15th Jul


Are We Still Interested in Outcomes for the Farmed Environment?

This is the full (unedited) piece, written by George Dunn, TFA Chief Executive, for The Cumberland News and Westmorland Gazette, published on the 28 June 2019.

Are We Still Interested in Outcomes for the Farmed Environment?

Farmers will have been relieved to see the return of the General Licences for the control of wild birds to prevent serious damage, protect animal welfare and to assist with conservation following their revocation at the end of April.  However, they will also be left wondering about what has been achieved in the nearly two months that have passed since.  If truth be told, the answer to that question is the square root of nothing in terms of anything of value.  Yes, DEFRA and Natural England have had to work to ensure that they had the necessary evidence to support the General Licences – something they should have been doing anyway – but in terms of outcomes, nothing has been achieved.

The whole affair has been a victory for process over outcome.  It seems the only reasons Wild Justice chose this particular battle was to achieve an easy scalp and maximum publicity.  In all other respects, this was a pointless exercise.  From a conservation perspective, the birds covered by the previous General Licences are not, by any measure, under conservation threat and ironically, the suspension of the previous licences threatened the conservation of other more vulnerable species, as well as allowing serious damage and animal welfare concerns to go unchecked.

The huge effort by the farming community to deliver a sizeable dossier of evidence showing the need for these licences within a very short period of time indicates how essential these licences are.  This is not about trigger happy farmers taking the easy option against other reasonable methods of control, as has been the caricature promoted by some supporters of the Wild Justice action.  Of course, Natural England has not covered itself in glory in the way in which it reacted to the legal action.  It should have been better prepared, more robust in its defence and more collegiate in finding solutions to the threat against sensible policy.

However, this speaks to a much wider issue of how serious we are about delivering an outcome-focused environmental policy for our farmed environment.  It has been much talked of over many years, but there seems to be little real progress towards achieving it.  Farmers will be forgiven for seeing the legal action brought by Wild Justice as another nail in the coffin of delivering a true partnership approach to the development of the next incarnation of agri-environment schemes.  The poor performance of Natural England both in respect of the way it handled General Licences and the mess it got itself into with Environmental and Countryside Stewardship does not bode well for retaining its undeniable expertise in providing essential advice, support and local facilitation for future schemes.

Call it naïve or a misguided throwback to the halcyon days of yesteryear, but we need to learn lessons from our earliest agri-environment schemes such as Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) to remember what good scheme design, delivery and partnership looks like.  The tiered approach to involvement coupled with active local project officers who have the respect of the local farming community and the autonomy to make decisions are the essential ingredients we need to import into our new schemes.  The limitation of ESAs was their restriction to specific geographic areas.  However, with the development, since then, of the Natural England character maps covering the whole of England we could see the ESA concept applied throughout the country.

Recently, agri-environment schemes have been a one-way street in terms of delivery.  We have seen the centralisation of policy and administration and a retreat from the necessary dialogues that need to occur at a grassroots level.  This needs to change if we are to see any real move towards a more outcome-driven policy.  The worry is that the system, already geared up for the process-heavy way we currently do business, will win over against the bravery needed to take an entirely new approach but based on previously tried and tested means.  As custodians of the land they use for agriculture, farmers know more about the environment within which they operate and anyone.  However, what they want is a dialogue with local officers with expertise and with whom they can build relationships of mutual trust and respect rather than the centralist, one size fits all monologue that currently occurs.




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