The accidental eco-vandal….

I was woken early the other morning. It was one of those now common off-kilter January days, eerily warm. The sound of a mistle thrush piping away, experimenting with his spring song after winter purdah, was enough to drag me from slumber and make me smile. It harked back to my time farming in Suffolk when, as I rattled up the farm drive on an ancient grey Ferguson tractor, numerous mistle thrush would flee in panic.

And, as is often the way when your mind sets off on an unexpected path, a statistic from Mark Cocker’s thought-provoking environmental treatise, Our Place popped into my head. The greatest decline in the number of breeding birds in the UK occurred between 1975 and 1987 largely as a result of the “…. state funded intensification in British agriculture….”.

Any chance of further sleep disappeared as I came to terms with the fact that I was part of that wildlife armageddon[1]. Those years coincide exactly with my time in farming and it goes without saying that I spent a high proportion of those years spraying noxious chemicals, weed killers that decimated our traditional farmland wildflowers[2], pesticides that annihilated the insect population and fungicides that probably contributed to the slow death of vital soil organisms.

If I wasn’t doing that, I was intensively tilling the soil in a way that drastically reduced worm numbers, mowing early in the year to foster the rye grass mono-culture that blights our countryside, spreading tonnes of nitrogen fertiliser destined in large part for nearby watercourses or flailing hedgerows to within an inch of their life.

It’s tough coming to terms with your own culpability. I’d been a naturalist all my life, obsessively collecting a magazine called World of Wildlife from the age of eleven, information from which still pops into my head unbidden even now. Bizarrely, one of the reasons I began farming was because I wanted to immerse myself in the natural world. What I didn’t know was that I would become its biggest threat.

Initially, I was blind to the effect I was having, so enthused by being in the fields all day every day that I failed to understand the consequences of my actions. Farming has that effect, it plumbs in to our natural desire for order, the intrinsic tidiness of a field of wheat and the lack of any weeds became a sin qua non. The technicality of it became an obsession, the desire to spray every inch of a field ensuring that no telltale crescent of weeds missed by the sprayer would be visible. I was blind to the damage I was causing.

I moved from farm to farm, spent time at agricultural college and was sent back to Suffolk for a placement on a 2000 acre estate in the middle of the East Anglian prairies. It was here the scales began to fall from my eyes.

One of the main crops was sugar beet and it was my job to spray those bulging taproots numerous times to deal with weeds such as fat hen. As time went by, I began to question the frequency with which we sprayed. It was almost as though it was a competition between farmers to see who could have the cleanest crop. I questioned the cost benefit of repeatedly spraying and was waved away with disdain. I even included it in the short thesis I had to write on my return to college and was disciplined for my cheek.

But it didn’t stop there. I was fascinated by the Vietnam war at the time and became aware that some of the chemicals used in the defoliant Agent Orange [3]by the Americans were still being used on the farm. I refused one day to use a spray on the basis that it was widely recognised as a dangerous carcinogen and had been banned in the states. I was given punishment duty wire-brushing the inside of an old diesel tank. The farm management berated me for the fact the chemical concerned, (2,4,5,T), had been cleared for use by the Ministry for Agriculture. It was banned in the UK the following year.

The philosophy on farms was that as long as the chemicals did the job, it didn’t matter how suspect they were. The precautionary principle didn’t exist. Who knows what effect these pernicious compounds had on micro-flora and fungi.

At that time, farmers were being encouraged to be eco-vandals. The subsidy system introduced post-war to encourage national self-sufficiency had been bolstered by our membership of the EEC. The Ministry for Agriculture was predicated on one thing only, the maximisation of food production no matter what cost to habitats and wildlife.

And here we are now in the midst of a biosphere crisis. Insect numbers have tumbled by 80%, bird numbers by up to 90%. There are potentially less than a hundred harvests left in much of our arable land. Soil organisms have been decimated, wild flowers the same. We subsidise wealthy land-owners and give them carte blanche to perpetrate outrageous acts of wildlife suppression from raptor persecution to rendering hedgerows threadbare.

Is there a way out of this? How do we begin to resurrect our wildlife? Is the increasing sense of hopelessness becoming all-consuming? Could it be that the very community that did this could help to resolve it?

There are many farmers who have realised the wildlife that was ubiquitous in their childhoods has all but disappeared. Many have begun to address the problem by allowing hedgerows to expand, planting headland wildflowers to encourage insects and planting deciduous woodland.

Unfortunately, they are still in the minority. However, if the UK decided to weight all farming subsidies in favour of wildlife, we could engineer rapid change. It is worth noting that the Knepp Estate[4]in Sussex was unprofitable as a commercial farm yet makes money in its rewilded state. Equally, it has only been rewilding for twenty years and the resurgence of native species in that time has been extraordinary.

There are numerous farms in this country that barely make a living. Much of our upland farming would go bankrupt without subsidies. What is to stop us from creating a paradigm shift in how we manage marginal land? Through subsidy, rid our uplands of pestilential sheep. I have seen moorland in the Peak District where reduced sheep numbers have resulted in massive pillows of bilberry regenerating. Imagine if upland pasture was returned to its original flower rich state?

But our chance for change is not restricted to marginal land. Subsidies could subtly shift the aims of those farming on the very best land. The same obsessions that resulted in the over-spraying of crops, a barely concealed competitive urge, could see farmers begin to compete to have the greatest resurgence in wildlife numbers. The psychological shift could happen very quickly, farmers who have been single-minded in there pursuit of productivity could slowly become nature champions as the insidious effect of being surrounded by the inspiring beauty of a world reshaped took hold.

Hopelessly optimistic? Well, I’m definitely one of those bushel half full people but I’m struck by the effect that reading Wilding by Isabella Tree[5]had on me. Although it covers the damage we’ve done at some length it is also massively upbeat about how quickly we can revitalise the natural world. Reading some of the doom laden diatribes that have been published in recent times does little to encourage action[6]. We have to emphasise the positives, give people a reason to both protest against the worst excesses of the acquisitive few while emphasising success stories about those who do care.