Beef and beer come out top at the Fine Farm Produce Awards

Two producers have risen to the top to be crowned overall food and overall drinks winner at this year’s Fine Farm Produce Awards.

Neil and Sally Grigg from Burrow Farm in Devon - overall food winner at the Fine Farm Produce Awards 2014

Neil and Sally Grigg from Burrow Farm in Devon – overall food winner at the Fine Farm Produce Awards 2014

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Taking a holistic approach to food production

Today see’s the publication of a major new report on food and farming in the UK, called ‘Square Meal’, by ten organisations, including the National Trust. Rural Enterprises Director at the Trust, Patrick Begg (http://twitter.com/NT_Pat), takes a look at the focus of the report and the challenges ahead.

“The last week has been one of soaring highs and depressing lows.

First, was the most inspiring of visits to Knepp Castle Estate near Horsham in West Sussex, where Charlie Burrell has been re-inventing a thriving, lowland estate. His 2,000 acres has gone, in just over a decade, from a scoured, arable/dairy financial black hole, to a landscape dripping with natural health and economic possibilities.

This was followed by the House of Commons debate on implementing the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) in the UK. It was a dispiriting and familiar trip around the threats to agriculture from administrative burdens and regulatory hurdles to the reinforcement of apparent entitlements to cash. These are issues, of course, and they do need to be dealt with.

But there’s a need for a much bigger debate and for thinking that breaks free from the bureaucratic and self-interested doldrums. We need to look beyond CAP and to address the constraints that farming’s dependency on it has created.

So we’ve been delighted to come together with a range of organisations to kick start the debate. The ‘Square Meal’ report , published today, sets out the scale of the challenges around food, nature, environmental protection, farming livelihoods, diet and health and challenges the political parties to rise to these in framing their manifestos for the forthcoming election.

There are a range of specific policy responses which we believe are critical to future progress. These include: ensuring public procurement leads in the purchasing of sustainably produced food; stopping using ‘production efficiency’ as the key metric for success; and making a much more effective and concrete response to the call for ‘bigger, better, more joined up’ habitats which Prof John Lawton enshrined in his vital report on the future of nature.

We’re also asking for much more leadership from Government. Without this, it’s hard to see how the big leaps we need can be made. We want a long term vision in place that blends the farming, food, environmental and social sectors much more coherently and we need Government to address market failures and to reward those delivering public benefit complemented by a properly embedded ‘polluter pays’ principle. We hope the ‘Square Meal’ report will kick-start this conversation.”

National Trust reaction to Government announcement on badgers

Patrick Begg, Rural Enterprises Director at the National Trust, said: “We’re pleased that the Government has recognised the need to learn lessons from the pilots. We wrote to Defra last year expressing our deepest concerns about the conduct of the culls, so it’s encouraging that they appear to be listening.

“We welcome their commitment to looking harder at the potential of vaccination at the heart of a suite of measures to get this devastating disease under control, including funding for vaccination projects and continued efforts to reduce the risks of cattle giving other cattle the disease – still the greatest route for the infection to spread. We’ve funded our own large vaccination programme on our Killerton estate so we’re pleased Defra are now looking to support programmes like this.

“What is clear to us, as an organisation that cares about wildlife and our farm tenants who carry out much of our conservation work in the wider countryside, is that the Government’s actions must be based on sound scientific evidence and meet highest possible standards of conduct, or risk making this devastating disease even worse. We are pleased that they appear to be listening, but will need to look at the detail of the strategy and the panel’s report before concluding our position.”

CAP and future proofing farming

National Trust Rural Enterprises Director, Patrick Begg, reflects on the announcement today by the Government on how its carving up funds from the Common Agricultural Policy:

I wonder in life if there’s always a slightly misplaced sense of relief whenever dodging a metaphorical bullet?  Perhaps that’s why the announcements today on England’s Common Agricultural Policy settlement has solicited an initial huge sigh of relief followed by a more reflective, at least in me, air of disquiet about the general direction of travel.  

It’s refreshing that DEFRA has battled hard to bolster support for agri-environment schemes and the promised staged move from 12% to 15% of funds transferred from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 (if delivered) will be a positive move [1].  Also, the emerging design of the new green farming schemes looks progressive and in many ways enlightened.  In fact, there’s a sense that the concept of fundamental environmental protection and enhancement lying at the heart of the future of a sustainable farming system has retained and even strengthened its currency in DEFRA.  Owen Paterson has stuck to his mantra of “public goods for public money.”

But if you delve deeper the Government’s core focus on the short term growth agenda in the countryside at the cost of long term viability of farming is still a major concern.  The late interventions from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Treasury to try and divert vital funds within Pillar 2 away from  farming that benefits nature to Local Enterprise Partnerships-led rural growth schemes confirms this persistent threat.  And make no bones about it, in real terms, over the course of the next 7 years, there will be less cash available to encourage the style of farming that safeguards and nurtures soils, water and wildlife and delivers real public benefit for the investment of huge sums of public money.  We cannot be pleased with that overarching truth.

No-one can disagree that environmental quality is the fundamental building block of a healthy and resilient countryside and that it lies at the heart of farming’s future.  Likewise, sustaining and increasing public support for farming and its role in delivering a rich and beautiful landscape must be critical.  Yet every indicator tells us that England’s natural environment is under pressure and in decline like never before.  We also know that people have become disconnected from the natural world and the outdoors at an alarming rate.  

Without well-resourced and robust long term plans for improving the quality of the environment, it’s hard to see how farming’s future, and the sense of instinctive public support that it enjoys, can be secured.  DEFRA needs to continue to fight, make and win the case for a broader and deeper commitment to future-proofing farming and securing its environmental foundations, whether through direct or indirect subsidies.

Notes:

[1] Pillar 1 is made up of direct subsidies that go to farmers and Pillar 2 consists of money from the Rural Development Programme which supports schemes to improve the farmed environment, boost rural economies and improve competitiveness.

National Trust reaction to Common Agricultural Policy deal

Patrick Begg, the Trust’s Rural Enterprise Director said: “There was so much to be won by being bold about the long term future of agriculture in Europe, yet the final settlement feels like a backward step. The Commission rhetoric at the outset was encouraging: more public benefit for public money, we were told and a deeper commitment to protecting finite natural resources. Yet the deal announced today makes it harder, not easier to reward farmers and land managers for the provision of fundamental public goods. Our ability to lay the foundations of a sustainable farming industry – healthy productive soils, clean water, cultural landscapes and public access – has been seriously undermined.”

“There’s less money to go around as a result of today and a risk that the message to land managers is ‘carry on farming as before’. Our Government needs to show real leadership in Europe and send a clear signal that environmental sustainability has to be put at the heart of farming in the UK. It’s critical that Owen Paterson uses his discretion to shift as much resource as possible from Pillar I to Pillar II. He needs to back new agri-environment schemes, open to as many farmers as possible, and that set a high bar for quality farming and are based on safeguarding and improving our precious soils, water resources, landscapes, and wildlife.”

The National Trust owns 200,000 hectares of farmland (80 per cent of its total land ownership) and has 2,000 farm tenants.

Weekly Witter: Restoring our Woodland

Croft Castle – Wood Pasture Restoration

Wood pasture is a medieval form of agricultural/horticultural land management, a very early form of permaculture, where two or more crops can be raised on the same piece of land. Traditionally, widely spaced trees were grown in meadows grazed by cattle and/or deer. This provided meat for the table and a wide variety of materials from the trees, depending on species and location. The trees were protected from the grazing animals until they were big enough and their branches were well above animal browsing height. These trees were then typically cut at a height of approximately eight feet every 3 to 25 years depending on the desired material. The trees provided a great variety of materials: firewood, tool handles, leaf fodder, small diameter timber, fencing material and bends for the ribs of ships.

Longhorn cattle grazing wood pasture. Muelaner

Longhorn cattle grazing wood pasture. Muelaner

The practice of pollarding was enshrined in law dating as far back as the Magna Carta. Common people were granted the right of Estover, which allowed them to take material from trees on common land, often in Royal Hunting Forests, but expressly forbade them from cutting down trees. This gave pollard trees great significance for commoners.

New pollard. Muelaner

New pollard. Muelaner

The practice of pollarding considerably extends the natural life of many tree species. For instance a beech tree would normally live about 300 years by which time it would have blown over in a gale or from root decay, collapsed due to fungal trunk decay or succumbed to one of several pathogens. A beech tree which has been pollarded for the majority of its life however, can live for more than 600 years, oaks for more than a thousand years. The old pollards develop very fat squat trunks with small crowns.

These trees with their small crowns have a reduced risk of blowing over or getting torn apart in severe winds, they are also less susceptible to drought with their reduced volume of canopy to support.

Ancient oak pollard. Muelaner

Ancient oak pollard. Muelaner

These ancient trees are extremely important culturally, for their great natural beauty and for the exceptionally abundant wildlife living on and within them. They support very rare lichens living on their craggy bark, rare fungi decaying the heart wood and very specialised dead wood invertebrates digesting this decaying wood.

Pollarding died out in Britain in the 19th century and many of the old wood pastures succumbed to secondary woodland. One such site is a lapsed wood pasture at Croft Castle, 47.0 hectares of which was let on a very long lease to the Forestry Commission prior to the Trust acquiring the property. The Trust and the FC are now in consultation regarding the restoration of this nationally important site. The Trust’s 5.0 hectare in-hand portion of this wood pasture has already undergone restoration with lots of the naturally seeded trees having been removed and grazing being re-introduced later this year. Without this kind of intervention the ancient old trees would be killed by the more vigorous young conifers growing above them and casting them into perpetual shade.

Wood Pasture restoration. Muelaner

Wood Pasture restoration. Muelaner

Sadly, when the Forestry Commission first took over the lease of the land in the 1950s, the significance of ancient trees was not fully understood or appreciated. This meant that many of these wonderful old trees were purposefully killed by ring barking around their trunks with an axe, luckily some of these trees miraculously survived this destructive treatment. The site is littered with dead hulks with axe marks demonstrating how they died. I would like to think that we live in a more enlightened time and that the remaining pollards and their future offspring will be safe at Croft and other Trust properties.

  • Brian Muelaner – Ancient Tree Adviser for the National Trust. I advise on how best to manage these special trees to preserve their natural lives. I am often among trees many hundreds of years old, some are a thousand years or more and still quite healthy. I am coordinating a national survey of all ancient and notable trees on Trust land. To date we have recorded a remarkable 25,000 trees and still have many more properties to survey. I am also compiling an inventory of the hundreds of Trust avenues.

  • The Weekly Witter is a regular Monday mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

Reform of the green farming schemes needed to benefit farmers and environment

A report commissioned by two of Britain’s biggest farmers suggests that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform proposals present an opportunity to improve existing Entry Level Stewardship in England.

The changes to agri-environment schemes suggested in the report would create a more environmentally, financially and socially sustainable approach to agriculture, helping farmers, the environment and wider rural communities.

A view of rolling countryside

The ‘CAP’ has a huge effect on Britain’s special places.

With over 220,000 hectares of farmland between them, the National Trust’s and Co-operative Farms’ report comes at a time of intense speculation about the future of CAP, with fiercely debated proposals to ‘green’ farm subsidy payments, growing EU pressure to cut funding for rural development schemes and domestic calls to “rebalance” rural development spending “in favour of competitiveness.”

Land Stewardship in England Post 2013 offers a series of practical recommendations to improve agri-environment schemes, with transferable lessons for other countries.

The report analyses the perceived gap between the entry-level scheme and the higher tier, the opportunities to enhance the upland farming scheme and the overall implications of the proposed ‘greening’ of Pillar 1.  As a whole, the report’s recommendations could help to ensure that money invested in agri-environment delivers for public benefit, ‘future-proofs’ farming and protects the natural resource base upon which the English countryside and agriculture depend. Patrick Begg, Director of Rural Enterprise at the National Trust, said:

“Successful, long-term farming is about the careful stewardship of precious natural resources.  Without that principle in place, it’s hard to see how we can continue to produce food and the other natural services that our land offers: clean water, locked up carbon, fuel for heat and power and productive soils.  We believe that the economic future of farming will increasingly centre on how this stewardship is delivered and supported.”

“For British farms to remain in business we need to act now to secure a future for them.  ‘Future-proofing’ farming will need us to direct support payments to activities that benefit nature and the wider environment and in ways that work with existing farming systems. We need to move environmental stewardship into the heart of the standard farm business and not leave it as a bolt-on, which is how agri-environment schemes have often operated in the past.”

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is currently reviewing how it will deliver the next generation of rural development schemes, which will run between 2014 and 2020. But it is likely that the Government will have less funding available. Defra currently chooses to spend the vast majority (80 per cent) of its EU ‘rural development’ funding allocation on agri-environment schemes, covering 70 per cent of farmland in England. David Watson, Head of Arable Operations for The Co-operative Farms, added:

“Our report shows that any new policy for environmentally sustainable farming must be practical, straightforward and deliverable.”

“We believe the recommendations of this report will provide genuine food-for-thought for Defra and Natural England, the two bodies responsible for the design and delivery of agri-environment schemes in England.”

“To secure a viable future for farming and rural communities, we must refresh entry-level stewardship in a way that not only makes it fit-for-purpose, but that ensures it becomes the cornerstone of rural development. This in itself would provide the continued justification for maintaining the current level of spending on agri-environment.”

 A number of individual farmers and organisations were consulted in the preparation of the report, including the NFU, Country Land & Business Association (CLA), Campaign for the Farmed Environment, Tenant Farmers’ Association and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

It also builds on the Making Environmental Stewardship More Effective (MESME) initiative and is intended to inform Defra’s work to develop the new Rural Development Programme for England 2014-2020.