Miles King’s 10 year anniversary of nature blogging, on a potentially dark day for our countryside

Photo courtesy of https://savebritishfarming.org/

This article is reproduced from Miles King’s blog by kind permission of the author.

Ten years feels a bit like a significant anniversary – and a long time. Perhaps the last ten years feels longer than many decades have, given what has happened (and is about to happen) over that period.

Ten years ago I was working at The Grasslands Trust, a charity that was created in 2002 to champion UK wildlife-rich grasslands – and was folded in 2012. So it lasted ten years as well. I enjoyed working at TGT and had been there in various guises for nearly four years before I started the blog. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I had been vaguely aware of the blogosphere but was more interested in it as an outlet where I could write relatively freely about topics that were relevant to grassland conservation.

Looking back at what I was writing about – unbelievably – the first topic was all about food, politics and the environment. Friends of the Earth had a Private Members Bill going through Parliament – or rather not going through Parliament. So my first topic ever on a blog was writing about where your food comes from, the impact it has on the environment and allied things like animal welfare; and why it’s important.

Exactly ten years later, to the day, what is the hot topic of the day in Parliament? Where your food comes from, and who decides what standards it is produced to. Only instead of a Private Members’ Bill, it’s a Government Bill, the Agriculture Bill. The Agriculture Bill is the first significant reform in UK agriculture since before we joined the Common Market, and arguably the most significant since 1947. It holds great promise, in the form of “public money for public goods”: changing the way society makes direct payments to farmers – so that they are no longer paid just for owning the land, or paid to produce more food whether it’s wanted or not & regardless of any consequences. Public money for public goods means paying farmers to farm in ways which support the environment and support other social needs.

However today’s uproar, which has led to the likes of Jamie Oliver and Prue Leith (despite supporting Brexit) calling for UK farmers to be protected, does not relate to public money for public goods, but rather it’s about amendments introduced into the Bill in the Lords, which would require the Government to give Parliament a say in future trade deals. Deals with for example the USA, which could mean allowing food into the UK that is produced to lower standards; standards that UK farmers are not allowed to apply.

The Government has decided that the House of Commons cannot have a debate on that amendment, applying some arcane Parliamentary rules. Whereas 10 years ago the Sustainable Livestock Bill, as a Private Members Bill, was just talked out (yes, you guessed it, by Christopher ‘upskirting’ Chope) – as is so often the case. Of course back then UK agriculture policy was dictated by what was agreed in the EU. The big reforms of 2003 meant farmers were being paid according to how much land they owned or managed – and environmental payments were mostly heading to a very simple environmental scheme (ELS), which mostly paid farmers to continue what they had been doing anyway.

So obviously the big difference between now and then is that the route to effecting change in something fundamental like how our food is produced and its impact on the environment, was via the EU. Back then …. there were various routes of influence eg via MEPs, via Defra or direct to Brussels. I tried all of these with the scant resources available at the time. But the Common Agricultural Policy is a juggernaut with its own momentum and inertia. Back then they couldn’t even cope with the fact that a great deal of land used for agriculture had a lot of trees on it – this was codified in the 50 trees rule. But actually perhaps our lobbying in 2010 did have some effect, as five years later the rule was amended – to 100 trees/ha.

And now…. it’s via Parliament. Except of course that with the current Government, they are actively working to take away any role for Parliament, when it comes to food and trade deals, for ideological reasons.

Ideology. I’d already had a taste of that earlier in 2010. I’d been writing a report on grasslands conservation, with funding from the Government nature agency Natural England. We’d agreed the report would include some advocacy – what policy changes are needed to give wildlife-rich grasslands a chance of a future. When the Coalition Government took power one of the first things they did was to tell, in no uncertain terms, every Government-funded Agency, that they could no longer fund any advocacy or policy development work. This obviously caused a big headache for us, but we went ahead anyway (I think there was some editing to tone down some of the recommendations). The result was Nature’s Tapestry.

Austerity was also ideological. My third TGT blog was about “Spending Cuts Week” with Defra having its budget cut savagely and threats of a sell-off of National Nature Reserves – and of course the infamous plans to sell off the Forestry Commission.

Little did we know back then just how far the ideological revolution would reach, although the Cameron Government already had regulation in its sights from the outset. They were even trying to crowdsource deregulation ideas in early 2011 – and by May that year it was starting to become clear just how radical that Government wanted to be. This was the time when the plans started to be put in place for the EU referendum. Some of the key players in Vote Leave cut their teeth on the “No 2 AV” campaign against proportional representation in 2011. How things might have changed if that campaign had swung the other way. The rest, as they say, is history.

Looking back, my time blogging for TGT was relatively brief, but I picked up the baton again with this no longer new, nor even particularly about nature, blog in May 2013; and also occasional ones on the People Need Nature website, a charity I set up in 2015. And I would certainly credit this blog with having led to my writing so much for Lush Times between 2016 and 2019 (also now ceased publication). I’m now also writing for West Country Bylines and perhaps the occasional article in British Wildlife.

Regular readers will have noticed I’m not writing anywhere near as much as I used to. This year of all years has been difficult, not for lack of topics to consider – quite the opposite in fact. Some days/weeks/months, there is just too much to write about and I get stuck, dithering between different subjects. And the relentlessly bad news can also be very demotivating. Perhaps I’ve written enough – or even too much!

Anyway, as I always I am grateful to everyone who has taken the time to read and comment on my ramblings over these past ten years.