Defra land use policies will fail in nature and food production, warns expert

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The government’s new land use policies will fail both nature and food production, an agriculture and conservation expert has warned.

Dr Alastair Leake said the government’s fixation on land abandonment, or “rewilding”, risks undermining key opportunities for the benefit of nature, food production and society.

Defra also runs the risk of giving up land that could continue to be used for food production, which Dr Leake says will be a “waste of money and time for no gain”.

A member of the new Science for Sustainable Agriculture advisory group, launched in May, he says Defra is ignoring the scientific evidence that high-yield farming and nature conservation can co-exist.

It describes practical success stories where farm-scale research has shown that high-yielding crop production can be combined with increased biodiversity.

This includes the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Allerton project in Leicestershire, where ‘extraordinary’ things have been done to break the myth that intensive farming and biodiversity cannot be reconciled.

“By reallocating less productive farmland and creating favorable habitat for farmland birds, songbird numbers doubled while arable crop yields increased,” Dr. Leake writes.

He notes that “other sites have adopted highly targeted and specialized interventions to successfully restore populations of lapwings, curlews and gray partridges”.

“The key to success is an interventionist approach from people on the ground, and there are similar recent examples for butterflies and moths,” he says.

With government targets set to reverse the decline in biodiversity by 2030, having already missed the previous two targets of the Biodiversity and Habitat Action Plan, Dr Leake says he had hoped the lessons of the Allerton project, and others, may have found their place in political thinking.

But despite the lack of scientific evidence that abandoning land will help reverse the declines, the pilot entry program for the government’s new level of ‘landscape reclamation’ effectively forces farmers to give up farming their land, to l exception of a few animals providing “conservation pasture”.

“That farmers might even want to give up their profession and culture to become a ‘re-wilder’ is an unlikely hypothesis,” says Dr Leake.

“When our experience shows that human hands are needed more, not less, and with 30% of the environmental budget spent on landscape reclamation, we may well be giving up land that could continue to produce food.”

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