Both the Oxford farming conferences hosted Defra minister Michael Gove in January. At each he made much of a future domestic agricultural policy that has really been nascent for the last 20 years, that farmers should use their land to provide wildlife habitat and other environmental goods as well as farm productively and sustainably. His well made comments were reinforced with the launch of The 25 year Environmental plan by our Prime Minister, who also chose the time to voice concerns over plastics pollution. Perhaps “The Blue Planet”, so brilliantly presented by Sir David Attenborough, has been the most powerful voice in all of these announcements in showing the reality of “the erosion of natural capital” to millions of viewers. The sickening images shown require global action and long term commitments which will affect all parts of industry, not just farming. My response to Michael Gove’s and Mrs May’s announcement, though, is one of relief. I hope the political fire and public attention will last long enough and be funded well enough to create new cycles of environmental improvement.
Several of my farming friends and neighbours have muttered darkly to me that “my time has come”, so long have I been an advocate of nature friendly farming and wildlife conservation. I have responded (mostly to hide any danger of appearing optimistic) with an element of world weariness. My reading matter over the winter has included reports from the British Trust for Ornithology that the common curlew could face extinction, so steeply has its breeding population collapsed. I have been fortunate enough to have seen one performing a courtship “barrel roll” over the Kent marshes by the Swale. A dinosaur crossed with a spitfire whose loss would be horrifying. In “Orison for a Curlew” the author Horatio Clare seeks out traces of our curlew’s cousin, the slender-billed curlew, now thought extinct. He discovers an ornithologist in Thessaloniki who has tried (and failed) for decades to find any surviving members of this species, but who has somehow managed to find a recording of its voice for his ring-tone. The song “rises and rises, a burbling ache, a fluted whistle with lament and wildness and defiance in it, a sound for time gone, for taboos crushed…for mystery…” What more must we lose before taking the actions to save what is not yet condemned?