Published on:

Outside the EU, UK can devise a policy based on results, not intentions

My Times column on British environmental policy:


Andrea Leadsom, the agriculture and environment secretary, is to set out her plans for the British countryside in two green papers: one on the environment this week and one on farming later. She should be ambitious and positive: the future, post-Brexit, could be bright and green.

What is the countryside for? For most of human history, its job was to provide food, fuel, fibre and building material. Today, we get most of those things from factories supplied by comparatively tiny quarries or wells. Only food still needs a vast acreage, but even that is a lot less vast than it was. The area of land required to produce a given quantity of food is now just a third of what it was in 1960, thanks to technology.

This explains why we are finding it ever easier to feed the world despite a growing population. Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University in New York estimates that we will need less land — by an area bigger than India — to feed the nine billion people of 2050 than we need to feed seven billion today. We will be releasing a huge acreage from the plough.

Indeed, if hydroponic indoor farming takes off, farming’s footprint will shrink still faster. In Japan there is a single shed inside which robots will soon be harvesting 30,000 lettuces a day, grown under LED lights without pesticides and with minimal use of water and power. That’s more from one acre than a lettuce farm of 300 acres normally produces.

In other words, we will not need so much of the countryside for growing food in the future. Sure, there will be parts of the British countryside that can compete with world farmers for many years to come, especially if freed from the way the common agricultural policy hooks farmers on welfare, making them reluctant to innovate or retire, and inflating costs in the industry. A Lincolnshire farm currently holds the world record wheat yield.

So for the rest of the countryside, we can let nature thrive again for the first time since the Ice Age. Here Ms Leadsom may be tempted to listen to the rewilding folk, who speak of vast forests teeming with lynx and bear, beaver and wolf. I hope she takes their arguments with a pinch of salt. That sort of rewilding would produce less biodiversity, not more. It is the patchwork of different habitats maintained by human beings that maximises the diversity of our wildlife. There are species that depend on arable farming, or grazing, or forestry clearings or a bit of each. Plus, people too want to earn a living in the countryside, or to walk in it and see a view, neither of which would be possible in a wild forest.

We will need more land for houses, roads and other forms of development, but that is little threat to biodiversity for three reasons. First, less than 2.5 per cent of England and just 1 per cent of Britain is built on [about 10% of England is urban, but only 25% of urban land is built on, according to the National Ecosystem Assessment]. Second, urban wildlife is thriving. Towns and cities are now exporting surplus peregrine falcons, hedgehogs and foxes to the countryside rather than vice versa. And third, as Owen Paterson MP, one of Ms Leadsom’s predecessors, urged in a paper presented at All Souls College, Oxford, last weekend, we should follow 25 other countries and adopt offsetting: forcing developers to create suitable habitat elsewhere if they destroy it, with the highest costs for the most precious habitats.

But there is a rewilding that does work: managed rewilding. Much of the Scottish Highlands has been abandoned by the oat and sheep farmers who once encroached on the heather hills. Some is now forest, but most is the wild bog and moor that hikers like best. Deer stalking on the big estates keeps the landscape in a fit state for walkers, so both activities flourish. The same is true in the North Pennines, where curlews, golden plover and black grouse thrive thanks to game keepers, and grouse shooting supports the economies of the dales while preserving a semi-natural habitat.

In the Lake District, the priority is landscape not biodiversity. The hills of Cumbria look lovely but, overgrazed by sheep and overrun by crows and foxes, they are impoverished in bird life — the Lake District’s last pair of eagles died out for lack of food. Paying farmers to look after the stone walls and keep the hills grazed — in the same way that Swiss farmers are paid to keep the high meadows grazed — will be more popular than letting Helvellyn and Skiddaw disappear beneath gorse, bracken and hawthorn.

As for woodland, good conservation means management, not neglect. Thinning, clearing and coppicing create the mosaic of habitats that nightingales and speckled wood butterflies love. Invasive species such as rhododendron and grey squirrels need controlling. However, far too much of Britain’s ancient woodland has been replaced over the years by plantations of alien species designed for pulp markets that never come about — the Forestry Commission being the worst offender.

Even on lowland farms, the richest biodiversity is produced by active management: grazing the downs for large blue butterflies, planting the seed crops for yellowhammers and partridges, killing the foxes and crows that would otherwise prevent lapwings rearing any chicks. Philip Merricks, who successfully encourages lapwings on his land in Kent, points out that most farms and nature reserves fail to reach the 0.7 chicks per breeding pair a year that lapwings need to sustain their populations. We need to subsidise environmental schemes on farms, but pay by results, not intentions.

As for the environmentalist organisations, the ones that work closest with nature know they must actively manage nature reserves. The ones that trouser hefty fees from developers to survey bats and newts and generate hefty reports that nobody reads should be weaned off, and the ones that simply lobby and sue and fund-raise on the back of fibs should be stood up to. Given a chance they would design environment policies that produced few peewits but big budgets for conferences.

Post-Brexit environment policy should be one of gardening: managing for a diversity of outcomes in different places. Productive farms here, deep forests there, wild moorlands elsewhere. Freed from the one-size-fits-all shackles of the EU, we should localise our policies, and host as many habitats and species as the climate will support.


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times