Amendment 29

Part of Agriculture Bill - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 8:30 pm on 9 July 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 8:30, 9 July 2020

My Lords, before I go on to talk to the amendments, I want to reiterate the point that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, made earlier today and make a plea to the Minister and the Whip to talk to the Chief Whip about the groupings. Can we please go back to the old way that used to happen in Committee, whereby the movers of amendments spoke first and then the other signatories spoke afterwards? All the signatories to my amendments have spoken before me, and on the next group of amendments I am a signatory to an amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, but she, as the mover, is speaking after me. It really does not help proceedings unless we get back some sort of structure like we had in the old days.

I turn to the amendments. This is a hugely important group because I believe that the only way that farming will survive in this country is if we work with nature. All these amendments are designed to help farming to do just that. There is considerable overlap between them. I shall speak to Amendments 39 and 96 in my name, which relate to nature-friendly farming. Not everything that nature-friendly farmers do is covered in the Bill. For instance, what about the creation of new habitats, ponds and wetlands? That leads to another problem, because the creation of some ponds will require planning permission. Therefore, as I said, you need dedicated farmers who are very keen to help nature to carry out such work. A farmer taking these schemes solely to get money from the taxpayer is not someone who is going to apply for planning permission for a new pond. There is no mention in the Bill of field margins and hedgerows. These are hugely important as wildlife corridors, and nature-friendly farming is a great help in that respect.

It is tragic that we have seen the decline in 600 farmland species over the last 50 year. Of course, none of us now has the problem of having to wash our windscreens having driven through the countryside, particularly at night. That is long gone. When I first started driving, one had to wash one’s windscreen after every drive because of the number of insects that got stuck on it and impeded the view. It would be nice if we could go at least half way back to the situation that we were in.

I will just make a point on what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said about lapwings. I know a farm in Caithness where the farmer has farmed organically since he took over the farm—gosh—it must be 30 years ago now. He has farmed in a nature-friendly way, but the number of lapwings has decreased hugely. There used to be lovely big flocks, but now there are very few. The problem is, it is not the farming system—that is not totally responsible—but the fact that we do not control the predators of lapwings and lapwing eggs and nests, such as the hooded crow. When I was a boy, the hooded crow was a very scarce bird; it is now very common. When I last lived in Caithness, about four years ago, I remember seeing five hooded crows on the lawn outside my little cottage. They just would not have been there when I was a boy. Unless we get to a stage where we can control the number of corvids and the abuse by corvids of ground-nesting birds, there will be a continual decline, whatever system of farming one operates.

I have also put my name to the agroecology and agroforestry amendments, because these are hugely important too. They are slightly different ways of farming from nature-friendly farming, but they of course work on exactly the same principle of working with nature.

I pay tribute to the work of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, Nature Friendly Farming and Agricology, which have been working together for five years. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Organic Research Centre and the Daylesford Foundation have together done a tremendous amount of work in this area and I can tell the Minister how grateful they are for the financial support that Defra has given them. It is exactly from institutions such as this and the demonstration farm at Allerton that other farmers can learn how to carry out these works and the benefit that they can contribute to their own farms. I hope that, when responding, my noble friend will say that this funding will continue.

I turn to Amendment 224, which is on soil. It requests that the soil metric index is instituted. This was of course in the 25-year environment plan, from which it is worth quoting:

“Farmers and land managers can struggle to monitor the quality of their soil, which in turn makes it difficult to improve. We will develop a soil health index (including indicators such as the level of humus and biological activity in the soil) that can be used on farms to check whether their actions are having the desired effect. At the moment, data on soil health is held piecemeal by different institutions and businesses. It is not easy to access or use. Defra will invest at least £200,000 to help create meaningful metrics that will allow us to assess soil improvements, and to develop cost-effective and innovative ways to monitor soil at farm and national level.”

Can the Minister say what is the result of that work? Is there any progress? What is the progress? Can she please update us on it?

It was encouraging to hear the Secretary of State respond to the Environmental Audit Committee in the other place recently, saying he was considering a combination of approaches to address soil problems, and a more sustainable approach to grade 1 and grade 2 agricultural land, focusing on soil health and crop rotations. What is this going to involve? Can the Minister shed some light on these very encouraging statements?

What is particularly encouraging is that the Secretary of State mentioned rotations, because I am a great believer in rotations being the key to soil health. The old Norfolk four-course rotation was very beneficial to farming, as it balanced the restorative phases with the exploitative ones. I hope that my noble friend will be able to give me a lot more information.

I like what my noble friend Lord Lucas said when he introduced the first amendment, but there is a problem with what he proposes. We can go on monitoring soil levels for ever; we have been monitoring the decline of birds for the last 50 years, and we will go on monitoring the decline of songbirds. We need to do something about it. That is what I hope the Minister will say the Government propose to do: correct the present downward trend in soil structure and conditions, and support the work of agriculture-friendly and nature-friendly famers who are seeking to turn this around.