Peering out from my place in the undergrowth I feel, rather uncomfortably, compelled to wade into the treacherous waters of countryside politics this month, not least because they pose a direct threat to ‘nature in the quiet-nearby’.
The consultation on the Welsh Government’s paper ‘Brexit and Our Land’ has just closed, and I hope they are listening carefully to the responses. As a member of the European Union the UK has been bound in to the Common Agricultural Policy – which has been an unmitigated disaster for wildlife and the countryside. Post Brexit there is an opportunity to devise our own agricultural and countryside policy and, as this is a devolved area of responsibility, the Welsh Government has put forward some ideas. The most striking aspect of these is to scrap the Basic Payment Scheme, which is the cash per hectare that all farmers receive for doing, frankly, very little for society and the environment. It is proposed to divert this money into paying farmers and foresters to deliver ‘public goods’. These are things like flood prevention, encouraging wildlife, storing carbon, soil improvement and woodland extension – all of which society needs urgently, but for which there are no commercial markets. As farmers and foresters manage about 90% of the Welsh countryside they are the only people who can deliver what we need. These are bold proposals by the Welsh Government and I applaud them for grasping the nettle – but they have no doubt found out that it stings.
During and after the Second World War farmers and foresters were urged to produce more, and they responded magnificently. We now produce far more food and timber than ever before. As a result, farmers have come to come to think of food production as being the only proper purpose of their business. That is how they judge themselves and each other. But sadly the intensification of farming and forestry has indisputably taken a toll on the countryside. As one of the small army of naturalists who, since the 1970s, has been mapping and surveying, I know the truth of that and trust the integrity of the results. Conservationists are not exaggerating – our wildlife has declined dramatically. There is insufficient space here to go into the whole sad litany but one stark example will serve. When I arrived here in 1983 to work on the Berwyn Mountains there were approximately 240 pairs of curlew – now I would be surprised if there are 10. We don’t yet know what has caused this catastrophic decline, but it illustrates why conservationists are so worried. Something has to be done before it is too late.
Farmers know, and so does everybody else, that agriculture in the hills is not viable. Without some sort of subsidy they would be out of business tomorrow. For a long time it was understood that part of the reason for a basic payment was to keep people on the land. The current version of this is the Basic Payment Scheme, which in effect, acts as a safety net to keep farmers solvent as markets and the weather fluctuate. Consequently, their response to the Welsh Government’s proposals has ranged from nervous to downright hostile. They fear that without the Basic Payment Scheme many farmers will go out of business. In the excruciating jargon used in these matters a lot of farms no longer have much ‘natural capital’ from which to deliver the ‘public goods’ and so would struggle to attract payments from that aspect of the proposals. The habitats and wildlife have gone. I heard one source quoted as saying that 30% of farmers in Wales will go bust if these proposals are adopted. Who knows if that is an accurate assessment – there is a lot of fear around. To some it can seem as if these ideas about ‘ecosystem services’ and the like are concepts that are being imposed upon farmers from an ‘urban’ culture and it is true that such ideas have not, by and large, arisen from within the farming community, who have mostly been focused food production. I understand how threatening such ideas could seem, especially as the language used is often so alien. These proposals are also worrying the wider Welsh community because farmers and their families are the backbone of rural society here. They are the continuity that ensures a particular identity associated with Welsh language and culture prospers from one generation to the next. A 30% decrease, or anything like it, in farming families would be a cultural disaster.
I feel both sides of this dilemma keenly. I have been a naturalist and conservationist for 50 years or more. I care deeply about the fate of our wildlife. Over the last 35 years of living here I have also come to value the human culture and community that has shaped this land for centuries. Aspects of these seem to be amongst the finest expressions of being human. I have also learned that the Welsh way of viewing the countryside is through the lens of language and community. People here would not usually go to a species list or survey result to understand the land, they would more likely begin with whose field it is and what would his grandfather have said about it. It is often said that scratch any Welsh person and you will find the name of a farm not far below the surface. It never ceases to amaze me how tenaciously hill farmers cling to their land – the attachment runs very deep. Yet despite the high price of agricultural land selling-up never seems to be an option, unless infirmity or family calamity makes it unavoidable. Continuity is the unspoken covenant.
In view of all this it seems to me that a post Brexit policy must satisfy some key objectives:
Keep small and medium sized farms in business for the sake of our collective culture.
Ensure that we continue to produce good quality food from the best agricultural land and timber from our commercial forests.
Manage the land in ways that help our impoverished wildlife to recover on farmland and in forests.
Provide those ‘ecological services’ that are so desperately needed in the face of environmental degradation and climate change.
The markets, particularly for food and timber, can take care of some of that but taxpayers must be prepared to foot the bill for the rest. If this is what we want from farmers and foresters we must be prepared to pay for it. Fulfilling these objectives is a tall order but I think it could be done given sufficient political will. There are lots of good ideas and practices out there already. Many farmers are willing to deliver what is required but they need encouragement; these are new areas of knowledge for them. To date the hands-off, bureaucratic approach of the current agri-environment schemes have left farmers discouraged and disenchanted. I am also concerned that the Welsh Government’s proposals have inadvertently, had a polarising effect, when what is needed is co-operation. Conservationists need to be seen to want farmers to prosper and farmers need to show that they want wildlife to thrive. We need to listen and learn from one another, be open-minded and encourage each other. The Welsh countryside is at a crossroads. If we do not seize this moment together our country will be forever impoverished and future generations will rightly hold us to account.