Recently, the leaders of several of the UK’s largest conservation NGOs (including the RSPB the National Trust and the Wildlife Trusts) raised concerns about possible changes to environmental regulations, including the flagship new agricultural subsidy system – the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS).

Jon Davies, Director of RSK Wilding – an ecological consultancy focused on large-scale habitat restoration designed to maximise the benefits for the environment and society – explains why we should ignore any polarising rhetoric around farming and wildlife and get on with creating an agricultural landscape that is sustainable, biodiverse and productive.

The planet is facing not one but two existential crises – catastrophic climate change and irreversible biodiversity extinction. And, as the Covid pandemic taught us, in the time of crisis we all need to come together.  As a ‘rewilder’, or habitat restorer, I often see a debate around how farming and nature conservation cannot work together, as if they are mutually exclusive; but these seemingly opposing views need not be seen as such. In reality, there is a welcome opportunity for many farmers to diversify (and increase) their income whilst restoring the soil, enhancing wildlife and continuing to produce quality food.

A combination of regenerative agriculture and habitat restoration – the latter focused on those parts of farms that may be best suited to this in terms of farm activity – will do exactly that.

Regenerative agriculture (or ‘RegenAg’) is a relatively new (although in many ways very traditional) way of farming that emphasises the respect farmers have for the environment and especially our much-depleted and threatened soils. Regenerative agriculture embodies the principle of restoring the health of soils and surrounding environments in tandem with agricultural production: a focus on promoting environmental benefits alongside the farm. And it is being adopted by an increasing number of  farmers across the UK (and indeed the planet).

A central tenet of this is ‘no till’, with seeds being sown directly into the soil by direct-drilling (without the need to plough) and cover crops ensuring year-round vegetation and protection for the soil. The system requires significantly less fertiliser (as this is provided by mob-grazing with livestock), less pesticide and even less diesel, whilst at the same time continuing to produce quality food. By not disturbing the ground and allowing plant roots to penetrate deep into the soil, the delicate balance of the soil ecosystem can develop and thrive. This not only restores soil health but also increases invertebrate and microbial biodiversity, helps with the sequestering and storage of carbon, and reduces soil-water runoff and the leaching of nutrients, meaning that our rivers no longer fill with sediment, fertilisers and pesticides.

With regards to the habitat restoration part of the equation, this will be funded by a new suite of public and private finance mechanisms. The concept of payments for biodiversity enhancement or creation is again hardly new; for decades agri-environment schemes have encouraged farmers to create biodiverse habitats on their land. However, recent changes to environmental and agricultural legislation have drastically changed the availability of alternative revenue streams for landowners.

Through the introduction of Biodiversity Net Gain, whereby developers (from house-builders to major infrastructure providers) are required to demonstrate a minimum 10% increase in biodiversity associated with their proposals, thus leading to the creation of a biodiversity offset market, we are starting to see very considerable funds being committed by the private sector. Thanks largely to changes in investment rules associated with the new Task Force for Nature-based Disclosures (TFND) criteria, corporations are also starting to invest in this way, driven by the desire to address their biodiversity (as well as their carbon) footprints. Alongside this frenetic activity in the private sector, Defra has been developing its own public sector version of payments for biodiversity, the Environmental Land Management Scheme (or ELMS). Through this system, farmers can apply for funding at three different levels: the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI); Local Nature Recovery (LNR); and Landscape Recovery (LR).

Through a combination of BNG and ELMS, farmers are therefore starting to see very real financial reasons for enhancing biodiversity on their land. But it is extremely important to emphasise that this should not be at the expense of food production but alongside it.

A new rural landscape built upon a combination of RegenAg and well-designed habitat restoration will have numerous knock-on benefits for the planet and society. In addition to producing better quality food and tackling the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, together they can: improve water quality (by significantly reducing sediment run-off as well as pesticide and fertiliser leaching); reduce flood risk (by stopping the water flowing so quickly off the land); provide massive benefits for people’s wellbeing through increased recreational access to nature (as evidenced during lockdown); and also ensure that our soils can recover (some estimates suggest our soils only have 60 harvests left in them).  With the prices of diesel, pesticides and fertilisers sky-rocketing, a new approach that very significantly reduces the need for these expensive inputs will even help with the cost of living crisis (as it will allow farmers to reduce their prices) and will also be better for our long-term food security.

So how are we going to achieve this bucolic nirvana? Biodiversity and carbon offsetting will rely upon the development of stable, reliable and transparent markets, and this will require accreditation and a fair degree of bureaucracy. For BNG, for example, local planning authorities will require resourcing to ensure that they can set up their own Gain Site Register (as required under the new Environment Act) and then administer the creation and sale of biodiversity credits as part of the planning process. Similarly, the agricultural subsidy system (whether ELMS or something similar) will need to be sufficiently flexible and well-designed to allow for (and indeed encourage) the widespread adoption of practices like RegenAg. All of this will take a lot of hard work over the coming months and years, but will be worth it for the transformative effect it will have on our countryside and food production.

But what of the longer term? Could it be that by 2050 we will be living in a country where a huge proportion of the land is given over to sustainable food production and nature?  Will it be the case, for example, that someone flying over the countryside in 2050 will experience a very different landscape to the one we see today? No longer will the land be a chequerboard of bright green, yellow or ploughed fields as far as the eye can see, interspersed only with the odd tiny pocket of woodland or species-rich grassland. Instead, the landscape will look much more natural, with significantly larger areas of restored habitat all connected by much more biodiversity-friendly farmland. Once more the countryside will be teeming with a glorious abundance of insects, birds and flowering plants, our watercourses will be restored to their pollutant- and nutrient-free former glory and be full of life, and we will have sequestered and stored so much carbon that climate change will be a thing of the past.

We can but hope.

But this really isn’t a pipe dream, it is well within our ability as a society. Rather than seeing conflict and problems ahead, there are actually massive opportunities and wide-ranging potential solutions (to climate change, biodiversity loss and soil degradation) that could accrue from positive win-win policymaking in relation to regenerative agriculture, carbon offsetting and Biodiversity Net Gain. We are already seeing huge amounts of investment being committed by the private sector, and if this can work hand-in-hand with the public sector investment into sustainable farming through ELMS, this could fund an absolute transformation in our landscape, making it wilder, more productive and more sustainable for future generations. Dare I even suggest that such an approach would also have the new King firmly on our side!

The ultimate test is, what will we be saying about the 2020s – the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration – in thirty years’ time? How will future generations view our response to the existentialist threat of environmental breakdown, when we had so much evidence of the risk in front of us? Will we be able to hold our heads high with pride, or will we be too ashamed to even look our grandchildren in the eye?

We can do this, and we must.