Where have all the lapwings gone?
The lives of future generations are at risk unless we change the way we farm our land. Peter Nixon, our former director of land, landscape and nature explains why.
As a boy walking through my native Midlands countryside, I used to see black and white lapwings in wavering flight all year round.
Coveys of grey partridge were also widespread, as were flower-rich hay meadows. Now, these once unremarkable things have become rare and special.
Three out of five of the UK’s wildlife species have declined over the last 50 years, especially on farmland. And 31 per cent have strongly declined, meaning either that they’ve halved in abundance already or are likely to halve in the next 25 years.
They used to take canaries down mines in historic times. If the canary fell off its perch it signalled the presence of invisible, deadly methane.
The decline of our current bird, butterfly, bat and flowering plant populations signals the increasingly deadly condition of their habitats.
We have to recognise that nature is in trouble and then nurse it back to health.
Land and nature is vital for our essential needs. We've got to care for it better or the lives of our children and grandchildren are in grave danger.
Industrialised farming has played a major role in the decline of farmland bird species, loss of habitats, breeding grounds and food sources.
Nature is becoming fragmented. Soil is being lost through erosion, its natural fertility impoverished, with flood and drought impacts increasing.
We’re mining the land rather than harvesting it; living off our limited natural capital rather than on its interest.
Non-native species, disease and predation also play a part in nature’s decline. Disruption has also been caused by built development like transport and energy infrastructure.
The problem is exacerbated by climate change since extreme weather is becoming more likely and frequent.
" For a sustainable farming future, we need to reward farmers for generating clean water, maintaining healthy soil and caring for nature."
But farmers can’t be blamed. They’re doing what successive government policies have encouraged them to do – produce food.
For a sustainable farming future, we need to reward farmers for generating clean water, maintaining healthy soil and caring for nature.
Human activity is causing the decline in wildlife and the environment and human activity can mend it.
Our vision is that the land is healthy and beautiful, rich in nature and culture, and productive – of food, timber or renewable energy.
We want our land to contribute to thriving local economies where people have the skills to maintain all that makes it special.
Farming with nature
This means optimising food production rather than maximising it at the expense of land’s other services, like healthy soil and clean, slow moving water.
Many farmers recognise that some existing practices aren’t sustainable, in any sense. UK crop yields – the amount grown per hectare – were towards the top of the global league table in 2000.
Since then they have slipped down because our soils have become less fertile and less capable of enabling plants to absorb artificial fertilisers.
There has also been a significant decline in the effectiveness of agrochemicals in controlling weeds. We are all familiar with the over-use of antibiotics resulting in an increase in disease resistance. There would seem to be clear lessons here.
The creative use of technology to support sustainable food production can make an important contribution, but we must never assume technology is the master of nature.
It is essential we understand natural processes and where possible how to work with rather than against them.
In a post-Brexit world, farming faces an uncertain future. But there is a silver lining.
We’ve been working with government for years to improve the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy so it delivers more for the public good and addresses the challenges we face.
While CAP has started to change for the better, it still doesn’t provide enough public benefit. It has helped support a pattern of farming that has led to steep declines in many species.
There is now an opportunity to stem the decline in nature and change the story of farming in Britain.
With the support of leading landowners, businesses and government we can move towards a system where you reward farmers for providing public benefits.
For a sustainable future, we also need to think long-term about our investment in the land. We must encourage collaborative and strategic working for the greater benefit of wildlife and our wider environment.
We want government to:
- Protect. A replacement is needed for EU regulations farmers had to follow. This is to ensure minimum standards so that our natural and historic environment cannot be destroyed.
- Support. Direct subsidies cannot be justified forever but farmers and landowners need to be able to plan for the long-term since nature does not conform to Treasury funding cycles or the lifetime of a single Parliament. We think direct subsidies should continue but be tapered down over time. Defra needs to start planning how to help farmers move to the new model with support including training, advice and finance.
- Incentivise. Public funding needs to deliver public goods. We think this side of funding for farming should increase over time while direct subsidies declines. We’d like to see a payment for outcomes system that encourages cooperation between farmers and rewards public goods such as nature and healthy soils. We’d also like to see farmers paid to deliver public benefits such as slowing flood water, retaining carbon and preventing pollution of water courses.
Farming for our future
In the long run there’s no conflict between maintaining our ability to grow food and looking after the land and nature on which it depends. The first is utterly dependent on the second.
In the short term of course we can mine our land for food – but the chickens are coming home to roost. For our children’s future it’s a no brainer.
With supportive government policy, farmers can make their living in a sustainable way. It is vital to appreciate and protect all native wildlife - however common.
If we don't, it will become a distant memory like the lapwings of my childhood. Any more losses like this will threaten the very existence of humanity.