David Butler is a Wiltshire farmer & mixed farming advocate. David and his Father Richard won the FWAG SouthWest Barn Owl Award in 2018 for their outstanding farming practices at East Wick Farm. David has been a Trustee of FWAG SouthWest in recent years, and he also writes a blog, which you can find here... 

David has kindly written a piece for Farming Friday Thoughts, which you can read below...


I’ve often told friends and family the biggest influencers on farm outcomes are those factors you can’t possibly have planned for or predicted. This has certainly rung true in the last few years as the generally resilient Farming Industry has been buffeted by firstly political turmoil, followed by a once-in-a-Century global Pandemic and capped off with the ongoing, horrendous War in Eastern Europe. Underpinning all these human stories we now also farm with an increasingly unreliable climate which throws in ‘extreme weather event’ curve balls with increasing frequency. The feeling we are casino farming in a higher risk environment becomes stronger every day.  All in all, there is now a greater sense that our ability to feed ourselves is becoming more difficult and that a sufficient food supply is not something which should ever be taken for granted.  

The War in Ukraine has enormous implications for global food supply chains. Ukraine, Europe’s biggest country, is nicknamed the ‘breadbasket of Europe’ for good reason and is responsible for feeing over 400 million people. Much of this production capacity is currently on hold or actively being destroyed by Russian troops. The nutritional shockwaves from the War will likely be felt around the World for many years to come, on top of the associated, linked issues with energy supply. It is the most serious global situation since the Second World War. This War will cause political unrest all around the World particularly in those countries highly dependent on grain imports such as Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Bangladesh and bring food poverty issues even for wealthy nations.

Here in the UK, we are blessed with a maritime climate well suited to the growing of grain and rearing of livestock and this gives us some buffer protection against global food shocks. Even so the UK is only about 60% self-sufficient for food overall (well down from the 78% levels of the mid-1980ies) and reliant on significant levels of food imports, particularly for fresh fruit and vegetables. The well-publicised cost of living crisis is very much linked to a rise in food prices. Recently the Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, warned of “apocalyptic” global food price rises, at their fastest rate in 30 years.  The recent decision by the major supermarkets to ration customers for cooking oil products is maybe a taster of more restrictions to come as the Ukraine Invasion continues to damage supply chains. Who would have foreseen the possibility of food rationing in the 2020ies a few years back?

You get a sense of where I’m going with all this. Many UK farmers like me have in recent years felt somewhat peeved that food production has taken second stage in Government agendas. A food Strategy has been lacking, with the greatest emphasis given on securing new trade deals following our departure from the EU. Despite best efforts by farm leaders to change mindsets, there’s been a feeling we have been re-designated more as Park Keepers than Food Producers. So, honestly, yes there is now an element of “told you so” about the realities wrought upon us by the current world crisis we find ourselves in. However, in deciding how we move forward, it is useful to look to the past for some answers.

The last time the Nation found itself in a serious situation over food supply was during the Second World War when Hitler quite deliberately tried to starve us into submission. Some have made comparisons to Putin, in that one of his objectives may be to take control of a major chunk of the world’s food production capacity. The ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign during the Second World War successfully boosted domestic production to counter times of harsh rationing. Its often forgotten that this rationing actually continued right on through to end in 1954. In response to those hard times Post-War governments unsurprisingly became very ‘production-oriented’ with Policies centred around stability and efficiency. In production terms those policies were a success but with the benefit of hindsight we are all aware there were many negative consequences. Foremost, the intensification of Agriculture has taken an unacceptable toll on our biodiversity. A Natural History Museum analysis found that the UK, with just 53% of its biodiversity remaining, is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the World. This was not something which was anticipated or acknowledged in the Past.

So here we find ourselves in the 2020ies with another Global food shock situation principally triggered by a European War. It is becoming tragically unavoidable that millions of people around the world face starvation and in wealthier Nations we will see rising levels of malnutrition too. Governments around the World urgently need to promote Production to make up for the market shortfalls from Ukraine and try to counter the worst of the shortfalls. However, this must not and cannot once again come at the expense of additional biodiversity loss. On top of this we also need to continue moving our Agricultural systems towards Carbon-neutrality. The climate crisis is not going away and needs to be addressed in combination with everything else we do.

So, once again, UK Agriculture finds itself standing at a crossroads. The case to produce more food domestically is becoming stronger following recent events although Government Policy is still focused on a ‘Green Brexit’ agenda and the support framework transition to Environmental Land Management Systems. Within the farming industry we will hear more about things like ‘Regenerative Agriculture’, ‘Sustainable Intensification’ and ‘Land Sharing’ versus ‘Land Sparing’. These important debates are still to play out in the context of the new more unstable Global backdrop.

On my own farm I have gained considerable pleasure from creating or improving environmental features such as hedges, ponds and flower margins. My main regret is in not having started many of these projects earlier in my career. This process will very much continue and there is still so much to do. This is a key difference between the 1950ies and the 2020ies. Both decades are similar in having a greater emphasis on producing more food but the current farming generation are much more aware of our responsibilities to do this sustainably and in harmony with the natural environment. We must make absolutely sure we learn from the mistakes of the Past and work towards a better future for everyone.

Barn Owl Award walk in 2019: Guests gather at Martinsell, East Wick Farm, during farm walk at the celebration event


Richard Butler, David's Farther, on Farm walk at East Wick Farm in 2019 / Telegraph pole bird box at East Wick Farm