The State of Nature on Organic Farms
The State of Nature report recently showed the UK to be one of the most nature depleted countries in the world.
Sadly, the new report doesn’t show any great improvements from the previous which covered from the 1960s to 2013. It is expansive with contributions from over fifty organisations and examines in detail the abundance of plants and animals and where they are found over the UK – an indicator of occupancy. In farmland species there have been particular declines in birds and butterflies, but increases in bat species.
The causes of this decline? The report clearly points the finger at policy driven agricultural intensification and climate change. I believe most of us would agree that the last 40 years of farming have seen the greatest changes in agriculture since we stopped hunting and gathering. This has brought huge successes in increasing yields but clearly at a cost to the natural environment.
Most habitats in the UK can be described as semi-natural at best. We have farmed our landscapes for thousands of years and much of our biodiversity has had time to adapt to this. What we are seeing now, in many cases, is a loss of this diversity that has adapted to what were very different farming practices. For example, moving to autumn sown wheat doesn't give the corn cockle flower enough time to set seed before the earlier harvest.
The report notes the decline in management of traditional grasslands as one of the factors; the loss of sensitive grazing systems and timely cutting for hay and the loss of tussocky grasses which provide refuge for many insects. The decline in species-rich grasslands is quite dramatic with a 97% loss of lowland meadows from the 1930s to the 1980s.
To summarise the factors in the report which have contributed most to our loss of nature in farm-land:
- A switch from spring to autumn sown crops
- A move from haymaking to silage
- Loss of mixed farming systems
- Increased use of chemicals
- Decline in hedgerows and farm ponds
- Neglect of marginal habitats
Perhaps not that many surprises in this list! Looking at it organic farming should be proud of its record, and also proud that you find 50% more wildlife on organic farms than our conventional neighbours.
But we should never rest on our laurels; so how can we improve nature whilst still growing healthy nutritious food? The report suggests the following:
- Use traditional farming methods on some areas – such as low intensity farming methods on grassland with careful grazing and cutting
- Create new wetlands
- Planting of new broadleaved and mixed woodland
- Take up agri-environment schemes such as Countryside stewardship (of note winter stubble and field margin options)
- Control invasive non-native species
- Connect up habitats where possible – such as diverse field margins and hedgerows.
The pressures on our farmland are huge but other than the moral obligation to protect our natural environment the precautionary principle underlies organic farming, and we clearly don’t know the importance of biodiversity and will not until it’s gone. Many of us farm organically because of environmental concerns and we know it’s possible to produce top quality food and care for our nature on the same patch of farmland. Areas in the UK specifically designated for nature conservation only cover a tiny proportion of our land area, so it's time for farming to take up the challenge.