Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Re-Wilding the UK?

It has been calculated that farmed land in Britain must increase by 28% if it is to supply the growing demand for food by 2050.

Farming intensively to increase yields while turning over much larger areas of farmland to wildlife could – if combined with measures to cut food waste and meat consumption – would meet Britain’s food needs and more than double the populations of breeding birds.

Increasing yields is controversial among some conservationists who argue that intensive farming is unsustainable. Upland farmers also object because they fear land sparing will force them to give up farming and rewild their hillsides, while the fertile lowlands are intensively farmed.

A team of researchers studied food production and birdlife on the Cambridgeshire Fens to model how a far greater area of farmland could be devoted to wildlife.

By halving food waste and meat consumption, the UK could farm less intensively – in a more wildlife-friendly way – on the current farmed area while retaining the 5% of land “spared” from farming and given over to nature reserves. If this was done, the populations of 101 British bird species would on average increase by just under half.
But if yields were increased on a quarter of farmland to the highest levels presently found on the Fens and, alongside demand-reduction measures, another 25% was farmed in a nature-friendly way, this could also meet future food demand. This would allow half the remaining land to be devoted to wild nature.
By dramatically increasing spared land from 5% to 50%, bird populations soared on average by approximately 250%, with species such as bitterns and bearded tits prospering on rewilded fenland. The quarter of land cultivated by traditional, low-intensity farming was important for conservation too: this helped bolster farmland species.
“We’re not arguing for business-as-usual industrial farming but we have to be mindful of yield,” said Balmford. He said: “We need a twin-track where we get serious about using some of our landscape in a way that’s much better for biodiversity and ecosystem services but that must be linked to incentives enabling some farmers to be productive in sustainable ways on remaining farmland. If we don’t, it’s a sleight of hand – we’ll just buy our food from somewhere else and offshore the problem.”
While organic farmers and most conservationists fear raising yields would lead to more environmental damage such as greenhouse gas emissions and increased nitrate pollution, recent research by Balmford and colleagues found that in four types of farming, including European dairy farming and wheat production, intensive systems were often less polluting per unit of production than organic and low-intensity agriculture.
Dafydd Morris-Jones, a Welsh hill farmer who said land sparing was quite attractive if you were a large-scale grain farmer, “because it’s your land that will be concentrated on to be productive and our land that won’t”. Morris-Jones said he would prefer to see land sparing used within individual farms. “With better conversations, more nuanced thinking and a great deal more data, the uplands would be able to provide sustainable food while providing ecological and environmental benefits. I don’t think they are in conflict.” Morris-Jones accused rewilding of being “eco-colonialism” forced upon Welsh upland farmers by the English, pricing out locals and eroding their landscape, culture and community.

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