Agricultural Policy To Blame For The Sorry State Of Nature

The latest State of Nature report was released this week to widespread debate on social media, and widespread coverage in national media. Though not all chose to dignify it, with the BBC in particular, and rather shamefully may I add, deeming the topic unworthy of a spot on the prime-time news. Combining the expertise and hard work of 50 conservation bodies, the report gives a brutally honest overview of the health of nature in the UK, and beyond, in her oversea territories. And, truth be told, does not make for overly pleasant reading, setting out a sombre tale of widespread and often catastrophic declines, and highlighting sorry state of wildlife populations in the British Isles.

Of the nearly 8,000 species assessed using modern Red List criteria, 15% are extinct or threatened with extinction from Great Britain.”

The overall message of State of Nature is not a positive one, with countless British species now at risk of extinction. With population trends suggesting that the UK has lost “significantly” more nature than the global average over recent years, and that between 2002 and 2013, that 53% of species have declined in the UK. A woeful set of observations by any standard, the blame laid predominately on the doorstep of policy-makers in the agricultural community, with changes in farming practice listed as a driving force behind many of the declines. And climate change coming in second, though the impacts of this have been mixed.

When talking specifically of farmland, the report states that “Over the long term, 52% of farmland species declined and 48% increased”, while over the short term, the overall picture was unchanged”. Ultimately reaching the worrying conclusion that, overall, “12% of farmland species are threatened with extinction from Great Britain”. With farmland birds and butterflies perhaps of greatest concern, declining by 54% and 43% respectively since the 1970’s. With the reasons for these worrying trends laid bare for all to see and including:

  • A switch from spring to autumn sown crops
  • A decrease in hay production and the subsequent rise in silage production
  • The increased use of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides
  • The loss of marginal habitats such as hedgerows and farmland ponds

If anything, State of Nature highlights a need for a rapid and radical overhaul of farming policy and a distinct change in how farmers  conduct their operations. No easy task, given the fact that we all need to eat, and that Britain’s population continues to increase each year. Yet I fear tough decisions must be made in order to protect species such as the High Brown Fritillary and Corn Marigold from further declines in the future. With many cherished species now standing on the edge of an abyss.


Obviously, the farming community did not take the findings of the report lying down, and many have come out fighting against the accusations. With both the NFU and former Environment Secretary Owen Patterson quick to highlight the beneficial changes in farming policy that have taken place in recent times. Which, to be fair, I agree with. Agriculture has, after all, come on leaps and bounds in the last few decades, through sympathetic management and environmental stewardships – which the report discusses in length. Though it is clear, to me, that this is simply not enough. And equally clear that Owen Patterson’s assertions that uncontrolled predator numbers are to blame for the downward trend in our wildlife, are completely ludicrous. Yes, predators can and will cause a problem from time to time – unlike many people in the environmental field, I accept this and often condone control – though would it not be better to tackle the fundamental, irrefutable problems faced by our farmland wildlife before shifting the blame?

I am not anti-farmer by a long shot, nor are those behind State of Nature it would seem. They do, after all, refuse to pin the blame on farmers themselves, choosing instead to tackle the dubious decisions of policy makers. Yet the findings of the report tell a worrying tale, and it is clear that action must be taken now. Action that I feel must centre on maintaining the existing subsidy system post-Brexit, and provide a clear financial incentive for farmers to make the right choice. Though the situation post-Brexit remains unclear, and the natural world could well suffer as a result of weaker environmental policies. Only time will tell.

It is important to remember that the situation on our farmland is not all doom and gloom. It is not great, by a long shot, but there are notes of positivity in which we may take some solace. As the Daily Mail (I cannot believe I am mentioning them here) were all too quick to point out in a recent article.

While the Mail’s apparent attempt to gloss over the woes of our countryside is troublesome, at best, and their dismissive stance in regards to the figures set out in State of Nature is nothing short of infuriating, I fear they do make a good point. For once. And one that fits with earlier statements made by high-profile members of the farming community. That a great deal of our wildlife is also increasing. Indeed, State of Nature shows that “44% of species increased, with 29% showing strong or moderate increases” with 48% of farmland species also increasingly over the long-term. With no change in the number of species threatened over a short-term period.

While “no change” may not immediately sound like a good thing, it is promising to learn that no new species have been added to the ranks of those facing impending doom, and with 48% of farmland species actively increasing, it is clear that some credit must be given to the farming community. So yes, Guy Smith’s statement that the “the environmental lobby should not criticise all the time but to also pay attention to the successes” may well be based in the realm of reality. Indeed it is very easy to criticise farmers, and I have seen many blog posts doing so over the past few days. Yet it should be remembered that they do, from time to time, conduct some wholly positive work, and, at the best of times, have a rather difficult job balancing the needs of feeding an ever-growing population with those of the natural world.

As Ben Eagle states a recent (and rather excellent) blog on the subject: “It is very easy to farmer bash and for farmers to take this personally and bring up the drawbridge“. Though in doing so, we shoot ourselves in the foot. The only way forward now is to build on past gains and work together, as a combined and effective force, to improve the state of nature. This will involve work with farmers, but also other groups with a stake in our countryside, and may prove difficult at times. It is, after all, not easy to forgive the slights inflicted upon the natural world. We must, however, pool our resources in an effort to sway policy in a more promising direction, and through education inspire cooperation, to achieve our goals in the future. Cooperation, of the kind demonstrated by the fifty or so NGO’s behind the State of Nature report, will be our only respite in the future.

Now many will disagree with me here, but to me it seems to that the time has come for conservationists to yield the moral high-ground, and take note of the positive achievements of others, and for additional factions, namely farmers, to take the warnings of conservationists on board. To abandon their entrenched positions and to help sway environmental policy in the right direction. The State of Nature report does not make for enjoyable reading, but it does contain glimmers of positivity, and provides a basis for unified work in the future. Work which our embattled wildlife so desperately needs if it is to surivive long enough to be enjoyed by future generations.


    1. James Common says:

      Likewise! I won’t pretend to know overly much about agricultural policy, yet the situation is an intriguing one. Comparable to the shooting situation I blabber on about so much, in relation to casting blame at least.

  1. robseago says:

    Thanks James,

    Indeed there are many farmers doing very good work with a great commitment to improve things in so many ways.

    The conservation bodies also have their successes. The needs of most of the butterflies for example are mostly known and manageable but the limited scale projects in such areas are dependent on funding, and cooperation from landowners. Likewise the restoration of wetlands is effectively coming of age; it is relatively easy in available places to expand the networks of scrapes, reed-beds and lagoons which draw in wildlife spectacular enough to impress people, but also to house the often scarce smaller invertebrates and the plants on which they depend.

    The concept of landscape scale conservation is essential to restore so many of the declining species. It is easy to get scrub, just leave things, but managing grassland, particularly flowery ones is by no means easy, and to have more than just a few token places we have to involve the general farming and land owning community. The balance needs to be better understood to maintain the balance between bare ground, small plants, ranker species and scrub, without always the brutal cut so often seen as the efficient economic way of doing it. We need to understand these things between us.

    In the wake of Brexit, I desperately hope that scientists will continue to be able to pool their work Nature is also declining across the channel. If we were able to win the fight for a more sensible equivalent to the CAP, the continent of Europe need that too.

    But we must also argue with those who blame predators, or sometimes conservationists for all the problems with our natural world.

  2. Tony says:

    Hi James,

    A corking good post as ever. However, I would suggest the issues revolving around the role of increasing numbers and ditribution of predators plays is underplayed by conservationists. Those who list birds and other wildlife species, alongside those who walk their patches with rigour must surely accept the demographics of generalist/specialist populations is one which increasingly favours the adaptable species type. You can see the shifting bird populations for instance, in your own datasets. If we don’t accept and moreover let the keepers, farmers and land-managers do something about this imbalance, many more species will end up on the verge of extincction. In fact, farmer’s fields and woodlands are becoming bare of such iconic species, thanks largely to human and predator disturbance as well as through competition with their avian neighbours.

    No time in conservation for blame games anymore, more like we have a need for another generation of game changers.

    Best Wishes

    Tony Powell and naturestimeline

    1. James Common says:

      Hi Tony – Pragmatic and correct as ever. I agree, to a certain extent, though the only increases I have observed from my personal data-sets are Magpie’s and Buzzard’s. There may well be a need to take species-specific action against generalists in a specific places. Though nationwide it is not an option I fear, and I do believe the root causes of declines should be tackled first, perhaps in coordination with a reduction in predation. Especially for farmland species. James.

      1. Tony says:

        Yes, that’s the best approach (a targeted one), where there is an overwhelming consensus that the predation pressures have reached a tipping-point then for christ’s sake, ACT! Sorry for getting a touch irate there but you know what, my years of datasets which a few members of the BTO team can access at will indicates a reflection of what’s going on in the real world. One which stresses an upward trend of generalists and invariably a downward trend for those less-fortunate species. I am in my forties so once you reach my ripe old age I hope your datasets reveal a better balanced picture than mine currently do, outside of managed reserves and keepered estates.

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