The Oxford Real Farming Conference takes place today and tomorrow (January 4th and 5th). Our Rural Enterprise Director Patrick Begg has been speaking at the session on rewilding and farming and sets out his thoughts on the debate below.
Let’s start with some heresy: I’m sad about this but rewilding has become a loaded term and I now don’t like to use it.
Why? It tends to polarise.
It suggests there is an either or choice between food production and nature.
I don’t buy it.
In fact, the Knepp estate and the brilliance of Charlie Burrell’s work has at its heart a functioning, livestock farming system. Extensive, high quality beef, pork, venison doing a brilliant job for habitats at the same time.
What I do like and passionately believe in is the need for more wildness and nature thriving in our countryside.
This is about common sense and developing a countryside that is more in tune with natural processes.
‘Making space for nature’ should be our beacon – John Lawton’s report from 2010 and the rebuilding of our ecosystems is the mission.
We know we need to join up habitats, act at scale, make our special areas gleam and sparkle.
So we need more wild rivers, more wild valley sides with regenerating woodland, wilder estuaries, wilder woodlands, etc…..but these are tactical responses to the need to get natural processes back in shape.
And we do need to respect cultural depth.
Landscapes are, mercifully, hugely diverse and almost all have the stamp of people on them.
Let’s respect that and make sure we understand their significance and how they have changed through history before rushing into major land use change that might compromise these dearly valued elements.
And to be honest, this should make sense for farmers, the environment and wider society.
Thriving nature absolutely underpins the future of food production, whether via buzzing pollinators, healthy fertile soils, or secure, clean water supplies.
Fewer canalised rivers, with woody debris collecting, meanders reestablished and natural flood plains functioning again are a classic example of how big benefits accrue for all.
Our work at Holnicote in Devon is a great example of this, with a real sense of pride created by farmers, conservationists and communities working together.
And wild nature seems to me also critical in reinspiring people – especially in towns and cities – about the countryside. Nature is amazing, but increasingly distant from people.
Creating more, fantastic experiences of nature is vital.
And this inspiration is vital for farmers too: public support for farming can be enhanced, not compromised by giving up more space for nature and demonstrating how food production and wildlife can happily coexist.
A new contract for farming and land use: our last one was in 1947 and times have changed!
But the big thing for me is that to recognise that farmers are at the heart of the solution.
Demonising does not work.
So lets look ahead and find a way to switch on our farming community.
They are natural stockmen and in my experience relish the challenge of producing thriving biodiversity and complex swards – let’s use these inclinations and skills and make the mission for nature appealing so that nature’s restoration is an agenda for all.
Patrick Begg, Rural Enterprise Director