Debates around the payments made to farmers are quick to generate unflattering headlines and to prompt grumblings from some quarters about how taxpayers’ money is used. The use of the word ‘subsidy’ may be one reason for the difficulties that some sectors of society have with these payments, which, as a consequence, take on the appearance of handouts. Increasingly, we have seen such payments linked to land management and farming practices that deliver wildlife benefit, which frames the ‘contracts’ that we have with landowners in a more positive light. What must be remembered, however, is that the policies by which these vast sums of money are passed from taxpayers to landowners are economic rather than environmental ones. As we have seen in the past, the policies can change overnight, sweeping away a raft of environmentally-aware measures because of a sudden shift in our economic needs.
One of the central points in all of this is that the nature of Britain – its landscapes, communities and wildlife – is driven primarily by land management and, specifically, by farming practices. So many of the English landscapes that we love, that have been celebrated in art and literature, are the result of the way in which we have farmed and managed the land. Farming is the English landscape.
The farming methods that farmers employ on society’s behalf have, over the last 75 or so years, fundamentally changed the fortunes of many different species. We have seen widespread declines in birds, butterflies, moths and other groups, many of which are the result of changing farming practices. If we want to see species recover; if we want a countryside that is richer in its wildlife, then we have to take collaborative responsibility.
The land management that sits behind modern farming is driven by global markets, by our wish to have cheap food, available throughout the year. Unless we shift away from this approach, to change the nature of the economic drivers fundamentally, then our countryside will continue to lose its biological richness. Targeted payments, supporting farmers to deliver environmental and wildlife benefits, need to be seen as the central component of farm subsidies and we need to recognise farmers as the custodians of our countryside and its wildlife.