We are very lucky to live in a country which has an extensive network of Wildlife Trusts. This partnership includes the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. Living as I do in Hampshire and caring deeply about our beautiful countryside, I was very fortunate recently to meet with Debbie Tann who leads the county’s wildlife trust. I invited her to share with us here her thoughts about farming and the countryside.
At a time when nature is under greater threat than ever, our need for it has never been more important.
As an ecologist, and in my role as CEO of Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, I’ve been immersed in the nature conservation world for more than 20 years. For me, the importance of nature is paramount but it is easy to forget just how unimportant and irrelevant nature is (apparently) to most people compared to issues such as the economy.
However, things are changing. Last year’s floods, the obesity crisis, increasing awareness of mental health issues, concerns about food security and animal welfare, and the impact of climate change are now mainstream issues – and every one of these has an important link with the nature conservation agenda.
Let’s take food and farming. I strongly believe that there could be huge benefits for the environment, our health, and animal welfare, if the food sector and the conservation sector worked more closely together. Many of our most valued open habitats today, such as meadows, chalk downland and heaths, were created by ancient farming methods which have now largely been lost to more intensive methods. Producing food in sensitive habitats using today’s methods is often considered uneconomic which is why many habitats have been abandoned. Likewise managing habitats purely for wildlife is costly and dependent on donations from the public and (declining) grant income.
Open habitats need management and pasture containing grasses, wildflowers and herbs is the natural diet of cattle and sheep. And yet today, very few animals are fed on pasture alone as modern livestock farming is all about producing meat as quickly and cheaply as possible using cereal and soya-based feed and keeping them indoors for some, or all of the time. So, not only are we witnessing animals vanishing from our fields but this means we also struggle to manage many of our wildlife habitats with the right levels of grazing because suitable animals are simply not available.
At the Trust we’ve established an ambitious Grazing Enterprise programme which is starting to demonstrate that managing land for wildlife can also produce beef and lamb along with other public benefits such as flood management, carbon storage and even health benefits as we encourage people to enjoy much of our land. Our original driver for going down this route was to ensure we had the cattle and sheep we needed to manage our nature reserves. However, it has become increasingly important that we take a wider “ecosystems approach” to show how nature conservation is at the heart of a whole range of other benefits, such as low-intensity healthy food production, support for pollinators and mitigating the effects of climate change. We have invested in our first Farm and have begun developing our herd of British White cattle so that they are in tip-top condition for grazing our nature reserves and, when the time is right, some of them provide us with high-quality flavoursome beef. We also have a large flock of sheep who do a wonderful job of grazing our chalk downlands as well as producing tasty mutton.
I’m not claiming we can solve all the world’s problems this way, but there is a real growing interest in wildlife-friendly farming and pasture-fed livestock as a way of producing tasty, healthy food with high welfare standards – and at the same time restoring and managing wildlife habitats for the benefit of birds, butterflies, wildflowers and pollinating insects. Surely a win-win situation and one which I hope will continue to grow.