Our Director-General, Helen Ghosh, is a panelist at today’s Oxford Real Farming Conference, talking about our role and responsibilities as one of the country’s largest landowners. Here, Richard Hebditch, our External Affairs Director, outlines the National Trust’s approach to food and farming in a challenging climate.
The National Trust and our natural world
Time spent surrounded by nature is time well spent. People know this intrinsically and they care deeply about our countryside and the wildlife that lives there.
We’ve always known this too. Looking after natural places and opening them up to people to enjoy has been an essential part of what we do ever since the National Trust formed over a hundred years ago.
Our members and supporters are at the heart of that work. There are over 200m visits to our outdoor places, 62,000 volunteers help look after them and 4.5m members join together to protect them. Together, the support we receive from members and donors means we now own and care for 250,000 hectares of countryside and more than one in ten miles of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’s coast.
And we know the wider public care too and want to spend time outside to enjoy what our countryside and green spaces have to offer.
Valuing our land and nature
On top of that, it’s also increasingly clear that our economy and society, as well as our environment, rely on land that is healthy and rich in wildlife.
But too often over the last 70 years, farming practices have put short-term production ahead of the long-term health of the land and the natural environment. Wildlife has disappeared from our fields and hedgerows, over-worked soils wash out to sea and towns and villages flood. A changing climate will bring even greater challenges.
The way our country manages land doesn’t even work for many farmers who have to rely on EU handouts to make a profit or who suffer from volatile prices in dysfunctional markets.
Our country needs to find a new way to manage land and reward farmers and land owners to be good stewards of the land, passing it on in good condition for future generations.
Our new approach
We think an approach based on recognising the different functions that land has is needed. For our work, we think land should be:
- Healthy – in terms of good soil condition and water quality
- rich in wildlife
- rich in culture, and
This isn’t new territory. For many decades, there’s been a variety of moves to better manage our natural environment:
- Organic farming can be better for soil and for wildlife but the market for organic food has been in decline (the amount of land farmed organically is down by a quarter since 2008). Not all farms can make it pay.
- Much of the countryside is now looked after by conservation minded organisations and individuals. They do great work but do not always join up so that they add up to more than the sum of their parts and they’ll only ever cover a small minority of land in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
- The planning system, regulations (such as the EU Habitats and Waste Directives) and funding (for instance through the Common Agricultural Policy) have helped to protect nature or landscapes. But there are limits to an approach based on regulation and public spending, both politically and in how much they can address other elements of the farming and food systems which reward more intensive and short-term farming.
These approaches are good but have not in themselves stopped the decline of nature.
So recognising the need for action and the limits of previous approaches, we will first focus on the land the National Trust owns. Our new Land Choices tool will be the basis for our approach. This will allow our land managers to first ensure all our land is in good condition and then to nurture our land to continue to improve, based on looking at how land can meet the six functions we’ve set out. We can make changes more quickly for the land that is directly managed by the Trust. For National Trust land that is let to tenants, we will work with our farmers but, particularly for more old style tenancies, our ability for rapid change is limited but will take opportunities whenever they arise. The new approach will be seen in the new leases we agree with our tenants, in our property business plans and new approaches to fund our work.
Sometimes, often in upland areas, this will mean taking land out of primary agricultural production because it is more important for that land to hold or slow down water to prevent flooding (see our work on our Holnicote estate), to retain carbon in peatlands that are being eroded from grazing (find out more about our High Peak vision) or because it offers an opportunity to experience the wild (Wild Ennerdale). We will be looking at how “ecosystem services” like these can provide a financial return.
Farming, particularly with extensive livestock, will still be essential for grazed habitat management in these areas, but levels of production should be limited to align with these land uses.
Where we manage upland farms directly we take this approach, such as at Hafod y Llan, our largest farm on the side of Snowdon. Halving the number of sheep and introducing Welsh Black Cattle has been deliberate to improve nature conservation. Intense ecological surveying has reported significant habitat improvements and we have recently employed a shepherd to ensure specific areas are grazed sensitively for the right duration. Whilst we produce high quality beef and lamb, this is clearly farming for nature.
In other places, it’s about farming differently to improve results across these six functions. So making sure that the right crops are grown, changing the intensity of grazing patterns or moving away from intensive dairy farming. The National Trust’s Fine Farm Produce Awards show how many of our farmers are already making a success out of this approach. We want to do more to help and encourage others to follow their lead.
There is also more we can do to join up our places with others managed by conservation organisations so they can add up to much more. We’ve formed a close relationship with the Woodland Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB to work together more, as with our project at Fingle Wood. We will also work with other landowners and seek support to extend our partnership work with landowners and communities. This will enable land under a conservation regime to be bigger, better and more joined up.
Beyond our boundaries
But although we and other conservation bodies own a lot of land, it won’t be enough. Land as a whole needs to be better managed if the natural environment is to recover. We think the idea of “ecosystem services” mentioned above is one way. This recognises that our society and economy don’t just benefit from the food produced on the land but also from the way land can improve water quality, retain carbon or tackle air pollution. New markets are emerging that can put a price on these benefits and provide a return for hard-pressed farmers but they have been slow to take off so far. The Government can do more to help kick start these markets. We’ve started some work with the respected environmental think tank Green Alliance to explore the best ways for this to happen.
There are also other ways for farmers to generate income and take the pressure off nature, from campsites to renewable energy. We are exploring what role we can play in these areas to work with our tenants and what central and local government could do to support this. We’re not going to tell the Government exactly what national policy should be on farming but for us to fulfil our core purpose (to both promote the preservation of historic places and places of natural beauty and their wildlife), we will call for public policy to recognise that land has many functions, not just focus on agricultural production.
And we want to make sure we’re doing what we can to make the countryside accessible and to inspire people young and old to experience its beauty and understand how its history shapes what we see now.
It is estimated that the damage that is being done to the soil and to natural systems means the UK only has 100 harvests left. It’s time for us together to make a start to restore the health of our country’s land – not just for the sake of nature, but for the sake of our own future too.
Richard Hebditch, External Affairs Director