Friday, 13 June 2014

Does the CAP fit the environment ? Dr Alastair Leake

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) – who have been at the sharp-end of developing innovative and well proven techniques for restoring farmland wildlife such as conservation headlands, beetle banks and wild flower seed mixes, were in an upbeat mood about the new ‘greening’ measures announced by Defra this week.

Dr Alastair Leake, the GWCT’s director of policy explains; “None of the new reforms are a surprise and we believe that the Government have implemented these as well as they could. With over 210,000 more people swelling the global population each day and expected to reach a total of 9 billion by 2050, the earth will need to produce more food in the next 50 years than it has in total so far. Indeed the UK population alone has increased by almost 100% in the last century while wheat production – a crop which Europe out-strips the world in producing has flat-lined for two decades. Clearly food production is going to become an increasingly important issue.”

Under the new reforms, farmers will have to manage 5% of the farm area in an ‘ecologically focused way’. Options include growing crops such as peas and beans, growing cover crops to protect soil from erosion and to build up soil organic matter. Farmers will also be able to register their hedgerows, something they have not previously been given credit for maintaining.

Dr Leake comments, “Overall we believe the ‘greening’ measures as proposed are a rational response to the conflicting demands of food production and environmental enhancement. Under existing stewardship schemes, over 70% of English farmers have signed up. There is a huge sea-change in the way farmers now run their businesses and environmental protection is an increasingly important part of their farming operation. We are therefore pleased that those farmers who already farm well are not going to be penalised, but we are pleased also that those with less sustainable systems will be encouraged to do more.”

However, it has been suggested that growing legumes in ‘Ecological Focus Areas’ is a poor use of tax-payers money as they might not deliver much for biodiversity.

Dr Leake disagrees, saying, “Growing a legume crop can substantially reduce the environmental footprint of the farm, since nearly 50% of the fossil fuel demand comes from the use of nitrogen fertilisers. Legumes do not need nitrogen fertilisers as they make their own and some of this is passed on to the subsequent wheat crop, so inputs can be cut to that crop too.

Winter beans helping our environmental footprint.
 Legume crops are also insect pollinated so they provide a source of pollen and nectar to bees and other insects and as they are a spring sown crop it means that winter stubbles are left for longer, which is another good result for wildlife. Research on our Allerton Project has also shown that bean crops are favoured over wheat crops by foraging tree sparrows.”

Both birds and bees can benefit from legumes

Looking to the future Dr Leake concludes, “Going forward the EU must continue to focus on production, keeping productivity up and farmers on the land, but a greater proportion of the Basic Farm Payment needs to shift to pay farmers for the other services that they provide society with, including clean water, healthy soils, carbon sequestration, renewable energy and biodiversity. Past experience has shown that where funds are more specifically targeted and farmers respond voluntarily, rather than through compulsion, with the benefit of good advice, better outcomes are achieved.

“The GWCT has been running the innovative Allerton Project research farm at Loddington, Leicestershire for more than 20 years and has during this time added greatly to the pool of knowledge on environmental protection within the farmed landscape. A key research aim within the farm is to show how to intensify food production without compromising wildlife protection and the achievements of the farm have inspired a generation of farmers to do more for wildlife on their own land. A 20-year report outlining the achievements of the GWCT’s Allerton Project is available at

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