The Secret Life of Farmland

Last week, a report called The State of the World’s Birds was published by BirdLife International which comprises bird population data taken worldwide over the last five years. The results of this report are heartbreaking, but not entirely surprising. The report states that at least 40% of bird species worldwide are in decline and that one in eight species of birds is threatened with extinction. In total, 74% of 1,469 globally threatened birds are affected directly by the expansion and intensification of farming and agriculture.

This news coincides almost exactly with my finishing a book called The Running Hare: A Secret Life of Farmland by John Lewis-Stempel. In this book, the author describes (in words that are made of magic) the journey of a single field and the change in its  little ecosystem over a year as it is returned from an intensively farmed kale field to an organically nurtured wheat field.   Reading this book bought me to tears. Not just because of the joy I felt reading about how quickly this field welcomed back nature, but because of the reality that 93% of our farmland in the UK is intensively farmed using toxic chemicals and with no consideration for the wildlife that has lived on this land for generations. Since 2007 alone the Countryside Survey found that the species richness of the British field has declined by 8%. The landscapes of our farmland have gone from being sanctuaries for birds, mammals and wildflowers to stagnant, barren, quiet places that are so full of pesticides that they don’t really benefit us, and definitely do not benefit the wildlife that has been the pride of our country for generations. (The nineteen species of birds on the farmland bird index have decreased in number by 69% since 1970 due to drastic changes in farming practices – and the introduction of pesticides.)

Lewis-Stempel describes in his book watching a female pheasant leading her chicks through his wheat field into a neighbouring one which is intensively farmed using pesticides. She tries to lead her babies in to the wheat but – as it is grown so densely – she cannot.  Birds like pheasants and quails (a bird that is so rare now that it’s not even mentioned on the defra list) need the space between the stalks of corn for camouflage, food and nesting. If our intensively farmed cereal land is a hostile environment for these ground-living species of birds, then where can they go? No wonder they’re under threat.

Traditional farming methods that go back centuries allow for nature to thrive. Even now, non-intensive farming can enhance rather than harm the surrounding wildlife. I recently went on a walk in Sandwich with the Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory Trust, where the introduction of asparagus fields has actually created a new nesting ground for the Lapwing (the channels and ridges that are required for growing asparagus make a perfect cover.) By returning to our roots – in particular farming in smaller quantities and with no pesticides – who’s to say that we can’t reintroduce the harmony between the nature and our farmers? If the farmers didn’t have to utilise every inch of their fields in order to make the land financially viable, they may be able to see their land once again as a part of nature as opposed to a financial asset. In order for this to happen though, supermarkets will need to start buying the crops at a reasonable price.  This is where the consumer comes in.  It may be difficult to visualise the impact of your buying choices, especially when in the clinical, hardened environment of your local supermarket, but the way that we as a community and a nation (the ones with the purchasing power) decide to buy our produce is now a key factor in changing the environment around us for the better.

To borrow the words of John Lewis-Stempel;  ‘Every time one buys the lie of cheap food a flower or a bird dies.’ This perfectly summarises our mission at Greener Greens – we’d love for people to care about where their food comes from. As Lewis-Stempel slightly changed the landscape with his one field, our little business has an ambitious – but important – mission. We want to raise the bar when it comes to the food that people buy and eat. We strive to provide fresh, organically grown produce at a price that everyone can afford because it’s better for their own health, the economy and the environment.  If you would like to read more about our growers and hear their stories, you can do so here.

If you can, pick up a copy of ‘The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland’. It’s a beautiful, funny and exciting read – a history of the field and the farmer.  It’s full of facts and stories about the wildlife that we are still lucky enough to have. For me, it’s been a bit of a wake up call to the condition of our farmland as well as one of my new favourite books.







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