National Trust Director-General speech at Countryfile Live 2018

Today our Director-General, Hilary McGrady, has opened the National Trust Theatre at Countryfile Live with the following speech. It follows the announcement that the National Trust has pledged to invest £10 million in a project to bring five of the UK’s most precious rivers back to life.

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Hilary McGrady, National Trust Director-General giving her speech at Countryfile Live 2018. ©National Trust Images/Adam Dyster

Thank you and hello everyone. I’m pleased to be here at Countryfile Live today. This is the third time the National Trust has been here, but it is my first visit as Director-General, so I am doubly delighted to welcome you all to the National Trust Theatre. I’m also pleased to welcome the Secretary of State Michael Gove, who’ll be saying a few words in a moment, and NFU President Minette Batters, who’ll be joining us both on stage later for a discussion.

I don’t think it is too strong to say that the three of us, Government, Civic Society and farmers, represent a powerful triumvirate as we prepare to leave the EU and break free from the overwhelming influence of the Common Agricultural Policy.

We have ahead of us – and I don’t use this term lightly – ‘a once-in-a-generation moment of change’ which, regardless of what you think about Brexit, offers us an opportunity to make a huge and positive difference to our natural environment, our rural heritage, and most importantly the lives of the people that live in, work in and visit it.

I am going to talk in a moment about the ways I think we can go about grasping that opportunity but just let me start by explaining why it matters. Why – even if Brexit wasn’t happening – it is not sustainable for us to continue with the way things are.

Let me start by painting a picture…

As you may know I became Director-General in March this year, but I have been in the Trust for some 13 years in a variety of roles across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I was born and bred in a rural part of Northern Ireland, so landscape and farming have always been part of my world. But I will never forget my very first visit to the National Trust’s Crom estate in County Fermanagh. It is just the most magical place on the shores of the Upper Lough Erne.  As you come over the top of hill, you get an extraordinary vista where land blends into water. The woodland is rich in wildlife, with pine martins and red squirrels running free, but it’s also a thriving farming landscape. It’s the most peaceful and serene place you’ll ever visit – a perfect landscape where visitors, farming and nature live in harmony.

But let’s face it, Crom is a very long way from the reality for farming for the majority of landowners and I am very aware that the Trust has the privilege and wherewithal to enable these places to exist.  It is our reason for being, after all; to look after these special places for the benefit of the nation, so to some degree you could say it is easy for us.

But, just for a moment, imagine that it is possible to maintain, capture, sustain even a little bit of what Crom delivers to me and the many thousands of people who live work and visit there.  Where the land across our nations can be healthy and beautiful, full of all kinds of thriving nature, and provide a living for our farmers.

I believe it is possible. But I am not underestimating the challenge.

Let’s start with nature.

The figures are really worrying. Butterfly populations in England have dropped by 27% on farmland and 58% in woodland since 1990. A recent German study showed there has been a 76% decline in flying insects since 1989.[1] Does that really matter? It does, when you realise that flying insects are not only at the base of the food chain, but they also do the lion’s share of the pollinating that we – and especially farmers – depend on.

What was common is becoming rare. The screaming frenzy of swifts, “boomerangs” against the blue sky, is a symbol of summer for many of us in the UK. But now you’ll be lucky to see or hear those gangs of swifts soaring above you; the British population has declined by 51% between 1995 and 2015, with half of that decline in just five years.[2]

Then there is our soil and our water. According to the Environment Agency, only 14% of our rivers are in good ecological condition. The decline in soil fertility is costing us some £1.2 billion pounds every year, and 97% of wildflower meadows have been lost since 1945. [3]

Finally, farmers work in a challenging climate. Defra’s statistics have shown farming incomes falling in recent years, while some farmers are leaving the industry altogether because of price squeezes and uncertainty about the future. Two years on from Brexit there are still so many unanswered questions from the future of CAP to the impact on farm labour. For an industry that needs to think long-term, life is hard.

So, the current situation is challenging and there are many reasons for it. A changing climate has been part of it, but the intensification of agriculture has, without doubt, played a major role.

This isn’t the fault of farmers. For decades they have been squeezed by the supermarkets on price and provided with public funding based on the amount of land they can farm, rather than on producing positive outcomes for people and the environment. Faced with these economic drivers, it is little wonder farmers have not always prioritised nature.

So, what is to be done? 

Two years ago at the first Countryfile Live, shortly after the referendum, the Trust made the case for public money being spent on public goods and services. We said that farmers should be paid for things that have the potential to benefit our landscapes, heritage and wildlife –  for encouraging wildflowers, for slowing down rivers to reduce flooding downstream and rebuilding the health and fertility of soils. I am delighted that this idea is now widely accepted but I also recognise that concepts will remain concepts until they turn into on-the-ground projects and examples.

People that know me know that I am a big believer that actions speak louder than words, so I am particularly pleased that, at the Trust, we have been putting our money where our mouth is. For the last 2 years we – like others – have been trialling a “payment for outcomes” scheme with some of our farm tenants at Malham Tarn in the Yorkshire Dales and sharing our learning with partners and government.

We think this is the way forward – and we’re delighted to see the announcement today showing Defra recognise this too and are continuing their commitment to the Wensleydale pilot.

Payment for outcomes is about rewarding farmers for things beyond food production. And the results show that nature can be put front and centre of decision-making and farming can still be profitable.

One of our tenants, Stuart Hird, for example, will earn up to £9,000 a year extra if his land is an ideal habitat for bees and butterflies. He will also be rewarded for making changes that reduce flooding, such as reducing soil compaction caused by intensive grazing.

Another tenant, Garry Schofield, has taken a brave decision to improve habitat for pollinators by replacing 600 sheep with around 100 belted Galloway native cattle.  Left to their own devices, sheep will graze tightly and will selectively seek out and eat flowering plants. Garry’s small native cattle are suited to the upland terrain and now leave behind more tussocks and flowers beneficial to insects and other wildlife. And not only is nature benefitting; Garry and his family win too, as he can manage this system without relentless 18-hour days, 7 days a week…a punishing schedule!

Like Garry, I don’t underestimate that farmers will sometimes find it difficult to change their methods (and it is not always necessary to do so).

But it does demonstrate the opportunities that exist.

The key to success in these trials has been co-designing a new process with our tenants, working with them on what we want to see in the longer-term and how this fits with their own business and the rhythms of the farming day, month and year. We now have tenants saying they feel informed and involved like never before, and eager to get involved in monitoring and suggesting what more they could do.

Our experience tells us that this new approach requires investment in people, and in face-to-face trusted advice: our ecologist, in this case Fran Graham, has been pivotal in blending ecology and farming in Malham and in creating a sense of collaboration.  This is what we want from public advice, and Natural England could be galvanized to do exactly this, with the right support and mandate post-Brexit.

A second example of putting our money where our mouth is, is that today I am announcing a £10 million-pound investment in the restoration of nature through a new and ambitious project called Riverlands.

Rivers are the lifeblood of our landscapes, but water quality and species are threatened. Only 14% of England’s rivers are in good health. Think about it… only one in seven rivers in England can support the wildlife they should. And what does that mean for you and your children when you want to swim, paddle or walk beside them?

Solving this problem requires people and organisations to work in partnership across all of the landscapes that feed into our rivers. By bringing together the combined expertise of the National Trust, the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales, and working in new ways with communities, farmers and local organisations, we will help to restore and maintain the health of river catchments across the UK. In addition to the funds we’re committing to this project, we will launch fundraising appeals for public support too.

Riverlands will focus in the early stages on around 600 miles of river across England and Wales and its surrounding habitat. On the ground we will be working with partners and farmers to plant trees, create wetland areas, restore blanket bogs and improve habitats for freshwater wildlife.

I have talked a lot about activities and interventions that can make a difference, from farming to ecological husbandry.  What I would like to turn to now is people and where our public are on all of this.

Once again, the stats are pretty clear.

A recent survey we conducted with Ipsos Mori showed 91% of UK adults agree that the countryside is a “national treasure”, and that the same number believe it is important the government ensures that the countryside is well looked-after.[4]

We know one of the top three reasons for visiting Britain is for its landscape and culture. The Trust alone welcomed more than 200 million people last year walking our coast, our woods and our land. And when they come, they tell us that they love the imprint farming has left, from solid flower-rich Cornish hedges to the field barns along the valley floors in the Dales.

They also love to see Herdwick sheep or cattle grazing on hillsides and in pastures. But stats only tell part of the story. Think of the huge public response to the heart-breaking pictures we all saw on Blue Planet of turtles drowning in plastic, or the growing interest in food quality. Environmental issues matter to the wider public and we have a responsibility to listen to them.

So, where does that leave us?

We know our countryside can do so much more than simply provide food. Producing healthy, delicious food in a sustainable way will remain a huge priority. But our countryside’s products are more diverse and, as we look beyond 2020, there’s an increasing need – and demand – to dial up our focus on those additional product farms can produce, from those healthy fertile soils to the thrilling experiences of nature in all its forms.

We know that farmers need support. They will need financial support to deliver the public goods we describe, and crucially support to acquire new business skills. It will be a tough, competitive world but there will also be opportunities for land managers to benefit from new markets, for things like locking up carbon and providing cleaner water.

There are also big-ticket capital items that will be needed which will help us farm more competitively and efficiently, and which also do good for the environment; for example, trickle irrigators rather than water cannons to treat our soils more gently, or capital to change the size and position of all the gateways on a farm, reducing large machinery movements which compact soil and which burn polluting diesel.  These are small, practical things but make a huge difference.

We know this will cost. Research we carried out with the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts shows that £2.3 billion of funding is needed every year just to meet existing environmental objectives – let alone any “post-Brexit” environmental ambitions we might agree.

When you add in additional costs, we’ll need all of the £3.1 billion a year currently spent under the Common Agricultural Policy and more, for the long term.

So, while I said earlier, Minister, that I prefer actions over words, I also believe that if you don’t ask, you don’t get! So, I would like to finish with a few asks of you…

We would like to see the promised Environment Bill put protections for nature solidly into statute. Rules may sound dull, they are without doubt the best tools to ensure our wonderful landscapes and wildlife are protected; just look at the significantly cleaner beaches along our coastline, which have improved because of high legal standards and better monitoring. And what an opportunity to make the UK a leader in environmental quality – a country the rest of the world looks up to for standards and about which we can feel immense pride!

We also need a new, robust series of measures to ensure that governments in years to come deliver the environmental improvements people want –  and are taken to task, if and when they don’t.

If you still have any doubts, it might be helpful to know that in our recent survey 73% of adults in the UK want an Environment Act to include a body that will hold the government to account on environmental laws.[5]

And above all, we need to ensure that, with big changes happening in farming, we also focus on people. The government and others need to help farmers adapt to these changes. A thriving farming sector gives us the best chance of succeeding at great land management. Equally, a fully planned but not agonisingly drawn out transition is crucial – let’s support farmers in making change and be generous where change may be difficult and painful.

So, to conclude, while I’m the first to recognise that that picture I gave you of Crom in Co Fermanagh isn’t realistic everywhere, I firmly believe that Brexit is an opportunity – for nature and for farming, and for bringing these into harmony so that farmers and land managers can also make a decent living into the future.

If we don’t grasp this opportunity the statistics are clear that declines in the quality of our environment will continue and ultimately this will undermine the sustainability of farming in Britain.

We continue to believe that public money should be paid for public goods and we are increasingly clear how to package and cost these.

More importantly, our public love the countryside, and want us to care for and champion it. You have a mandate, Minister!

But ultimately we need to do this together and I want to end with an invitation to you and to Minette – and to everyone here.

When you entered the Theatre today you walked through an archway. Today and over the next three days we are asking you to make your own pledge for nature. Whether that’s making space in your garden for nature, volunteering with a local environmental group or committing to finding out more about nature-friendly farming, every little helps.

Simply write your pledge on one of these cards and hang it on the arch.

I’ll be making my first – but not last pledge – on behalf of the National Trust to make a major investment in nature through our £10 million Riverlands programme and I’d like to encourage all of you here today to make a pledge too.

I repeat, this is a once-in-a-generation moment for us all – whether government, organisations, farmers and land managers, or members of the public – to do something good, for the benefit of everyone across the UK.

I want everyone to be able to enjoy a healthy, wildlife-rich countryside, and I don’t want those opportunities to be restricted to places like Crom – beautiful as it is.

We hold the countryside in trust for our children and grandchildren. Future generations will rightly hold us accountable if we don’t act now.

[1]; Hallmann CA, Sorg M, Jongejans E, Siepel H, Hofland N, Schwan H, et al. (2017) More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0185809

[2] British Trust for Ornithology


[4] Ipsos Mori NT July 2018

[5] Ipsos Mori NT July 2018

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