UK farmers prepared to work together to improve biodiversity

Farmers in southern England are increasingly prepared to co-operate in order to introduce measures designed to improve biodiversity, according to an Economic and Social Research Council study.

Farmers in Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire hope that by managing their land together to create a more attractive landscape with more wildlife, they might enhance their image with the public and gain government compensation for carrying out the conversion.

The research established that each farmer in the area was prepared to consider jointly implementing ‘whole landscape management’. This implies farmers co-operating across privately owned boundaries – by planting hedges and buffer zones to boost biodiversity, and by permitting the reflooding of the Thames Valley, for example.

The cost of implementing the changes could be around £2m annually since it would involve land – mostly arable and improved grassland – being taken out of production. Farmers would also have to make big changes in management practices. A survey of hedgerows and wildlife in the area, for instance, found many hedgerows in poor physical shape and little variety of shrubs, birds and butterflies.

Estimates of the compensation costs would vary greatly according to farm type. The study puts a total of £2m annually on implementing the biodiversity scenarios. “This is a minimum estimate based on farmers’ replies,” Professor Tim O’Riordan, one of the authors of the research at the University of East Anglia’s told edie. “We will probably upgrade it when we contact the farmers again.”

Some of the money might come from arable payments being redirected and other funds could be generated if the Common Agricultural Policy switches from production incentives to sustainable agriculture.

The farms total 95 km2, of which 42 km2 are arable fields. The farmers are a mix of landowners and tenant farmers. The farms are by no means part of an area in crisis: 26 of the 31 farms had been profitable for the five years to 1998. The larger farms were tending to get bigger and few farmers expressed interest in getting off the land. But economic uncertainties in farming were still a factor in the farmers responding fairly positively to suggestions of how environmental improvements might be incorporated to make farming more viable.

The interdisciplinary study, led by Professor Tim O’ Riordan, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, broke technical ground by constructing 2D geographical data system maps of the landscape as it is now, and linking these with virtual reality modelling language software to create 3D versions of parts of the future landscape, as planned by the farmers, for two main scenarios:

  • ‘landscape character’ – maximising visual amenity, with tree planting alongside roads, rivers and streams and conversion of some riverside fields to improved grassland, with biodiversity providing important amenity value
  • ‘biodiversity conservation’, which would be environmentally more rigorous. It would include all flood plain farmland reverting to extensive grassland, and a major programme to restore and replant hedges, and buffering of all streams and ditches. Two farms on the Thames flood plain would have 80% of current arable land converted to unimproved meadow

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