Country custodians in spotlight

AN MP who lost his post as Farming Minister in a Cabinet reshuffle in September is set to reflect on his time at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) at a conference tomorrow.

Cambridgeshire MP Jim Paice was one of the shock casualties in Prime Minister David Cameron’s re-ordering of the top Government jobs. He was sacked alongside his boss, DEFRA Secretary Caroline Spelman. He is among the guest speakers at the second annual Essex Farming Conference, organised by the Essex Agricultural Society (EAS) and hosted by Writtle College in Chelmsford.

EAS chair and event organiser Rosemary Padfield said the theme of the event, Farmers, Custodians of the Countryside - Fact or Fiction, was aimed at a mixed audience of farmers, professionals and students.

“The idea is we are living with farming in an environmental way either through environmental schemes or because we choose to do that. How practical is that?” she said.

She hoped one or two of the speakers would be “a little bit controversial” in what they had to say, she added.

Mr Paice will be talking about the need for food in the future, the opportunities that presents to farming and the need to do it sustainably.

He will also be talking about the Green Food Project which he initiated while at DEFRA and about trying to resolve the “perceived conflict” between more production and conservation.

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“Obviously I shall also reflect a bit on my time in DEFRA,” said Mr Paice.

St Osyth farmer Guy Smith will be giving his own take on environmentally-friendly farming and how ideas about it can become confused.

“What I’m trying to say is that the conservation and production agendas are compatible with each other if they are executed with intelligent management.

“All too often we think in extremes as if the choice was between some sort of prairie-style wall-to-wall wheat production model on one hand or the Wallasea Island example on the other, where 4,000 acres of land used for food production since Tudor times is destroyed in the name of conservation so that it will never produce food again,” he said. “Farmers can find a middle ground where increasing food needs are met in the body of the fields and around the margins intensive conservation management delivers bio-diversity.” He added: “Conservation is often confused with abandoning land with the idea of leaving it ‘for the birds’ when actually what is needed is levels of management as demanding as the level of management needed to grow a good crop of top quality milling wheat. Whether its establishing pockets of nectar rich flowers or growing margins of plants that will provide food for birds during the ‘hungry gap’ of the late spring, it all requires intelligent management not just vague neglect.

“I also think farmers need to monitor the bio-diversity on their farms for themselves so they can see for themselves how successful their management is. Just as you would measure your wheat yields to check your agronomy is up to screatch so to you should measure your bio-diversity.

“For instance, on our farm we have ‘barn-owl’ margins designed to encourage voles which provide food for barn-owls and we have eleven barn owl pole-boxes on the farm on these margins. To monitor the success of this conservation work we ring barn owl chicks every year to see how the owls are doing. Owls are top predators so if you have good owl populations then you know the food chain beneath them is in good order - ie Owls eat voles that eat bugs that eat plants etc.

“The irony is that this year the owls had a bad year, not because of our magament but because the water levels in the ditches were so high many of the voles drowned. But again this is all about understanding the environment of your farm. The irony of using the Barn Owl as an indicator of a healthy farmland bio-diversity is that officially it is not considered a ‘farmland bird’ for the purposes of the Farmland Bird Index which is the main official index whereby farmland bio-diversity is assessed.

“This reflects a political agenda in the conservation lobby that focuses on declining species like the skylark and the water vole but ignores increasing species like the barn owl and the badger. This bias tedns to infect DEFRA. Hence why I think farmers should do their own monitoring.