CLA Senior Land Use Policy Adviser Harry Greenfield reviews the latest State of Nature report
The latest State of Nature report, compiled by over 70 organisations including academic institutes, NGOs and Government bodies, shows a continued decline in UK nature. However there are also reasons for optimism, not least as farmers can make an enormous contribution towards nature’s recovery.
As with the previous State of Nature reports, we should recognise and welcome the time and effort spent by scientists and volunteers in building up such a detailed picture of the country's wildlife. The report paints a clear picture of the impact human activities have on biodiversity. This is due to a range of pressures on wildlife, with agricultural intensification at the fore but also including urbanisation, invasive species and of course climate change (all of which are also pressures facing farmers and rural communities, though not always in the same way).
It is important, as the report's authors do, to distinguish between longer-term trends, going back to the 1970s, and the more recent impacts over the past decade or so. The report makes clear that over the long term, the intensification of agriculture (encouraged by Government policy at the time) led to biodiversity declines. Since the 1970s, there have been increasing efforts from both policy-makers and the farming industry to move towards land use practices that are both economically productive and environmentally sensitive.
The report is less clear-cut as to whether these recent efforts could still pay off. While wildlife continues to decline in places, this could be due to other drivers (such as climate change) or a time lag in the impacts of a switch to more environmentally-friendly practices. Many CLA members have entered into agri-environment schemes over recent decades. These evidence-based schemes reward farmers for environmental delivery, including creating wildlife habitat - from wildflower margins to winter bird food.
Leaving the EU and designing our own agriculture policy offers an opportunity to learn from and improve on these initiatives. The new Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes can build on the model of agri-environment schemes and help farmers turbo-charge the efforts they make to improve biodiversity. But to do this the policy must be well-designed and adequately funded.
At the same time, food production is vital and will continue in the UK, if we are not to import food from countries with a potentially worse environmental impact. And food production can co-exist side by side with thriving wildlife. There is greater recognition of the win-wins for business and the environment of more sustainable practices. Consumers and the supply chain are also increasingly demanding products with a lighter environmental footprint.
That is why many CLA members are leading the way in providing space for wildlife on the land they manage. Many of our members are engaging in government or privately funded conservation schemes and the land they manage includes some of the most wildlife-rich in the country. Our members recognise the responsibility they have, as stewards of the countryside, to look after the wildlife and habitats on their land, while producing food and a range of other public goods.
Ideally, they should continue to be supported by society to do this, whether through public policy, people paying for high-quality food, or private investment in the environment.