Farming Insight: ‘We are countryside custodians’, Essex Farming Conference told

Farmers are the custodians of the countryside, according to former Farming Minister Sir James Paice.

The MP for South East Cambridgeshire was one of several speakers invited to Writtle College on Wednesday to give his view on the role of farming in helping to preserve our natural assets.

Sir James, who addressed a mixed audience of farmers, farming professionals and students of the college at the second Essex Agricultural Society conference, is in no doubt that farmers do care for the countryside, although he admits mistakes have been made in the past.

“We are the custodians of the countryside, The countryside we see today has been fashioned by farmers for literally thousands of years,” he said.

“What we need to understand is that without farming, the countryside would be in a much poorer state.”

If land was left derelict, it would then be up to the state to look after it, he reasoned, and this would be costlier than any farming subsidy.

There was a consensus among the speakers at the event that environmental measures brought in by farmers and monitored by them were many times more effective than simply leaving nature to its own devices. Simply abandoning the land could lead to weed infestation and the proliferation of plant and animal species which are not under threat and in some cases are invasive and problematic.

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And Sir James was still pre-occupied with reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), having been at the forefront, until recently, of preparing for it. He believes that proposals to ‘cap the CAP’ by limiting what subsidy individual farms can receive could have profoundly negative consequences for the environment.

“I think it’s wrong,” he said.

“Most people will find a way round it. It will just lead to fragmentation of farm businesses and a lot of money to lawyers and it’s anti-competitive. It’s driving farmers in the wrong direction to break up.

“As far as what happens, I don’t know. Capping has appeared as a proposition in at least the last three rounds of CAP reform.

“This time I think it’s more likely to go through than before.”

Food waste was another issue which beset the industry, said Sir James.

“Food waste is a huge issue. It’s far worse in other parts of the world. It’s bad here in western society where for 60/70 years we have not really put a value on food. It’s got cheaper in relative terms and the shops are trying to get us to buy one, get one free,” he said.

“There’s no doubt at all a huge amount of food is being wasted.”

He said science should be used to help farmers to farm better - but it didn’t have to be at the expense of the environment.

“Just because you are farming one way doesn’t mean you can’t necessarily increase production if you are using science to help you do it.”

Efficiencies had been found across different parts of farming, including livestock, where milk production had increased dramatically, he said.

“I happen to be wholly in favour of science and GM and I think we should be using every tool at our disposal,” he added.

“I don’t think we necessarily need to destroy the countryside in the process.”

The countryside needed management, he said, and that was part of a farmer’s role.

“Effectively, with managed conservation land you could achieve more with 1% than 5% left derelict,” he said.

But he felt European policy was headed in the wrong direction on this issue. UK farmers had led the way in conservation, and this needed to be reflected in CAP reform proposals, he argued.

“I just hope that some common sense will break in,” he said. “We have done far more than most of the rest of Europe.”

But European Commissioner Dacian Ciolos needed to be “much more flexible” than he has been so far for that to be reflected in the policy that emerges, said Sir James.

St Osyth farmer Guy Smith explained the practical environmental measures he took on his farm, reputedly lying in the driest part of the country.

He stressed how important it was that measures should be managed by farmers to get best results. Conservation and production agendas are compatible, he believes, where they are executed intelligently.

There were conservationists who believed in the Wallasea Island model, where 4,000 acres of land used for food production since Tudor times was destroyed in the name of conservation and will never produce food again, he said, but argued for a different approach and a middle ground where land was protected from flooding and farmed, while at the same time, rare species were encouraged. Communicating with the public about what you were doing was also very important, he argued.

Farmers needed to get across that they were good conservationists and custodians of the countryside, he said.