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Nature-Friendly Farming: How producing food and protecting biodiversity must work together

Logo: Nature Friendly Farming Network

By the Nature Friendly Farming Network

A stream running along a pasture of grazing cows
A 're-wiggled' beck on the Cumbrian farm of NFFN England steering group chair James Robinson (James Robinson)

In recent months, farmer protests have sprung up across the UK and continental Europe, with much of the fury being directed at the agri-environmental schemes being brought in by politicians with an eye on the future. A good deal of the debate generated by these prominent shows of dissatisfaction has, unhelpfully, pitted the drive to restore nature and protect our biodiversity with the role of farmers in producing food and ensuring national food security.

This debate is extremely unhelpful because, at the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN), we strongly stand against any suggestion of “food vs nature”. This is simply not an either-or issue. Ensuring we have enough food to eat and that farming livelihoods and businesses are healthy simply cannot be uncoupled from the need to transform our environment and landscapes. Food and nature are not opposites; they are indivisible, and both must be strengthened if we are to have a positive future. Furthermore, farmland is not fundamentally separate from habitat for nature. Getting agriculture right will do a huge amount to protect the natural world and its flora and fauna.

Declines and dangers

If we look at farming history throughout the 20th century, it is sadly unsurprising that many people see farming and nature as being at odds. The intensification of agriculture after World War Two led to a system where food production was the major consideration, and farmers were urged to ever-bigger yields.

This had a disastrous effect on biodiversity. Iconic farmland birds that had thrived for centuries on traditional, mixed farms found no habitat or food in the new extensive monocultures. Trees were cut down, hedgerows grubbed up, and insects were replaced by artificial pesticides and insecticides, which helped ensure harvests always went up.

Now, though, the cost of this approach is being paid. Farmers find themselves unable to produce food without costly artificial inputs at a time when they are receiving low prices for their goods from the supply chain. These inputs are also spiking in cost as global instability and conflict increase market volatility. At the same time, climate change is making its presence felt, with extreme weather events such as heat domes and more frequent intense flooding. This poses a massive threat to the viability of farms and makes farm resilience an urgent priority.

At the NFFN, we see all these problems as inextricably interlinked. The good news is that by changing farming practices to more nature-friendly and regenerative ones, we can tackle all these issues at once. This approach also restores much of what has been lost and has a huge role for the natural world.

How nature-friendly farming brings nature back

Nature-friendly farming reduces (and in some cases eliminates entirely) the use of artificial inputs such as feed, chemical sprays and fossil fuels. Working from the ground up, prioritising soil health, instead creates a model of farming where nature and food production go hand in hand right from the start. Not only does this ease the financial burdens described above, it is ideal for biodiversity.

Grey partridges in the grass next to a furrowed field
Grey partridges in a field margin between land for growing arable crops and salad at Abbey Farm in Kent (Pippa Southorn)

Healthy soil means increasing the amount of organic matter in it, creating farms teeming with microorganisms, worms and other invertebrates. Integrated pest management (IPM) approaches can reduce the use of synthetic inputs by encouraging beneficial insects that will eat pests that would otherwise be dealt with using chemical herbicides or pesticides. That means creating habitats such as flowering margins or beetle banks. This approach to farming also encourages pollinators such as bees, which are currently the subject of much alarm among conservationists due to the scale of their population declines.

Nature-friendly farming can also involve going back to the future. NFFN members are restoring the natural features of farms ripped out in the 20th century’s drive for more output, such as hedgerows, patches of woodland, ponds and ‘rewiggled’ rivers or waterways. These are all habitats in which biodiversity can thrive alongside food production, as well as benefiting farmers directly.

Everything is connected

Trees are a good example of how nature-friendly farming can bring multiple benefits and a cascade of effects. They provide shelter for livestock, which will prevent heatstroke as temperatures are set to rise. They are a natural food source for browsing, reducing the use of expensive bought-in feed. Some trees, such as willows, have medicinal properties that can help reduce the amount of anthelmintic medication used on cattle. This, in turn, can prevent harm to dung beetles, which have been described as ‘nature’s bin men’.

The benefits to farms of planting trees are an urgent topic at the moment due to the unpopularity of the plans to increase tree cover in Wales’ Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS). Concerns about the viability of this, particularly for smaller and upland farms, have to be balanced against the SFS’ provisions for other vital habitats, such as species-rich grasslands, and the pressing need for more trees in the Welsh farming landscape, for the reasons outlined above.

A black and white longhorn cow facing the camera
English Longhorn cattle being used for conservation grazing on Salisbury Plain (Joanne Coates for the Nature Friendly Farming Network)

Setting land aside for nature

For decades, governments and other organisations told farmers that unless they cultivated every square centimetre of their land, food security would be put at risk. With around a third of all food produced in the UK wasted, it is hard to argue this still holds up. And squeezing food production out of every scrap of land means increasing inputs to eke crops out of unfavourable ground. The NFFN has supported the development of Maximum Sustainable Output (MSO) with Nethergill Associates. This calculates the level of production a farm can achieve within its natural boundaries. Beyond the MSO point, producing more food means putting in more input costs than can be recovered in output.

This means unproductive land can confidently be managed for nature without concern about financial viability. NFFN England’s Patrick Barker has now set aside around 10% of the hundreds of hectares he farms in Suffolk for biodiversity.

The adjustments to a nature-friendly approach can take a few years of adjustments in crop yields to bed in, and the NFFN recognises support is needed for the transition. Many farmers, though, find that within several years, yields are stable or even rising, and the land has found a new equilibrium. Lincolnshire farmer and NFFN Farming Champion Colin Chappell said he got the same winter wheat yields from nine hectares as he previously did from 11, with the other two given over to nature, which also guaranteed income from agri-environment schemes.

What does this achieve?

Abbey Farm is on the Isle of Thanet in Kent, a large arable operation run by NFFN member Pippa Southorn. The farm, located on an increasingly built-up island, is a haven for biodiversity. Turtle doves, one of the UK’s most threatened farmland birds, are present, as are nightingales, grey partridges and skylarks. Huge numbers of golden plover visit the farm’s fields in winter after the harvest. Arable farms run by NFFN members have species including linnets, cirl buntings and yellowhammers, which are vanishing elsewhere in the country.

A bird sitting in the middle of a field on the tip of a wheat sheaf
A corn bunting on nature-friendly arable farmland (Anthony Curwen)

It’s not just arable farming that can benefit. NFFN England’s chair James Robinson fences off beck banks and pipes water to cattle troughs on his organic Cumbrian dairy farm. He has also ‘rewound’ the waterway. All this has improved water quality, protecting invertebrates and the endangered white-clawed crayfish, which in turn has helped encourage the return of otters to the area.

NFFN farmers also work hand in hand with conservationists, providing specialist grazing regimes for particular habitats and species from Morecambe Bay to Wiltshire and Devon. On Salisbury Plain, stockperson Elise Sutton is working with English Longhorn cattle in an area where Great Bustards have been seen following their reintroduction. In Cornwall, farmer Chris Jones has an enclosure for beavers on his land as part of a joint project with Cornwall Wildlife Trust and the University of Exeter. This showcases the aquatic mammals’ ability to both prevent flooding and hold floodwater for when it is needed in periods of drought, as well as the way beavers boost water quality and create rich wetland landscapes.

Conclusion

Placards and protests across Europe, whether intentionally or not, have pitted farming and food directly against climate and the environment. The NFFN’s thousands of active farmer members, the length and breadth of the country, are showing there is another way. It’s not just that farming can help the natural world; it’s that the sector will be unable to thrive without it.

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Posted On: 17/06/2024

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