5 June 2022 - for immediate release

Defra land use policies will fail nature and food production, warns farming and conservation expert

Dr Alastair Leake says Defra is ignoring clear scientific evidence that high-yield farming and nature conservation can successfully co-exist.

 

“We may well abandon land which could continue to be food producing and wake up in 10 years’ time to find we have wasted both money and time for no gain in the numbers of threatened species.”

 

Writing on the Science for Sustainable Agriculture website, farming and conservation expert Dr Alastair Leake has issued a stark warning that the Government’s fixation with land abandonment, or ‘re-wilding’, risks undermining key opportunities to benefit nature, food production, and society.

 

Dr Leake describes successful examples in practice where farm-scale research has shown that high-yield crop production can be combined with increased biodiversity, including at the GWCT’s pioneering Allerton Project in Leicestershire, where ‘extraordinary’ things have been done to bust the myth that intensive agriculture and biodiversity cannot be reconciled.

 

“By re-purposing less productive agricultural land and creating farmland bird friendly habitat, songbird numbers doubled while arable crop yields increased,” he writes, noting that “other sites have adopted highly targeted and specialised interventions to successfully restore populations of Lapwing, Curlew and Grey Partridge - the key to success being an interventionist approach by those on the ground, and there are similar recent examples for butterflies and moths.”

  

With Government targets set to reverse biodiversity decline by 2030, having already missed the two previous Biodiversity and Habitat Action Plan targets, Dr Leake had hoped that the lessons of the Allerton Project, and others, might have found their way into policy thinking.

 

But despite the lack of scientific evidence that land abandonment will help reverse declines in biodiversity, the pilot entry scheme for the Government’s new ‘Landscape Recovery’ tier effectively requires farmers to give up farming their land, except for a few animals delivering ‘conservation grazing’.

 

“That farmers might even want to abandon their profession and culture to become a ‘re-wilder’ is an unlikely assumption. And what of the other conservation work that farmers carry out, for example hedgerow management and the provision of pollen and nectar seed mixes, which need sowing and taking care of?”

 

“Research has clearly shown that a wildlife seed mix that is ‘farmed’ and then left for the birds to eat in wintertime produces ten times more bird food than one that is left to nature to grow.  And might we ask what happens to Corn Buntings and Chaffinches when the corn and the chaff are no longer grown?”

 

“When our experience shows that the hand of man is needed more, not less, and with 30% of the environment budget committed to Landscape Recovery, we may well abandon land which could continue to be food producing and wake up in 10 years’ time to find we have wasted both money and time for no gain in the numbers of threatened species,” Dr Leake warns. 

 

ENDS

Notes to Editors