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UK crop farmers 'rejecting food production in favour of becoming Minsmere reserves', expert fears

PUBLISHED: 14:38 15 November 2019 | UPDATED: 14:38 15 November 2019

Red deer at Minsmere - are Suffolk farmers thinking of turning their backs on food farming in favour of wildlife conservation?   Picture: CHARLES CUTHBERT

Red deer at Minsmere - are Suffolk farmers thinking of turning their backs on food farming in favour of wildlife conservation? Picture: CHARLES CUTHBERT

Charles Cuthbert

Fears have been raised that Suffolk's farms could be turned into wildlife reserves which reject food production.

Could Suffolk farmers end up rejecting crop growing in favour of becoming nature reserves?  Picture: JUSTIN MINNSCould Suffolk farmers end up rejecting crop growing in favour of becoming nature reserves? Picture: JUSTIN MINNS

Anna Beames, chief executive of farm conservation body Suffolk FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group), fears that because of dramatic shifts in agricultural policy and the subsidies that underpin them, farmers are reassessing what they do.

She is concerned that the pendulum may have swung too far, with growing trees and hedgerows seen as core to their future - at the expense of their traditional role as food producers.

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"What I'm noticing on the ground is a change in dynamics within farming - they are almost packing up on production," she said.

Farmers were looking at becoming "more like Minsmere, which caused a slight panic in me, because Minsmere doesn't produce food", she said.

Suffolk FWAG chief executive Anna Beames Picture: SARAH CHAMBERSSuffolk FWAG chief executive Anna Beames Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

Former environment secretary Michael Gove made it clear while in office that he wants to see a shift in how farmers are subsidised - away from food growing and towards environmental measures.

Traditionally, under the European Union's (EU) Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the bulk of farm support has been for growing food. But this is a hangover from the post-war period when food was short and populations were close to starvation.

In recent years, there has been a gradual shift away from this, but in the UK the government is keen to enshrine its focus on "natural capital" and "public money for public goods", such as wildlife and other environmental benefits, through a new post-Brexit subsidy system.

Suffolk FWAG, which is set to hold its annual awards evening at Trinity Park, Ipswich on Monday, November 18, advises farmers and supports them in trying to run commercially successful operations with food at their heart while at the same time incorporating measure to support and revive wildlife.

RSPB Minsmere's reedbeds  Picture: DAVID TIPLING/RSPBRSPB Minsmere's reedbeds Picture: DAVID TIPLING/RSPB

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But just as farmers became more and more efficient in how they produced food in the post-war period, now they are gearing their businesses towards different goals, said Ms Beames.

"It's following the money again," she said.

However, it is still unclear what proportion of what they received through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) they will get in a post-Brexit future.

A bittern at RSPB Minsmere - could looking after endangered species become the number one priority on farms?  Picture: RSPBA bittern at RSPB Minsmere - could looking after endangered species become the number one priority on farms? Picture: RSPB

Ms Beames said she seeing a polarisation happening on the ground, with some farmers - particularly in livestock - being vilified or even receiving death threats.

"It's a very strange dynamic," she said.

Farms were moving towards becoming "protected areas" as opposed to farms, she said, because of the challenges of combining the two elements.

"I'm not the only one who's saying it - it's a very difficult sell to farmers," she said. "There are certainly ways of doing it, but the question that arises on a big commercial scale when you scale those things up, it's challenging."

Richard Young, policy director for the Sustainable Food Trust and organic livestock farmer  Picture: ROBERT BARBOURRichard Young, policy director for the Sustainable Food Trust and organic livestock farmer Picture: ROBERT BARBOUR

The theme of this year's Suffolk FWAG Awards for Excellence in Ecological Farming night is sustainable food production and the title is: Can green greens put you in the black?

Farms in the spotlight include S & G Flaxman, White House Farm, Sotherton - which manages a closed herd of suckler beef grazing the marshes around Southwold - and Paul Read's traditional orchard business at Home Farm, Thrandeston, near Diss. Guest speaker is Richard Young, policy director at the Sustainable Food Trust and an organic livestock farmer. The charity's mission is to help accelerate the transition to more sustainable food and farming systems.

The event takes place at Trinity Park, Ipswich at 5.30pm. Refreshments will be provided. Booking is essential - email diane.ling@suffolkfwag.co.uk or phone 07973 784861.

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