As the UK faces up to its divorce from the European Union, there is anxiety around our withdrawal from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – a policy as equally misunderstood as it was hated – its complex rural social funding streams encompassing farming, forestry and conservation.
But we do not have to talk ourselves into depression when this upheaval presents us with unique opportunities to find better ways we can utilise our countryside.
Money will be tight as it’s directed towards other societal needs. Rather than defending traditional positions on rural expenditure to maintain the status quo, now is the time to reconsider matters without CAP constraints. Smart honest thinking is required at a time to put our money where our mouth is and where our heart lies: food, woodland, and wildlife.
Once we understand that any balance sheets ‘in the red finds it hard to be green’, we realise that farmers and other land uses must find new profitable markets to survive and work more in tune with the environment. The Tenant Farmers Association has come up some thoughts on doing away with subsidies (which themselves stifle innovation), to share replacement funding between targeted agri-enviro schemes, infrastructure grants to improve farming efficiency, and help develop British produced food for self-sufficiency and export.
If less efficient, unprofitable farmers are at threat of becoming unemployed, some will have the chance to redeploy their skills in providing other paid public benefits not conventionally demanded under an agricultural regime. There is an opportunity to redefine ‘new’ public services outside traditional farming; for as one upland farmer told me that if he was paid to ‘farm’ a bog, he would manage it to slow the flow of water to the lowlands.
Funding for woodland will vie with farming within Defra and it is timely to act on the neglected findings of the Independent Forestry Panel to reinvigorate a much loved key long term aspect of our landscape to integrate it into more farmland. Let’s us reappraise how climate-affected trees might require us to plant other species now that can adapt to a drought-prone, grey squirrel-infested landscape in fifty year’s time.
There is no need to fear a bonfire of wildlife regulations, environmentalists will see to that, but to re-evaluate ‘proportionate measures’ to avoid blanket legislation and enable flexible habitat and species protection alongside exploring sensitive subjects such as predator control to protect declining species such as curlews. Where voluntary co-owned partnerships between environment advisers and land managers are fostered, the results are positive as demonstrated by Farming Clusters and the Pontbren farmers.
The current ruckus will only reinforce age-old tensions over competing land uses. It’s vital for the government to bravely sort out conflicts (no one else can lead this) between human interests that undermine trust in our ability to work together within a countryside undergoing change.
Now’s the chance to get over our fears to champion fresh ideas and challenge orthodox practices to make a smarter working countryside resound to both the roar of combine harvesters and the ditties of yellowhammers.
Rob Yorke is an Indpt Commentator on rural affairs www.robyorke.co.uk