Growing up on a mid-Wales farm, I remember lapwings nesting on the Banc and curlews breeding in Cae Pwll Llif. I also remember the flocks of gulls following the plough, feasting on the worms, when these meadows were reseeded, possibly for the first time. After this we kept more sheep and the lapwings and curlews never returned. This was back in the late 70’s when land improvement funded by the CAP was at its height. Neighbouring farmers were employing contractors to re-seed banks you could hardly stand on as they were so steep. It was rumoured that one contractor welded the doors of his tractors shut “to stop his boys from jumping if they got a little nervous”. At the time I hadn’t realised I was witnessing the country-wide intensification of farming and a massive loss and fragmentation of wildlife habitats. By today we’ve lost more than 90% of our traditional meadows.
I now work for RSPB Cymru, seeking to influence future farming and land management in Wales. My farming background and career in conservation have taught me a few things. I understand that farming can create and maintain valuable wildlife habitats: however, much of our wildlife is in trouble with one in six species at risk of disappearing from Wales. I know that changes to the way we produce food is one of the main reasons nature is struggling, and that many of these changes have happened during my lifetime, including habitat loss, the almost complete switch from hay to silage and an increase in sheep from 5 to 10 million. I also know that most farmers don’t get a fair deal from the market, that the vast majority have not deliberately set out to harm nature and that many will be hurt and confused by these claims.
So where do we go from here? How do we develop an approach to food production that’s also good for nature?
To begin with, we need to understand what’s gone wrong and why, and I don’t think we really have to look much further than the CAP. When the main policy influencing and supporting farming is predominantly based on producing as much food as possible and doesn’t contain adequate measures to protect nature and the wider environment, it’s hardly surprising we’ve ended up where we are. And although a small proportion of the CAP has been used to support agri-environment schemes in recent years, it’s been too little and hasn’t been used in ways that will help our most vulnerable and declining wildlife. The irony is the CAP isn’t even that good at maintaining farming in Wales: in 2014 nearly 7,000 obsolete holdings were removed from the record and farm numbers continue to decline.
With increasing concern about the state of nature, the wider environment and climate change, Welsh farming is facing mounting challenges and an uncertain future, not helped by Brexit. However, leaving the EU does present us with a unique opportunity to re-set farming and to do away with bad policies that have had such a devastating impact on Welsh wildlife. I firmly believe that this is our chance to replace the CAP with an approach that uses tax payers’ money to promote sustainable food production and pays farmers to restore and maintain nature and the wider environment. This would represent a big change to the way farming is supported. However I also believe that this is what’s necessary to help build resilient farming and land management in Wales; after all nature provides us with the natural resources necessary to maintain food production. Success, however, will largely depend on the understanding and support of Welsh farmers.
One of the key aims of the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference is to help build an inclusive conversation about the future of Welsh food and farming and I look forward to meeting farmers and other food producers to discuss these vital issues, including that all-important link between food and nature.
Arfon Williams, Head of Land and Sea Policy, RSPB Cymru