By Rosewood Farm, Jan 16 2017 01:54PM
I wasn’t planning to blog so soon after my last installment about Planet Earth, but then a report, revealing how birds are being cropped out of the British Countryside, dropped into my inbox. I felt it was important to share this news as so often we can easily feel like our contribution is insignificant when it comes to preventing and reversing climate change. This is different, there really are lots of things we can do to halt the decline of farmland birds and their habitat.
You may be forgiven for thinking that we are anti-arable farming here at Rosewood after years of us going on about how bad crops are for the countryside and how much better grassfed is for us, the environment and the animals. So you may be surprised to learn that we do actually like some veg with our meat, and we don’t think humans should turn into carnivores - we just think that the balance has been somewhat tipped in the wrong direction.
I don’t know any farmers who actively enjoy destroying biodiversity but the level of passion for our wildlife varies among them from apathetic to absolute dedication. The problem we face is that the market doesn’t offer many opportunities to reward farmers for having the most biodiverse farms, in fact it is largely due to the personal interest of farmers & conservationist that we have any wildlife left in the UK at all.
It was during a meeting with one farmer last year about our plans to graze his recreated wet grassland that the enthusiasm really hit home. John is an arable farmer with a real passion for growing brussels sprouts, but it turned out his passion also extended to taking shots (with his mobile phone's camera) of the Lapwings living in his sprout crop! But when was the last time you saw ‘Lapwing-friendly’ sprouts on the supermarket shelf?
Post-war governments & the EU have certainly played a big part in both habitat loss and restoration over the years, and opinion remains divided over whether Brexit will be good or bad for nature. At Rosewood our own experience, taking part in the EU-funded Countryside Stewardship Scheme for ten years, was a mixed bag. On the one hand the capital grants were great - they helped us to restore the hedgerows that had been lost due to years of neglect (as opposed to active destruction).
The other side of the coin was that we were farming by dates and numbers. Prescriptions were put in place to stop us grazing after x-date and not before y-date, not taking into account the weather, ground cover or alternative grazing/housing for the animals. ‘Farming by numbers’ was both practically unsustainable and took absolutely no account of whether we were achieving our wildlife objectives or not. If I could change one thing about the system it would be that any incentives are paid for results and let farmers farm in the best way they see fit to achieve those results.
Fast-forward to the present day and we can see the legacy of ‘farming by numbers’, coupled with unsustainably low prices for livestock, in the number of local farmers who are giving up grazing in the Ings. There has also been a [not so] coincidental shift in what the market is demanding from farmers too. We all know about the effect that the cheap food policy has had on farming but less often mentioned are the unrealistic specifications that farm produce has to conform to. In the good times the prices paid for produce may be reasonable, but there is virtually no demand for the produce which falls outside of the spec so it fetches a much lower price. This has shaped the countryside for years with farmers forced to produce what they can sell, not necessarily what benefits their land and biodiversity.
Hugh’s War on Waste challenged us to start demanding wonky veg to cut food waste. Not only does this represent a waste of time and energy in growing and transporting food that we will never eat but that veg is taking up valuable space once inhabited by our farmland birds. As we spray and cultivate crops in pursuit of perfection we are actively wiping out the insects, seeds and nesting sites on which our farmland birds depend.
This is why at Rosewood we sell-direct, as we have always kept Dexter cattle that are much smaller than most breeds of cattle. Dexters are the ‘wonky’ veg of the beef world, so wonky that you won’t find them in the supermarkets at all. Ironically we find that our customers find that the smaller joints and steaks suit them better for home cooking, when they are given the choice. We have also found that Dexters, unlike the supermarket specification-hitting larger breeds, are ideally suited to grazing the diverse and damp grasslands of the Ings without causing damage to the soil.
So, what does this mean for the birds? Well, the other advantage of being in direct contact with you, the consumer, is that we can talk about the problem of declining bird numbers and how eating more beef really can help us to address this. Our passion has always been grassland and grazing livestock, so we’re not planning on becoming arable farmers anytime soon, and much of our land is unsuitable for cultivation anyway. Overs the years we have amassed a wealth of knowledge and experience in managing the land and livestock together for the benefit of wild birds and by working with farmers like John, we are able to spread our impact over the wider arable landscape too.
So here are a few things you can do to help us to put the birds back into the British countryside;
- Write to your MP to put birds into Brexit by letting them know that you want to end the ‘farming by numbers’ approach
- Help us to invest in new hedgerows, ponds and bird boxes with our 'Veggie' donation box
- Take part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Bird Watch on the 28th - 30th January
- Share this blog with all your friends and inspire others to bring the birds back!