Natural England UK chose Rush Farm in Worcestershire as a key location to demonstrate the value and effectiveness of Higher Level Stewardship, and in particular, the way in which farmers and environmentalists at Natural England have worked together to protect and develop biodiversity and the rural environment.
Of course this gave us an opportunity to talk about how biodynamic methods support biodiversity, and it was interesting to learn that the Director of Rural Development, Sustainable Communities and Crops, had actually first heard about biodynamic methods on a visit to Highgrove.
The whole group were inspired and energised by their visit, by the farm in particular, but also by the vision and passion for the project.
We emphasised that extensive agricultural practices create more employment, that smaller farms can earn a family a living, that the capital required to purchase farms is out of kilter with the income and that alternative methods of funding are required.
We pitched a vision of all of the extensive farmers working together to create a network of bio-diverse sanctuaries across the country. We imagined the patches of organic, rare breed, pasture fed, biodynamic, low input farms linking together into corridors and areas, like rivers and lakes, so that the precious wild inhabitants of our farms can safely move and spread. Intensive agriculture will happen, and it will stress the environment, but these extensively farmed areas will buffer the effects and protect our environmental habitat and heritage, our rural skills and employment.
We were careful not to frame our way of doing things as “right” and intensive agriculture as “wrong”. Our point was that intensive agriculture may need to be regulated but it doesn’t really need to be encouraged. If DEFRA focus their scarce resources on developing this extensively managed land-network then they will maximise their aims of generating rural biodiversity and a sustainable rural economy.
DEFRA already promote initiatives to regenerate the rural economy and environment at a local level, and we pitched the ideas that emerged in the Big Skill project of 2011/12. We imagined the Rural England team networking with farmers, identifying those interested in teaching, in business, and fostering collaborations between farms in the extensively managed network. Locating centres for education, rural commerce and locally centralised production, fed by the neighbouring farms.
A clear picture of positively trying to develop bio-diverse and employment rich activity emerged, which does not attack conventional farming lobbies but offers them a path for both / and… All will have to join in if there is to be a national network that is to join up!
It felt like a new start for the countryside!