Retrieving debris from our irrigation reservoir last week, I caught a glimpse of a toad, retreating, disgruntled by the disturbance of his spring breeding ground. The mud settled to reveal about 20 more, then a newt, then ten more newts swimming down there. My heart sang with a rare hope that perhaps all is not lost.
The reservoir sits in a field which most farmers would view as unproductive, untidy, and poorly managed. The hedges are overgrown; the grass is unkempt and matted; the drains are collapsed and blocked. Over 200 years, previous owners have worked hard to drain, lime, and fertilise this field, but in reality it has produced very little food in return for the environmental costs imposed on it.
As a boy, exploring the farm, I could find newts in every stone water trough. I still look for them sometimes, but until now, hadn’t seen one for 30 years. Perhaps I, along with my father, unthinkingly destroyed them. Or perhaps, like so many farmers, I have been too busy controlling my land to appreciate what has survived my efforts. Watching the first episode of David Attenborough’s Wild Isles on iPlayer, jointly funded by the RSPB, WWF, and BBC, filled me with shame at the arrogance and ignorance of my industry, and the havoc wrought on nature in my lifetime.
Later in the week, after months of arguing over whether an artichoke is a vegetable or not, Defra finally accepted our Countryside Stewardship plan. By 2027, the subsidy system inherited from the EU, whereby farmers received about £100/acre/year for being lucky enough to own land, will be phased out. It is being replaced by ‘public money for public goods’; an excellent concept, but one that is proving hard to define and deliver.
Under our five-year agreement, we will be paid to create more ponds, plant new hedges, develop our agroforestry, rewild some field margins, manage grazing to support species-rich permanent pasture, and plant grass strips across our veg fields to reduce soil loss. The process has been frustrating, but it is a very positive step in the right direction. I am confident that we can grow even more food, capture carbon, and enhance biodiversity – although, in the short term at least, it will cost us more.
I commend all those who have fought for these changes, and resisted the attempts to block them by a recalcitrant NFU, hellbent on maintaining an insane farming system whatever the environmental cost. Long live the newts.