The farming community overwhelmingly voted for Brexit – polls conducted by Farmers’ Weekly, AgriChat and others consistently showed nearly 60% of farmers wanted to leave the EU, giving their main reason as wishing to ‘take back control’[i]. With 55% of total farm income in the UK coming from the EU single farm payment and other agri-environmental support schemes, that majority vote would seem to suggest farmers believe they can survive and thrive, producing goods for sale on the ‘free-market’, without any hand-outs.
Yet post Brexit, the agricultural press has been full of demands from the farming lobby that the UK Government – and so the British taxpayer – must continue to match the £3 billion currently provided annually to UK farmers through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In similar apparent contradiction to the predominant concern raised by those who voted to leave the EU (‘uncontrolled immigration’), farmers’ leaders have also been demanding that the large proportion of migrant workers upon which UK farming is dependent, must continue to be available to them. UK farming’s reliance on EU labour is even greater than its underpinning by EU cash. Whereas UK businesses as a whole rely on 5% migrant labour, for agriculture that rises to 65% (and that’s excluding seasonal workers!) – amounting to over 34,500 non-UK citizens, mainly from EU Eastern European member states, toiling in the fields to fill supermarket shelves with ‘British grown’ strawberries and broccoli – and also as the mainstay of the intensive pig, poultry, dairy and associated abattoir and processing plants.
Many UK farmers seem to have at best an ambivalent, at worst a hypocritical, view when it comes the EU. They want ‘out’ from any constraints on their business and yet ‘in’ on holding onto the freedom to trade within Europe and the wider, world market – whilst still benefiting from cash hand-outs and cheap labour.
A rationale posted on an online farming forum by one producer reveals that for some ‘taking back control’ more accurately meant ‘removing controls’. His post pithily itemised the reasons for wanting to leave Europe:
‘1. Three-crop rule
What he is objecting to, or believes he is objecting to, are requirements or restrictions introduced by the EU on farming practice and on the use of certain agrochemicals. In fact, the ‘three crop rule’ was not something imposed on farmers by the EU, but agreed upon by elected MEPs and which only applies to farms above 30 hectares (c.75 acres and above). To put that in proportion, one of the farms managed by the Countryside Restoration Trust (CRT), which I do some work for, routinely has between nine to eleven different crops in the ground – adding hugely to the diversity of habitat for wildlife, whilst breaking the monotony of mono-cropping for the farmer. The three pesticides listed by the pro-Brexit farmer have been restricted or are proposed to be restricted due to scientific evidence of their negative impacts on the environment or human health. Whilst there are counter-claims (mainly coming from their manufacturers) as to any impacts being influenced by how the products are applied and what other, if any, mitigating measures individual farmers are or are not employing, when it comes to human health or that of the bees and other pollinating insects upon which most food production depends the precautionary principle (people and planet before product) should surely apply?
It is illuminating to see these objections expressed so bluntly, revealing that they, and the apparently contradictory views above, come from a corporate and solely commercial perspective, which regards the farmed landscape as merely another industrial resource from which profitable outputs can be extracted – assuming key inputs of capital, chemicals and cheap labour are applied.
This narrow perspective from UK Agribiz is not one that considers the wider, complex, living, working countryside. One which is farmed with wildlife in mind whilst seeking to produce good food, at a fair price to farmer and consumer without that being at the expense of human or environmental health. I do not believe that corporate perspective is representative of all farmers, certainly not the ones I work with. Brexit should provide an opportunity not for yet another ‘review of UK farming’, which has been conducted on several occasions by various ‘Commissions’ (generally composed of the usual suspects from the establishment farming bodies and almost equally unimaginative, mainstream conservation organisations), but for more thoughtful consideration of how we can develop systems of farming that produce decent sustainable food, jobs and sustain the ecological services that underpin those every bit as much and more than artificial inputs of agrochemicals.
Interestingly, one of the usually more establishment conservation bodies, The National Trust, and the largest landowner in the UK (excluding the Forestry Commission), has stirred things up by calling for an “ending to the system of Single Farm Payments”, whereby farmers and landowners get money simply by dint of owning land – the more you have, the more cash you get (Hence, the outrage at the NT’s proposals from big farmers and estate owners). The current system has clearly not been helping the type of farming and farmer that groups like the CRT seek to support – smaller, ‘family farms’, typically ranging from under 100 acres to a few hundred acres. Over the last decade, over 20,000 such family farms have gone out of business, amalgamated into bigger, ‘more efficient’ units, but which provide fewer livelihoods in a less diverse countryside.
The National Trust correctly notes that despite the £500 – 600 million annually paid to farmers in alleged agri-environment payments, numbers of farmland birds and other species have continued to crash – with a 60% decline in key species recorded over the past 50 years. Yet the NT and the other big conservation bodies (like the big farming bodies), seem to want to hold onto the basic framework of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, simply shifting the emphasis so payments are only given in return for delivering public and environmental goods. The Trust’s Six Principles are sound, but there is the same flaw in the proposed as the present system. Farmers, like the one above, who don’t want any controls on the practices or products they use, will simply farm outside any support system that the NT or anyone else comes up with. The result being a two-tier system of farming – corporate ‘hell-for-leather, sod soil or wildlife protection and animal welfare’, practised by agribiz on the most productive land with conservation farming holding on in the margins and only viable through public hand-outs. Exactly the bifurcated system, Sir Derek Barber advocated back in 1990, when he referred derogatorily to such conservation farming as “half-cock farming”, preferring what he termed “high pitched buzz farming”. He held no brief for the integration and balancing of commercial farming with wildlife everywhere, including the prairies of East Anglia, “Why clutter up such landscapes with thin green threads of new hedges? Why not let this type of highly efficient grain country get on with its job of producing a tonne of wheat at the very lowest cost?”[ii]
For all its failings, after decades of driving farming in the wrong direction of over-production, intensification and degradation of soil, water and wildlife, the CAP had been making adjustments to attempt to integrate farming with environmental considerations; finally recognising the role of healthy soils, clean water sources and diverse ecological systems in sustaining food security and human health. The last thing needed now is a return to Barber’s bifurcated vision of a farmed landscape dominated by featureless food prairies and factory farms, with Beatrix Potter theme farms preserved for urban day trippers at the margins.
The National Trust is right to state that farmers should only receive public money for delivering public goods and benefits – increasing wildlife on their farms, using their land to hold flood water, improving the structure of their soil so as to store even greater quantities of carbon etc. But like other big conservation bodies, the Trust seems to be forgetting something rather fundamental about farming – its primary purpose to feed us. The CAP must not morph simply into a ‘BAP’ – a Biodiversity Agricultural Policy – focused wholly on wildlife. We need a farming policy that strives to restore ecological complexity in our farmed landscapes because widespread presence and plethora of biodiversity are understood to be the foundations for building a resilient, sustainable farming system – one capable of feeding our Nation in the face of future shocks and challenges. We may no longer be blockaded by the U-boats as during WWII, but climate change, over-reliance on transporting food vast distances, and increasing numbers of hungry people in countries that currently export foodstuffs to us are real, long-term challenges to our food security.
[ii] Barber, D, Anatomy of a ‘Green’ Agriculture, Massey Ferguson Award, January 1990.
Just a few days after Britain initiated divorce proceedings against Europe, I got married and my wife & I then headed off on honeymoon to… Europe! Italy specifically, and to be more precise, Tuscany, to relax and recuperate following both events (Brexit and wedding) on an organic vineyard and olive farm.
It could not have been a more beautiful and calming place. Nor more apposite for contemplating the breaking off of relations with our European neighbours. For the farmhouse Locanda set high above the Arno valley hosted a microcosm of the European Community; with fellow guests coming from Denmark, Germany, Holland, and Italy – along with one other refugee family from the UK fleeing the pitiful post-Brexit internecine back stabbing occurring across all political parties.
The notable, predominant tone to all the inevitable Brexit conversations we had within our community was people’s sadness at our leaving. Not anger, nor resentment or even a hint of them turning their backs on a country that should now be left to lie in the messed-up post-marital bed it had unmade for itself. How different to the angry, divisive exchanges that were traded by our posturing politicians gambling the next generation’s wellbeing for their short-term political ambitions. The calm concern we were offered, made me even more ashamed of the coarse and vindictive vitriol Nigel Farage fog-horned out in the European Parliament the week after the vote. Ashamed that Farage, in his faux country gent’s loud tweed checks and covert coat, might be considered by our continental cousins as representative of the manners and mores of a typical English gentleman.
Fortunately, the Italians – and Tuscans in particular – have had longer familiarity with more genteel and cultured English gentlemen and women over the decades. Such as, the aesthete, poet and historian, Sir Harold Acton, born into an Anglo-Italian family, who spent much of his life at his beloved Villa La Pietra, near Florence – and which became a stopping off point for many an aspiring writer and art critic on their ‘Grand Tour’ of European cultural centres. But as well as being the crucible of the Italian Renaissance, promoted during the ascendancy of the Medici family and their transformation of Florence through the patronage of Michelangelo and a myriad, lesser known painters, sculptors and architects, the Tuscan countryside beyond the medieval walled cities has and continues to resonate with the English.
Chianti-shire, a commercial, as well as romantic, concept
Not so much the arriviste ‘Chianti-shire Socialists’ politicking at Blair’s court and Tuscan Villa in recent times during the UK Parliamentary summer recess, but English travellers over decades seeing in the patchwork of vineyards and olive groves interspersed between arable fields and grassland and set beneath the rolling, blue-green wooded hills beyond, something reminiscent of the English countryside. At least that idealised English countryside as depicted by the great landscape artists of the 18th and 19th centuries, John Constable, Samuel Palmer and Francis Towne (the latter travelling and painting in Italy, which much influenced his style). Reminiscent because for much of the English countryside, that patchwork quilt has long been grubbed up, shredded through, and homogenised by the mega-machines of industrial agriculture. Whereas as we cycled through the Tuscan countryside in 2016, hay was being teddered by kit of the size I remember as a child used on the small tenant farm next door to our home on the Cheshire border – and pulled by, what I’m pretty sure was, a Ford Series 10 tractor from the 1970s (tiny compared to today’s computer-controlled behemoths bludgeoning British fields and soils into submission).
Italy has around 1.6 million farm holdings, averaging in size at just under 8 hectares, with only 5% above 30 hectares. In total these employ around 4% of the entire Italian workforce. England has ten times fewer farm holdings, on average six times larger than their Italian counterparts, with 30% of farms above 50 hectares, and worked overall by well under 1% of the country’s total workforce. Some might suggest this shows the greater efficiency of modern English agriculture compared to the ‘old-fashioned’ farming appealing to the eyes of rural romanticists such as myself?
But far from being backward looking or economically unviable, the Tuscan way of farming sustains that landscape beloved of painters over the centuries and drives an agri-tourism business contributing around 8% to the total Tuscan tourism sector – a significant percentage, given the huge concentration of tourists visiting the urban sites of Florence, Pisa and Siena. The vineyards, olive groves and farmed landscape of Tuscany have been estimated to contribute Euros 177 million annually in terms of monetary value to the tourist trade – and that’s not including, the economic value of the 180 million bottles of the regionally distinctive and denominated Chianti and other Tuscan wines those vineyards produce each season.
Our Countryside existing only in pictures…?
EU farm support, rural development programmes, agritourism and environmental schemes have been critical to protecting and sustaining this distinctive region. Of all EU member states, Italy represents one of the largest storehouses of biodiversity and wildlife habitats in Europe. And within Italy, Tuscany is the repository of the country’s richest, most diverse range of wildlife – hence having over 2,500 sites designated under the EU Habitats Directive. Having willfully turned our backs on Europe and so access to those support programmes and schemes, the very real worry is whether our remnant landscapes and countryside, which still do (just) hold on outside romantic reminiscence, will continue to exist in any form other than in the paintings of Constable, Palmer and Towne.
Rural Tourism Driving Regional Development in Tuscany. The Renaissance of the Countryside. (2011) Randelli, F.; Romei, P.; Tortora, M.; Mossello, M.T. Dipartimento di Scienze Economiche, Università degli Studi di Firenze, Working Paper No. 11/2011.
Natura 2000 habitats in Tuscany (central Italy): synthesis of main conservation features based on a comprehensive database. Daniele Viciani , Lorenzo Lastrucci, Lorella Dell’Olmo, Giulio Ferretti, Bruno Foggi. Biodiversity and Conservation, June 2014, Volume 23, Issue 6, pp 1551-1576
The economic and ecological role of the cypress in Tuscany: a case study Gianni Della Rocca, Paolo Raddi, Institute of Plant Protection, CNR Italy; Leonardo Casini, Carlo Daniele; DEISTAF, Florence University, Italy.
My father, a keen amateur naturalist, died some years ago and on a recent trip down to my mother’s home I finally took the time to sift through the various items he’d bequeathed me. Being the ‘environmentalist’ amongst my siblings, these amounted to his modest, but broad-ranging natural history library, various fishing rods, boxes of flies & curious home-made lures (many more successful at attracting moths in the loft than they ever had fish in a river!), and a cabinet containing his collection of butterflies and moths gathered through his childhood and the early part of mine.
That cabinet jolted me from my obvious musings on the changes between the countryside’s rich and diverse mosaic of my father’s childhood to today’s monotone green and yellow blocks – jolted me into the realisation that though lifeless, the moths and butterflies he’d methodically arrayed held a coded message. The purpose-built display cabinet of recycled English oak had twelve drawers, six each side with removable glass panes for adding other impaled specimens to the regimented rows already pinned to the cork-lined base, and exuded a sickly sweet smell of the lethal moth balls my father had placed in each drawer – with no apparent sense of irony – to protect his specimens from attack by… moths.
The majority of the specimens are British species ‘collected’ from North Staffs where he grew up, and then later from Devon and Flintshire, where we lived through my childhood and into my teens. ‘Collected’ is, of course, a euphemism – the butterflies were netted alive on the wing or for the moths drawn down from the night by the seductive glare of a paraffin lamp illuminating a sheet smeared with a sticky concoction my father boiled up from cherry tree resin and sugar. Whichever their method of capture, both butterflies and moths met a common fate from the cyanide infused plaster of Paris set in a kilner jar.
My introduction to the diversity and beauty of nature, the stirring of my instinct and increasingly present urge to be outside amongst and in nature, and the painful awakening of my more adult consciousness of the threats to and vulnerability of that natural connection all started with death. What startled me awake from my superficial skimming was finding myself staring at Death itself – the first specimen pinned at the top left corner of the first drawer being a Death’s Head Hawk Moth (Acherontia atropos) – more a visitor from the Continent than truly a native British species, although it does breed here.
What pricked me alert was the realisation that my father must have made a conscious decision to pin that specimen precisely there in its primary, conspicuous place. For that drawer and its specimens were out of order with the overall meticulous design and classification of the cabinet – British butterflies followed in the next five drawers, ordered in their families. Then the right-hand drawers returned to moths – with the last two marked up as ‘Foreign’, reserved for the exotic species he’d purchased overseas. He must have placed the Death’s Head Hawk Moth there deliberately – not a perverse, mocking message as from the fictional serial-killer, Hannibal Lecter, of ‘Silence of the Lambs’ – but rather a coded acknowledgement of the contradiction and his innate, growing unease of killing something he loved.
My father was given the cabinet on his 12th birthday in 1935. The collection stops at the end of the 1960s, when I too was 12. Over those 35 years, we had caught, poisoned and pinned some 240 specimens – with the native numbers boosted by those bought-in exotics. The ghostly Moon moths (Acticas selene) and huge Atlas moths (Atticus atlas) were like pins in the map of his wartime postings through India and the Far East. Something stopped us both, seven years on from the publishing of Rachel Carson’s seminal ‘Silent Spring’. It was also on the eve of the environmental movement’s birth that Carson’s book gestated – and which I became part of fifteen years later, when I first began working for Friends of the Earth. It was not any social stigma attached to being a butterfly collector, although the collecting of birds’ eggs had been made illegal in 1956 two years before I was born – but simply an awareness that there weren’t as many butterflies or moths about.
It had always been an unspoken rule that we didn’t collect ‘too many’ of any one species. When he was a boy and still well into my childhood, collecting butterflies and moths, if not birds’ eggs was seen as a perfectly respectable hobby, marking one out as a ‘naturalist’. Not today, as this contemporary comment on a conservation organisation’s website makes plain: “Why would you have a cabinet full of dead butterfly specimens? Many ‘collectors’ will strongly argue their case, but in general, their behaviour is one of selfishness, greed and obsession. No collector could ever claim to be helping wild butterflies by killing them in their prime – often before they have a chance to mature and lay their eggs for future generations.”
As intended, those words hit home. But I can’t characterise my father’s love and knowledge of nature or my own as being nurtured and motivated merely by selfishness, greed or obsession. Nor do I want to taint those archetypal summer childhood memories of chasing through a meadow – nothing of ‘special scientific interest’, just the common-place farmer’s field next door or along a woodland ride with butterfly nets in pursuit of a Silver-studded Blue, Meadow Brown, Purple Hairstreak or Silver-washed Fritillary.
But then there are very few wildflower and herb-rich meadows left for children to chase through and butterflies to flutter over – as the tired but true statistic which I’ve repeated, written, typed, stencilled onto banners too many times to remember tells us: ‘97% of our wildflower meadows lost since 1945’. Not ‘lost’ – but destroyed, drained, ploughed up and re-sown with monochrome mixes of non-native grasses, predominantly rye-grass. The Silver-studded Blue, and many of the fritillaries are no longer commonly or even occasionally found, but listed as ‘vulnerable’, ‘endangered’ and even if described as being of ‘less concern’ as to their numbers and distribution, still sit on the ‘Red List’ – the annex and waiting room leading to extinction as inevitably as the ‘killing jar’.
Three-quarters of British butterflies are in decline – with 4 out of our 56 native species becoming extinct over the past hundred years. Of our much more numerous native moth species (2,400 plus), 62 have become extinct and the ‘catch-rates’ recorded by the Rothamsted field station have fallen by a third since the close of the 1960s; the point at which my father made the unspoken decision to halt our unconsciously ‘selfish, greedy and obsessive’ pastime.
Apart from the Death’s Head Hawk Moth, one specimen of a Clifden Nonpareil moth or Blue Under-wing, described as ‘the Victorian collector’s classic all-time favourite’ and the ‘Foreigns’– our cabinet contains no butterflies or moths that at the time or until very close to the time we stopped, would have been considered anything other than ‘common’ or ‘frequently found’– beautiful, exquisite, extraordinary in their detail and specific arrays, but not national rarities, scarcities or even regionally remarkable. Yet when comparing the contents of the butterfly cabinet to the official Red List – of the 30 or so species pinned in semi-immortality, three-quarter are on that list, and a third are described as ‘threatened’ or ‘near threatened’. The yellow and orange Garden Tiger moths, which my boy’s mind conflated as half world war one fighter plane, half leopard, regularly drawn down from the night on a lighted flare-path into our moth-trap, have suffered a 92% decline.
The blame for these nose-dives in the range and number of Garden Tigers and many other species of butterfly and moth should not be laid at the door of dead amateur naturalists or boys past or present bearing butterfly nets (ideally today, digital cameras rather than killing jars), but rather with the post-war and subsequent policy makers and their agribusiness advisers. It was they who set in train the wholesale destruction and dismantling of the type of mixed-farming that created the rich mosaic of habitats which supported such plentiful wildlife (and the farming community too), alongside and inherent in the production of crops and livestock, a past plenty that could stock a million such butterfly cabinets as the one I inherited without compromising nature’s capacity to replenish herself.
Robin Maynard, October 2014