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Opinion: Miles King - Farmers understand why people need nature

Miles King, chief executive of environmental charity People Need Nature, explores the conflicts of those working towards the same thing.

Farmers understand better than most how people need nature.

 

For a workforce which spends so much of its time outside, this seems an obvious statement.

 

So why do farmers and people working for the conservation of nature have so much difficulty agreeing about what nature needs? Much of the problem is down to the language each side uses. Are we, to paraphrase a quote, ‘peoples divided by a common language’?


Many in the farming industry see themselves as natural conservationists, or even ‘real conservationists’, a term which seems to be seeping into conversation these days.

 

Take farmland birds. Farmers rightly point out their farmland has plenty of birds. But for environmentalists, the continuing plight of what might be described as farmland birds, such as the yellowhammer, corn bunting, or linnet, let alone the grey partridge or turtle dove, is uppermost in their minds.

 

These birds, once common, have now all but disappeared from large swathes of the countryside, and this means farmland.


A similar situation applies with plants. Arable weeds such as black-grass are constantly in the spotlight, with farmers saying glyphosate must stay in the toolbox to get rid of it, while a host of former arable weeds have practically disappeared.

 

And with wildflower-rich meadows and pastures all but gone from farmland, you still find some farmers asking what the fuss is all about, given there is plenty of grassland?


There is also a question of time. Techniques have developed now to create wildlife habitat on farmland.

 

Flowery field margins can spring up in a year, and are then removed as quickly.

 

The value of a patch of land for nature develops over time. A thousand-year-old meadow, hedgerow or woodland is infinitely more valuable than a 10 year old one, let alone a year-old pollinator strip along an arable field, valuable though these are.

 

But the language of ‘old nature’ has disappeared from the farmers’ lexicon, as farming techniques have developed to increase productivity through constant replacement and renewal. Farmland nature is often out of time.


Of course, this is a generalisation and some farmers have immense knowledge of nature, not just species and habitats, but understanding the processes which underlie them.

 

Equally, much conservation activity is really just an odd form of farming, trying to find proxies for traditional farming activities which have long disappeared.

 

With the consequences of Brexit upon us, we need to work together more than ever for nature and for people. Finding a common language, or at least understanding where we do not have one, would be a good first step.

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