Farming: not as romantic as all that. Photo: Damian Gillie/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

September 3, 2020   9 mins

Farmers are taking a bashing. You can’t go on social media, turn on the TV or radio, or read a newspaper without someone telling you earnestly that farming is more or less the devil’s work and should be done away with at the earliest opportunity. We are charged with causing everything from climate change and flooding to the sixth mass extinction. We live in a society in which less than 2% of us farm, but some days it seems like the other 98% all think they know better how to do it than we do.

And, let’s be fair, there are reasonable grounds for concern. The RSPB’s State of Nature report paints a gloomy picture of disappearing wildlife in our overwhelmingly farmed landscapes. Beloved species like curlews, yellowhammers, or hedgehogs, common as recently as my childhood, are disappearing or declining. The scientific consensus is that the rapid and ongoing intensification of agriculture has made our landscapes more monocultural, and sterile, with less habitats and less food for the things that once shared it with us.

We could have a lively debate about who’s fault the intensification of farming was — and I might argue it was driven by the demand for cheap food, the overweening power of a handful of food industry corporations, poor public policy, disruptive chemical and engineering technologies that emerged in the post war period, and which are still intensifying field work, and lastly the societal belief that farming’s job was solely to produce ever cheaper food — but I’m less interested in haggling over blame, and much more interested in what I can practically do about this mess on our land.

The practical challenge on our farm is fairly simple: I have to pay my bills, and earn some kind of living for my family, by producing things to sell and try and be a good steward of this place.

Some of the solutions proposed make just about zero sense on an actual farm — like the idea that we should just step aside and let it be totally wild. My bank manager isn’t so keen on that, and neither are several of my ecologist friends who point out that abandoning land isn’t remotely the same thing as restoring an ecosystem if key species that once made it all work are now missing.

“Rewilding” is very fashionable, and I can see why it inspires — sometimes it offers ambition, scale and a sensible focus on natural processes, but that often isn’t very useful in the real world many of us live and work in. When I plant trees and they get nibbled off at the ground by roe deer, it isn’t very useful to tell me we should have wolves here to kill the deer. If millions of trees are to be planted and we want them to survive, then we need real here-and-now practical solutions.

We are the “hyper-keystone species” in our landscape, one settled a long time ago — the question is what we can do to play that role decently and sensibly to make it all as sustainable and biodiverse as we can. Here’s what the last five years of listening and learning have taught me about what we can do for nature on our farmland:

We need to change the way we see and think about farming.

We all see land through our own biases — and mine was, until recently, a traditional farming mindset. We looked at our fields and saw something made productive and good by our toil. Our land had been “improved” to produce food, which we thought of as pretty much as our sole purpose. Producing food is a noble endeavour, one that has somehow come to be taken for granted. Covid-19 ought to have taught us that British food security matters, and that our just-in-time global supply chains are too fragile and risky. We need an enormous amount of food to be produced in British fields, and for that we need some of the smartest farmers on earth.

But, and it is a big “but”, I now accept that my job is more than just producing food any which way I please — we can’t pretend farming is just an productive industry, because it takes place in a natural setting, and can do grave ecological damage. In my lifetime I have witnessed once common birds and insects vanish from our farmland — there was once a curlew in every other field of ours, and now they are vanishing.

The sensible people in farming increasingly realise that we have to reconcile two complex demands — we have to work out how to farm productively but in healthy ecosystems, which in some cases we are going to have to rebuild. I am not at the cutting edge of this “regenerative agriculture”, or a guru of it; for most of my life I thought the people talking about this stuff were cranks. I am a second wave enthusiast, and have come to realise that the “cranks” are right, and the post-war mainstream ideas are deeply flawed.

A few years ago, I began inviting ecologists to come to our farm. I was curious about how true the criticisms of our farming were; I wanted to know the truth, however painful that might be, so I asked them to tell me what state our land was in. They were very polite, but the brutal version goes like this: More or less all farmland is downgraded ecologically from the wilderness that preceded it.

I knew that bit and was ready for it. I told them we changed the world to be able to live, and it largely happened here centuries, or thousands, of years ago. And they bought and ate the food we produced. Yeah okay, they shrugged, but then pointed out that I had rose tinted spectacles about the recent past… and then highlighted the deterioration just in my lifetime, as well as the decades before that.

There was the declining plant diversity in our hay meadows caused by synthetic fertilisers between the 1960s and the 2000s, the loss of wetlands because my old man drained fields with a digger, the straightened rivers that are wrecked for fish because we dredged them every ten years, the hedgerows that had grown old, gone unmanaged, and which were now falling down, leaving a much barer landscape, and the trees, which I had always thought were everywhere, but which are mostly older than a hundred years because almost no young trees have grown up on our land in generations.


Turns out that this land should be a place full of multi-age trees, with everything from saplings to rotting wood in order to give all the creatures of the once wild woods a chance. Our pastures were slightly better news, because they had never been ploughed, so have pretty good soil. But we have grazed them too continuously with sheep and made them worse than they should be (a practice known as “set stocking”). The more I hung out with ecologists the more I realised how little I knew. In fact I could have written my total knowledge of soil microbiology and photosynthesis on one side of a matchbox.

So, what had seemed largely unchanging for much of my life turns out to be half-broken and getting worse — turning in to a barer, less habitat-diverse farm with much less food for insects, birds and other wild things.

The point of all this is not to add to the chorus of gloom about farming, or to confirm for you that farmers are all evil — only to see the effects of our land management through nature’s eyes. You can’t have a proper stab at nature-friendly farming unless you are willing to be this honest with yourself.

The second step for me was to get my head around what our land would once have been in its wilder form. This question is loaded with issues and debates, but let’s keep our eye on a simple truth — wild things generally want the habitats they called home before the arrival of humans, with the natural processes creating the niches they evolved to take advantage of.

So, what was it?

The short, simple answer is our valley was a swirling and dynamic dance of oak woodland (temperate Atlantic rainforest), thorny and willowy scrub, and meadow clearings either grazed by the large herbivores or created by beavers, with some other habitats scattered around like peat bogs, and ponds and lakes with reedy edges. And it is more than just having token habitats; it also had the natural processes which made those habitats “dynamic”: rivers are meant to wiggle, trees are meant to fall and lie rotting, herbivores are meant to graze and shape ecosystems, and predators are meant to move nervous herbivores around and occasionally kill them.

So, how do we, in the imperfect reality of now, create more of those key habitats, and keep them dynamic?

The good news is that some of the ways my father and grandfather farmed kind of mimicked some key natural processes. We don’t plough. We stopped using synthetic fertilisers years ago. A lot of nature still exists on our farm — we have over 200 species of wildflowers and grasses on our land. Intensive silage fields might have one or two species; our traditional hay meadows have lost maybe half a dozen species in the past century, but they are still exceptionally diverse. Our cattle-only grazed summer pastures have about 100 species of plants including wild orchids. Our soil is full of organic matter and worms, and fast improving.

Above us is a large remnant of very old oak woodland that still pulses life outwards. And our floodplain is regressing to something scruffy and wilder because no one drains it anymore. Our peat bogs are in mixed condition, after centuries of drainage and harvesting, but some areas are recovering well. Last year we did a major restoration project to make it wetter and function better, reversing two centuries of abuse. Our fell has recovering vegetation from its overgrazed state in the past, and has been un-drained and “wetted up”. And we have the remnants of lots of other good habitats that with a little help could be returned to their former glory.

It isn’t black and white; it isn’t all trashed. We are going to need a lot of very productive farmers, so some places are going to do more for nature than others. I accept that our valley ought to be at the high end of the nature-recovery scale — because it has so much good nature left and is in a National Park.

The truth is, even here, we can’t recreate the vanished past, with migration of significant herds of wild herbivores and large carnivores. But we can ensure we have a good chunk of the original habitats (even if we have to cleverly create them in the least productive bits of the farm or valley), and mimic some of the processes that made it tick. These days I’m most excited by finding ways to produce good quality food in nature-friendly ways — using planned grazing of my sheep and cattle to mimic those lost herds of wild herbivores, moved by me rather than a predator, and creating around our fields lots of hedgerows and willowy scrub, and planting thousands of native broadleaf trees we can graze beneath.

It won’t be perfect, but it can be a hell of a lot better than it is now, at least as good as it was a century ago, and probably much better if we work with ecologists, and if the rest of you back us to do it. At present I am having to try and rebuild the patchwork of habitats on our farm while being paid the lowest prices in history for wool, beef and lamb. We have asset-stripped the countryside, and it won’t be mended until we start reversing that process. We may need to devote a greater share of our GDP to food production to do it in ways that make our countryside somewhere to be proud of — it is at about 10% at present, a quarter of its value a century ago.

Of course, I have farming friends who still think our sole job is to produce things for the table, and politicians and economists love the idea of ever cheapening food, because it is their get-out-of-jail-free card for unleashing grossly unequal societies… Let the poor folks get paid minimum wage and eat KFC. That is not a recipe for a good or healthy society.

I think British farming has to ask itself a simple question: how do we regain the trust of the British public so that they believe in us and want to help us in the shops, and contribute through their taxes to supporting us?

The answer, I believe, is so simple it is staring us in the face. We need to support farmers to become the genuine stewards of our countryside. We should shift away, to the greatest possible extent, from pesticides, synthetic fertilisers and other 20th-century disasters. We should restore soils and maximise photosynthesis on our land using better techniques like rotational grazing, and on crop land by using mixed rotational farming instead of monocultures.

The good news is that I and many thousands of other farmers can do this, and many of us want to, if given half a chance. But let’s be blunt, it comes with a cost, not covered by the pitiful prices we are paid now, nor through the environmental schemes we have at present. I don’t think you owe me a living, but unless we create a new system, the current farming model is going to trash what’s left of nature in the British countryside.

We need to make being an ecologically sound farmer financially viable. That requires a new deal between farmers, government, retailers, taxpayers and the consumer — a deal that protects and supports good farming and environmental stewardship. A deal that creates viable local food economies in which everyone has access to affordable good food.

We need to sustain and encourage good farming instead of undermining it. And this means protecting us from being undermined by cheap imports produced in systems that are worse than our own, and walking away from a US trade deal if the price demanded is too high. Sorry Mr Trump, but we don’t want that race to the bottom.

Now isn’t the time to abandon faith in farmers. It is the time to back British farmers, support them, help them to learn new things, and transition to better ways.

James Rebanks’ new book English Pastoral is published by Allen Lane.

James Rebanks is a fell farmer and the best-selling author of The Shepherd’s Life. His new book, English Pastoral, came out in September 2020.