Whilst I went to agricultural college, have farming friends and am fortunate to have lived most of my life in our farmed countryside, if I had to choose between farming and wildlife conservation, I would choose wildlife conservation. I realise, of course, that this is a stupid statement, for lots of reasons. What I mean is that the conservation of our wildlife is something I feel very strongly about. I also feel strongly about eating, I love food, as do, I imagine, the 67 million other people living in the UK (and the 7.7 billion other people in the world).

I like the idea of sourcing our food from the wild, as the native Americans did. This might increase our respect for wildlife and give us a greater interest to conserve it. Also, having walked an abattoir line from the start, I think it is important to understand what we are eating and how it gets to us; appreciating all the elements when buying my beloved steak. However, if only a small proportion of our population were solely reliant on wild food our burgeoning deer populations would disappear (as in previous centuries), rabbits would soon become extinct and even the vole might become a rarity. A romantic view and no longer a sustainable model.

Could we set the open market free? We make a lot of money from financial services in the City. Our cost of living is increasing, the minimum wage is rising and we struggle to employ people to harvest our fruit and vegetables. Could we jettison farming subsides and just import our food, from countries with cheaper labour and less legislation? Farmland could be left to revert to wilderness, rich in wildlife. We have not always bought British tractors, or employed British labour and so why buy British grown food? Such an approach would, I suppose, be irresponsible, in terms of food security, animal welfare and the loss of wildlife in other countries; not to mention the loss of a group  (farmers) who I generally have more in common with than the most committed conservationists.

An excellent ‘scruffy’ grass margin


What I struggle with is the loss of species of wildlife that have evolved on our planet for so many millions of years. Mammals, birds, insects and plants. Species that might be awe inspiring or woefully inconspicuous (but each playing some role in our world’s unfathomably intricate ecological system). Bears and wolves were too much of a threat to people and livestock; we’ve passed the buck onto other countries (or zookeepers) to conserve them. The hen harrier preys on grouse chicks and goshawks eat pheasants.  We drained the fenland the large copper butterfly called home. The corn marigold has succumbed to herbicides that bolster wheat yields.  An insignificant beetle that depends on ancient hollow oak trees is the victim of tidying and health and safety. Just a few examples of wildlife that have either disappeared or are struggling to exist.

Seeing wildlife, or just knowing that there is a healthy and self-sustaining myriad of species out there, is good for my soul. Knowing that our own burgeoning self-centred population is suffocating so much of our wildlife feels less good.

Of course, it is not a case of replacing farming with wildlife conservation. As much as we need water, we need food – we need our farmers. Nor is it a case of replacing wildlife conservation with farming. The rewilding of 1,500ha of land (Knepp) is not a threat to our food security, nor would the rewilding of a few other large farms around the country threaten our food security (apparently UK golf courses alone total about 150,000ha). And just as large scale wildlife conservation initiatives are important, so are very smaller scale initiatives. One flower rich margin provides food for pollinators, cover for small rodents and helps link other wildlife habitats. Creating a pond, retaining a veteran tree or allowing a scruffy patch of brambles to develop, all are measures that can really make a difference.

We should not see it as a choice between farming or wildlife, rather we need farmers for our food; and our wildlife is also dependent upon farmers and their interest, initiative and action to maintain, create and link the habitats on which species depend.

Comma sunning itself on elm leaf