Society is finally waking up to the seriousness of climate change and biodiversity collapse, but will we act fast enough to turn this environmental emergency into a positive future?
The third UK State of Nature report released this month adds further evidence that the majority of our wildlife is in long term decline. Most worrying of all are the collapses in insect numbers along with the perilous state of our marine environment, rivers and soils. Intensive farming, development, habitat fragmentation and pollution are having devastating impacts on all of our ecosystems. This matters to us humans as we depend entirely on nature for our health and prosperity. As the fabric of life unravels, so does our future. Tackling the biodiversity crisis together with the climate crisis is most important challenge of our time.
With farming being the majority land use, a new approach to agriculture has the greatest potential to turn around the ecological crisis. Now is a time of huge change for the sector – the prevailing model of subsidies, inputs and cheap consumer goods is unsustainable and today there is real opportunity and appetite for transforming and reimagining how we use land, produce food and create wider environmental and societal benefits.
A radical overhaul of agricultural policy is needed, and there are proposals that could move us in the right direction, with potential models that reward public goods rather than public commodities. Paying farmers to move towards regenerative farming systems, as well as take areas out of production to reforest or even better re-wild, will build soil fertility, reduce pollution and increase carbon sequestration. Healthy soils can hold twice as much carbon as trees, and soils’ potential to tackle the climate crisis is enhanced further if plant biodiversity is increased through wilding initiatives. Importantly, this approach would also help create the space and habitat that wildlife needs to recover.
Talking to many farmers, there is however a sense of anger and frustration in some. With the rise in public awareness comes an increase in blame culture and polarisation of views. Some farmers are feeling under attack and others are simply dismissive. This worries me. We have to work together to solve the crisis.
Within my Wildlife Trust and through our consultancy Arcadian, we have a long history of working positively and constructively with farmers and landowners across our counties. Working together we’ve seen 15% of Hampshire’s farmland improved for nature and 40% of the Isle of Wight. We have seen populations of farmland birds, butterflies, rare arable wildflowers, bees and other pollinators increase across these farms. We have seen hundreds of thousands of trees planted, hedges left to grow thicker and wildflower meadows created. We have seen the use of pesticides and fertilisers reduced, river quality improve and soil health recover. I am exceptionally proud that my Principal Farm Advisor, Alison Cross, recently won the prestigious Farmers Weekly Arable Farmer of the Year Award having been nominated by the farmers she works with.
I’d like to see much more of this collaboration across our counties and across the UK. No one person is to blame for the environmental emergency, it is system change we need. Finding solutions at the field level is vital; telling positive stories to the public is important too. But more than this we must get the government to put in place a policy framework that drives nature’s recovery, helps wildlife return and builds healthier farming systems.
Hampshire & IOW Wildlife Trust