Benefits after Brexit?
Leaving the EU is likely to have a significant impact on Britain’s landscape. So could it benefit our habitats and wildlife, asks environmentalist Chris Baines?
What leaving the EU could mean for the UK’s wildlife
S ince June 2016 Brexit has dominated the news agenda in Britain, and many commentators – regardless of their political views – agree that it could spell change for our landscape. If so, it won’t be the first time that big political decisions have transformed our countryside. The first of the Enclosures Acts was passed almost 250 years ago. An entire rural landscape was taken out of common use and subdivided by hedges and walls to create the checkerboard farming landscape that is now symbolic of the lowland English countryside.
At the time the ‘peasant poet’ John Clare railed against the carving up of open land where previously “its only bondage was the circling sky”. Ironically, two centuries later the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and others campaigned to stop the clearance of the very hedgerows that had so offended Clare. They were described in the 1970s as “the most widespread semi-natural habitat in England”.
After World War I, Lloyd George’s government established the Forestry Commission, intent on making sure that Britain’s coal mines would never again be short of pit props. The resulting conifer plantations caused the loss of a huge proportion of the country’s surviving ancient broad-leaved woodlands. These were the most convenient landscape elements to clear and replant. In another twist of fate, by the time many of those stands of softwoods were mature enough to harvest, pit props were no longer needed.
When the European Economic Community (EEC) first emerged in 1957, its principal objectives were lasting peace across the continent and self-sufficient agricultural productivity. At that stage, 70 per cent of its budget was absorbed by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The post-war chemical and mechanical revolution was fuelled by a belief that “nature was the enemy”, with wildlife in farmland and forests seen as a weed, pest or disease. Consequently, the past half century has seen the spectacular sterilisation of Britain’s more productive rural landscapes.
A rable crops have lost their ‘weeds’ and most of their pollinating insects. Almost all of the country’s species-rich wildflower meadows have made way for single-species pastures and silage crops. Farmland birds have declined in number by 65 per cent and once-familiar species such as the yellowhammer, turtle dove and cuckoo have become relative rarities. Farmers have found ways of cultivating the pockets of ‘difficult’ land – the steep slopes and boggy bits that had been the last refuge for so much of our rural wildlife.
Even where efforts are now being made to revitalise the faarming landscape with beetle bbanks, unsprayed headlands and nnewly planted hedgerows, the best reesults are a very pale replica of thhe pre-war countryside. Try to rremember when you last needed to scrape squashed insects off your ccar headlights. Even better, take a walk through a hay meadow in a country that came late to the CCAP – in Romania, Bulgaria or HHungary, for example. You will be overwhelmed by the sights and sounds and smells of a species-
rich landscape that we in Britain have lost in just two generations.
Brexit comes at a time when the idea of ‘ecosystem services’ is rapidly taking root. This is the realisation that our natural life-support system has a measurable economic value. In towns and cities, ‘green infrastructure’ is increasingly recognised as the cooling air conditioner that can refresh the body and soul. In the more remote landscapes of the rural uplands, the ecosystem services are equally tangible. Seventy-five per cent of Britain’s drinking water is gathered from uplands, and where the land is sufficiently absorbent it can provide natural water storage, pollution filtration and flood protection.
In a country as crowded and urbanised as ours, remote rural landscapes have always been important for recreation. I grew up in a family of Sheffield ramblers, where a weekend in the Peak District provided physical and emotional escape from the stress of the city. In 1949, the post-war Clement Attlee government made the bold move to enshrine that particular ecosystem service in the form of National Parks.
C an Brexit now be the trigger for an equally ambitious rethink of how we manage these special places? Can we refocus public subsidy to create landscapes managed for a wider definition of the public good?
Most of Britain’s uplands are managed by farmers and, for many, their principal product is lamb and mutton. A great many of these hard-working men and women are at or beyond retirement age and their annual income falls well below the national average. European subsidies provide as much as 80 per cent of this and the nature of the payments continues to encourage overgrazing and landscape deterioration in many of our most treasured uplands.
Forty per cent of the sheep meat from those uplands is currently exported to Europe. So if Brexit brings export tariffs and increased bureaucracy, there will be little incentive to continue farming these marginal lands. If the subsidies also disappear, this could lead to wide scale rewilding by default. The overgrazing would come to an end and very quickly we could expect to see silver birch and mountain ash, hawthorn and oak recolonising open hillsides.
Elsewhere in Europe, this has been the unintended consequence of earlier periods of land abandonment. Large areas of the French Pyrenees are heavily wooded, but old photographs show that this was once an open landscape, heavily grazed and relatively treeless.s. In Catalonia, Barcelona has a glorious fo orested range of mountains as its backdrop. T These were mostly grazed pasture u until better-paid employment in t the tourist industry along th he nearby coast proved irre esistible and the labour fo orce left the land.
Abandoning th he land and ‘leaving g it to nature’ would certainly deliver landscape change – but it is a blunt instrument. Barcelona’s forest is at constant risk of wildfire. Stone-walled grazing land in the English Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and elsewhere that was left untended through the two world wars was soon invaded by bracken. The boundary walls can still be seen, but the hard-won pasture has been lost. Conservation groups managing the UK’s few surviving species-rich grasslands are well aware of the effort nneeded to hold back the tide of invading scru ub.
There is also con nsiderable concern about the social ch hange that would result from abandoning g the land. While farm buildings might survive s as rural retreats for second-home ers or satellite-linked small businesses s, we would lose the local kno owledge of the land and the neeigh bourliness. And, in Snow wdonia’s case, deserting farm ms would lead to a loss of laanguage too.
Most environmentalists seem to agree on one thing. After Brexit, simply reinstalling a British copy of the CAP would be a mistake. Since the CAP has generally delivered widespread human and ecological poverty in our uplands, Brexit instead offers us the opportunity to do much better.
T he lion’s share of the European money is paid out as direct grants, simply for owning land and keeping it in a productive state, in its current form. Although in recent years a share of the money has been made available for stewardship, it is often applied piecemeal and has done relatively little to rebuild the ecological integrity of the wider countryside.
There is a strong case for maintaining the existing scale of agricultural subsidy, but targeting it more intelligently. We should spend public money on improving wildlife habitats, making water supplies more dependable, protecting historic heritage and on any of the other ecosystem services that come from sensitive, skilful land management. Let’s support the landowners and managers most willing to work towards such targets. Post-Brexit, we should be inspired by examples of sustainable upland management. Here are two.
After almost a century of coniferisation, foresters are learning how to liberate those suffocated broad-leaved woodlands. Spurred on by woodland owners such as the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts and Woodland Trust, the PAWS programme (Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites) is carefully removing inappropriate conifers and letting in the light. Primroses and violets that had survived on the edge of forest rides are creeping back. Speckled wood butterflies and pearl-bordered fritillaries are once more bringing the sunlit glades to life, and birdsong is swelling in both volume and variety. Here and there, the soul of Britain’s woodland is being restored.
The role of upland peatlands as natural reservoirs is being revived, too. Water companies have been working for several years with conservation groups and farmers to block surface drains, resaturate the sphagnum moss and build the water-holding capacity of blanket bogs. This boosts the year-round dependability of drinking water, purifies rainwater and moderates the flow of streams and rivers that might otherwise cause flooding in the lowlands.
CAN BREXIT BE THE TRIGGER FOR AN AMBITIOUS RETHINK? CAN WE REFOCUS SUBSIDIES TO CREATE LANDSCAPES MANAGED FOR THE COMMON GOOD?
It also enhances the carbon-storing capability of the peatlands and reverses the carbon emissions caused when they dry out, helping to counter climate change.
In schemes like these, traditional land managers such as farmers and foresters are still essential, but their expertise is used in different ways to produce a wider set of outcomes. The wildlife benefits are a brilliant bonus. Many of the schemes involve unorthodox alliances across the public, private and voluntary sectors. This may be the secret to success in a post-Brexit world.
Conservation charities are already major landowners in all of Britain’s most highly valued uplands. For example, the National Trust owns a quarter of the Lake District, 12 per cent of the Peak District National Park and half of Mount Snowdon. Nongovernment organisations have the capacity to tap into a wider variety of funds, including lottery money, legacies and private donations, and by definition deliver substantial public benefit through their memberships.
There is some evidence that wealthy individuals may also be starting to invest in wild landscapes for public benefit. In the mountains of Romania, an entire new national park is being established as a reserve for large carnivores such as bears, wolves and lynx, funded through the purchasing capacity of a handful of extremely wealthy benefactors and their trust funds. A century ago it was fashionable for ‘new money’ to be spent acquiring shooting estates for the exclusive use of the owners and their friends. Is it too fanciful to think that this generation’s mega-rich might invest in estates for general public enjoyment? We have seen the shift from big game hunting to photo-safaris elsewhere in the world, so why not something similar here?
P ublically funded subsidies for agriculture may disappear completely after 2020, and even if they do survive, the ‘unproductive’ uplands in the north and west seem likely to be sidelined by the largest, most profitable farms to the south and east of England. So this is a good moment to be casting the net more widely, and the regulated privatised utilities may provide a fruitful source of funding. The energy regulator OFGEM has already acknowledged that National Grid plc, whose pylons and powerlines cross our national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, should pay for the privilege. So far a budget of £500 million has been authorised for placing transmission lines underground in the Peak District, New Forest, Dorset and Snowdonia.
Suppose the water regulators OFWAT and the Drinking Water Inspectorate followed suit. It makes perfect sense for water companies to fund management of the uplands, since they provide their customers with a more sustainable water supply. The regulators could make that happen on a massive scale. And if the health regulator NICE embraced the idea that increased access to nature, fresh air and exercise brings significant public health benefits, could we also look forwards to a share of the pharmaceutical industry’s profits providing funds to revitalise Britain’s post Brexit landscape?
Like many environmentalists, I am anxious about the impact Brexit may have on all kinds of helpful rules and regulations. But although much of the protective European legislation of the last half century has been welcome, the conflict between farming subsidies and wildlife conservation has been a constant source of frustration and disappointment. After the 2016 referendum, some leading Brexiteers enthused about “the sunlit uplands of Brexitannia.” Here’s hoping we can make that a reality.
THERE IS SOME EVIDENCE THAT WEALTHY INDIVIDUALS MAY BE STARTING TO INVEST IN WILD LANDSCAPES FOR PUBLIC BENEFIT.
By removing conifers, foresters are helping species such as speckled woods and violets ( left), showing the type of transformation we might achieve post-Brexit.
Upland sheep farming ( right) and pylons ( below) could both vanish postBrexit. Yellowhammers ( bottom) are an example of a species affected by current farming subsidies.
Conifer planting in Britain was driven by the need for logs as pit props.
Out with the old dark, in with the new light… the Woodland Trust is replacing conifer plantations ( left) with native trees ( right) at Clanger Wood in Wiltshire.