Hopes that Agriculture Bill will herald a new dawn for nature-friendly farming

Martin Lines - chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network

Martin Lines - chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network - Credit: Archant

Last week’s Agriculture Bill emphasised the importance of the environment when working the land.

Michael Gove MP (right) with chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network Martin Lines at his farm

Michael Gove MP (right) with chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network Martin Lines at his farm in Cambridgeshire - Credit: Archant

Few could have anticipated that when Michael Gove became Environment Secretary following a cabinet reshuffle in June 2017 that just over a year later the Conservative MP for Surrey Heath would be feted by the green lobby.

But following the introduction of the Agriculture Bill into Parliament last week, Mr Gove’s stock has gone up considerably in the eyes of many environmentalists, who are cautiously positive about the “historic” (Mr Gove’s word) change in direction the bill signals for the farming sector.

Brexit has afforded an opportunity to move away from the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to a new payments regime where farmers are rewarded for delivering environmental ‘public goods’ rather than for how much land they farm. The long-awaited bill includes a seven-year transition period from 2021 for farmers to adjust and still has to be debated in Parliament before it comes into force, so there is a lot of detail yet to be finalised, but for many it offers a real opportunity to manage the countryside more sustainably and to reverse some of the drastic losses of wildlife and habitat witnessed in recent decades.

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Mr Gove was in East Anglia on Thursday to visit a farmer at the forefront of this change in thinking. Martin Lines is chairman of the Nature Friendly Farming Network - a national membership organisation formed around the belief that nature-friendly farming is not only better for wildlife but is also the most productive and sustainable way of getting food from the land.

Mr Lines showed Mr Gove around his 460-acre Papley Grove family farm in Cambridgeshire where he grows winter cereals but has also implemented a host of nature-friendly measures: wildflower margins have been planted to attract pollinators; cover crops sowed to hold in nutrients and reduce fertiliser use; while wildlife corridors have been created to connect natural features such as rivers, woodland and hedgerows.

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Mr Lines described Mr Gove’s visit as “very productive”.

Sunflower on Martin Line's Papley Grove farm

Sunflower on Martin Line's Papley Grove farm - Credit: Archant

“I was impressed by his vision of a better way of managing the land where food production doesn’t damage the long-term health of the countryside - I think he sees the bigger picture,” he added.

It can be said with some surety that Mr Gove will have departed similarly inspired by Mr Lines ideas about balancing farming productivity and profitability with environmental health, and of thinking holistically about the best use of land.

He said: “Some areas of land may be more productive than others - it may be that the best land is used to grow crops and the less productive land is used to deliver for wildlife. Land that always floods might be given over for flood alleviation and poorer areas might be used to plant trees for carbon capture, and the farmer would receive a public payment for any loss of income and for helping society.”

The appliance of science

In Mr Lines’s brave new world technology plays a big part - he is already using GPS technology to develop a detailed map of the nutritional quality of his land, enabling him to move away from a blanket approach to applying fertilisers to a situation where he can tailor his inputs and concentrate on feeding the areas that offer the highest yields.

“It’s getting back to an old-fashioned approach to farming where a farmer walked behind his plough and really knew his field,” said Mr Lines, who has also been talking to a robotics company that is developing a computerised go-kart that uses image scanning technology to identify disease in young crops and can spot-treat individual plants with the minimal amount of pesticide.

Mr Lines, who also welcomed wildlife campaigner Chris Packham to his farm recently, said the new bill makes provision for farmers to receive support - training and funding - to get up to speed with these techniques and technologies.

(From left) Chris Packham and Martin Lines at Papley Grove Farm

(From left) Chris Packham and Martin Lines at Papley Grove Farm - Credit: Archant

Read more: Chris Packham talks of uniting conservation with farming on stopover in East Anglia

“There are a whole load of farmers who believe in this approach but the system so far hasn’t worked for them - and there are still a lot of farmers who only believe that they are food producers- because it is what they have been told for the past 70 years,” he said.

“For some the change will be a real struggle and it is expected that the transition period will offer the older generation an opportunity to exit the industry to be replaced with fresh, young blood with new ideas.”

Around 70% of the UK is farmland and Mr Lines says farmers must step up to the plate and accept that they have a responsibility to manage this valuable asset for wildlife and people. It’s a role he believes the majority cherish.

“Most farmers love the countryside and love seeing their patch buzzing with life,” he added. “People come here and are amazed at the wildlife they see. It’s something I see everyday when I’m out walking my dog – we sometimes forget how privileged we are to work with the land.”

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