LUC’s Nick James explores the challenges posed by Brexit and the opportunities for British agriculture and land use
The EU referendum vote has major implications for our countryside’s future, threatening the existing framework of environmental incentives and protections. While some welcome the cutting of what might be regarded as EU-inspired ‘red tape’, many others see the scale of threat this poses to the countryside and the benefits it provides. Sitting alongside this threat is a unique opportunity to tackle the bluntness and inefficiency of existing incentives and regulations. It is an opportunity to devise a new approach, better tailored to the British countryside and the role we want it to play in the future – whether providing food security, helping manage flood risk, reducing carbon emissions or helping maintain the diversity of habitats and species. To realise this opportunity, we urgently need to build a new consensus and to share knowledge and expertise in developing integrated approaches to which all key interests can sign up.
The countryside we have today is the product of Britain’s varied geology, topography and climate, shaped by many centuries of farming and land management. Farming practices have come and gone with changes in technology, changes in the market and, over the past 70 years, the growing influence of incentives and regulation. Many of these are designed to prevent damage (e.g. pollution) via EU Directives, or ensure that non-market benefits (recreation, biodiversity or scenic quality) are secured via EU-funded agri-environment scheme support.
Much of the landscape we value today was created by traditional or historic farming practices. Swaledale’s flower-rich hay meadow landscape of dry stone walls and field barns are largely unsuited to modern farming methods. Hebridean machair, which supports almost extinct populations of corncrakes and corn buntings, hangs on only as a result of grants and crofters’ commitment to traditional ways of farming. The sweeping downlands of southern England, with their species-rich chalk grasslands, were shaped by centuries of sheep husbandry – in many places now replaced by intensive arable farming.
While we’ve come a long way from the mass trespass at Kinder Scout in 1932, the countryside remains a contested space, with responsibility for its management shared out among a wide range of landowners, regulators and interest groups. Each has their own perspectives and priorities.
This lack of common vision is increasingly evident in the fragmentation and deterioration of habitats and the startling loss of species. The UK’s National Ecosystems Assessment (NEA) demonstrates the scale of impact resulting from pollution and changes in land use and land management. It points to the increasing impact of the changing climate, development, invasive non-native species and disease. Habitats are become less able to cope with these changes. They are smaller, less diverse, more fragmented, more isolated and in poorer condition than they should be.
September saw the publication of the UK’s State of Nature report, which made for even more depressing reading, listing the number of once common species which are now at risk of extinction in the UK. The report found that the way we manage the countryside is by far the biggest factor in explaining why nature is in trouble in the UK.
Looking forward, it is difficult to see how the countryside will be able to cope with the challenges of food security, energy, climate adaptation, urban growth and increasing traffic levels without further damage and loss. Add the reductions in agricultural support and environmental protection that could follow Brexit, and the challenge appears even more insurmountable.
But this rather bleak picture doesn’t take account of some key changes that have taken place over the past few years.
- We have much better information about the countryside. In England, for example, the definition and description of 159 National Character Areas means we know what makes different areas distinctive, and the range of ‘ecosystem services’ these landscapes provide. We know more about how the countryside has changed, including the effectiveness and lasting impact of Countryside Action Plans, and how the landscape of the UK has evolved over the past 40 years. We also know more about what people think about these changes; for instance, from the Scottish National Heritage-commissioned report Climate change conversations.
- We now have a much better understanding of how rural ecosystems work. For example, we are aware of the role that uplands can play in preventing flooding in our towns and cities, or the part that land can play in absorbing and storing carbon.
- We are recognising the importance of getting policy makers, regulators, land managers, non-government organisations and local people into the same room to share perspectives and work towards shared visions of how the countryside should be managed to maximise the benefits we get from it. The concept of ecosystem services (the benefits we get from land) is increasingly being used to break down the barriers between different interests and come to a common view about what is important about an area, now and in the future.
- There is a growing menu of alternatives to intensive, high-input agricultural techniques. More land managers are interested in working differently, recognising that high-quality, high-welfare food production is entirely compatible with high-nature conservation solutions. This is not about a romantic view of the past and a dogmatic desire to either to reinstate long-abandoned land management practices or give over large parts the countryside to rewilding. Rather, it is about managing our hedges so they continue to support populations of pollinators; restoring upland peat bogs so they slow the runoff of flood water and lock up carbon; and creating new woodlands to connect surviving fragments and help animals and insects to move through the landscape. It is about recognising the circular benefits of mixed farming systems which make use of farm waste and require fewer chemical inputs, or making creative use of technology so we can produce more food from less land, giving more space for nature and evaluating carefully the impacts and benefits of breeding and genetics.
- We also more widely recognise the way that the countryside contributes to our cultural, physical and economic well-being, accommodating a wide range of activities and past times, many of which support the rural economy.
So, many of the ingredients are in place. What we lack is a common vision for the future of our countryside, the benefits and services we need it to provide and the best ways of achieving this. We need a more inclusive, integrated and less polarised discussion about our future countryside, bringing together land managers, environmental interests, communities and policy makers.
We need to ask ourselves how much we want to recreate or preserve landscapes which are the product of past management systems and how much we are prepared to create new or evolving landscapes to meet our current and future needs – food production, flood protection, biodiversity, pollination, carbon management, and access to nature. We will have to come out of our corners, recognise the dynamic nature of the landscape and the choices we have in terms of the services and benefits we get from the countryside. We will undoubtedly need a mosaic of approaches – conserving landscapes which are valued for their scenic, ecological or historic interest, for example, while creating new, more ecologically diverse landscapes in areas which have seen the greatest loss of species or experience the highest levels of flood risk.
Rewilding should be the bedfellow of sustainable intensification. Integration (food production, flood management, tourism and biodiversity discussed in the same breath), collaboration (farmers working together and with regulators, NGOs and local communities) and landscape scale (working across whole catchments to achieve meaningful change) should be our watchwords.
Brexit provides a unique opportunity to tailor a suite of support mechanisms and regulations to help us achieve this vision. Over the last 20 years we’ve already been paying farmers to increase the biodiversity of their land through measures such as Countryside Stewardship. It is only a small step to widen this approach to reflect the other services such as carbon storage or flood management that flow from the way we manage our land. Replacing countryside action plans with a tailored payment scheme bespoke to the needs of the UK landscape, and covering all these benefits, could transform the countryside and the benefits we all get from it.
We need to revisit the way that the Habitats Directive, Birds Directive and Water Framework Directive are reflected in UK law – not to weaken their intent, but to ensure their aims are achieved efficiently and effectively and integrate with other incentives, regulations and market measures. Outside Europe we may see more food produced domestically, creating an opportunity to raise the link between high-welfare, environmentally sensitive farming and improved diet and health.
There is of course a huge risk that this opportunity will be missed, that the limited capacity of government agencies and NGOs, continuing austerity and the easy dismissal of interventions as ‘red tape’ will weaken investment and support for rural areas. This would quickly undo progress we have made over recent decades, resulting in lasting damage to an important resource and an increasing series of crises around flooding, food security, biodiversity and energy.
We all need to ensure the UK government recognises and responds to the challenge and the opportunity that Brexit presents for the British countryside. Its role in supporting our economy, and the diversity, quality and health of the environment, is of highest importance for us all.
Nick James is a Director at LUC. He is a chartered town planner and has policy and research experience relating to environmental management, landscape, green infrastructure, access and recreation, community regeneration and the historic environment.
Nick’s planning work has included the review of the National Planning Policy Guidelines and the development of planning guidance covering issues such as air quality, soils, green infrastructure and woodland and forestry. He has led landscape planning projects on topics such as settlement expansion, wind energy development, forestry, climate change and perceptions of landscape change. His work on the historic environment includes the definition of buffer zones to protect Hadrian’s Wall, Stonehenge and the Antonine Wall World Heritage Zones. He led LUC’s award-winning Carse of Stirling Ecosystems Approach Demonstration Project, which pioneered a new, stakeholder-based way of thinking about the way land is managed. Recently, he has been supporting development of Wales’s National Natural Resources Policy and working on the latest round of a 44-year Natural England project that is exploring change in England’s agricultural landscapes.