Farming With Wildlife in Mind

Farming With Wildlife in Mind

This weekend the Times recommended Isabella Tree’s excellent Wilding as one of its books of the year. It “forces us to rethink farming”. More accurately, it forces us to rethink not farming. For those not in the know, Wilding is about the Knepp Estate. The estate is really poor quality farmland (grade 3 and 4), which has been in the Burrell family for generations. They were struggling on, losing money, living off grants and pouring chemicals into it to try to generate economic yields. They gave up the unequal fight and “rewilded” their land. It has been an inspiring story, as their exhausted land begins to recover and support a huge range of rare and sometimes unexpected animals. The point is, however, that they’re no longer farming:

While the Estate is still producing food in the form of organic, pasture-fed meat from our free-roaming herds, the emphasis now is on ‘ecosystem services’ – the other vital public benefits that the land can provide, such as soil restoration, flood mitigation, water and air purification, biodiversity, pollinating insects, carbon sequestration and, of course, an amenity for human enjoyment.

This is a great model to promote for the post Brexit agricultural settlement, of course. It would be fabulous to offer owners of poor quality land – like lakeland sheep farmers – grants for public goods like this. BUT, it’s not very helpful for those farmers on more productive holdings who want to continue to… farm.

I visited a productive local farm last week, which offered an interesting potential model for the future. Pertwood Organics are based on a 2,600 acre farm to the west of Salisbury Plain. It’s high quality grade 1 and 2 farmland, and the land bears the marks of hundreds of years of agricultural use. There are barrows about and a large visible Medieval – at the latest – field system. The farm is organic, mostly arable, with some sheep and cattle. Yields are similar to non-organic farms, input costs are – of course – lower – and their organic produce fetches higher prices. You can read about how they do this on their website. It sounds disarmingly simple, but needs commitment, experience and, sometimes, technology.

farming wildlife
Corn Bunting
Photo: Nick Adams
What’s doubly interesting about this is that it’s done with wildlife in mind. I was kindly shown around by Nick Adams, the farm’s wildlife consultant – is that even a thing? Nick is ex RSPB, so birds in particular are his thing. And birds are the first thing to strike you if you visit. There are flocks of linnets, goldfinches, starlings, etc etc. Higher up the foodchain there are kestrels, kites, buzzards, barn owls… they’ve seen 109 types of birds, including 30 red list species. They have 60 species breeding there, including 5% of the entire estimated UK population of Corn Buntings. Invertebrate populations – impossible to see in November! – are also great. They have been very excited by the recent appearance of brown arguses and marsh fritillaries.

How’s it done?

Farming wildlifeThere’s no single answer, apart from the obvious – i.e. it’s organic. No chemical intervention brings unexpected bonuses, too. There are no tracks from spraying machinery to make it easy for predators to find ground nesting birds, for example. Access is made even more difficult by the way crops are drilled, with dense and slightly wavy rows of plants, impenetrable to weeds and foxes and badgers and giving animals no clear sight lines. Pertwood use a high tech inter-row cultivator to weed between the rows.

farming wildlife
Sunflower Margin
There are colourful pollinator strips along field margins – long flowering phacelia and late flowering sunflowers (good for seeds too), for example*. There’s a lovely butterfly bank. Red clover and other legume leys. Tussocky field margins too. This is insect nirvana – I hope I’ll be able to have a look around next summer.

The corn buntings – among other birds – love all the winter stubble which is deliberately left. I imagine this regime is also good for soil health.

Why Isn’t Everyone Doing It?

I don’t know, but then I’m not an agronomist. I guess there may be limited markets for organic cereals? It’s also true that we are only now exploring ways to farm with wildlife in mind. Groups like the Nature Friendly Farming Network are relatively new. The subsidy systems we have been using haven’t encouraged it enough, nor have they ensured compliance.

Anyway, the point is that there seems to be an alternative way to farm for wildlife, without not farming for wildlife. This looks as if it works in straight commercial terms. It also has significant value for the Pertwood brand, which at least helps pay for Nick and his efforts. People drive past on the main road and see the pollinator strips. Organic food consumers love to hear they’re helping corn buntings. Some might even read this blog.

Only Connect

I left the farm with a mixture of emotions. I’m so impressed by what they’ve done, and thoughtful about what more could be done (I hope we’ll be able to help!). This was tinged by a degree of sadness.

What a disastrous period we have gone through. Pertwood – despite their size, budget, will and knowledge – is struggling to repair the terribly degraded and fragmented habitats around them. There are still no dormice on site, for example, even after 30 years and despite the perfect home it would make for them. Smalls mammals simply can’t physically get there. It’s an oasis in the middle of a green desert. While this can be partly sorted out by planting hedges etc., it’s a sobering reflection on the state of the wider countryside.

*I’ll have to work on the native wildflowers angle…

A Little Knowledge…

I had a great weekend, brushing up my little knowledge. On Saturday I was at the mighty Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s (BBCT) members’ day in Cardiff, then yesterday had an equally engaging time at the Tree Conference in Frome. I heard a range of presentations, all give by people doing invaluable – and often unheralded – work.

We had two fascinating external speakers at the BBCT do. Andy Salisbury is the head entomologist at the RHS, and Liam Olds is an ecologist working for Buglife. The Trust’s own science supremo, Richard Comont, also spoke.

BBCT Members' DayAndy is the brains behind the work the RHS has been doing on plants for pollinators, which is still a project in progress. We’re now getting an idea about which plants different pollinators like. Liam has been looking at old coal tips in the south Wales valleys. They turn out to be extraordinary biodiversity hotspots. We’ve only recently begun to understand how important brown field sites can be. Richard – among other things – gave us the preliminary results from this year’s Bee Walk. This is the only data set of its kind. Established in 2008, it gives us a pretty good picture of what is happening to bumblebee populations, relying on figures from a growing band of trained volunteers re-walking the same transects.

Frome tree conferenceThe Tree Conference got me thinking, too. I loved Dr Martin Bidartondo, engaging expert on (impossible to spell) mycorrhiza. These are the underground fungi which are essential to trees, effectively extending their root systems and swapping sugar for minerals. Martin has started to map them across Europe – a Herculean task. His initial results are fascinating, and reinforce our understanding of the damage pollution is doing to our forests.

Lastly, Isabella Tree recapped some of the key themes of her recent book, Wilding. Isabella was the least unheralded of all the speakers! I’m a big – although not unreserved – fan of rewilding*, and it has arrived at the perfect time to influence debate on land use post Brexit and the dreadful Common Agricultural Policy. The big idea at Knepp – Isabella’s estate – is wood pasture. It’s amazing that this – in retrospect – obvious idea was only recently posited at all. Less than 20 years ago everyone thought historically forests were thick, dark and impenetrable, with closed canopies. Now we understand they were much more likely to be open patches of broadleaf woodland punctuated with pasture and scrub. A range of herbivores grazed and rootled around in them. Hugely biodiverse, hugely attractive and instantly appealing. This is a key idea, not least because of various large scale planting initiatives going on at the moment.

There was a theme running through all these presentations. These are all really important topics and areas of discovery. Which plants do we plant for which pollinators? How important are brownfield sites for wildlife? What are bee numbers doing? What is going on with fungi? What should a forest be? We are only now just starting to grope our way towards these answers.

What little knowledge we have about what happens outside our own back doors. How poorly resourced such work as we are doing is. I’ve felt this again and again over the last ten years. Ironically, we used to know the answers to many of these issues, but we have forgotten or ignored them. We now promote and pay for schemes with quick and high visual impact, often based on the wrong premise and often influenced by self-interested lobby groups.

Time is running out. We simply must focus on the science and throw money at it. Now.

*More on this anon.

How Not To Plant “Woodland”

There’s a great and commendable enthusiasm about tree planting in the UK. We know the reasons why. Every year, especially when the floods come, people talk about the need for more trees. Tree planting might even be part of a new post Brexit agricultural settlement. We need to be careful about it, though.

There has been a great boom in tree planting in Ireland. Apparently forests covered less than 1% of the country a hundred years ago. That figure is now over 10% – still low. The government plans it to reach 18% by 2046. Hurrah! There’s a problem, though. This isn’t really woodland. The new planting consists of Sitka spruce plantations. Currently, only 2% of forest cover is mixed broadleaf woodland.

Is this an issue?

You bet.

plantation monocultureSitka spruce hails from the Pacific northwest. It’s not a great fit with local Irish ecology. It grows vigorously, and – as in the UK – advice is to plant at a tree per 2 square metres. Nothing grows beneath its dense stygian canopy. Unlike native broadleaf woodland, this monoculture needs fertilisers and pesticides. Plantations are springing up in bogs and across meadows. They might sequester carbon, they might have commercial value, but in biodiversity terms they’re… unhelpful.

Planting regimental ranks of broadleaf trees isn’t ideal either. Dense woodland, with no sense of the effects of what ecologists call succession, is sub-optimal. We need lower density mixed species planting, with gaps. This could be achieved by using a wider range of native species and by more extensive selective felling in any planting scheme’s formative stages.

woodland pastureContrary to earlier thinking, the chances are that dense forests didn’t cover Europe before iron age man started clearance work. More likely is that grazing livestock, like auroch and boar, chomped and rootled clear areas. These enabled much greater diversity of tree species, along with other flora and fauna. You can imagine Oaks establishing themselves among stands of Blackthorn, then spreading out. Wildflowers growing in sunnier meadows. Mottled sunlight through the canopy playing on a rich understory. More managed landscapes used to mirror this approach, which is becoming talked about again through the rewilding movement.

We’re surrounded by vestigial “wood pasture” in this pocket of Somerset. I’d love to see it restored. We should put a commercial value on that, payable from the public purse if necessary, as (I hope) we will – finally – do for planting for flood prevention.

I’m probably just cavilling about tree planting styles. Planting rates in England continue to be disappointing. Management of many schemes is poor and deer wreck others. England only has similar tree cover to Ireland. The government’s (unfunded) targets look like pie in the sky.

We need more trees, in a hurry. We should, nonetheless, get maximum value from them. They have to be the right trees, planted and managed in the right way.

September in the Garden

Things are beginning to look knackered in the garden in September. You might think it’s time to cut back some of those long flowering perennials which have done such good duty over the summer. Don’t!
Mid September is late season for insects. Late butterflies, honeybees* and glossy new queen bumblebees are feeding on the sedum, but most of the summer’s excitement is past. Wildlife gardening books urge you to keep any ivy, which is an invaluable source of late nectar too.
I was impressed though to discover our geraniums buzzing with action yesterday. That’s geraniums, not pelargoniums – there’s sometimes a confusion. Among other varieties we have ‘Rozanne’, which has become a ubiquitous favourite in garden centres over the last few years. It has a nice habit and, unlike our native meadow cranesbill, goes on and on… and on. Not only did we have some lovely but familiar visitors on it today, but we also had something rather special…
Butterfly on geranium The Small Copper is a pretty little butterfly that you can see about into October in a good year. This is most likely its fourth – and last – generation of this summer, before it overwinters in its larval stage and pupates in April. It’s pretty widespread across the UK and a common site in our garden.
Geranium and honeybee Honeybees seem to love geraniums. Their open flowers are ideal for the bees’ flat short tongues, and they have been working them for most of the summer. The bees are busy finishing stocking up now ahead of winter. Their colony is beginning to contract and there are fewer brood to provision.
Common carder bee This is a Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum). She’s looking a bit ragged at this end of the summer. There are only a few worker bumblebees around now, and their nests are breaking up as the new queens fly off. By the way, you can see her longer tongue very clearly in the photo.
And now… the unexpected… Colletes hederae, the Ivy Bee. This chap is rare enough that I had to check the ID with my solitary bee guru Stuart. They’ve only been in the UK since 2001, and it’s highly unusual to find them inland from the south coast.
Geranium and Colletes hederae They look a bit like honeybees at first glance – very smart – and fly quickly. It’s very late in the season for a solitary bee, but that’s because their main source of pollen is… ivy. Apparently they nest in south facing banks; I would love to find out where this one came from.
Colletes hederae We’ve had several notable sightings of rare species in the garden this year. It has been really exciting, if I’m being honest, and a great illustration of what we can all expect if we create diverse and appropriate habitat. Even in the garden in September. Plant it and they will come, you might say.

*which occasionally get picked off by a passing hornet

Things Fall Apart

From time to time I used to suffer from what doctors call “anxiety” – I guess a form of mild depression, which I’ve learnt how to manage over the years. I’m now feeling something rather different and rather more alarming; a sense of foreboding.

We’re in one of our favourite places – Italy – for a few days. I’m writing on a sunny terrace with glorious views of violet hills, against a soundtrack of sparrows. There are clouds of butterflies about and – later this evening – a mob of unruly swifts will close the day.

We have lost all these things at home.

We have the odd swift, the odd sparrow. A hot dry summer will be good for our beleaguered butterflies, and I can hear people saying now that they seem to have turned the corner where they are, etc. etc.. Nature friendly farmers tell me how much they’re doing for wildlife. Enthusiasts click on online campaigns. The numbers remain pretty awful though. Biodiversity has collapsed in the UK and many species numbers are still in sharp decline. The short story is that there is still no concrete strategy in place to reverse this.

I’m sure, too, that many will say that the recent weather – all over the world – is just weather, and nothing to do with global warming. In any event, people still don’t care enough about global warming to even list it in their top 10 concerns at the ballot box. As one who has canvassed with spectacularly poor results around Langport in the Somerset Levels this is something I know at first hand. The U.S. Administration, of course, doesn’t even acknowledge climate change exists.

My concern about these two things – mass extinctions and catastrophic climate change – have, to be honest, marked me out as a bit odd among my friends. Even more bizarre for them has been my trying in a practical way to do something about them in the UK over the last 10 years.

This has been very depressing. It’s not too much of a stretch to see people’s lack of reaction to the rise of populism (is this the right label?) as similar. Right wing extremists are murdering our MPs, elements of the Press are calling the senior judiciary and our Prime Minister “traitors”. Both Left and Right are polarised; it’s a type of politics familiar from the Europe of the interwar years. The current struggle in politics is not between Left and Right; it’s between the Centre and extremists. Our political class is manifestly failing us – not just in the UK, of course – and destroying public confidence in our institutions. Doubly concerning, this is coming at a terrible time to deal with the consequences of climate change, which will fuel extreme political views.

Why do I have to be an eccentric / snowflake if I am doing things about stopping climate change, mass extinctions and neo-fascists/Stalinists?

There are (some, at least!) bright, well meaning people in parliament, of different political persuasions, who need to completely refocus their agendas. We ALL have to get involved. In a hurry.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

W.B.Yeats

The Green Economy in the UK… What’s Missing

According to Wikipedia, the green economy is one which “aims at reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities, and… aims for sustainable development without degrading the environment.” I went to a celebration of it this week, hosted by Business Green.

The Green EconomyWe’d been shortlisted for an award and I had a cracking night. The food was great and the wine flowed. Fab people and inspiring stories. Lots of enthusiastic young, and a lot of companies represented. There were 25 awards, and a short list of 136 finalists for them, ranging from large household names to small companies like us*. There was a real buzz and enthusiasm about the evening. We heard a lot about low carbon, zero emissions, renewable energy, battery storage, energy efficiency, clever building, recycling, and sustainability generally. Business Green is a good publication, and they’d taken a lot of care to host a very enjoyable event. They launched their Net Zero Now campaign on the night, which helps business and government develop net zero emission strategies.

There was, however, something missing.

It’s something which is generally missing from events like these. Given the rest of the evening it almost seems churlish to mention it, but I just have to. It’s the ecological scarcities bit of Wikipedia’s definition. Biodiversity loss didn’t get a look in.

In fairness, there was an award for Best Environmental Awareness Campaign. This did include one project which seemed to be about ecology. That meant that 2 out of the 136 finalists were directly concerned with reversing biodiversity loss – including us, who are so small we don’t really count!

This is entirely typical of the green economy in the UK. Reversing biodiversity loss just isn’t a priority; not for government, NGOs, policy wonks, business, and specialist media. Climate change and sustainability generally completely dominate their agendas. I suspect in years to come this will be as baffling to most people as it is to me now.

*no, of course we didn’t win. I was thrilled to be on a shortlist, though.

The Ecological Apocalypse (Again)

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Chris Packham hit the headlines this weekend by announcing that the UK was facing an ecological apocalypse. Yikes.

He’s right of course, but as apocalypses go it has been rather protracted. I wrote about a book called Silent Summer in 2010, which itself referenced an American book, Silent Spring (1962). Both featured similar conclusions. We have had over 50 years of ecological apocalypses.

And people don’t care about them.

They don’t care for three reasons.

Firstly, they are unaware they’re happening. This is partly a consequence of  Shifting Baseline Syndrome. Essentially,  new generations aren’t aware of the degradation of the natural environment because they’ve got nothing to compare it with. My mum had fond memories of country walks through clouds of butterflies. There were certainly reasonable numbers when I was small. Our children are delighted to see one. It’s also true that most people in the UK are now urban dwellers. To some degree or other they’re suffering from nature deficit disorder. They’re removed from the natural environment, physically and psychologically.

Secondly – perhaps as a consequence – people in the UK don’t really care about the natural world.  This might seem odd in a nation of Springwatch viewers, animal lovers etc etc but nature has never polled well here. Political parties of all colours have ignored it for years as a result. Voters vote for all sorts of reasons, but environmental policies ain’t one of them. Ask any Green Party activist.

Ecological Apocalypse
Not you again…

Lastly, those that are listening are suffering from apocalypse fatigue, as noted above. There are only so many apocalypses anyone can bear. One apocalypse is overwhelming enough, but when they come along one after the other you can only do one of two things. Hide under the sofa or convince yourself that the experts are all wrong and that things will get better. Tell anyone who will listen that around you the birds are doing well and the countryside looks lovely and green (etc. etc.).

What was so interesting about the Blue Planet effect is that, while the problems it portrayed are really massive (e.g. global warming, ocean acidification…), people felt they could do something to help. They could fight their own battles as individuals or groups against plastic.

And this is the answer. We don’t need apocalypses. We need to understand what is happening (in a hurry!) and communicate it effectively. Extinction is an ugly word and one people respond to. We need to feel we can do something ourselves that will have a material effect on the problem. If it actually does have a material effect that’s even better. As Chris Packham says, we can fix this.

Not an Ecological ApocalypseThere are projects that do this. I went to one yesterday, with a collection of very jolly mayors. Making a Buzz for the Coast is a great initiative*  helping bumblebees and other pollinators along 130 odd miles of Kent coast. It has partners across government, NGOs, corporates and communities and will very definitely make a difference.

*very kindly endorsed by Mr. Packham, too!

Weed or Wildflower? Which is Which?

I always tell punters one man’s weed is another one’s wildflower. I’m not sure that’s strictly true in most cases. Problematic plants? I know dandelions and plantains can be a struggle for some in the garden, for example, despite their – to my mind – obvious allure.

Wildflower meadow
I see no weeds

Bittercress, dock and nettle – weed, I think, while acknowledging that “weed” isn’t all bad. I have a designated nettle patch that caterpillars much through. And – really – what’s the difference between Rumex obtusifolius (bad), Rumex acetosa (good) and – my favourite dock – Rumex hydrolapathum (fantastic).

I guess it’s a question of degree. We have a little video about making wildflower meadows, in which I made the mistake of saying weed out any thistles. Well, I say a mistake – it’s not; thistles are very efficient colonisers and a real pain in a new wildflower meadow. That’s not to say they aren’t good plants for pollinators and can be very pretty – as was pointed out to me in no uncertain terms (!) – but they can take over. Diversity is what you’re aiming for, and a field full of thistles isn’t that.

Anyway, Birdsfoot trefoil and Self-heal would not even hit my top 50 of “difficult” plants. We must have sold hundreds of kilos of BFT and Self-heal seed over the years, and thousands of plug plants. They are pretty, small wildflowers. Self-heal is in our flowering lawn mix and Birdsfoot trefoil looks like a native snapdragon. Good plants for a variety of pollinators, BFT particularly good for some bumbles.

I digress.

The point is, according to Farmer’s Weekly, that these two plants are on the naughty step. They are, apparently, “unwanted weeds”, albeit good weeds insofar as they improve fat levels in the lambs that eat them. Hurrah!

This is really irking, but an interesting insight into the psyche of Farmer’s Weekly readers. Many farmers still treat anything not the right sort of grass as a weed.

This has got to stop. I can understand farmers antipathy towards species like black grass and dock. But Birdsfoot trefoil and Self-heal? For starters, plants like this are good for livestock. You can buy grazing grass mixes which include them. They also have really important ecological value and their numbers are declining.

Perhaps Farmer’s Weekly should start to call them herbs, if they can’t bear “wildflowers”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

House Sparrows

For fellow baby boomers, the demise of house sparrows is an obvious and distressing sign of the crisis in nature around us. In a week when we celebrated World Sparrow Day, it was sad to also see a stunning survey from France, showing a collapse in bird numbers generally there.

House Sparrow
It’s cold out there…

Why have house sparrows, a ubiquitous and cheery part of my childhood, run into such hard times that they are now a “species of conservation concern” in the UK? Aspects of their story are entirely typical of many other species in trouble here.

The first common characteristic is that people don’t really know the answer. It’s difficult to research even house sparrows – a pretty charismatic and high profile species. There’s probably a combination of factors at work, so far as I can gather.

Maybe there are fewer nest sites. Availability of food seems to be a problem. It could be that pollution impacts on them, although numbers in town seem to be declining at the same rate as their country cousins. Maybe it’s rising numbers of predators. Disease might also be a factor.

I’ve heard the same answers as to why almost anything is disappearing- bees, bats, butterflies, hedgehogs, crickets…

There is rarely a smoking gun, that’s the point. The environment is much more complicated, to the irritation of many campaign groups. Even if you have a relatively clear cut case – like albatrosses and long line fishing – you won’t save them from extinction purely by banning it. There’s much more going wrong.

It’s impossible to weigh different factors or to isolate them, even if you had the funding to try to. In an area I know more about – honeybees – it’s tempting to point the finger exclusively at the ghastly neonicotinoids. However, honeybees are struggling for a variety of reasons, neonics among them. In no particular order and in combination there’s weather, climate change, varroa, habitat loss, monocultures, fungicide use, pesticide use…

Again typically, elements in the house sparrow story suggest we’re missing a key piece of interpretation. Numbers in the south east seem to be under more pressure than in the south west – why’s that?

As usual, when we don’t know, odder – and unproven – theories take hold. Apparently mobile phones – once held to be decimating honey bee populations – are now also potential culprits for falling sparrow numbers. Sigh.

So what can we do? What we can. Better and more plants, more seeds and bugs in our gardens. Nestboxes, nice thick hedges. Clean feeders. No pesticides. Cross our fingers.

Will We Get a Green Brexit?

Many years ago I failed Latin A Level. My friend Tim and I sat slumbering at the back of a set full of classicists who all – except for us – went on to Oxbridge and have had various and glittering careers. I still remember my sullen admiration at watching those big brains at work. How could they make this stuff seem so easy?

I was reminded of this yesterday, when I went to a conference on Green Brexit, organised by Prosperity UK. Sorry to use the B word – please do read on.

Prosperity UK seems like a very good idea. Remainer or Leaver, their idea is that we should all move on and work together in a post Brexit world to make the best of things. To this end they organised a Conference on “Green Brexit”, which featured a number of wildly impressive brains who would have more than graced my Classics Upper Sixth. It was absolutely fascinating.

Green BrexitMany of the great and good from the world I inhabit were there. Michael Gove, Sir Roger Scruton, Tony Juniper (WWT), Matt Ridley, Helen Browning  (Soil Association), Minette Batters (NFU), Tim Bonner (Countryside Alliance), Lord Glasman, Lord Hill, David Babbs (38 Degrees), Michael Liebreich (Bloomberg), the Goldsmith brothers, Dame Fiona Reynolds, Dieter Helm (Natural Capital Committee), George Freeman MP, Tim Breitmeyer (CLA), Alistair Driver (Rewilding UK). There are some people here whose views I generally don’t get on with, and some with whose I do.

My particular interest was farmland. On which they were all – pretty much – and somewhat to my surprise – singing off similar hymn sheets. There were, certainly, philosophical differences, but for such a Catholic Church there was a remarkable degree of agreement.

Everyone agreed the the Common Agricultural Policy has been hopeless, and that waving it goodbye will present us with some great opportunities. Everyone agreed that we needed to embrace the idea of using public money to pay for things that actually benefit the public – “ecosystem services”. This could include planting trees to reduce flooding, increase biodiversity and sequester carbon, seeding wildflower meadows, establishing wetlands, rotating crops to help soils, rewilding… A Green Brexit could include paying farmers not to use excessive fertilisers, which run off and pollute water courses. It could include managing landscapes for visitors. It might even go as far as including animal welfare. Some of these payments might even come from the private sector. You would think people might pay to stop their homes being flooded, for example.

Most people seemed to agree that this approach had to be based around the idea of Natural Capital. This places a notional value on natural assets – a complicated and somewhat arbitrary set of calculations.  The idea is that the cost to the environment of food production or development is compensated for, and that in the round we keep or add to the sum of natural capital, not diminish it. Natural Capital does hit the buffers in certain regards; how do you value ancient woodland or a medieval wildflower meadow?

An area of unequivocal agreement was that we need – as Michael Gove put it – “the highest environmental and ethical standards”. These would encapsulate some basic principles – such as polluter pays and the precautionary principle, for example – which require a regulator of some kind and legislative teeth. Guess what – in a room full of environmentalists there was ne’er a dissenting voice.

This all sounded pretty Utopian. It was enormously exciting to hear policy makers and movers and shakers talking in these terms. Bright Blue, the Conservative think tank, have already produced a detailed policy paper.

There are, however, obvious issues involved in translating these clever ideas into reality.

In theory the public will end up a massive winner from this kind of reform. The current system encourages waste and inefficiency. We’re largely just paying people to own farmland. Paying farmers to help stop flooding, improve water and soil quality, improve animal welfare, etc etc are all things that benefit the public. The problem is the electorate won’t understand “ecosystem services”, as they don’t translate into cheaper food prices in the shops.

In order for super duper new environmental controls to work, our trading partners importing food here would have to sign up to equivalent standards. Here’s where the politics comes in. One of the Brexit dividends was supposed to be cheaper food. Dropping import tariffs should lead to cheaper imported food, to the cost of our own farmers.

According to the brains, it seems unlikely. There will of course be individual examples where prices fall (like sugar), but overall the effect will be negligible compared to, for example, currency movements. We will not see cheaper food unless we relax regulation relating to things like animal welfare and pesticide use. There’s a real danger of a race to the bottom, featuring chlorinated chickens, beef stuffed with antibiotics, pigs in farrowing crates, cereals treated with neonicotinoids…. the list is endless.

What is going to happen to food production here if we start paying farmers to take tracts of land out of agricultural production? These will be more or less relatively unproductive, but output overall will still fall, even with technologically and ecologically driven improvements in yields in the areas which remain under plough and cow. This would mean higher dependence on food imports. Would we be happy with that?

If output falls, what effect is this going to have on food prices? Particularly in combination with higher environmental standards, it’s difficult to see them going down. This might seem like a great idea in a room full of economists, environmentalists and farmers. It’s difficult to see it going down so well in the House of Commons.

And how can any of the reforms of a Green Brexit not bring extra cost to administer? They will need regulation, guidance and monitoring. A system based on natural capital will be fiendishly difficult and complicated, as opposed to one which essentially consisted of lots of measuring. Who’s going to do this* and how much will it cost? This expense is – the economists will argue – a small price to pay for a much more cost effective and beneficial system. Will it seem that way to the politicians promising less red tape and more transparency after Brexit?

The electorate is wedded to its own idea of what constitutes an attractive and natural landscape. Ecologists might shudder at the denuded hillsides of the Lakes and the Yorkshire Dales, but tourists flock to them. Farmers have farmed these areas the same way for generations. They will all resist change.

To my mind these Green Brexit reforms should also be accompanied by reducing farmland’s tax breaks. Much of our farmland is owned by folk who are just using it as a way of avoiding IHT. Reduce this kind of tax break and farmland prices would fall to more sustainable levels, on which farmers could make commercial yields. They will also care more about qualifying for subsidies by doing the right thing for the environment.

Government intervention on this kind of scale in the countryside does not have a good track record. There always seem to be unintended consequences. Biogas seemed a great idea until we realised the consequences of growing tonnes and tonnes of maize – a terrible crop ecologically – to produce it.

There were many other discussions during the day, covering a variety of topics. They were remarkably amicable when they veered into areas where there was genuine and heartfelt disagreement. It’s going to take a lot more – and potentially less pleasant – labour to persuade politicians and the public to get behind some of the ideas behind Green Brexit, even if they are promoted by the big brains.

*Natural England, the obvious choice, has been gutted over the last few years.