coliseum, and Wales, with sheep and farmers. There are approximately 8.9 million sheep in Wales, which equates to 2.9 sheep per person. Despite this fact, Wales imports seven times as much meat as it exports – 6000 years of grazing hillsides have stripped the ground of all nutrients, resulting in a very poor productivity.

Upon closer inspection, it can be seen that an intensification of farming, possibly as a response to the growing population, is not at immediate fault.

Hill farmers are commonly funded through various schemes. One such scheme is called the ‘Single Farm Payment’, in which European taxpayers’ money is given to the farmers. Often around £250 is given per hectare, but to receive this money the farmers must keep their land in ‘Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition’, a term set out in 1984. Some of the standards set by this term include ‘avoiding the encroachment of unwanted vegetation on agricultural land’, meaning that for the farmers to continue receiving their grant, they must stop wild plants from returning, regardless of whether they actually graze the land or plant crops there, or whether it is left fallow. This grant is therefore encouraging farmers to decrease the biodiversity of the area, and to decrease the biodiversity of surrounding land if they want to make more money (which, let’s face it, due to supermarkets paying pennies for crops, all farmers do). In essence, farmers can graze their land to the roots, let animals run amok in woodlands, dig up the last remaining trees and poison the rivers with fertilisers and pesticides/insecticides, but still receive their funding.

However, there is another fund, called Pillar 2 payments, which, ironically, pays the farmers to undo some of the damage inflicted by the first tranche. However, this amount of money is less than the first grant, and is therefore less favourable. Even if a Welsh farmer was to shoot himself in the foot and opt for the lesser of the two grants in favour of ecological interest, the Welsh Government sets out regulations that actually forbid the farmers to restore land to rough grassland/scrub that is greater than one third of an acre in size.

Therefore, this decline in species can be linked to the crazy, and money wasting, schemes set out by government, which are in dire need of reconsideration.

The majority of wildlife requires cover in which to shelter from predators and extremities of weather, ambush prey or to raise young – cover such as shrubs and trees. Without these, the land is bare and open to the elements, with fewer roots stabilising the soil and less degradation of vegetation, leading to less nutrients. The grants encouraging farmers to stop shrubs and trees from re-growing are keeping the wild and natural places in the UK from re-wilding, and constant diminishing of these lands will continue to result in a further decreasing biodiversity in the UK.

Monbiot ends his article stating that he doesn’t believe that hill farming should be halted, instead he proposes a drastic rethinking of the various protocols, rules and regulations set out for the farmers in this natural environment, enabling them to earn from the land whilst increasing the biodiversity of their farmland. I fully agree with this theory, and I imagine Monbiot’s book will make for interesting reading – a book already on my birthday list! I can just hope that maybe, in the future, the next generations can explore these national parks with a chance of seeing some wildlife.

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Posted on May 24, 2013, in Sustainability and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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