Surely not, you cry! And yet, leaving the EU might just be a once-in-a-century chance to restore our countryside and rescue its wildlife. Martin Wright investigates
On the surface, it’s a silly question. Virtually every environmentalist in the land campaigned to remain, and for good reason. For decades, European rules have been one of the few means of slowing the sacrifice of the countryside on the altar of intensive agriculture. Ever since the second world war, when the fear of starvation triggered a drive to increase our food production at all costs, wildlife has been squeezed out of the fields.
Thanks to EU directives such as those covering birds and habitats, and its network of Special Areas of Conservation, more than 900 of Britain’s most fragile natural jewels – heathland, woods and marshes among them – have been saved from the digger and the plough. And EU laws are hard to break; governments which fail to enforce them are subject to hefty fines, which can run into the millions enough to concentrate the mind of the most cynical minister.
Stripped of that protection, the nation’s dwindling wildlife looks vulnerable indeed. All the more so as farmers, struggling to make a living in Brexit Britain without the cushion of EU subsidies, and facing the threat of tariff barriers on food exports to Europe, could be pushed into wringing every last pound of productivity out of a fragile soil.
The news might all seem bad, but good things are happening too.
But – here’s the but: while the EU might have sheltered some of Britain’s most vulnerable sites, it has done little for the countryside as a whole. Here, Europe’s dominant influence has been the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – and that’s anything but benign. For decades, it paid farmers production subsidies which encouraged them to overwork the land, depleting the soil and destroying habitats. More recently, it’s shifted to subsidising landowners largely on the basis of how much land they own – with few stipulations as to how it’s managed. Smallholders with fewer than five acres are not eligible for any payments at all. Therefore the CAP rewards the rich, inflates land prices, and so squeezes out potential new entrants to farming.
It has some mitigating features, in the form of support for environmentally sensitive farming under the Countryside Stewardship scheme, for example – but by and large it has fuelled destruction and neglect. Those vast arable acres drenched with chemicals, with barely a hedgerow in sight? The sickly green nitrogen-soaked mono pasture, where once a wildflower meadow swayed? The huge steel sheds looming over the lanes? You can lay a fair whack of that at the door of the CAP. Since its introduction, British farmland birds have declined by 54 per cent, insect numbers across Europe have fallen off a cliff, and soil fertility has crashed. And it’s funded, of course, by taxpayers, to the tune of over £3bn a year.
Imagine instead a countryside that’s a rich mix of habitats, replete with hedgerows and woodland, and clusters of new smallholdings producing fruit and vegetables for local consumption. Imagine farmhouses at the centre of farming communities, rather than sold off as weekend pads for stressed-out bankers. Imagine birdsong returning to the fields, and butterflies, moths and other insects to their margins, with all the benefits of natural pest control – and so reduced need for chemicals – which would follow in their wake. Imagine farmers being paid to protect soil rather than exhaust it; to work together to manage whole landscapes, not just for food production but other ‘ecosystem services’ too, such as absorbing the winter rains (which at present rush down denuded fields to cause some of the devastating floods of recent years), or soaking up carbon to help meet our climate targets.
Imagine, in short, paying for a landscape that not only protects wildlife but also creates jobs, that not only curbs pollution but also looks, sounds and smells more beautiful than the one we have today.
That’s quite a feat of imagination. But it’s far from a pipe dream. Brexit might have dismayed many conservationists, but the prospect of knocking off the CAP has brought a powerful alliance together to dream up alternatives. Under the banner of the Wildlife and Countryside Link, more than 40 groups as varied as the National Trust, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, have come up with proposals to turn that imagination into reality.
Imagine a landscape that not only protects wildlife but also creates jobs, and looks, sounds and smells more beautiful than the one we have today
Building on a report published in 2016 by the CPRE, they call for a whole new approach to countryside policy, starting with a redirection of subsidies, away from paying people on the basis of the amount of land they own, and towards rewarding environmental good practice across the board. Farmers would be paid according to their success in restoring soil, cutting pollution, boosting wildlife and encouraging public access, as well as converting to organic methods where feasible and boosting sustainably intensive systems such as agroforestry.
They would be rewarded for ecosystem services like flood prevention – which in turn could save the economy hundreds of millions of pounds otherwise spent on flood defences and repairing flood damage. And smallholders would be actively encouraged, rather than – as at present – discriminated against. The shift wouldn’t just be financial, either. Countryside planning rules could be amended to encourage the release of land for new entrants into farming, particularly smallholders and community supported agriculture schemes, aimed at reconnecting people with the land on which food is grown.
It’s a beguiling vision which might sound far removed from prevailing attitudes in Westminster. But its advocates have discovered the unlikeliest of allies. Environment secretary Michael Gove, a Brexit bulldog whose appointment was memorably demonised by his predecessor Ed Davey as “putting the fox in charge of the hen house”, has delivered a succession of speeches which have left campaigners daring to hope that change really is in the air.
He’s backed a sweeping EU ban on pesticides associated with the decline in bee numbers, while rejecting the notion of allowing imports of chlorinated chicken from the US – and in so doing, signalled a refusal to shift to the sort of US-style light touch approach which many feared could be the future of British agriculture. He’s declared his commitment to ‘gold standard’ environmental policies, and spoken of the need to restore soil fertility with a passion more associated with an organic convert than a Tory minister: “If you have heavy machines churning the soil… if you drench it in chemicals that improve yields but in the long term undercut future fertility of that soil, you really are cutting the ground away from beneath your own feet.”
It’s a beguiling vision which might sound far removed from prevailing attitudes in Westminster. But its advocates have discovered the unlikeliest of allies
His words in turn drew praise from unlikely quarters. “This is amazing,” declared George Monbiot. “One by one, Michael Gove is saying the things I’ve waited years for an environment secretary to say.”
Not everyone’s convinced. Green MEP Molly Scott Cato believes “Gove is posturing on a series of cheap wins merely to establish himself as a sheep, before revealing himself as a wolf.”
Maybe. But perhaps, just for once, we should take a politician at his word. There will be plenty of time for bitter recriminations later. For now, though, there would appear to be that rare thing in the history of the British countryside: a slim, sparkling sliver of hope.