Policy Officer and farming campaigner Harry Greenfield spent his first weekend of the month at Countryfile Live, taking in the show and talking to visitors about farmland wildlife, why farming is such an important part of the RSPB's work and making space for nature in a modern food system.
Earlier this month I joined tens of thousands at Blenheim Palace for the four day Countryfile Live event. Though influenced by traditional country shows, this ditched the usual vegetable growing and livestock raising competitions in favour of the awareness raising and showcasing of the British countryside that BBC’s Countryfile is known for. Unsurprisingly, given the popularity of the TV show, the event was larger and more ambitious than most other comparable shows, aiming to cover almost every imaginable activity or interest that takes place in rural Britain.
Farming and the countryside after Brexit
What better setting then, for a high profile announcement by the National Trust on their vision for the future of farming and the countryside? The RSPB welcomed this contribution to the vital debate over how, following the 'Brexit' vote, land managers and farmers can be encouraged to help protect and restore nature, while still producing food and an income.
Like the National Trust, we support nature-friendly farming and it is heartening to feel that we are part of a wider group of people - NGOs, farmers and nature-lovers - coming together to make this happen. This includes talking to government, and pushing for them to keep the interests of nature and wildlife at the centre of any future decisions. We’ll advocate that any future UK agriculture policy will keep the best parts of the EU system, such as support schemes for farmers who provide environmental benefits. As highlighted by the National Trust, however, too much public money is currently spent on agricultural subsidies that offer no guarantee of helping farmland wildlife or rural communities and this should change in the future.
The RSPB – working with farmers to save nature
The RSPB works hard both on our reserves and with farmers across the country to find effective farming techniques that create space for nature. Our stand at Countryfile Live gave a taste of this work in all its variety and I enjoyed speaking in more detail to those who visited it. I chatted to farmers and conservationists with firsthand experience of both the joys and challenges that face those living and working in the countryside. I also loved being able to explain to those who enjoy visiting our reserves more about how we work to create food and farming systems which work for people and wildlife. Given that around three quarters of land in the UK is used for agriculture it is vital that we take an interest in how this land is being managed and what the effects are on the surrounding environment and people. On the island of Islay in Western Scotland, for example, the RSPB farms on its Loch Gruinart reserve, helping manage the land for the benefit of geese, chough and red shanks among other species, while also managing to win prizes for their livestock at agricultural shows.
One of my favourite simple ways that farmers can help is the case of the corncrake. This shy bird, whose distinctive call is echoed in its scientific name – Crex crex, is threatened by modern farming practices. But these farmland birds can be helped by the simple act of changing how hay meadows are mowed. Mowing from the centre of the field outwards, rather than from the outside in, allows chicks to escape to the field edges. To me this is a perfect example of how information and advice, which the RSPB gives farmers for free, can make all the difference with just a small change to farming practice.
Another great RSPB success story is Labrador Bay in Devon, which the RSPB’s tenant farmer describes as “stress-free farming”, acknowledging the pride and joy felt from farming with and for nature. The reserve in on land that’s part of a working farm, bought by the RSPB in 2008 to help save the cirl bunting from the brink of extinction and is now a haven for the species. Restricted to a small corner of Devon, cirl buntings rely on hospitable farmland habitat and RSPB advisers have been working with local farmers to ensure that the land they manage helps the species thrive.
Our Countryfile Live stand brought the farmed landscapes of Labrador Bay to life, complete with real plants!
To achieve our vision for a sustainable food system we’ll need to build trust and understanding between even more conservation advisers and land managers, underpinned by support from government for farming that looks after our countryside’s future as well as its present. Luckily, we’ve met many farmers out there already taking or wanting to take more practical action to ensure that nature is at the heart of what they do.
Building a movement of farmers, cooks and eaters!
But to achieve the change needed means going beyond just those producing our food. A strong theme running through Countryfile Live was the link between how food is produced by farmers and growers and the end result on your plate, with much discussion of the provenance of the ingredients we use. It would be great to know the beef or bread you eat came from farms with healthy populations of birds, bees and butterflies.
I left even more excited about how from growers to shoppers and cooks, we might interact and support each other to ensure our farmed countryside is richer in nature, having caught a glimpse of this at Countryfile Live.
We would love you to join us in supporting the new Tree Charter, developed by our friends at The Woodland Trust. Find out why it's important, what it is and how you can help in this guest blog by Nick Phillips, Senior Policy Officer at the RSPB, helping to lead on our forestry policy work. Nick writes...
Next year is the 800th anniversary of the original Charter of the Forest. This ancient document was a companion to the Magna Carter and aimed to protect the rights of people to access and use the Royal Forests, which Norman rulers were increasingly restricting. This included house hold names such as the New Forest, famed for its diverse mix of heathland and woodland which are now so important for wildlife.
As we reach the anniversary, it is time for us to reflect on how we want our trees, woods and forests to look in the next 800 years. There are growing pressures in the form of climate change, disease, development and neglect. The UK’s woodland wildlife is in crisis. The State of Nature report is one of the most comprehensive stock takes of wildlife in the UK. It highlighted that 60% of the woodland species we have data for are in decline. These declines are likely to be due to a range of factors, but changes to the way existing woodlands are managed are thought to be key.
(Hawfinch is just one of the many woodland birds in severe decline in the UK)
Trees, woods and forests make our lives better in so many ways. For example they provide places for relaxation, connection to nature, help to fight climate change, combat flooding and cool urban areas. They need us to stand up for them more than ever. This is why we are supporting a campaign to develop a brand new charter for trees, woods and forests that celebrates all the reasons people value them.
This new charter will be based around people’s individual stories about their own personal relationship with trees, woods and forests. It might be a story about your favourite woodland wildlife moment or an old memory of a woodland walk with your family. We need your stories to help us understand what people want and need from the UK’s trees. Tell us what woods and trees mean to you.
Your woodland stories will help us create the building blocks of a charter which will ensure woods and trees get the support and care they need.
Share your story and stick up for woodland. Find out more here: https://treecharter.uk/
It's been a while since we posted anything about fracking so I thought you might appreciate an update on where things are at across the UK.
It's a mixed bag, to be honest, with some countries doing better than others - as you will see.
There is good news from Scotland, as a moratorium has been in place on fracking for shale gas and coal bed methane extraction for over a year, and this was extended to cover underground coal gasification in October. Two separate review processes are currently taking place and a public consultation is expected in late 2016. We are engaging both as RSPB Scotland and as part of Scottish Environment LINK, in particular to ensure biodiversity issues are covered in the review process, as well as raising concerns about climate impacts.
There is an interesting position in Wales in that they have a sort-of moratorium. Welsh Assembly Members have said they will call-in any fracking applications that would normally be considered by local planning authorities. This means that the Welsh Government would decide on whether permission will be given. Not surprisingly the fracking companies are pushing back on this. Larger applications might well be decided at the UK level, and there are proposals to change the devolution settlement with regards to such development types.
In autumn last year the Northern Ireland Environment Minister announced that there would be a presumption against any fracking proposals, unless companies could show sufficient, strong evidence of its safety on all environmental impacts. This is great news but we will continue to keep an eye on the situation.
There is a very different picture in England where we have been fighting, with your help, to save protected sites from being included in areas licensed for fracking.
The Energy Minister, Andrea Leadsom MP, recently told a Parliamentary group that it is the Government’s intention to ban fracking at the surface in all protected areas. This means that special places such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, including many RSPB reserves, will be put beyond harm’s reach.
The RSPB has long campaigned for special areas for wildlife and water to be no-go zones for fracking. Such a measure would protect rare and amazing wildlife like bitterns, water voles and kingfishers. This on-the-record statement from Government is very welcome. It suggests that when Government publishes its response to a consultation that was run in December last year, it will contain these protections. While these measures do not go as far as RSPB has been calling for, they are a sensible step in the right direction.
We consider that further changes are required in order to make sure that the UK’s regulatory framework for fracking is fit for purpose. These recommendations can be found here. But right now, we’d like to say thank you to all the campaigners who supported our online action asking Government to ban fracking in these special places.
Thanks to your efforts, it looks like we will get the decision we have been hoping for. We'll let you know as soon as we hear the Government's response.
If you haven’t yet taken the action there is still time to do so, in order to make sure that Government’s final decision is the right one. You can find it here.