Mark Avery: countryside custodians


Farmers – don't you love them? Well, yes I do, to some extent. Some of my friends, relatives and acquaintances are farmers and I like quite a lot of them.

But then that is how it is with birders, lawyers, conservationists and politicians, too. Knowing someone's profession hardly tells you much about their moral fibre, kindness or intellect.

How should we regard farming? It's a mix of good and bad things too. Food production is probably the best thing and, from a conservationist's point of view, wildlife declines are on the very strong debit side of the balance. Those declines, documented in many reports, apply across all taxa. Isn't it striking that Corn Buntings, Corncrakes and Meadow Pipits are declining alongside Corncockles, Harvest Mice and Field Gromwell? Some 70% of UK land is farmed and that is where we are losing wildlife hand over fist – even those species named after the farmed environment.

Do farmers hang their heads in shame? Do farmers' leaders ask for forgiveness? Does the industry put itself about to persuade governments to bring in regulations that will distribute the burden of wildlife recovery fairly across the farmed landscape? No, they don't.

Instead, we have denial from the farming unions and especially, it seems to me, from the National Farmers Union. It promotes exaggerated versions of the good things that farming does (feed the world) and denies all the bad things. All industries try this, of course, but it's hard to believe that we have the best farming in the world, sticking to the highest standards, when overall farmland wildlife has tumbled in abundance quicker and deeper in the UK than in the rest of Europe.

Populations of farmland species, such as Corn Bunting, have crashed during the last few decades (Keith Gypps).


Downward spiral

Aged readers of Birdwatch, particularly those born before The Beatles sang 'Love me do!', can remember when Eurasian Skylarks were noisy, European Turtle Doves were found across south-east England (and Wales) and Corn Buntings were just quite irritating jangly birds – all are so much rarer now.

Younger readers can only check the BTO population trends to see evidence of this. Of course, I see and hear skylarks in my native Northamptonshire, but nowhere near as many. Without putting effort in, I won't see a turtle dove, and there is hardly a pair of Corn Bunting left in central Northants now. Thirty years ago, I could see all three species on my journey home from The Lodge on a spring evening – easy peasy! 

The ability of the farming industry to get away with this downgrading of our biodiversity really annoys me; all the more so because we have been paying for it by handing out £3 billion in grants and subsidies every year for decades. Wasn't that good value? We – you and I – pay for food in three main ways: we buy it directly, we fund it indirectly through taxes that could go elsewhere and we pay for how farming behaves in impacts such as increased flood risk, increased greenhouse gas emissions and loss of wildlife. Have you ever heard a farmer say: “Here you are, have some of your taxes back because we've driven wildlife from your lives”? No, neither have I, but then I've never heard a politician say that the taxpayer deserves a fairer deal for our investment.

It's not time to punish farmers but it is time to look at the farming industry without imagining it is solely populated by poor, hard-working stewards of the countryside. There will be no renaissance in farmland wildlife unless farming adapts to produce wildlife alongside food and that won't happen without external pressure from voters and politicians.


  • This column first appeared in the February 2024 edition of Birdwatch. To be the first to read the magazine each month, take out a subscription to Birdwatch, or get the magazine alongside your bird news by subscribing to either Bird News Ultimate (paper magazine) or Bird News Ultimate Plus (digital access).
Written by: Mark Avery