What do Londoners know about farming?
In many cases the answer will be 'not a lot'. But collectively city dwellers hold a great deal of power over our farmed environment, simply because so much of our population lives in urban areas. They can influence our countryside both through their food shopping choices and because together they can help us ask Government to support wildlife-friendly farming.
We work hard to help connect the general public with UK farming and it's essential role in supporting wildlife. It's why we have a public vote to choose the overall Nature of Farming Award winner every year. And check out Martin Harper's blog today to see how he's calling on city folk to help us campaign for MEPs to support wildlife-friendly farming.
PS If you haven't voted yet in the Nature of Farming Award , or asked your MP to support great wildlife-friendly farmers, do it today!
Image courtesy of FreeFoto.com
I recently met with some farmers developing ‘Pasture fed’, a new initiative whose farmers will be giving a big NO to feeding their livestock grain. It will be grass, and more grass for their livestock.
You might think that this is no big deal...isn’t that what cattle and sheep are meant to be eating? Well, you would be right to an extent - we have a climate well suited to growing grass and this remains the backbone of cattle and sheep production in the UK. But farmers have long since supplemented grass and forage with cereal crops. Grains are highly nutritious, helping to balance rations and boost production. For centuries, the growing of arable crops (for both people and livestock) in rotation with grassland provided an ideal ‘mix’ of landscape diversity for our lowland farmland wildlife.
In the last half century however, we have seen livestock farming’s consumption of grain increase enormously and this has raised environmental issues. More than half of the grain grown in Europe is eaten by livestock. This has been mainly driven by our greatly increased consumption of ‘white meats’ which are dependant on grain diets. Hard to believe now, but not so long ago, chicken, turkey and pork were expensive luxuries (largely converters of waste food not suitable for human consumption). In the post war drive for increased production, grains have also become much more prevalent in the diets of cattle and sheep, but the quantities used vary greatly between farms. A dairy cow fed grass alone might yield around 5-6000 litres of milk in a lactation. But with quite a bit of grain included in the diet, yield can be boosted to 10,000 litres or more. Those involved with ‘pasture fed’ feel they can eliminate grain completely. Their main reason for taking this step is to make their systems more economically resilient through avoiding the fluctuating costs of bought-in grain, but they will also differentiate their product on its environmental credentials.
One of the main environmental issues with grain-based diets is the use of soya as a component. Soya is a protein-rich crop highly valued in livestock feed, but increasing global consumption of meat and milk is driving expansion of this crop in South America, and this is a major driver in the destruction of rainforest, cerrado and other important habitats. Another question often raised is that with ever increasing pressure on land, should so much good quality agricultural land be used to produce cereals for livestock rather than humans.
Will a ‘grass only’ only diet be good for wildlife? Well, less use of soya, especially where it is responsible for driving the destruction of toucans or other important habitats can only be a good thing, and something we should be striving for across the livestock industry as a whole. Avoiding excessive feeding of bought-in cereals is also a good thing, but the growing of arable grains for livestock is not necessarily always bad - in grass-dominated landscapes, research has shown that the introductiion of arable crops greatly helps many of the farmland birds we are most concerned about, such as tree sparrow, yellowhammer, skylark and grey partridge. The integration of the right types of arable crops could even potentially reduce reliance on imported soya. Also, grassland comes in many shades – it can be one of our richest wildlife habitats, dependant on livestock farming for it’s continuation, but it can also be very poor for wildlife when managed intensively.
The interaction of livestock farming and environmental issues is a complex story that even crosses continents, but one we are increasingly working on within the RSPB to try and safeguard a better future for wildlife both here and abroad.
As this is the farming blog, I'm guessing that many of you live on or near a farm (though we welcome and encourage everyone interested in farming).
If you do live on/near a farm, we're looking for your help. Did you Step Up for Nature by taking part in our annual Wildlife survey ‘Make Your Nature Count’ this year? If so, we’d love to hear from you. We are in the midst of producing our monthly podcast and would like to find out about any interesting findings on or near farmland. It will help us raise the profile of wildlife-friendly farming amongst the wider public.
If you think you can help and would like to feature in the August edition of ‘Nature’s Voice’, please get in touch with Gabi at firstname.lastname@example.org
Small blue by Will_wildlife
Taken at Cereals earlier this year..... in one of the sugar beet plots that had been carefully nurtured to be at it's best for the farming public to scrutinise was a litter of leverets. They seemed unperturbed by the 27,000 strong crowd, and made many people smile. And a smile is always worth sharing.
Leveret in beet: Kathryn Smith
2012 is a truly auspicious year in Britain, with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and a certain sporting event that cannot be named for legal reasons. But it is also an auspicious year in the sleepy Cambridgeshire hamlet of Knapwell, home to Hope Farm, the RSPB’s 180 hectare arable farm.
Changing farming practices and polarisation of cropping regimes has been great for us all as consumers. Rarely are supermarket shelves empty, prices are affordable for most and the variety of choice is staggering.
But the cost has been high for wildlife. There are one million fewer skylarks in England now, compared to the early 1970s. For every 100 grey partridges in 1970 there are now fewer than 10.
We would not want to turn the clock back, UK farmers are competing in a world market. But we firmly believe that it isn’t a choice between modern farming or wildlife, it can be both. It should be both.
In 2000, we put our money where our mouth is, and bought Hope Farm. We took it on as a going concern, and we set ourselves the challenge of maintaining profitability, increasing wheat yields and increasing key farmland bird numbers. We teamed up with local contractors, who carried out the cropping operations and husbandry and most of the conservation habitat management for us.
By 2011, key bird numbers had increased by over 200% on average, a truly amazing result. But it is even more amazing when you consider wheat yields had increased from 8 tonnes/hectare in 2000 to 11.5 tonnes/hectare in 2009, and profitability had been maintained throughout.
Poul Christensen, Chair of Natural England said during a recent visit “Hope Farm shows what can be done with support from Entry Level Stewardship. Farmland birds are returning and the local environment is in great shape - water courses are full of life and the field margins are buzzing.”
The needs of agricultural production and environmental challenges remain inextricably linked, but Hope Farm – and other wildlife-friendly farms across the country – are living proof it’s possible to boost one while addressing the other.
We are celebrating these achievements in a new publication ‘Hope Farm: Farming for food, profit and wildlife’, which you can download here (PDF, 1.6Mb)
We are setting ourselves new challenges of monitoring diffuse pollution and reducing our carbon footprint. We’ll be learning along the way – watch this space to find out how we get on.