Local cooperation may be more effective than penalties in tackling nitrate pollution in Pembrokeshire

By Jane Powell

One of the interesting angles to come out of the Brexit debate is the need for local cooperation. The balance between economic activity and care for the environment on which it depends is a difficult one to maintain, and top-down regulation is not enough on its own. But what does that look like? A new project in Pembrokeshire is trialling a partnership model to manage fertilizer pollution, and offers an intriguing new possibility.

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is as much a part of modern life as the car and the television, just much less visible. Chemical companies have been producing nitrates since the Second World War, when the factories that had been making explosives were turned to peacetime uses, and it’s now a cornerstone of modern farming. Applied judiciously, it speeds up plant growth and allows farmers to make the most of a short growing season.

But it comes at a cost. For one thing the manufacturing process requires a lot of oil, as nitrogen and hydrogen have to be combined at high temperatures and pressure. And because nitrates are highly soluble, they are easily washed into rivers where they cause aquatic plants to grow too fast, upsetting the ecological balance and damaging both wildlife and fisheries. This is a particular problem in Pembrokeshire, where concerns about nitrate pollution in the river Cleddau and Milford Haven have led to calls to declare the area a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) under EU law.

This would mean that farmers would be obliged to cut their fertilizer use, and also face restrictions on how they can spread nitrogen-rich slurry, or manure, on the land. They would for instance have to store it if the land is waterlogged, waiting for dry conditions so that it is absorbed into the soil rather than running off into rivers. Financial margins in farming are tight, and farmers say that cutting production or investing in bigger slurry tanks would put some of them out of business.

Also, it isn’t just cows that produce manure. Humans do too, and sewage plants are responsible for a fair proportion of both nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Cleddau. The river catchment is now ‘full’ of nutrients, making further economic development unacceptable.  Clearly, nutrient pollution needs to be reduced, but this is a problem caused by human activity in general, and it doesn’t seem fair to hold farmers solely responsible. Could there be a better solution?

At Pelcomb Farm near Haverfordwest, farmer Mike Smith and soil expert Jon Williams spread soil analysis reports out on the kitchen table. Jon points out the 2013 analysis for one particular field, which shows an imbalance between magnesium and calcium. Magnesium is important, he explains, because it is an essential part of the chlorophyll molecule. Without enough magnesium, crops cannot photosynthesize efficiently, however much nitrogen they are fed.

Magnesium also however has the effect of binding soil clay particles very tightly, and needs to be counterbalanced by calcium, which produces a looser soil structure, good for aeration and drainage. By 2017, applications of magnesium have brought the soil back into balance and increased the efficiency of nitrogen use.

By this and other adjustments, such as avoiding compaction with heavy machinery, Mike has been able to reduce his use of nitrogen fertilizer on his intensive dairy farm to a third of what it was, saving money and protecting the quality of the river water. He also keeps a careful eye on his slurry.

“For a farmer, slurry is a valuable resource, full of nutrients. We don’t want to lose it to our rivers! So we do a soil analysis before we plant, say, a cereal crop, and we analyse the slurry as well. That way, we can apply the right amount to the land and cut down on artificial fertilizer too.”

Rather than the NVZ, Mike wants to see a voluntary scheme, where farmers are accredited in rather the same way that a beach gets a Blue Flag for its water quality.

The First Milk dairy cooperative of which Mike is a member has already shown how farmers can work together to clean up their act. In 2005, Welsh Water served notice that they would no longer treat the effluent from First Milk’s Haverfordwest cheese factory at their sewage plant, because they needed the capacity for new housing development.

After prolonged negotiations between First Milk and Natural Resources Wales, an agreement was reached in 2011 whereby treated effluent from the cheese factory could be discharged directly into the Cleddau, providing that the member farmers offset these nutrients by changes to farming practices further upstream.

Building on this success, there is a new initiative to introduce a nutrient trading scheme which would allow farmers to be rewarded for better management of nitrates. Any new housing development, hotel or factory will put extra pressure on the Cleddau catchment, and so needs to come with a plan to ensure that there is no net increase in pollution.

The EU funded project BRICs, or Building Resistance into Catchments, is working on a trading scheme that would allow farmers to sell credits to developers, thus spreading the cost more fairly. It would also introduce a culture where farmers are seen as business leaders, rather than offenders to be policed.

BRICs is necessarily a partnership project. It works with a wide range of organizations, including land managers, industry, conservation organizations, the farming unions, Welsh Water, farming cooperatives, local authorities and Natural Resources Wales.

There’s a lot at stake. Not only is it important to open up new capacity for industrial and housing development in the area, but good farming practice is of vital importance in itself, and farmers need to be properly supported to do this.

Out in the field at Pelcomb, Jon gets his spade out and digs a hole. The turf comes out easily, and the soil underneath is dark, sweet-smelling, loose and crumbly, with a few stones, worms and a healthy mesh of grass roots. “This is how it should be,” he says. “Soil is a living thing, full of bacteria, fungi and worms, and it wants to be in balance”.

He explains how natural processes in the soil produce 80% of the nitrogen a crop needs, and artificial fertilizer often does more harm than good. Organic farmers avoid it altogether, relying on crop rotations and careful manure management to do the job.

“Welsh soils contain plenty of organic matter because they’ve been under grass and livestock for so long. If we can manage our soils and manures properly, we can cut our dependence on synthetic nitrogen, build soil fertility and go a long way towards reducing the carbon footprint of Welsh agriculture,” he says.

The Pembrokeshire experiment will see if a fairer system of sharing the costs of good soil management – and therefore of food production – can help build a culture of cooperation and trust that will benefit the natural world on which everything depends.

Jane Powell is the Wales coordinator of LEAF Education and is working on a case study of nitrate trading for use in secondary schools.

Image: algae covering the mudflats at Garron Pill on the eastern Cleddau, by Sue Burton.

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We must empower rural communities to integrate food production and the environment

By Richard Kipling

This summer, drought severely affected Welsh farming. When the grass doesn’t grow, farmers are forced to buy in expensive feed, and to use up supplies put aside for the winter months. Animals need more water just as it is least available and wildfires are a constant risk. The full impacts of the drought are described in a recent report by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB). Our reliance on the environment for our food could not be more starkly highlighted.

Evidence is growing that global warming is, and will continue to, increase the severity and frequency of events such as droughts and flooding. Recent research suggests change might be more rapid than expected, as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions push us towards environmental tipping points. Up to now, for livestock farmers, climate change has been something that they can help tackle by cutting emissions from farms. Extreme events like those of this summer demonstrate that it is also a growing threat to their livelihoods. Reducing GHG emissions and ensuring farming systems are resilient to climatic extremes becomes a focus for urgent change.

With growing climatic volatility and threats to ecosystem services and natural resources,  change is needed. Through the Environment Act Wales, The Well-being of Future Generations Act and the Cymru Wales Brand, Welsh Government have demonstrated commitment to reducing GHG emissions, and to developing policies based on sustainability and resilience, specifically associating food production with the unique Welsh landscape and culture. In this context, the current ‘Brexit and Our Land’ consultation document  incorporates many positive elements. But it could go further.

Firstly, it must be recognised that the old opposition between maximising production and protecting the environment is false. Increasing production at the expense of resilience does not sacrifice fluffy idylls of nature to meet the practical need for food and the economic needs of farmers. Instead, taking more today comes at the expense of our ability to feed ourselves and make profits in the longer term.

Support for farm economic resilience and for the delivery of public goods needs to be integrated, because in the long-term the first is not possible without the second.

Agricultural production is dependent on healthy soils, good water and nutrient management, and biodiversity. Practices like improving soil management, adding hedgerows and trees to agricultural landscapes and nurturing mixed-species grasslands rather than turning to monocultures reduce the impact of extreme conditions on production, increase the long-term resilience of agricultural systems, reduce GHG emissions, and sequester more carbon. Farmer-led projects like Pontbren show that such approaches can work in Wales. So why isn’t everyone adopting these practices?

Many barriers hinder the implementation of climate-friendly or ‘public good’ farming.  Recent work in the Climate Smart Agriculture Wales project asked stakeholders about the challenges to change. Some are practical: many climate-friendly approaches bring long-term rewards but require short-term investment of money and time. These issues exist alongside knowledge limitations – how much farmers know about available options, how to implement them and what the risks and benefits are. Sometimes, the impacts of change are not fully understood or quantified by researchers.

Farmers also have their own interests to consider – like supporting family, surviving short-term economic challenges, reducing the burden of the business as they get older, and maintaining traditional practices. They manage complex systems, deal with multiple targets and regulations, and process and evaluate information and advice that might not always be independently given. This can be hugely challenging. It can make it hard to follow their own interests effectively, and reduce their ability to consider long-term strategies and problems amid the deluge of immediate challenges.

Considering solutions to these challenges, brings us to the second point that Welsh agricultural policy needs to incorporate. Top-down regulations are often appropriate tools for change, and payments are vital in providing the economic security farmers need to safeguard long-term productivity and ecosystem services. But we need to understand when they are effective and when they are not.

Truly sustainable change can only occur when rural communities, farmers, policymakers and other stakeholders are empowered to act together at the local level to develop shared goals and shared solutions to the challenges we face. This means bottom-up solutions giving ownership of change to all groups involved in the countryside. This type of power can be framed by top-down rules and incentives at some level; it’s not a case of ‘either-or’.

Outcome-driven payment schemes are a good example of this kind of rebalancing. Take the Burren Programme in Ireland, through which farmers agree to the goals they’ll deliver to secure funding. It’s up to them how to achieve those goals, and they receive local support to help them find the best strategies. Positively, this type of approach is included in ‘Brexit and our Land’. We need to go further, empowering farmers – working with other stakeholders – to both determine and drive change. But will farmers be interested in thinking about anything other than profit?

Recently, I heard a farm advisor speak about his experiences implementing climate-friendly practices in agriculture in Uruguay. Using videos and in workshops with different stakeholders, he shows farmers the impacts of climate change and poor agricultural practice on other groups in society. He finds they respond positively and make changes. Farmers need to make money, but that doesn’t mean they’re not open to change, once they realise their own role in the problems facing others, and in the solutions to them. When we add the growing impact of climate change on farm businesses, demonstrated by this summer’s drought, we find there are strong motivations to work differently, beyond the basic need to make a profit.

Richard Kipling is an inter-disciplinary researcher at Aberystwyth University, with experience in a range of fields including ecology, livestock agriculture, conservation, politics and economics. For the last five years, his research has focussed on issues relating to climate change and farming in Welsh and European contexts.

Image: Richard Kipling

Welsh farming and food policy after Brexit – what is food really for?

By Jane Powell

It’s an interesting time for Welsh food policy, with two major consultations running at once. One, Brexit and our Land, is about support for farming in Wales after we leave the EU next year, to be phased in from 2020-2025. The other is to develop a new action plan for the future of the food and drink industry when the current plan expires at the end of 2019.

Taken together, and in the context of the Well-being of Future Generations Act, these consultations allow for a significant change to our food system in Wales, opening up a space for fresh thinking. But they require us to think deeply about where we are now, and ask some fundamental questions about where we want to go.

Let’s start with Brexit and our Land. The idea, here, is that there will be two sources of funding for farmers. One will be for delivering public goods, defined in this context as products of farming for which there is no market value, such as biodiversity, soil health and clean water.

The other will be used to help farmers to become more economically resilient, for instance by providing training and opportunities for collaboration and marketing. This will include food production, but it could also provide for diversification into areas such as tourism and large-scale renewable energy.

Some welcome the fact that environmental protection is enshrined in a principle of ‘public goods for public money’, free of any compromise with economic activity, in which the environment tends to come off worse. Others regret the divorce between food production and care for the environment, seeing them as interrelated aspects of human existence. Treating them separately could – at worst – have unintended consequences, and at best mean lost opportunities.

Those who would like to see food production integrated with environmental protection point to organic farming and other agroecological systems as tried and tested examples of a joined-up approach. They call for mechanisms such as true-cost accounting, which aims to level the economic playing field for sustainable, environmentally-friendly farmers.

Meanwhile, payment for ecosystem services (PES) is another model that is being tested. A good example of this is the Pumlumon project where farmers are looking for ways to be rewarded for storing carbon in the peat bogs, absorbing rainfall to prevent flooding downstream, reconnecting habitats and providing community benefits.

If as seems likely, the proposal in Brexit and Our Land for a dual system of support prevails, important questions remain about food. The consultation document states as one of its guiding principles that ‘Food production is vital for our nation and food remains an important product from our land.’

But what sort of food, and for whom? Are we talking about growing food for domestic markets, making us a little less vulnerable to upsets in the global trading system – a field of potatoes for the local school perhaps, or some serious leek production? Or are we talking about lamb for the Middle East and cheese for China? And how will we decide?

A similar question arises in the case of the food and drink industry. The title of the current strategy, Food for Wales, Food from Wales, suggests that feeding the people of our country is at least as important as generating exports and jobs. The accompanying action plan Towards Sustainable Growth, however, is baldly subtitled “How we plan to increase sales in the food and drink sector by 30% by the year 2020.” Produced a few years later, after the recession had begun to bite, it speaks of different concerns.

Times have changed again, and there seems to be a desire now to integrate a thriving food industry with a healthy population. The Government has, for instance, supported conferences to explore how the food industry can promote healthy eating, and how it can help young people develop skills and find satisfying careers.

But many gaps remain between what the food industry delivers and what a healthy food system requires. And again, there are questions: should the food industry aim to feed Wales, or should it focus on exports and jobs? To what extent do we want to make food local, with shorter supply chains and richer interactions between businesses and the public? And especially, how can we promote food that is produced in a way that is environmentally sound?

The Welsh Government does, of course, examine the links between its various policies and is required to check them against the Well-being of Future Generations Act. But a group of civil servants under a changing collection of political leaders can only do so much. It is up to all of us as citizens and voters to breathe life into policy and vision a better future. So what is to be done?

We need to have a national conversation about food, one that takes in the whole picture. That should be based on a clear agreement that food is for nourishing people, that it must be produced in a way that doesn’t deplete our natural resources, and that it is shared out fairly. This is about the shared values of citizenship.

Making money is important, of course, but it must be in service to those more fundamental aims. Given the seductive power of money, and in particular, the way that almost any policy argument can be shut down by a reference to public spending cuts, it is important to have those objectives firmly in mind.

Connected to this, we must look more closely at the question of public goods. Clearly, food is not a public good to the extent that it is a commodity to be traded. But it is surely good for the public to have a diversity of farmers, growers and other businesses producing nourishing and tasty food. It is good to have businesses that keep traditional food skills alive, and create satisfying and fairly paid livelihoods, investing in their workers. It is good to have settings where local producers, businesses and the public can meet each other and together build a food culture.

It is good also for local communities to be self-determining, to make their own decisions about the food that is served in public institutions, for instance, and to shape the food system in their area. This is perhaps where the Public Services Boards (PSBs) come in. These are statutory bodies set up under the terms of the Well-being of Future Generations Act and based in a local authority.

The function of a PSB is “to improve the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being in its area by strengthening joint working across all public services in Wales”. Governance of the food system is not in their remit, as such; but given the central role of food in bringing together so many aspects of health and happiness, it is a role they may grow into.

The subject of governance brings us back to Brexit. There is an important caveat to the discussions on support for farming, which has to do with devolution. Up till now, funding for the Rural Development Programme has come directly from Brussels to Wales. But in future, London will be controlling the budgets, and it is far from certain that we in Wales will enjoy the same freedoms as before, let along the same resources.

The Wales Food Manifesto has been set up as a citizen initiative to ask big questions about food in Wales and look for new ways forward. Please get in touch if you would like to be part of this conversation.

Jane Powell is a freelance education consultant and writer, and a volunteer with the Wales Food Manifesto. These are her own views.

 

Once in a lifetime: bringing food and farming closer together in Wales

By Jane Powell

Our departure from the EU provides an opportunity for citizens, groups and organisations to bring about deep change in the food and farming system in Wales, and the UK. Let’s put food at the heart of this transformation.  

When we leave the EU, the familiar system of farm subsidies will come to an end and it will be up to the governments in London and Cardiff to devise a new system of public support.

The UK government is working on an Agriculture Bill which is out for consultation until May. It is mainly concerned with England, but it does contain a section on frameworks for dealing with the devolved nations. This will determine the regulatory baselines and the power that the Welsh government will have to make its own policy.

Speaking at an NFU conference in Birmingham in February, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths, set forth five principles that will guide a new Welsh land management policy.

The first four are: to keep farmers on the land, to ensure a prosperous agricultural sector, to ensure that public spending delivers public goods (meaning environmental benefits) and to make the support system accessible to all.

Bringing up the rear at number five is this:

“We must not turn our backs on food production. Where sustainable production is viable, we must help our farmers compete in a global marketplace… Food is core to Welsh farming values and is emblematic of our nation. We already have a thriving food and drink industry and this is the time to advance it.”

It is good to see the link being made between farming and the food industry. The Welsh Government’s Food and Drink Action Plan for 2014-2020, Towards Sustainable Growth, recognizes that 170,000 people are employed by the food and drink supply chain in Wales and that it is an important contributor to exports, jobs and general prosperity.

However, food is much more important than this, as the government’s own underlying Food and Drink Strategy for 2014-2020, Food for Wales, Food from Wales, makes clear. It is also about health, culture, education, food security, environmental sustainability and community development.

So let’s not talk only about jobs and exports, important though those are. Food is central to the way we hold together as a society and feed our young, the old, the sick and the vulnerable. It is the foundation on which future generations will literally grow.

As we embark on a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ to set a new course for land management and all that flows from that, it is imperative we take a broad approach, recognising the complex relationships between our food, farming, society, economy and environment.

A systems approach to food and farming

Let’s look at a few things we might want to do if we thought farming was, at least in part, about producing food for the people of Wales.

For one thing, we would align farming with public health as well as the environment, so that we grow food that meets our nutritional needs. That would mean putting more land under horticulture, in particular. This is the focus of the Peas Please campaign, which brings together government, farming, supermarkets and caterers in a concerted effort to have the UK eat more vegetables. We might also grow more grain for human consumption.

We would use the power of the public purse to support this new model of farming, getting Welsh-grown food into public sector catering, such as schools and hospitals. Professor Kevin Morgan in his 2015 Senedd paper Good Food for All enlarges on this point and calls for a programme to train procurement staff in ‘values-for-money’ purchasing which stimulates sustainable food production and underpins education and community development.

We would also want to make sure that the public, and especially young people, understand how food is produced, so that they can support nature-friendly, high welfare farming with their votes and their shopping choices.

That would mean supporting links between farms and schools, backed up with gardening and cookery to help young people make the connection between nature, food and human health.

It would also mean supporting food festivals to tell the story of farming (and fishing), as well as promoting community gardens which introduce growing skills to so many people.

All this would encourage the public to place a higher value on food generally, and to waste less of it. It would create a climate where people were willing to pay more for high quality produce, and so generate more rewards for the people who work so hard to produce it and bring it to our plates.

Finally, we would want to enshrine the inseparability of food, farming, the environment, health and culture in a new alignment of organizations and policies that ensures that we gain as much benefit as possible from joining the dots. Local groupings such as Food Cardiff are an example of what can be done; we need to work nationally as well.

It is human nature to divide into competing interest groups, or siloes that ignore each other, and so we need to make a positive effort to work for unity and understanding. We call on the Welsh Government to engage with civil society and business and unlock the power of food to bring us together into a new vision of a healthy nation.

View the second draft of the Wales Food Manifesto and send us your comments: Food Manifesto Wales Second Draft Apr 2018. And sign up to our newsletter.

Download the report of our public meeting: Food Network Wales 9 Feb 2018 report

Jane Powell is an independent education consultant who is working as a volunteer with the Food Manifesto Wales. She writes at www.foodsociety.wales

Llun/picture: Anthony Pugh

Food production depends on nature, so let’s protect it

By Natasha Yorke-Edgell, Campaigns Officer at RSPB Cymru 

Let’s make food in a way that is as good for the planet as it is for us. It sounds like common sense, but we are still not doing it. Whenever I ask myself why, it always comes back to three things:

  1. These days it’s difficult to know exactly where our food comes from and the impacts it has on the environment, largely because our shopping experience separates us from where our food comes from and how it is produced.
  2. Because of this lack of transparency, people don’t make the link to the damage that food production can cause and the policies which influence food and farming.
  3. Even when the link becomes clear, the food supply chain can seem so complex that as individuals we can feel outside of the system and powerless to do anything about it.

These three combine to create a rift between the food we eat and the impact it has; they take away the story behind our food’s journey in the world, and they reinforce the idea that people are powerless consumers, rather than influential citizens. So how do we bring back our value for and understanding of our food to improve our lives? What’s more, how do we make sure that this conversation doesn’t miss out a vital element – the nature that we, and our food, depend on? One of the starting points might be to simply start telling the story about how these things are all connected.

Every stage in the journey of a piece of food has an impact on how good it is for our health, how good it is for the environment, and how much the planet can provide for us. For example, right at the beginning is the space needed to produce the food: an increase in demand may result in more land being used and this may result in a loss of wildlife habitat. (Particularly for meat production, which demands much more land, water and feed than growing vegetables.) The first step towards a more nature friendly food system must be to reduce our ‘food footprint’. The simplest ways to do this are to eliminate all waste and move to a ‘less but better’ meat approach, as we know that this substantially reduces the climate change impact of diets.

Equally important is that we manage our productive land in as nature friendly a way as possible. For example we rely on pollinators like bees, butterflies and flies to help grow much of our food, and we need earthworms, small insects and bacteria to help nourish our soils. These organisms also form the basis of the food chain that a host of other animals depend on. This is why it is important to avoid the use of chemicals, which can harm pollinators, and to sustainably manage our soils so that they remain healthy and productive for the long term.

Unsustainable farming (largely due to the outdated Common Agricultural Policy – or CAP) is one of the biggest drivers of environmental degradation; since 1970, farmland wildlife has declined by 52% and 12% of farmland species are now threatened by extinction in Great Britain (State of Nature 2016, p.16). This environmental degradation has huge implications for our future. Our Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (2015) recognises this and includes an important goal – to build a ‘resilient’ Wales. This is defined as: a nation which maintains and enhances a biodiverse natural environment with healthy functioning ecosystems that support social, economic and ecological resilience and the capacity to adapt to change (for example, climate change) (See Wellbeing of Future Generations Act: The Essentials, p6)

However, the State of Natural Resources Report (SoNNaR) revealed that none of Wales’ ecosystems are resilient (this means they can’t withstand or adapt to change). So we have a lot of work to do to bring our ecosystems back to a place where they can sustain us in the long term. We need to develop productive farming systems which work with nature, embracing complexity to ensure resilience and providing a variety of sustainable and healthy food.

How do we create such large-scale change in Wales to meet the needs of future generations? Over 80% of Wales is farmed, so if all our farmers produced food in a way that restored nature, we would be on our way to reversing the SoNNaR statistic – we could make almost all of our ecosystems resilient. To make this vision a reality, the Wales Environment Link network (of over 28 environmental NGOs) are asking the Welsh Government for a ‘Sustainable Land Management‘ policy to replace the CAP, which could deliver the systemic change in our food and farming system. It becomes clearer and clearer, that food is at the heart of saving nature, but more than that, it is a cross-cutting issue that could be the key to delivering our sustainable development legislation, impacting our social, economic and environmental wellbeing.

For all of these reasons, changing our food and farming system has become a priority area of work for the RSPB. In Wales, we provide conservation advice to upland farmers, including the Migneint (from Ffynnon Eidda to Y Gylchedd) in Snowdonia National Park, helping them to manage the important habitats on their farms for wildlife whilst still producing food. We also work with farmers across Wales, from Betwys-yn-Rhos to Abergavenny, to better integrate food production and conservation by working together on land management projects and influencing policy. We farm sustainably for nature on our RSPB reserves, in particular Lake Vyrnwy and Ramsey Island, where we combine farming with conservation practices to bring back nature to its full glory. As a result, we’re quite good at talking about the way food production can save nature, but we’re only just starting to look at the role food itself has to play in that mission, which is why we’re talking to Food Network Wales to explore what nature-friendly food is, how we start talking about it, and how we collaborate with others to promote the possibilities of a new nature-friendly food system.

If you would like to find out more about nature-friendly farming in the UK, have a look at the Nature-Friendly Farming Network, or if you would like to know more about farming and wildlife in Wales contact RSPB Cymru.

Natasha Yorke-Edgell is the Political Campaigns Officer at RSPB Cymru responsible for building public support for nature-friendly food and farming in Wales, to influence post-Brexit land use and food policy. Her background is in communications and environmental campaigning.

Picture: Lake Vyrnwy, by Eleanor Bentall

Silvopasture – the best of both

By Alex Heffron

Alex Heffron and cowThere is a debate going on that says we should be afforesting the uplands of Wales, in order to give nature a better chance, sequester carbon and improve drainage downstream, amongst other benefits. I’m in favour of all those reasons, but I don’t think we need to choose from a false dichotomy of trees or livestock; we can have both.

Silvopasture, the grazing of livestock amongst trees, provides many of the benefits of both. Hedgerows and shelterbelts are one thing, and very good at that, but there is also the planting of around 1000 trees per hectare, in strips at roughly 10-25m spacings – either following the contour, keyline, or going in N-S or E-W rows. This allows for easier establishment and management and thanks to the ease and cost of electric fencing we can avoid the need for expensive stock fencing. This can also be combined with arable systems as some farmers have already done in the east of England.

In the early years the grass will need to be either mulched, or kept short via mowing, but eventually, after 5 years or so, the livestock themselves will graze the grass beneath the trees. This isn’t the only approach that can be taken – there are other patterns that can be utilised, but this, from our analysis has the most potential and is the easiest to establish and manage. But some of that will depend on the specific context of the farm and the grazing systems in place. All tree-planting – from hedgerows and shelterbelts, to strips and plantation plantings – should be considered. Each farm should choose the approach that best suits them.

Some farmers might be concerned that they will lose much-needed grass, but the loss in grass is not substantial, and on the contrary the trees should improve grass growth (better soil, drainage, aeration, and shelter from wind) and improve livestock health and performance (trees are mineral-rich and provide much needed shelter from wind and rain). Plus trees can make a substantial portion of a ruminant’s diet; this report from the Forestry Commission suggests around 12.5% of dry matter intake for cows, and around 15% for sheep. It’s still early days, with different pioneering farms trying different approaches, as there are many that can be taken, but it seems obvious already that it will become a win-win-win, for farmer, animal and nature. Can we afford not to do it?

Not only do you get the environmental benefit of the trees but there is also an economic benefit. The trees can be managed, for example, using a sustainable coppicing method to produce firewood, woodchip (think bedding and compost) and also managed for fruit, nuts and no doubt other products too such as timber. And of course we still get the economic, ecological and community benefits that are already derived from livestock.

With a little government funding farmers could be encouraged to take up this practice, and help to bring more trees back to not just the Welsh uplands, but the Welsh countryside in general. But we don’t need to wait for government funding because Coed Cadw (the Woodland Trust in Wales), already provide grants of at least 60%for tree planting.

It is with Coed Cadw we will be placing an application for tens of thousands of trees to be planted across our farm over the next 5 years or so. It’s a big experiment, and I’m sure we’ll make mistakes, that hopefully others after us will learn from, but I’ve no doubt whatsoever about the beneficial role they can play in improving our farm from an economic and ecological perspective. Upland farming is not the most profitable form of farming so the extra money provided by this system is sure to be welcome.

It will take some new skills being learnt, or re-learnt, but that’s something farmers have continually had to do anyway as part of a job that in many ways has never changed, and in many other ways is continually changing. Hopefully, talk of the government subsidy to farms that plant trees, sequester carbon, improve water storing, and provide habitat will come to fruition, making silvopasture a no-brainer for farmers on many levels. But even without that subsidy, it makes sense, and for it to be sustainable I think it needs to show it can more than pay its way, otherwise a change of government policy could see the uprooting of the trees planted, which would reverse the benefits. It needs to be maintained long-term. “Pears for your heirs,” as one friend told me recently.

Given the intensity of the debate around ruminants and greenhouse gas emissions, this is one way that farmers can help to nullify that, as several studies show that it’s possible to sequester more carbon than is emitted via silvopasture systems. I think it’s a system where Wales can lead the way, and show to other countries what’s possible. We have plenty of scope to put this method of farming to use and it lends itself well to our landscape. I don’t think it’s a cure-all for all of the environmental challenges we face but along with a return to native, diverse pastures, and an improvement in grazing management, can be a significant step towards a more sustainable and ecologically-sound way of farming.

To find out more about the planting of trees in the uplands of Wales, it’s worth reading this report about the Pontbren Project, a pioneering project led by several farms working together. They experienced economic benefits to their businesses, as well of course, as the environmental benefits.
If you’re interested in discussing this more then comment below and we can chat further about it.

Alex, along with his wife Sam, started Mountain Hall Farm in the Preseli hills of Pembrokeshire 18 months ago without any previous farming experience. Since then they have been milking cows and letting their animals rule the roost. They run a micro-dairy selling 100% pasture-fed raw Jersey milk and beef directly to their local community. By using the principles of permaculture, holistic management and regenerative agriculture, Alex and Sam hope to build a farm which brings people together through good food with respect for their animals and nature. @AlexHeffron88

Picture: Nigel Pugh

Farming for biodiversity at the Botanic Garden – what local and national collaboration can achieve

By Bruce Langridge, National Botanic Garden of Wales

It’s surprising how quick you can make a difference.

I’ve been working at the National Botanic Garden of Wales since 2003 and have keenly observed some dramatic changes to meadows that we’ve been managing for hay. Formerly dull swathes of grass-dominated pasture now bloom with colourful waves of fascinating flowers that were once common in our countryside but which have declined dramatically since the intensification of agriculture.

How did we do this? Simples. We cut the meadow in the late summer, don’t add any fertiliser and occasionally graze a few cattle in the winter. We’ve not introduced any wildflower seeds or plugs, we’ve just let nature do what nature does.Yellow Rattle, Trawscoed North plants 19 June 2013 056

It’s a vital role of a national botanic garden like ours to conserve, educate and inspire. With over 300 acres of agricultural grassland to manage on our Waun Las National Nature Reserve, it’s vital that we can show our visitors how farming can work with, rather than against nature. With around 60 Welsh Black cattle and a new flock of local-breed Balwen sheep, we produce beef and lamb that we sell to our Garden members and supporters.

I’m no farmer myself. I’m the Garden’s Head of Interpretation but I used to be a field botanist in the 1980s and a natural history museum curator in the 1990s. As a very young charitable institution when I joined in 2003, the Garden was flexible enough to harness its staff’s knowledge and passions, even when they didn’t strictly adhere to job descriptions. That’s how I got to know this wonderful farmland. And luckily I’ve worked successively with two farmers, Tim Bevan and Huw Jones, who know their balers from their billhooks.

Our Head of Science, Dr. Natasha De Vere is also a national expert on rhos pastures, a hugely declined Welsh farming habitat which survives in fragments on the NNR – we’re working to join up these wet meadow gems. Wales is also blessed with plenty of people who have been happy to advise us whether it be the Freshwater Habitat Trust on our lakes and dipping ponds, PONT (Pori, Natur a Threftadaeth) on organically managing rush – we don’t use chemicals – and Plantlife Cymru on how to short-cut the creation of new species-rich meadows using our own green hay. I suspect most Welsh mycologists have helped us to record our internationally important waxcap fungi pastures whilst all manner of pollinator-friendly people have helped us become leading research institute with a specialism in DNA barcoding. Our half a million honeybees have been so well observed now that we’ve a pretty good idea of where and what they forage. This means we have a more tolerant view on what we now know is one of the honey bees’ favourite food source – the bramble. This is handy as we’ve recently discovered we’ve got dormice, a fact that requires us not to hack back bramble without looking for small mammals first.

Sharing these experiences with other small-scale farmers, such as those on the recently formed Carmarthenshire Meadows Group, is what helps me to find my job so rewarding. Inspired by the incredible efforts of the Monmouthshire Meadows Group, this new group is made up of people who want to farm with, rather than against, nature. Just by meeting with others, sharing experience and knowledge, then later tools and grazing livestock, these farmers are helping to either conserve or create new pockets of biodiversity which are so needed across our biodiversity-depleted countryside. Wouldn’t it be great to see this model of small scale co-operation working across all the counties of Wales?

I’m now all set for a new aspect to food production. The Garden has recently been tasked to run a five-year project called Growing the Future – this follows on from a pilot project run between 2012-15. This pan-Wales European funded project is aimed at raising interest and participation in horticulture. So if you want upskill your green fingers, keep an eye out for a whole range of upcoming hands-on, and online, courses which will be advertised via the Garden’s website botanicgarden.wales or garddfotaneg.cymru.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the events this will allow us to run. We’ll be expanding our Wales Wildflower Day to a weekend event, creating a brand new Wales Bee Weekend, creating a secular harvest festival in autumn featuring food grown in our Double Walled Garden, expanding our Apple Weekend and raising awareness of fungi in gardens as part of our UK Fungus Day event.

These events, and stands at various shows, give us the chance to meet and talk to new people, especially those who want to learn, just like I do.

Bruce Langridge is Head of Interpretation at the National Botanic Garden of Wales in Carmarthenshire.

Mae tim y Maniffesto Bwyd yn cynnal cyfarfod yn yr Ardd ar 9fed Chwefror er mwyn cychwyn rhwydwaith fwyd i Gymru. Cysylltwch â helo@maniffestobwyd.cymru i wybod mwy.

The Food Manifesto team are holding a meeting at the Garden on 9 February to build a food network for Wales. Please contact hello@foodmanifesto.wales to find out more.