Chris Packham visits Cambridgeshire on his Bioblitz and says farms must play key role in conservation
Naturalist and Springwatch presenter meets Nature Friendly Farming Network chairman Martin Lines in Eltisley
Chris Packham issued a rallying call as he stopped off in Cambridgeshire on Sunday during his UK Bioblitz.
The naturalist, who co-presents the BBC’s Springwatch series, toured 50 sites in 10 days to highlight the perilous state of the nation’s wildlife.
Warning that “nature reserves are not enough” to reverse the huge declines seen in many species, he visited Papley Grove Farm in Eltisley to highlight the positive impact that farmers can have if they adopt the right practices.
Managed by Martin Lines, Papley Grove is part of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, a consortium of farms run with wildlife in mind.
“What we’ve found is very exciting,” Chris told the Cambridge Independent. “We know that farmers have the solutions at their fingertips to put good conservation practice into play on their land while still turning a profit, but they very clearly need our assistance as conservationists and consumers.
“I’ve been very keen to communicate that throughout the course of our Bioblitz. We started in Scotland, we’ve been to Northern Ireland, Wales and everywhere.
“The nature reserve system that we have of conservation management is failing. Most of our principal habitats are in decline and 15 per cent of our monitored species are in danger of extinction.
“Between one and two per cent of the UK’s land surface is under nature conservation management. Seventy per cent of it is farmed.”
He said people accuse him and fellow conservationists like George Monbiot, Miles King and Dave Goulson of being “enemies of farming”.
“It’s insulting to our intelligence, frankly,” he said. “We’re not enemies of farming. We are champions of farming the likes of which we’re seeing today.
“We’re critical of farming practices that are damaging the environment and I think we should be critical. But look: we eat, like everyone else. We are just asking that the farmers implement the skills the likes of which Martin and his consortium have, to make sure we can eat healthily, that we can eat in harmony with nature and we can eat into the future. That’s the sort of investment we want.
“I will stand up and say I think there are too many toxic poisons – pesticides – that are being used. Yes, we’re putting in too much fertiliser. What’s frustrating within the farming fraternity – just as in the conservation fraternity, where we’re not doing everything right – is that there is the toolkit to make a different.
“I’ve come to somewhere where the toolkit has been opened and the methods are being employed and we see immediate, rapid, beneficial changes – and not just for conservation, and the things at my heart, but also for Martin and his colleagues.
“What it shows is that there is the intelligence, the will and the capacity to do this in farming.
“But is has to overcome some of the resistance.
“Tradition is fine: we love traditions in the UK, but frankly if they don’t stack up in the modern age, there isn’t time to tolerate them any longer.”
Overall, the 19 species on the RSPB’s Farmland Bird Index have declined by 48 per cent since 1970. Among those particularly badly hit are tree sparrows, down 94 per cent, corn buntings, down 90 per cent and turtle doves, down 89 per cent.
The loss of habitat diversity, increased use of pesticides and changes to farmland management have hit sources of food and shelter for birds and are key reasons for the devastating declines.
The loss of insects, including pollinators, is also alarming. Since 1990, the farmland butterfly index has fallen by 36 per cent.
“If we don’t fix stuff now, our opportunity is going to be gone by tomorrow,” said Chris. “So we have to moderate what we feel was right to do yesterday with what we know is necessary to do today.
“I think we have an opportunity now with Brexit to reshape British agriculture, which has been restrained to a great extent by the Common Agricultural Policy. We’ve constantly requested reform of the Common Agricultural Policy but no-one has had the guts in the UK government to go over to Europe and win that fight. Europe has been resistant to it for all sorts of reasons.
“So here’s an opportunity to reshape the farmed environment to ensure a healthy future for our farmers, a healthy future for consumers and a healthy future for wildlife.
“You will not find a greater fan than myself of Martin and his work, and his consortium.”
He said he would stand up against those who sought to ignore the problems – such as the damage that was being done by the use of neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides that is now proven to have been killing our dwindling bee populations.
“I can’t stand here and say it was a good idea to oppose the reduction and abolition of the use of neonicotinoids, which some farmers in the UK and their unions have stood up for. They didn’t want to take these toxins out of use but we had brilliant evidence – peer-reviewed science – that said they were damaging our pollinators.
“So of course I’m going to oppose that but it doesn’t make me an enemy of farming. It makes me an enemy of the type of farming which is neither good for me, Martin and his profits, and the health of the British countryside.”
Chris, who is also a photographer and author, said the range of measures available to farmers had to be tailored to each farm.
“No two farms in the UK are the same. But the common issue in the wider landscape is a drive to produce a maximum yield and not a yield of wildlife,” he said. “And also we’ve got a question about where the subsidies are going to. We know full well that most upland sheep farming is non-profitable. But there are profitable enterprises that sheep farmers could move into –eco-tourism being one, B&Bs.
“We don’t want to take money out of the pockets of the farmers. They’ve got precious little in the first place. But we could redirect those subsidies so they could redirect those subsidies so they could invest in new aspects of a future for themselves and that may not necessarily be running a farm at a loss.
“There are other ways that they could diversify and make more money, and secure a future for their families, because obviously we need a functioning rural economy as well.
“We conservationists are very aware of all this and we are very keen to partner, promote and work alongside productive farming that serves nature conservation management.”
Volunteers from Eltisley Local History Society and Butterfly Conservation were among those conducting species counts at the farm, and quickly clocked up more than 70 species of plants, a wide range of moths and butterflies – including holly blue and brown argus – and birds including skylarks, buzzards and green woodpeckers.
After visiting Papley Grove Farm, Chris went on to Wicken Fen, the national nature reserve run by the National Trust, which is part of the wider Great Fen Project attempting to link up areas of traditional fenland that have been drained and lost to agriculture over the last two centuries, with devastating impacts for wildlife. He also visited RSPB Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk.
“I’ve been going to Wicken for many years,” said Chris. “It’s got one of the highest biodiversities ever measured in the UK. We in the UK have got a great assemblage of naturalists who measure these species with phenomenal accuracy. We’re very fortunate that this allows us to speak with great authority about declines, increases and changes in distribution. Wicken is a great paragon of that but, although it’s part of the Great Fen Project – which is another exciting programme running in this part of the world – it is a pretty tiny patch. It’s insignificant compared to the 70 per cent of farmed environment outside.
“So we, as nature conservationists, have got to put our hands up and say we’re losing our battle, but we want to win the war. And we’re only going to win that war if we’re in partnership with people like Martin.”
Chris Packham’s Bioblitz 2018
Chris Packham’s UK Bioblitz campaign, from July 14-23, championed frontline conservation and the people making a difference to the species and habitats they support.
From community projects to volunteer initiatives and council action plans, the campaign demonstrated the difference that can be made.
Sponsorship raised for the species count through a Just Giving page – justgiving.com/crowdfunding/chris-packham-bioblitz – will be distributed to the groups and projects highlighted.
Chris, who has Asperger’s syndrome, will also donate some of the money raised towards autism and Asperger’s research.
The tour will be carbon neutral, with the miles covered by vehicles offset.
Visit chrispackham.co.uk and follow Chris on Twitter to find out more.
How Martin Lines is working with nature on Papley Grove Farm
Martin Lines sees the benefits of the wildlife-friendly measures he has put in at Papley Grove Farm every day.
“We have put a whole suite of different options in to make it as diverse as possible and we’ve fitted it in with a productive arable farm,” he tells the Cambridge Independent.
“There are skylark plots, lapwing plots, turtle dove mixes, beetle banks, grass margins, pollen and nectar, winter bird seed sources to target individual species… I could go on and on!
“It’s about fitting the stewardship around the outside of all the fields. I can manage all my hedgerows and ditches in the winter when it’s less productive.
“The birds can eat the berries and I can do the hedge-cutting later in the year.
“I still have to manage certain bits of field that lay wet. So we can tailor the management for environmental benefit as well as the farm’s benefit.
“You see so much more wildlife. It’s not just bigger birds.
“This morning I was out very early looking at moths. I didn’t realise there were so many moths and insects were there. But that’s all part of our farming system and we need to understand how to balance it all out so we are producing food and a good environment. We’ve got to join those two bits together.”
Martin believes farmers have a duty to the public - which help subsidise their work, and then buy their produce - to look after the landscape.
“As a farmer, I receive taxpayers’ money to support my farming practice and it’s always been about producing more and cheaper food. The model hasn’t always worked. We have produced cheap food, but it hasn’t been with a good environment.
“If we’re going to receive public money, I want it to help manage my farmed landscape and hopefully the consumer will give me a reward for the commodity I’m producing, whether it’s wheat, barley, sheep, pigs… it doesn’t matter.
“We need a fair price for what we produce above the cost of production and we can be rewarded for the stewardship we have. If we want future money from the public, I’d like the public to be proud of what I’m delivering for their money.”
Martin produces winter wheat, winter beans, spring barley and oil seed rape on his farm and said many of the environmental measures are straightforward.
Skylark plots provide an area of land for skylarks to land and forage in, within the wider protection offered by a crop field.
“You drive along with the drill, lift it up, drive forward for a few metres and then drop it down. It’s nice and easy. It’s just that mentality and mindset that I can do this,” said Martin.
Martin has also won a contract to farm at nearby Hope Farm, in Knapwell, run by the RSPB to investigate and demonstrate wildlife-friendly measures.
There, skylark plots helped the number of skylark territories quadruple from 10 in 2010 to 43 in 2015.
“For a lapwing plot you just miss a piece in the field. It’s simple measures to leave a bit of room.
“Traditionally, when we harvested a field, we would mow the outside, mow the hedge, cut everything back. Where’s the wildlife going to go? We leave no habitat for anything.
“We’ve been adding this habitat for a number of years now and I’m doing more and more, because it’s joining it all up and leaving room for the wildlife to go.
“The pollinators help me by pollinating my crops. The hoverflies and other insects are eating the aphids so I don’t have to put insecticide on.
“I can let wildlife and nature really support me in my business.”
The farm still has products it can use if disease is rife but Martin aims to use as few “artificial” substances as possible.
“We have an integrated system of finding the best seed varieties, the best technology and the best delivery and delivering good, sound, healthy food.”
Six barn owl boxes can be found around the site, along with 70 other nest boxes.
“I want to tell the story of what we are producing on this farm and how we’re producing it to the public because it’s the public’s money. The public needs to understand why I farm this way and how it works for farming, for the environment and hopefully for good, sound healthy produce,” said Martin.
The Nature Friendly Farming Network
An independent organisation, established in November 2017, the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN) unites farmers passionate about wildlife and sustainable farming.
The network is committed to securing farming policies that support wildlife, sustainable agriculture and fairness for farmers across the UK. The network argues a post-Brexit agriculture policy should:
1. Help farmers to produce safe, healthy food at the same time as helping our soil, landscapes, rivers and wildlife to recover and flourish.
2. Maintain and redirect farming payments towards mainstreaming nature-friendly farming.
3. Recognise that the shift towards a more nature friendly approach is not just good for wildlife but is key to the long-term survival and success of farming, delivering broader benefits to the public.
Martin Lines, who chairs NFFN, said: “The network is free for farmers to join to share best practice, come together, and have a championing voice. But also it’s free for the public to join, so we can communicate our message and know we have the public on board supporting those like-minded farmers.”
Visit nffn.org.uk for more.