Over the past six weeks, arable farmers have been very busy finishing the harvest, starting autumn cultivations and sowing oilseed rape and winter barley. Livestock farmers have been despairing at the lack of grass, starting to feed winter rations and wondering how they will be able to provide food for their animals until next spring. By contrast, I have been idle, recovering from a total hip replacement, but that has given me time to catch up with some reading.
Regular readers will know that I am a great fan of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT). Its research into all aspects of conservation and game management is second to none, thorough, unbiased and peer reviewed. Many of the options available in agri-environment schemes have come from GWCT research. Findings are credible in an age when many research reports are selective of the findings or even ‘fake news’. I have been reading several of their recent publications.
I started with Farming through Brexit: a vision for the future, a policy paper for future countryside management. It presumes a phasing out of direct payments and calls for all that money to be retained and put into an enhanced environmental land management scheme. This would have three tiers: Foundation, Universally Accessible and Farmer Cluster. All are voluntary and open to all, subject to a multi-purpose annual review by an independent assessor chosen and paid for by the farmer. The Foundation Scheme would provide a payment to farmers who comply with existing cross-compliance measures and have 5% of the farm into conservation measures, the current Ecological Focus Area.
The Universally Accessible Scheme would provide payments for wider conservation measures, either short or longer term, similar to the past and present stewardship schemes. The Farmer Cluster Scheme would provide higher payments for collaboration with neighbouring farmers to give conservation on a landscape scale. All three schemes would give the farmer much greater choice and responsibility to adopt the appropriate measures for his farm with payment linked to results. There would be advice available to all farmers and a more flexible approach to minor, unintended breaches. There would also be access to capital grants.
As an environmental scheme this is a well thought out programme likely to achieve a great deal more than the current disastrous Countryside Stewardship Scheme. As a replacement for CAP support for farmers, however, it will be criticised for doing little to promote profitable and sustainable food production. In my view, a major grant scheme to promote innovation and improve productivity is an essential part of a future programme to sit alongside the environmental measures.
At the Allerton Project, its farm at Loddington in Leicestershire, the GWCT has spent several years researching the soil and the impact of various crop rotations and cultivation techniques, notably no tillage, on soil health and water drainage. A splendid book, The Soil and Water Balance, shares the results of that work and research elsewhere. When scientists at Sheffield University suggested in 2014 that UK soils could only support another hundred harvests, the UN went further reducing that to sixty years in many parts of the world. Soil health has become a top priority and this GWCT research may well lead to grant-aided restorative measures in the forthcoming new Environmental Land Management Scheme.
A little earlier in the year, the GWCT published The Moorland Balance – the science behind grouse shooting and moorland management. This again is the result of many years of research and is invaluable in providing the scientific evidence to counter those who seek to ban driven grouse shooting and rewild the uplands.
The final GWCT book I have been reading is The Knowledge – every gun’s guide to conservation. Its 200 pages are packed with information from the basic to the more detailed. There are chapters on habitat management in woodland and on arable land, how a shoot is run, legislation, predation and much more. There is emphasis on the Code of Good Shooting Practice and the behaviour expected of guns on shoot days.
Following the launch of the British Game Alliance earlier this summer, designed to increase the consumption of game meat and to set standards which shoots and the game industry must follow, the focus of self-regulation must also fall on guns, those of us who enjoy a day shooting. There are guns who participate with a minimal knowledge or understanding of what lies behind how a shoot is run or even the behaviour required by the Code of Good Shooting Practice. This book supplies that knowledge and should be read by all of us who take part in shooting.
But the GWCT goes further and has an online assessment designed to test a gun’s knowledge. The free test gives a score at the end with advice on where improvement is necessary. There is a certificate for those who pass. It would be great if this were taken up on a widespread basis and guns were asked to show they had achieved the knowledge and understanding required to earn the certificate. I have yet to take the test, I thought a little more homework first might help!