Working on the solutions

In last month’s column, Louise Stratton was considering how farming is part of the solution to climate change; this month she muses on how so much of the NFU’s work is about finding that solution.

The NFU is working on solutions primarily through our lobbying work; an example of this occurred last week when Chris Loder, MP for West Dorset, kindly arranged a meeting in his constituency for a group of farmers with Victoria Prentis MP, Minister of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). As with any decision it is so valuable to hear the other point of view. Defra are in the midst of moulding new policy for the agricultural industry, and this was an excellent opportunity for both the farmers and the Minister to hear one another’s viewpoint. We had a hearty discussion on a range of topics – new environmental schemes, the dairy and pig sectors and water regulations.

Having some input

To be able to openly discuss the barriers, and for the farmers to have the opportunity to offer tweaks and alternatives to certain policy issues is so valuable. They are practical people, and it is fundamental that the policy makers hear the actual implications on those whose businesses these decisions impact. We are fortunate that the local MPs and the DEFRA Ministers are willing to have this conversation.

As farming impacts across so many areas, it is imperative that policy for one area doesn’t conflict with another, so our take home message to the Minister was “ensure policy is joined up, using carrots not sticks, and farming will have a positive future.”

How the Piddle Valley affects Poole Harbour’s wildlife Continuing the theme of providing solutions, the big example in Dorset is the work on nutrient reductions into the Poole Harbour catchment.

The Poole Harbour catchment is one of three sub catchments in Dorset. Both the Frome and Piddle rivers, two of the main rivers flowing into the Harbour, are in picturesque rural catchments rising in the Dorset Downs and flowing through the chalklands and across clay and gravel to enter Poole Harbour. Over 75% of the land within the catchment is used for agriculture – cereals are dominant over the chalklands, with much dairy and beef farming in the west and in the lower floodplains.

Poole Harbour is one of the largest and shallowest natural harbours in the world. The harbour is of exceptional ecological value, renowned for its outstanding landscape, wildlife and fisheries and is protected by a multitude of conservation designations, of local and international importance.

A solution for an historic issue

Poole Harbour’s nitrate levels have been building up for many years. The nitrates come from several sources, with agriculture being one of them, but it can take nitrates 30-plus years to filtrate from the top of the catchment to the Harbour itself, so we are dealing with an historic issue as well. Water habitats have a much lower concentration of natural nitrate, so excess nitrates in the Harbour will have an impact on the natural environment. The most visible example is a rapid growth of algae, challenging the habitat and reducing the amount of food for birds and fish.
Defra’s initial response was to impose a Water Protection Zone (WPZ) on the whole catchment. The creation of a WPZ in Poole Harbour presents a real threat to the future of farming in the whole of Poole Harbour’s catchment.
This approach creates a lack of flexibility for farmers and a loss of control over their business, not an approach any business would relish being forced into. A regulative approach creates no support for farms as they adapt. We’d rather create a joined-up policy, and work on using carrots not sticks.

Leadership in partnering

We believe that there is another option, namely a voluntary scheme to address farming’s contribution to nitrates in the Harbour. The proposed scheme will support farmers to reduce the amount of nitrate being lost from their soil, helping slow, stop, or even reverse the Harbour hypertrophication.
The scheme is being driven by a group of farmers from within the catchment, who are passionate about creating a different future for our industry and improving the environment at the same time. Poole Harbour Catchment’s farmers have a unique opportunity to work together, to become leaders in voluntary nutrient management and to show there is a better, alternative solution to simply adding further regulation.
The scheme has attracted funding, it has run a small trial in 2021 and in 2022 a pilot scheme will be up and running. It is hugely exciting and the NFU are supporting the farmers with the developments, alongside many different individuals and organisations, making it a brilliant example of partnership working. But sitting at the heart of this, are the farmers.
In the New Year I will introduce you to some of our Dorset farmers and what they are doing on their farm. But until then, I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and don’t forget to support our British farmers with what is on your plate on Christmas Day, starting with the turkey! From today we have a useful NFU Turkey Finder to help you purchase your turkey direct from a local producer.

Louise Stratton Dorset NFU County Adviser

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