The RSPB and the NFU should be natural allies in a post-Brexit world, but working together means we must both acknowledge the seriousness of the environmental challenges we face. The NFU’s latest environment report does not do this, says Tom Lancaster, RSPB principal policy officer for agriculture.
Last week, I posted a personal tweet on the NFU’s environment report that got a mixed reception.
It may not have been that well-judged, but social media is spontaneous, and sometimes you forget how others will read it, and what pressures they are under.
A lot of farmers care hugely about wildlife, the environment and their place in it, and feel a deep connection as well to the NFU.
So I can see that a criticism of the NFU is felt to be an attack on all farmers; it is not, and is never meant in this way.
For me, this comment was one born of frustration.
Like many farmers the RSPB works with, I care deeply about the wildlife that calls farmland home.
But in my lifetime, species that were common, like the turtle dove, curlew and corn bunting, are now facing local or even national extinction.
All the evidence suggests the way we produce and consume food is the main cause of these declines.
It also points to increasingly unsustainable impacts on water and air quality, on climate change, and on the very soils that future farming depends upon.
To say this is not an attack on farmers – much of this is driven by markets and public policy. It is though, an inescapable reality.
The NFU’s report does nothing to recognise this. Instead, it downplays the challenges we face, and in doing so reduces the impetus to act.
It takes us back to a point where we have to argue about whether there is a problem to solve, not how we can work together on the solution.
This is hugely frustrating.
I am told the debate at the NFU’s conference was different. That president Minette Batters recognised not all is right, and things ‘need to be better’.
But most will only read the report, which is more about giving the impression that all is fine, when any objective assessment will find that it is anything but.
This only serves to perpetuate the discord in the NFU’s messaging on the environment.
By saying this, I am not the enemy. Quite the opposite; many at the RSPB work day in, day out fighting for billions of pounds of public money to go to farmers to restore wildlife to our countryside, and for a trade policy that protects our standards.
In a world where many are arguing to sell farming down the river in pursuit of free trade deals and a no-deal Brexit, conservationists and farmers should be natural allies.
To work together though takes trust, and we need to be confident that the NFU are taking the environmental challenges we face seriously.
This report leaves a huge question mark over that.
Tom can be found tweeting at @tommlancaster