It seems like the furore over the proposed FC sell-off is starting to calm down. So my mind turns back to grasslands and grass. It must be spring – the grass is definitely growing.
I’ve also noticed some interesting grass-related news stories from the farming press, which I want to share with you.
Firstly there’ a story about one aspect of the madness that is the Common Agricultural Policy. Farmers in Northern Ireland are “waging war” on whin (gorse), rushes, bracken, stones and just about anything that isn’t grass. Why? Because the European Commission have ruled that farmers cannot claim Single Payment (this is the direct subsidy paid to farmers across the EU to….well just farm really) on any piece of land that is occupied by something other than grass.
Over the past 6 months or so I’ve been working with the small but perfectly formed European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism (the Forum) to investigate various European policies and how they are contributing to the demise of Europe’s wildlife-rich grasslands.
We have produced a preliminary report which you can find here. We have gathered information and expert views from 9 EU countries looking at how the CAP and other European policies affect grasslands: finding out the way the EC decides which grasslands get single payment and which do not, for examples, is one of the particularly alarming aspects of the research. The situation in Northern Ireland is far from unique, as you can read in the report.
Another interesting story is the Government’s new advice on how much red meat we should eat. It’s safe to eat just 500g per week, it would seem. This is how Farmer’s weekly covered the story. Shortly afterwards Farmer’s Guardian published a critique from The Soil Association, pointing out that the recommendation was based on the quality of meat produced in the USA under very different production conditions (feedlots where animals are fed grain and concentrate, not fresh grass).
The Soil Association pointed out that meat from grass-fed lamb or cattle contains higher levels of health-giving omega-3 fatty acids, than grain-fed animals. Even so, most beef in the UK is produced using a combination of grazing grass and then feeding a high protein diet (including grain and sometimes soya) to finish the animals before slaughter. So the SA’s position, while true, does not necessarily reflect UK practice in either the conventional or organic beef sector. Lamb is a safer bet as their diet derives mostly from grazing. This is all relevant to the previous campaign on the Sustainable Livestock Bill, which will no doubt re-emerge during this year.
Happily there is a good news story about locally produced beef being sold in NW England. National Trust tenants in the Lake District, are working together to add value to their animals by promoting the high welfare standards, low food miles, and environmental benefits associated with their production. I couldn’t help noticing though that even these animals were being finished with grain, they were not fed on grass all the way through.
Finally I can’t resist mentioning Grasswatch, which is something Farmer’s Weekly have been running for a year or two now. Grass growth on a series of farms around England is monitored through the year, and different approaches to managing the grass are weighed up against each other. It is astonishing how much variation in productivity there is between grasslands being managed conventionally, with fertiliser and herbicides. The top perfomer was producing 12 tonnes per hectare per year of dry matter (the standard way of measuring grass production) while the least productive was producing just 0.8 tonnes.
You might wonder why I am interested in, and writing about, these commercially productive grasslands, when the unproductive wildlife-rich ones are under such threat. The point is this: unless you’re a vegan (in which case you should be thinking about where your soya comes from), we all depend on the products of conventionally managed grasslands – meat, milk, cheese, wool, leather, etc. 97% of grassland in England is managed conventionally, and has either no wildlife or limited willdife interest. As consumers we can influence how these grasslands are managed; organic vs conventional is the obvious example, but there’s no reason why we cannot use our consumer power to influence these productive grasslands in other ways. Even if our choices made some of these productive grasslands slightly more interesting for wildlife, that would help the formerly common farmland birds, bees, flowers and butterflies that are now disappearing.
On the other hand, our 3% or so of wildlife-rich grasslands cover just over 100,000ha of England. This is just 2/3 the area of Greater London: even ancient woodland covers three times this area. These grasslands are so rare they do not really figure in the commercial grassland world, so our consumer choices have no impact. Other ways are needed to protect them, such as statutory protection of SSSIs, regulation through EIA, and incentives like Environmental Stewardship.