Michael Gove on Brexit, animal welfare and the future of rural Britain

Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove has been outspoken on farming and wildlife issues. BBC Countryfile Magazine asks him about his connections to the countryside – and his vision for it 

12th February 2018
Michael Gove on a Shropshire farm learning more about 'no till' practices

In an exclusive interview, Rob Yorke speaks to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove for BBC Countryfile Magazine

RY: Firstly, what are your personal connections to rural Britain and where do you love to walk?

MG:  Both sides of my family have connections to fishing and the sea and when I was growing up I would spend weekends in the countryside around Aberdeen. I’m particularly fond of a place called Cruden Bay, where you have Slains Castle, which helped inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula and that rugged coastline is dear to me. I’m very fond of Chobham Common in my Surrey constituency, which has wonderful heathland. Also, I quite like the big skies of East Norfolk. And I love east Somerset, an area of dairy farming, rolling hills – a classic West Country landscape. 

RY: You are the first secretary of state to address both Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) and its alternative the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC). Why? 

MG: It’s a bit like the Edinburgh Festival and the Fringe; the OFC is an established institution, bringing together some of the most thoughtful and progressive people, asking themselves questions about the future of food, farming and the countryside.

The ORFC represents those who are interested in a more organic approach, and what I found encouraging were those who don’t have a farming background but who want to work on the land – often in a small-scale way – to produce food for which there is a growing market. The other thing about ORFC is the sense of enthusiasm for the possibility of change and so the two complement one another, like a father and son (or Brian and Adam from The Archers). 

Countryside
Somerset, one of Gove's favourite areas of the British countryside | Credit: Getty Images

RY: Brexit is likely the end of land-based subsidies for farming, to be replaced by funding support for public goods. What results do you believe could be delivered? 

MG: There needs to be public investment in the countryside. We’re consulting on a system whereby farmers/landowners/land managers are paid for public goods, and helped to provide food. The existing Common Agricultural Policy led to some perverse outcomes with a desire to just drive up yield, not thinking of the countryside holistically. A few trees in farmland is currently regarded as an impediment, detracting from the amount of subsidy received. But we know that trees in farmland contribute to soil health, to providing a habitat for biodiversity. It will also, and I don’t apologise for it, make the countryside more beautiful. Provided the support is shaped in the right way, what we want to do is go with the grain of what the majority of farmers want to do, but also what the British public want and value in our countryside. 

RY: You recently said you’d like to “return cultivated land to wildflower meadows or other more natural states” – that hints at roughing up or rewilding some of the land, while intensifying productivity elsewhere with possible increase in food imports and even food prices. 

MG: I think we can have a virtuous cycle. Graham Harvey in his book Grass Fed Nation makes the case of meadows being part of mixed farms producing high-quality food. And as a country we’re increasingly moving in the direction of valuing quality and asking about provenance, so that direction of travel is both in tune with what’s good for the environment but also where the demand for food will be. 

But, you’re right, it’s also the case that there are technological breakthroughs where we can increase productivity through precision techniques applied to the soil, meaning inputs are less, cost to the farmer is less, but productivity overall is greater. 

Michael Gove
Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove | Credit: Getty Images

RY: The most progressive and best farmers can do more, yes, but in the remote uplands it’s harder to do that.

MG: There’s a particular fragility to farming in the uplands and obviously there are very thoughtful people who’ve argued that when it comes to the uplands we should go for a sort of full-scale rewilding. My view is that there may be parts of the uplands that are suitable for rewilding. But it’s also the case that there are other parts where we need to support traditional farming and I think it would be wrong for anyone who’s responsible for our countryside to allow that type of farming to be threatened. 

RY:  I took issue when you said in a previous interview: “there are no tensions between productive farming and care for the natural world” with one obvious tension being the use of agro-chemicals. 

MG: Yes, that’s a fair point. 

RY: If agro-chemicals such as neonics are banned, as you’ve suggested, what’s the balance, in the face of increasing crop disease, between regulation, innovation, investment in research and development?

MG: We should be guided by the science. The science initially indicated that perhaps the EU were going too far on neonics – now we’ve got better scientific evidence, we need to go further. So far the science indicates that glyphosate does not have the harmful effects that some attribute to it, and it is a valuable tool in minimal or no-till cultivation, so I’m behind its continued use. 

But in the future we may find different ways of developing crop protection, such as through advances in genetics. A more scientifically effective and precise approach towards chemicals should be encouraged within innovation aiming, ultimately, to enhance soil health. 

“You can’t have a healthy economy without a healthy environment.”

RY: We get very emotional about animal welfare whereas wildlife conservation is a completely separate issue. Should the Government take a stronger role in framing complex narratives, rather than leaving it to campaigners, charities, trade unions, NGOs and media? 

MG: Yes, I think so. These issues, quite understandably, always excite strong feelings. People are passionate about animal welfare, people care about our wildlife, so you’re always going to have individuals and organisations who will articulate the case for action. But I do think Government’s role should be to say these are assets that we value. We should take pride, as the Scottish Government has in fostering the reintroduction of the golden eagle, in encouraging the return of the beaver to British shores because they’re not economic decisions, they’re decisions about making our country a more attractive place from every point of view. The Government exists in order to make nations better places for their citizens, for the next generation.

RY: The Hen Harrier Action Plan has recently involved Natural England issuing a trial licence for brood management. It’s a complex subject for many people. Could the Government help frame this contentious issue?

MG:  Yes. I think that there is a role for Government but also more broadly the DEFRA family. We’re very lucky in this department to have people who have chosen to work here because the issues the department deals with are issues that they deeply care about. So one of the things I want to be able to do is to provide them with a platform to make a difference. 

Cruden Bay, Aberdeenshire
Gove spent weekends near Cruden Bay, Aberdeenshire, whilst growing up. It also inspired Bram Stoker's Dracula | Credit: Getty Images

RY: There was a Government U-turn seven years ago on the forest sell-off. Shouldn’t the Forestry Commission, not Woodland Trust, be leading on large-scale planting such as the Northern Forest? 

MG: The first thing to say is that the Woodland Trust does a fantastic job and the Northern Forest is a great idea. But there’s much more that all of us can do and we have an ambition as a government to plant 11 million trees in the lifetime of this parliament, and that will require action by the Forestry Commission, by landowners and…

RY:  Who’s going to pay for that? 

MG: I’ve asked to look at what the existing incentives are and the existing impediments. And we’re thinking of trying to support agro-forestry projects. 

RY: Money is tight and there are many Government departments demanding investment: NHS, education, housing etc. Does DEFRA fear its budgets being cut by the Treasury? 

MG: The Prime Minister has shown great leadership on environmental issues, not least the launch of the 25-year plan with the first speech by the Prime Minister on the environment for more than 10 years. So we respect the Treasury, because every penny is taxpayers’ money and we mustn’t be profligate or wasteful. But we don’t fear it, we think the Treasury understands the importance of investing in the environment, because you can’t have a healthy economy without a healthy environment and we need to take a more responsible approach on everything from plastics to soils.

RY: The trade deals that come out of Brexit will fundamentally shape how the UK countryside looks. Is there nothing we can do until the trade deals come out? 

MG: Organisations, such as Natural England, are already working with landowners to restore habitats and enhance their management. As alluded to in the 25-year environment plan, we want to follow on from Sir John Lawton’s recommendations to make space for nature, connect habitats at a landscape scale, which will ensure we can see wildlife return. Some of the countryside stewardship schemes are already returning farmland birds in numbers and also I’d like to think about how we can sensitively reintroduce and support native species.

RY:  In 25 years’ time, if you were flying over the UK, how would you describe the changes you can see below? 

MG: What I hope you will see is more mixed farming, more livestock in parts of the country that we might not have seen it in such numbers before, and we’ll see a more varied landscape, so slightly fewer fields of cereal and significantly more grassland pasture, trees, hedgerows, copses and woods with more wildlife as a result. Heathland in a healthy condition and, along our coastline, restoration of the wetlands, which provide vital habitat to waders. And I hope that what we’ll also see are people visiting, enjoying and appreciating the countryside and its natural beauty.   

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