Article for the East Anglian Daily Times 8.6 02






An Endangered Resource?


By Caroline Cranbrook






Flowers, fields, farming and food are all interdependent, but their links have become damaged and obscure. We must understand how his has happened and look for ways in which we can make the reconnections, which are vital to the future of farming and wildlife.



The recent report, England’s Green and Unpleasant Land (Plantlife and the Wildlife Trusts), has highlighted the nation-wide decline of our ancient flower-filled pastures. In Suffolk they amount to only 1% of the county’s 30,000 hectares of grass. Commercial grass and livestock farming are also in decline, with serious implications for our landscape and ultimately for wildlife as well.


Most of the landscape we value most highly, the meadows, the heaths, the marshland and the saltings, were maintained by grazing animals. The vegetation, flowers, butterflies, other invertebrates, amphibians and small mammals evolved over 100s, even 1000s of years, alongside the varied patterns of grazing, producing the mosaic of wildlife that is our biodiversity heritage.


It is livestock that made the landscape. If we want to keep it, halt the decline in the biodiversity of flower meadows and recreate new ones, we must have an economically viable livestock industry. All grassland, whether ancient or modern, depends on this.


What has produced the decline of the flower meadows? The first great loss occurred during the second world war. Huge areas of grassland, particularly in fertile East Anglia, were ploughed up to produce food for the nation. After the war, food continued to be in very short supply and farmers were encouraged to increase arable production and maximise grassland productivity. The many species that made up the sward of the old meadows depended on late grazing and hay cutting to enable them to set seed. Fertilisers  meant that they were swamped by more vigorous species that responded to nitrogen. As the result, flower-rich grassland became increasingly confined to parks, such as Helmingham with its orchids, to churchyards and orchards and to small scraps of land, too wet, too remote, too inconvenient to be part of mainstream farming.


In the 1990s policy started to change. Government introduced the Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) and Countryside Stewardship Schemes. In Suffolk, the ESA scheme was launched for the Upper Alde and Stour Valleys, rewarding farmers for keeping land in grass and managing it less intensively. Both schemes recognised that conservation was expensive and should be grant aided. There are now 10,000 hectares under ESA management, including 3,000 hectares that have been converted to grass from arable. Both schemes are highly successful examples of farming and conservation working in partnership.


This partnership also extends to the environmental organisations, which became involved in livestock farming to maintain the biodiversity of their reserves. In the UK, 90% of all wildlife reserves are grazed. The RSPB is the largest grazier in its eastern region, where 3,000 hectares of its reserves are grazed by 4,500 livestock belonging to 92 different farmers. Because the region’s livestock has declined, animals come from as far away as Penrith to feed on our marshes and the RSPB not only keeps its rents low but provides stockmen as well.


The Suffolk Wildlife Trust also needs livestock for its reserves, such as the Sizewell marshes. It too has problems finding enough and maintains a register of graziers and land available for grazing. It reported recently that 80% of the remaining wild flower grasslands are now well-managed and that 36% are in agro-environment schemes. It also keeps a watchful eye on other isolated patches of ancient grass, often in churchyards – 40 of these are county wildlife sites and 30 have wildlife management plans.


Even these achievements are under threat. Dairy and livestock farms, ESAs, wildlife reserves all need the support of a profitable meat, dairy and livestock industry. It is totally unrealistic to expect even the remaining grassland to survive unless there is an economic use for the livestock.


We are at a critical stage. Not only must we maintain what grassland we have left, whether it is flower-rich, conventional or a wildlife reserve, but we must also reverse the trend. We need a nation-wide grassland strategy.


Agri-environment funds must be better targeted to make existing schemes more effective by encouraging grassland biodiversity and to bring in more land. The true costs of grassland management are high – fencing, stock-proof hedging, expensive local grassland seeds, animal equipment. Capital and annual grant aid should be available to help meet the costs of all environmental grass, not only those in existing conservation schemes. It would also helpful if Countryside Stewardship payments, which anyway do not cover costs, were made on time!


Grassland farming skills may have to be relearned and provision should be made for this. Techniques of managing grassland for livestock and the environment are complicated. They also have to be flexible. Cattle are useful for late grazing because they trample in seeds, but too much trampling will destroy the sward that we are trying to maintain. Different habitats may need grazing by different species at different times of the year – even Tarpan ponies are used on Redgrave and Lopham fens.


Meat from reserves and flower filled meadows can be sold as environmentally branded products. Hay and haylage from species rich meadows could be marketed at a premium. It is absurd that we are importing hay from the United States and even from South Africa for the horse industry when our own meadows could provide an incomparable quality product. Perhaps discerning pet owners might also value environmentally friendly hay!


Financial support is essential. Skills are essential, as is adding value The wildlife organisations have an immensely important part to play, maintaining our most precious habitats and providing expert advice. But if grassland is to continue to exist on any scale and increase in area, the work will have to be done by farmers, commercially. Nothing will flourish unless it is underpinned by a profitable livestock industry.


Today, milk is being sold below the cost of production. Supermarkets,  catering and meat processors source their supplies almost entirely from  the large meat plants, buying meat wherever it is cheapest, increasingly from abroad. If this continues, the British livestock industry will not survive and much of what remains of our ‘green and pleasant land’ will revert to scrub. However, the collapse of a viable British livestock industry can be prevented by government, by the retailers and by the consumer.


Government can facilitate recovery by implementing the recommendations of the Curry Report in full, by supporting the essential infrastructure of local abattoirs, by stopping unnecessary regulation and by ensuring major purchasers, such as the Armed Forces, hospitals, schools, local authorities and other institutions adopt procurement policies to buy British meat. The retailers can return to local sourcing.


Above all the consumer, you and I, must ask for locally produced and locally slaughtered meat in the supermarket, the butcher, the pub, the hotel and the sandwich bar. If we want to enjoy beautiful landscapes and flower filled meadows, then we must support the industry that is essential to their survival and rediscover the pleasure of reconnecting with our local food and the environment that has produced it.

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