The North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty held its annual forum a couple of weeks ago. In the splendid venue of the historic Black Barn at Rushall Manor Farm, the morning conference had an excellent line up of speakers. Unfortunately Caroline Drummond, Director of LEAF, was unable to attend as she had been summoned to appear before the Parliamentary Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, but her talk was given by Andy Guy.
The other speakers were Merrick Denton-Thompson, immediate past President of the Landscape Institute, Phil Jarvis, Head of Farming at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Robin Edwards, Director CLA South East and Chairman of the AONB Management Working Group, Chris Musgrave, founder member of the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area, Henry Oliver, Director of the AONB and Peter Lemon, a local farmer.
The title was Farming Tomorrow – future prospects for farming in the North Wessex Downs. Whilst none of the speakers underestimated the challenges that farming faces, particularly in the context of Brexit, there were some interesting and positive themes that emerged from the talks and discussion that followed. The big uncertainty is the climate for international trade after we leave the EU and the implications for farming.
The first theme to emerge was that of food and the diet of the nation. Obesity costs the NHS £10 billion a year but there are signs that diets are changing. Less meat is eaten as there is more publicity given to vegetarians and vegans, but half of our nutrition comes from cereals when half should come from fruit and vegetables. The first priority for farmers must be to provide high quality wholesome food for the British people. That includes a range of policies such as animal welfare, traceability and food labelling.
But there is a dichotomy here. A landscape such as the North Wessex Downs can only be conserved if there are animals to graze the pasture. It was interesting to note that in the newspaper coverage of the recent climate change report there was a call for a 90% reduction of beef in the western diet due to the emissions of methane from ruminant animals. But there was no similar call for a reduction in rice consumption due to the methane emissions of paddy fields, responsible for 25% of all methane emissions for which man has responsibility.
Eat the View was a campaign launched by Natural England in 2002 to highlight the connection between diet and the landscape. If the UK were to leave the EU without a trade deal, the WTO tariff on sheep meat exports would have a catastrophic effect on the sheep sector which would, in turn, have major implications for the downland landscape.
Whilst diet is critical to the nation’s health, there has been an increase in emphasis on mental health in recent years. With almost 80% of our population living in urban areas, the link with farming and the countryside has diminished. A sense of wellbeing can be achieved through visits to the countryside, through recreation in the fresh air and connection with nature.
Farm productivity has been relatively stagnant for several decades, for which the primary cause has been the degradation of our soils. Soil health and structure must be improved if productivity is to rise to allow farmers to produce food profitably without subsidy. The forthcoming Environmental Land Management Scheme is likely to include grants for farmers to grow restorative crops such as legumes and it would be helpful if there were a return to mixed farming.
It is clear that nature conservation is more effective when carried out on a landscape scale. The experience of Chris Musgrave in the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area, now the Nature Enhancement Partnership, shows the benefits that accrue from this approach. This makes it particularly disappointing that Natural England has withdrawn funding from the Facilitation Fund which contributed towards the cost of these initiatives.
Peter Lemon has been instrumental in setting up another farmer cluster, the Southern Streams Farmer Group, designed to reduce pollution of the Dun and Shalbourne tributaries of the River Kennet. In the absence of funding from Natural England, the AONB has brought in Tim Clark to help development of farmer clusters, but it is essential to persuade Natural England to resume grants.
These apparently disparate elements come together to give a vision of the future of farming that provides exceptional food for the population, landscape for the public to enjoy and a more diverse countryside teeming with wildlife. Quite how this vision can be achieved by the implementation of emerging policy is still unclear, but it could provide great benefits for the nation. Above all, it requires a reconnection between those who live and work in the countryside and the wider public, especially those from towns and cities. It was entirely appropriate that this message was given at Rushall Manor where the John Simonds Trust has done so much to educate people, especially children.