Farming for Nature: Valuing our land and nature

Welsh Black cow and calf amongst the cottongrass on Hafod Y Llan farm
Published : 16 Feb 2016 Last update : 17 Feb 2016

It’s increasingly clear that our economy and society, as well as our environment, rely on land that is healthy and rich in wildlife. But too often over the last 70 years, farming practices have put short-term production ahead of the long-term health of the land and the natural environment. Wildlife has disappeared from our fields and hedgerows, over-worked soils wash out to sea and towns and villages flood. A changing climate will bring even greater challenges.

For many decades, there's been a variety of moves to better manage our national environment:

  • Organic farming can be better for socil and for wildlife but the markey for organic food has been in decline and not all farms can make it pay
  • Much of the countryside is now looked after by conservation minded organisations and individuals. They do great work but do not always join up sp that they add up to more than the sum of their parts and they'll only ever cover a small minority of land in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • The planning system, regulations (such as the EU Habitats and Waste Directives) and funding (for instance through the Common Agricultural Policy) have helped to protect nature. But there are limits to an approach based on regulation and public spending, both politically and in how much they can address other elements of the farming and food systems which reards more intensive and short-term farming.

These approaches are good but have not in themselves stopped the decline of nature.

Recognising the need for action and the limits of previous approaches, we will first focus on the land the National Trust owns. This will allow our land managers to first ensure all our land is in good condition and then to nurture our land to continue to improve. For National Trust land thai is let to tenants, we will work with our farmers but, particularly for more old style tenancies, our ability for rapid change is limited but will take opportunities wherever they arise.

Sometimes, often in upland areas, this will mean taking land out of primary agricultural production because it is more important for that land to hold or slow down water to prevent flooding to retain carbon in peatlands that are being eroded from grazing or because it offers an opportunity to experience the wild. We will be looking at how 'ecosystem services' like these can provide a financial return.

Farming, particularly with extensive livestock, will still be essential for grazed habitat management in these aread, but levels of production should be limited to align with these land uses.

Where we manage upland farms directly we take this approach, such as at Hafod y Llan, our largest farm on the side of Snowdon. Halving the number of sheep and introducing Welsh Black Cattle has been deliberate to improve nature conservation. Intense ecological surveying has reported significant habitat imporvements and we have recently employed a shepherd to ensure specific area are grazed sensitively for the right duration. Whilst we produce high quality beef and lamb, this is clearly farming for nature.

In other places, it's about farming differently to improve results such as making sure that the right crops are grown, changing the intensity of grazing patterns or moving away from intensive dairy farming. The National Trust's Fine Farm Produce Awards show how many of our farmers are already making a success out of this approach.

There is also more we can do to join up our places with others managed by conservation organisations so they can add up to much more. We've formed a close relationship with the Woodland Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB to work together more, as with our project at Fingle Wood. We will also work with our landowners and seek support to extend our partnership work with landowners and communities. This will enable land under a conservation regime to be bigger, better and more joined up.

There are ways for farmers to generate income and take the pressure off nature, from campsites to renewable energy. We are exploring what role we can play in these areas to work with our tenants and what central and local government could do to support this.

It is estimated that the damage that is being done to the soil and to natural systems means the UK only has 100 harvests left. Collectively it's time for us to make a start to restore the health of our country's land - not just for the sake of nature, but for the sake of our future too.