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Your Steak in Nature: You can help erase the line between farming and nature

By Rosewood Farm, Sep 13 2016 01:42PM

Wednesday will see the publication of the biggest survey of the UK’s wild plants, insects and animals ever undertaken. The State of Nature Report 2016 pools data from 50 leading conservation groups. We already know that it’s not going to make for a happy story, as this week’s Farmers Guardian put it, “[the report] is certain to make uneasy reading for farmers” - but not this one.

The report busts apart any notion we may have held that crops are the more eco friendly option than meat. Farmland is identified as the area with the worst record in species loss, and one area in particular - crop production. Of 1118 farmland species studied, 11% are facing extinction. Concurrent with the rise of the ‘eat less meat’ message, as consumers turn away from their sunday roast and towards ‘just a little bit of chicken’ in their sandwich or wrap, over 1000 hectares of pasture was converted to arable land between 2006 and 2012. I’ve tirelessly argued for many years that meat has the potential to be much more ‘green’ than crops, that it is reliance on crops that makes meat into an issue rather than the conservation tool that it can be when regenerative grazing practises like ours are brought into play.

But there is an even more important line to be erased than the one we drew between plants and animals. The FG article about the report talks of ‘battle lines drawn’ between farmers and environmentalists, but this is forgetting something. I’m a farmer and an environmentalist. Admittedly, there’s no question over which side of the line, if there must be one, I stand. I do have a family to feed in an area of high house prices and almost nonexistent employment outside agriculture. The thing is however, that I don’t think we should draw a line, or that we have to.

In our opinion here at Rosewood, a major failing of the stewardship incentives to date have been to treat conservation as a ‘crop’ with distinct areas set aside for ‘nature’ alongside intensive arable production. The result is small islands of different habitats between arable fields which, due to virtually non existent diversity, act as a road block to wildlife travelling between sites. What would be better is if we could resurrect the old blanket of habitat that used to stretch all over our island, the ‘inefficiencies’ as they came to be known of our food production providing scraps for wildlife of all types to thrive on.

There have been various government countryside stewardship schemes since the early-nineties to encourage farmers to retain and recreate hedgerows and pasture (did you notice that? pasture - animal feeding land, being encouraged for the sake of nature…). In 2013 we were approached by Natural England to graze an area of ex-arable land under one of these schemes on Allerthorpe Common that was in danger of turning to scrubland. Whilst financial incentives can help to recreate pasture on arable land, it’s a waste of money if the land isn’t then grazed, not to mention a missed opportunity for food production. We’ve now set all this right - the scrubland is held in check, food is being produced and it’s being done without subsidy/charitable donations, or fertiliser, or herbicide, or any of that stuff. That, to us, is perfection.

At Rosewood we are successfully integrating nature and food production, alongside each other. The majority on both sides - farmer and environmentalist - appear to believe it is impossible, but we beg to differ and are happy to demonstrate our reasoning to anyone who will listen.

As Simon Christian from Natural England puts it ‘Grazing with…Dexters, can have considerable conservation benefits…(Dexters) are often able to thrive on the semi-natural grassland and other habitats that are found on some of our most important nature conservation sites which require regular grazing to maintain their interest….Dexters are now successfully grazing species rich flood plain meadow grasslands within the Lower Derwent Valley National Nature Reserve.’ So, no complaints from Natural England on what we do, quite the opposite, and endorsement of your nature protection doesn’t come much higher than that!

In terms of survival as a farming business, we have been going for 20 years. We did not inherit our farm or start with any funding beyond what we had saved from working as tractor drivers or milkers. Our largest subsidy payout has been £3000 which might seem like a tidy sum, but actually probably only just covers the extra paperwork, tagging and other such things required to claim it, and our business most certainly is not reliant on it! No, our ability to carry on with all this solely comes through the sale of the produce obtained from these grasslands = you guys (thanks).

Fossil fuels were a quick fix, allowing us to overproduce. That made us feel clever, but pride comes before a fall. Now, we need to dust ourselves off and focus on developing techniques to up production, always with our ecosystem backdrop in mind. Not simply eeking out our dwindling supply of oil and leaving some future generation to deal with the fallout. The time is ripe for a change in attitude, for dropping the ‘battle lines’ between meat and crops and between farmers and environmentalists. In the past, a combination of animals and plants kept us fed without fossil fuels, in a time when larks were so numerous their tongues were a dish, when red kites were so common they were a pest, the equivalent of the urban fox today. It’s vital that the public help this process and actively support a new generation of ‘environmentalist farmers’, whatever they produce.

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