“Grim reading” but farming can help reverse biodiversity losses

THE STATE of Nature report says nature-friendly farming is one of the key areas for creating a greener future amid an alarming picture of the ongoing loss of biodiversity.

The Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN) says that while agriculture has been a driver of nature loss, it can also play a crucial role in the solution.

The NFFN says that the latest State of Nature report makes for grim reading, but it also contains seeds of hope for how the situation can be turned around. The report paints a disturbing picture of major losses of nature across the UK, with agriculture being identified as a key driver of biodiversity losses.

The NFFN believes that farming has a crucial role to play in reversing the situation, and they’re calling for well-funded, well-delivered and targeted schemes that will succeed both for nature and for agricultural businesses. The NFFN was pointed out as part of the report, which included how they have brought together thousands of farmer members across the UK who want to farm in a more sustainable way which works for both nature and agricultural businesses. It acknowledges that NFFN’s “ongoing work” has had “multiple benefits for species and farmers”.

There are thousands of farmers who are already working with nature to turn the tide, and they need to be properly supported and financed by governments across the UK.

Martin Lines, NFFN CEO, said, “With significant, rapid declines being demonstrated throughout our natural world, the State of Nature Report makes grim reading. The loss of biodiversity will impact our ability to feed ourselves well in the future and to adapt to a rapidly warming world.

“Despite the worrying picture the report paints, it provides hope that things can be turned around. Through the widespread adoption of nature-friendly farming we can restore nature in our fields and in our landscapes, for the benefit of long term business resilience and economic prosperity. We now need a clear vision for the future alongside the political will to make this a reality.”

The report says increasing nature-friendly farming, along with sustainable forestry and fishing, is one of five areas which are key to how the UK is responding to the biodiversity challenges it faces.

It says that while there has been an overall increase in farms participating in nature-friendly schemes compared to a couple of decades ago, saying “there is a long way to go”. The report calls for: “nature-friendly farming…to be implemented at a much wider scale to halt and reverse the decline in farmland nature”.

The report says agriculture is currently responsible for around 11% of the UK’s emissions and agricultural intensification since the post-war period is the biggest driver of biodiversity decline in the country. It also states that farmland birds across the UK declined by around 59% between 1970 and 2019, a more significant drop than wider biodiversity losses in the same time period.

The report acknowledges that farmers across the UK are taking steps to conserve wildlife on their land and notes the roll-out of agri-environment schemes to encourage better environmental stewardship of farms. It notes that analysis of these schemes has so far shown mixed results, with some showing significant improvements for nature and others showing little difference between farms inside and outside of agri-environment schemes.

In England
Since 1970, England has seen an average 32% decline in species abundance and an 18% decline in the distribution of invertebrates. It is concerning that insect groups providing vital ecosystem services for food production have seen bigger drops, with an average of a 22% decline in the distribution of pollinators and 40% for pest controllers.

More than half of flowering plants have also decreased in abundance since 1970, while 13% of the species which have been assessed are threatened with extinction in England.

Farmland birds have also suffered a particularly large and worrying decline, with an average drop in abundance of 59% in England since 1970. This compares to an abundance drop of just 16% for common breeding birds.

With 69% of England’s land used for agriculture, it is clear that farming has a massive role to play in the preservation of nature. The report highlights the increasing intensification of farming in the decades since World War II as the prime cause of biodiversity decline in the country.

The report acknowledges steps are being taken to promote nature-friendly farming, with a rapid increase in the amount of land in higher-tier agri-environment schemes, but claims that attempts to measure this have not yet shown farmland biodiversity stabilising or recovering.

NFFN wants to see the Government’s Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes and higher-tier arrangements go further and faster for farmers who want to do more for nature while being more ambitious in their aims to protect nature. In addition, more funding will be required if a greener and more nature-friendly approach to farming is to be rolled out at scale across England as the report suggests should be done. Crucially, improving and preserving biodiversity is crucial for food security across the UK.

In Wales
On average there has been a 20% decline in species abundance across Wales since 1994, though the report could only analyse a smaller number of species than for the UK as a whole. Plant life across Wales is changing, with both decreases and increases in distribution. Generally, flowering plants have declined across upland regions. More positively, though, pollinating insects have increased on average by 14% since 1970.

The report says that across both lowland and upland areas in Wales, nature has faced pressure from recent agricultural practices such as more intensive grassland and moorland management, loss of landscape-scale habitat diversity, high-input and intensive livestock grazing and impacts on specialist species such as those associated with declining agricultural habitats such as low-intensity arable land.

The picture for plants across Wales varied considerably, with little change in lowland areas but steep declines in plants associated with calcareous grassland, a picture also seen across the UK. This could be due to both under-grazing and over-grazing by cattle and pollution.

The report says the new Sustainable Farming Scheme, set to begin in 2025, is seeking to address some of this and conservation organisations are calling for it to maximise nature restoration, carbon storage and reducing pesticide and nutrient run-off into rivers.

NFFN Cymru, though, has gone further, saying that the consultation coming up on the Sustainable Farming Scheme is a critical opportunity to ensure it is ambitious enough to tackle the scale of the challenges laid bare in the report.

NFFN Cymru believes there is a real risk that without a sustained push for far-reaching and well-funded policies with nature and biodiversity at their heart, the scheme could be watered down when it comes to environmental goals. It says policymakers need to be very clear about how funding is going to work and be used to deliver the required outcomes while also warning that protecting biodiversity is a vital part of ensuring food security for the country

In Scotland
NFFN is calling on Scottish policymakers to deliver much more ambitious goals in line with the scale of the problems outlined in the report in the Agriculture Bill, which is being worked on by Holyrood. It’s vital that the scheme is well designed and is clear in its purpose, so the majority of funding goes towards outcomes that benefit biodiversity while also improving soil health and water quality. Otherwise, the Agriculture Bill risks handing out payments that actually deliver poor value for money to the Scottish taxpayer while also failing to put the agricultural sector on a more resilient and profitable path.

The report acknowledges that when it comes to nature, the picture in Scotland is a little different to other parts of the UK. While species abundance is, on average, down by 15% since 1970, the distribution of invertebrates has increased by 15% while other parts of the country have seen declines. The report suggests this could be due to species formerly found further south moving northwards due to climate change.

Farmland bird indicators have also increased by 13% between 1994 and 2021, the report says. While this initially seems different to the declines recorded elsewhere, the report notes the timescale used in Scotland is shorter, and therefore losses from earlier periods of agricultural intensification are not included in the data. Abundance trends are generally more positive in areas with livestock farming than arable agriculture, but upland birds saw a 21% decrease over the same time period.

There have also been particularly notable decreases in plants associated with arable farming areas. Scotland supports around three-quarters of Great Britain’s plant species, and some 57% of these have become less common since 1970. Agriculture has been linked to some of these declines, with reasons including increased use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides, the decline of small-scale cropping in crofting areas and changes from hay to silage production.

In Northern Ireland
When looking at the current and ongoing picture for biodiversity across Northern Ireland, the report says the decline of farmland birds is of particular concern. The abundance of 17 farmland bird species, on average, fell by 43% across Northern Ireland since 1996. Across all 64 breeding birds assessed, species’ abundance declined on average by 10%. Invertebrates, on average, declined by 24% between 1990 and 2016.

Agriculture land covers just over three-quarters of Northern Ireland, and the report says mixed farming has largely given way to improved grassland for livestock grazing. Stocking densities are likely to be higher in Northern Ireland, given the smaller size of its farms, while pig and laying hen numbers have increased in recent years.

Agriculture is also the only sector in Northern Ireland which has seen an increase in greenhouse gas emissions since 1990 and is now the country’s biggest source of emissions, responsible for 27% of the total.

NFFN wants to see ambitious goals to address the challenges outlined in the report, and the Farming With Nature package needs to have this in mind. The organisation says it is vital that funding goes to farming schemes which protect and enhance biodiversity while also warning that failure to protect nature is a massive food security issue for the country.

Their recent report used the concept of maximum sustainable output (MSO) to study 17 farms and show how working within the natural limits of the land, rather than using artificial inputs, can make agricultural businesses more profitable by cutting their costs. In some cases, the report found farms could also increase their outputs without exceeding natural limits. This report was recently presented to MLAs and the press at Stormont.

Nature-friendly farming: a solution
Farmers in the NFFN who have already seen the benefits of a more nature-friendly approach to agriculture have spoken of the need for better financial support and for schemes which help farmers work with rather than against nature.

James Baird, an arable farmer with 1,300 acres of land in West Sussex, has comprehensively brought nature back to a former site of intensive agriculture by planting hedgerows and digging ponds. He said, “Among most farmers, there is a general acceptance that the abundance and diversity seen in our younger years has declined. Simple anecdotal evidence, such as the lack of bugs on windscreens, supports this.

“We see declines in the State of Nature report that are alarming, but this baseline shift is a whole of society issue that’s not just restricted to agricultural land management. Nature is assaulted by many arenas. It is not something agriculture can address in its own right, but UK farmers have an important role to play.

“Navigating the delicate balance between food production and nature recovery is not straightforward, but forward-thinking clusters are managing to find compromises; those win-win situations where one of the winners is recovering species.

“There is a distinct lack of leadership sending conflicting messages to farmers and political dilly-dallying has a damaging effect on uptake of schemes. Messaging needs to be clear from all leaders, including our farming organisations. If every single farmer introduced simple adaptations towards nature-friendly farming, cumulatively, it would have the power to turn the tide. We need to just get this done on individuals’ terms. If we ignore this opportunity to be at the centre of the solution, there is a real risk that measures will be imposed beyond our control.”

Patrick Barker farms on 550 acres of land in North Suffolk, growing cereals and other arable crops. He has introduced a nature-friendly approach on-site and also runs an environmental contracting business from the farm. He said, “For me, farming in this way is about four things: business, wildlife, carbon, and people. It’s about having a productive farm that makes money and is good for our bank balance. This way of farming is also good for wildlife. It’s good for our farm’s carbon footprint.

“I think everyone has a real intrinsic love for the countryside in some way, shape or form. It’s just finding how we turn that into a way of farming that benefits everything and everyone.

“It’s about providing a balanced landscape, a balanced business, and supporting people to do it in the right way.”

In a further sign of the demand for more support for nature-friendly farming, more than 2,000 people across the UK have signed a petition started by Cumbrian farmer James Robinson saying the government needs to do a lot more to support upland farmers and ensure more farms are able to access higher-tier agri-environment schemes. Despite the petition’s relevance in England, farmers have taken to social media in response to the petition, showing UK-wide support for improvements to government schemes.


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