Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Grazing the uplands - an environmental nightmare?

The BBC Countryfile report on Sunday discussing claims that farming could be ruining our uplands prompted many farmers to take to social media to vent their fury.

The film featured RSPB uplands expert Pat Thompson, and Guardian columnist and author George Monbiot, giving their views on the environmental damage caused by upland sheep farming, pitched against farmer Carl Waters who was defending his way of life.

George Monbiot is certainly not one to hide his strong views on sheep farming, having made headlines last year with his book ‘Feral’ and his claims that the Welsh hills have been "sheepwrecked" and grazed to destruction.

Nobody would deny his right to have an opinion on this subject, but the views he expressed in the Countryfile report, which went as far as to blame flooding in the valleys on heavy animal grazing and the resulting lack of vegetation and compacted soils, touched a nerve in the farming community.

With farmers in some parts of the country, particularly the Somerset levels, suffering the effects of terrible flooding which has continued unabated for several weeks, Mr Monbiot’s comments blaming sheep for the problem felt rather like kicking the industry when it was down.

There is no question that the BBC is right to address difficult issues such as this, but their failure to give any farming industry organisation the opportunity to participate in the debate alongside uplands farmer Carl Waters has led to many feeling short-changed by the report.

There are many strong arguments for continuing the graze the uplands which were only mentioned in passing during the Countryfile piece. Livestock farming provides essential employment to the two million people who live in the English uplands and has shaped the appearance of our cherished upland landscapes, as outlined in our Landscapes without Livestock report. While these areas are grazed they also act as a massive carbon sink, sequestering carbon in the pasture which would otherwise be released into the environment.

However, above and beyond any of these factors, the uplands play a vital role in producing food. The English uplands are home to 44 per cent of the breeding ewes and 40 per cent of the beef cattle and, with many of these areas unsuited to growing anything else which could be used to feed our growing population, the sheep and cattle that graze these areas fulfil an important role by turning something which can’t be digested by humans (grass) into nutritious food.

It’s very easy to polarise issues such as this and characterise the farming industry as the ‘baddy’, lacking any moral conscience. This is, in fact, very far from the truth, as we ask ourselves difficult questions every day about what we do, our impact on the environment and how we can minimise that impact, as our three environmental roadmaps and numerous research and development projects in that area will attest.

Beef and sheep farmers act as responsible, considerate custodians of vast swathes of our countryside, in particular the uplands, and it’s extremely unlikely that beef cattle and sheep will be disappearing from our hillsides in significant numbers at any point soon. It’s therefore essential to engage with the industry in order to have a balanced debate and work together to farm these environments in the most sustainable way possible.