Farmers: Don’t blame us for disappearing wildlife

The State of Nature report said intensive agriculture has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on nature
The State of Nature report said intensive agriculture has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on nature

Farmers have insisted they are not to blame for a dramatic decline in rural wildlife.

The move came after a new report found that more than half of UK species have suffered falls in recent years, and 15% are at risk of vanishing from our shores.

Intensive agriculture’s “overwhelmingly negative” impact on nature has helped drive the declines, while climate change, loss of habitat and urban sprawl are also having an effect, the second State of Nature report said.

The study, which pools knowledge from 53 wildlife organisations, shows that 56% of almost 4,000 studied land and freshwater species suffered declines in numbers, or areas where they are found, between 1970 and 2013.

Declines have continued in this century, with 53% of species witnessing falls between 2002 and 2013, and there is little evidence to suggest the rate of loss is slowing down.

An assessment of 8,000 species shows that 1,199 species are at risk of disappearing from Great Britain, the report said.

Farming is key to what is happening, with more intensive agriculture affecting nearly half of the species studied and responsible for nearly a quarter of the total impact on wildlife.

A loss of mixed farms, changes to sowing patterns, a switch from hay to silage in pastures, increased use of pesticides and fertilisers and a loss of habitat such as hedgerows and ponds have taken their toll.

The report said Government farming policies had led to dramatic changes in farming practices, almost doubling wheat and milk yields since the 1970s, but often at the expense of nature by disrupting the food sources and habitats species rely on.

While wood pigeons have prospered from a switch to autumn sowing, which has provided more reliable winter food, the loss of ponds has hit great crested newts, and increased herbicides have caused a huge decline in corn marigolds.

National Farmers Union vice president Guy Smith accused environmental groups, such as the RSPB, of painting a misleading picture of how agriculture impacts on wildlife.

“When farmers go out their front doors, and they see their farms, and they see lots of wildlife, and then they open up the newspapers and see the RSPB painting some lurid picture of a countryside with no birds, or bees, or mammals in it, they just get a bit depressed. There are many species that are not declining. All we say is, ‘just change the record, please’.

“One thing that mystifies us about this is that there has been no intensification of agriculture in the last 25 years.

“We need better metrics to measure farmland wildlife. It doesn’t put enough emphasis on the increases, and in particular it overlooks the build-up of predator numbers. And we think, sometimes, the wildlife lobby would rather turn a blind eye to that, like Nelson at Copenhagen,” Mr Smith told the BBC.

Martin Harper of the RSPB said: “I don’t want to try and get in to a sterile debate about who’s to blame. I’m all about looking forward, I’m not about looking towards the past.”

The report comes as the debate over the future of subsidies for farming after Brexit intensifies, with calls for future payments to focus on protecting wildlife in the countryside.

Climate change is also increasingly affecting UK nature, although the impact is mixed, with some species spreading north or surviving better in warmer winters, but others hit by loss of coastal habitat, increased sea temperature and wilder weather.

A spokeswoman for the Environment Department said: “Our natural environment is cleaner and healthier than at any time since the industrial revolution.”