There is a new “threat” to farming, in the form of Rewilding, this is where an estate owner turns over their land to return to a wilderness including scrub and less desirable plants or weeds for nature to occupy while producing a miniscule amount of high quality food. The benefits for wildlife are tremendous, as noted in the book Wilding by Isabella Tree. A book, in my opinion a better read than I suspected it would be. The family’s experiment on rewilding their estate, which was largely heavy clay among the woods of West Sussex succeeded in getting various species out of the pigeonholes we have put them in. For example, the Purple Emperor butterflies that inhabit the upper reaches of tall oak trees, given a choice were coming down to copious amounts of naturalised sallow to breed. To complete the picture, previously the estate covering 3500 acres with a large milk producing dairy herd and an arable department growing wheat and other combinable crops which due to the heavy weld clay would have had reduced grazing and growing periods. Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burroughs have with the help from English Nature and the Basic Payment Scheme, left the land to the natural biodiversity of eco systems or nature as we used to say. Safaris and glamping are the order of the day with London not so far away who would blame them. But so long as the subsidies are there and not everyone does it, it will and has worked very well.
However I noted a while ago that when I would come home for lunch in my Land Rover I’d sometimes go back to the truck to get something I’d forgotten and there would always be a cheeky robin looking in the thick tyre treads for worms and bugs to eat. This got me to notice how much wildlife has adapted to our modern agricultural systems. I appreciate the calls and songs of skylarks and lapwings that have adapted to our cultivating and grazing of fields. Both requiring plenty of wide open space to see approaching dangers. They are both regarded for centuries as Farmland Birds.
Where do these species fit into a rewilding situation? Where tussocks of grass and scrubby bushes are the norm. The robin no doubt would get on fine, they usually do. The foraging free ranging pigs would unearth worms and invertebrates for them to eat. But the lapwing and the skylark would fare less well with reduced open vistas available. After all wilding is targeting an era back around the Iron Age, pre farming revolution.
In the past I have been involved with conservation organisations to help in the preservation these species, it is relatively easy to modify a grazing rotation to provide shelter and sanctuary with grass covers by altering the length of time between grazings. The benefit of rotational grazing is the roots develop more, thus encouraging abundant soil life and this in turn provides plenty of insects for the birds to consume. This food source is readily available as the longer covers are grazed off and this is, no doubt, how these birds and other forms of wildlife have prospered in days of yore. Nothing new in rotational grazing, it has probably been around in some form for centuries, before we got lazy and embraced set stocking.
So back to the arguments of the conservation brigade, Land Sharing or Land Sparing.
The above like Knepp estate, through Land Sparing sets aside huge tracts of land for wildlife and a bit of food.
Whereas Land Sharing which we are more used to, where a lot of food is produced in vast areas but have small parcels for conservation such as Stewardship strips or Downland restoration areas. These are managed for conservation and have prescriptions attributed to them.
There is much more potential in producing food in harmony with nature with the latter philosophy, but we need to shape up our farming methods. If we said to ourselves, we do not need to cultivate like the Second World War has just finished or fertilise or spray chemicals like there’s no tomorrow. We need to accept few crop failures while we build resilience in the soil. We need to have confidence in the biology of the soil and not the agronomist.
That would mean Min Till methods of crop production and rotational grazing of biodiverse swards for milk and meat producing ruminants to improve soil health. Building up the invertebrates that would allow wildlife to prosper. And not just from a 6 metre strip around a field, where you then get this great divide between feast and famine. The soil health of these strips is far superior to the rest of the field even after a year of no interference from sprays, fertiliser or cultivations. Can you imagine the increase in life if the rest of field are farmed in this way or even the rest of the farm?
I’ve read Wilding by Isabelle Tree and I’ve read Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown and reinforced my belief that we can be so much better in producing food in an environmentally friendly manner. My worry for farmers is not that the architects of future schemes have read these books too, but which one they have found the most favour with.
With the adoption of more biology in farming min till and rotational grazing becoming more widespread farmers will come to realize the financial and physical advantages. Also, a general awareness in the need to reduce the massive inputs that go into modern agriculture, concentrates, fertiliser and chemicals which are costing the farmer dear. Time to get off the Yield Bandwagon and learn that the size of crop, beast or yield doesn’t matter!
This brings us to the above illustration (apologies for the screen shot) this shows gross farm income versus realised net farm income from Canada, illustrating the advances in agricultural technologies.
Starting in 1947 and in chronological order farm costs have increased with the adoption of tractors and combines, electrification, fertiliser use ( first 4 fold then 20 fold ), herbicides, 4 wheel drive tractors, widespread glyphosate use and more latterly adoption of computers and GPS and of lastly Genetically Modified crops at the turn of the century.
The graph clearly showing that huge amounts of money has gone to the auxiliary industries to support an agricultural industry that has largely plateaued in respect of yields. This is irrespective of farm subsidies, these are not included in either of the figures but are what keeps the farm afloat. The amount of money skimmed off the farmers vat is astonishing, amounting to millions if not trillions of dollars. I’m sure this situation is occurring in this country and Europe too. How do I know this because there are plenty of shiny kit, milking gizmos, fertilisers and chemicals being applied.
As a converter of traditional farms to New Zealand farming, I managed to get the farmer to look beyond yields and beyond gross income but to focus on absolute profit. To get a recognition of what is really necessary to power the farm and provide a good return on investment.
Now Biological farming is what will put money in the pocket and organic matter in the soil.
Its time we said “Enough is Enough “