Look out! A nice piece of grassland near you might be disappearing under the plough as I write.
That august journal Farmers Weekly reported yesterday on a survey published by the Home Grown Cereals Authority – who? you may ask. HGCA are a sub-quango if you will, which has been subsumed into Defra’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, whose future is “under consideration” by the Cabinet Office Quango Finders General. And what relevance has all this got to grasslands?
The report states that the HGCA commissioned a survey which concluded that the area under wheat in 2011 would increase by 3%, Oilseed rape by 6%, while winter barley, spring crops, oats and beans will decline. So while some fields will shift from beans to say winter wheat, there will also be a big drop in the area under fallow.
Two points arise – we’ve just seen the Sustainable Livestock Bill fail, which would have led to a shift away from imported protein crops like soya to more home grown protein – beans being an excellent example of a home grown crop to make protein to feed livestock. The Farming Industry clearly persuaded enough MPs, and it would seem, the Government, that they could achieve this shift themselves and there was no need for regulation, hence the Bill failed.
The predictions (by a Defra Quango remember) for a massive 20% reduction in the bean crop area next year don’t appear to support that assertion.
Secondly, if there is to be a big increase in the area of land under crops, there will be a big decrease in the area of land under – grass. The two relate intimately to each other. More crops, less grass: more grass, less crops – gone are the heady days when ancient woodlands were grubbed out to create new arable land – nowadays its just grassland and arable land on the seesaw. And with the demise in set-aside there is no reservoir of this fallow-land to be cultivated. Now that wheat and oil seed rape prices are climbing again, this is the incentive for farmers to plough up grassland and grow crops.
For grasslands that have been subject to modern agriculture, that only have one species of grass – perennial rye-grass, and maybe a few other things like clover, and the occasional dandelion, their loss will not be mourned. And in a few years, when commodity prices reverse, land will be taken out of cropping and returned to grass. Ever was it thus.
But there are over a million hectares of grassland in England that have more than just perennial rye grass and clover. Some are as they were before the second world war, having escaped the impacts of modern agriculture – these are the best, sometimes protected in Sites of Special Scientific Interest, sometimes not. There are a little of 100,000ha of these in England.
Then there are a whole load more (around a million ha), some of whom are valuable, not incredibly valuable, but still supporting farmland wildlife like hares, or farmland birds, or the commoner farmland flowers and butterflies – as well as creating variety in the landscape, protecting archaeology, and many other “ecosystem services”. We honestly don’t know how many of these are left in each county – some are within County Wildlife Sites, some arent. They are vulnerable to being ploughed up.
So keep your eyes peeled. If you notice a nice local grassland that has gone under the plough, let us know. Oh, and don’t do any trespassing to find out.