A LEADING environmentalist who wants nature put at the heart of a future agricultural policy for Northern Ireland has said he does not want to see “wide scale land abandonment” by farmers struggling to adapt to a new way of farming post-Brexit.
Instead he wants them to have a direct voice in helping formulate a new policy which will enable them to be productive and profitable while farming in an environmentally-friendly way.
“Northern Ireland has a wonderful opportunity to produce really high quality food, to capitalise on its environmental strengths and to market that on a global scale, if we get it right,” said NI Environment Link chairman Patrick Casement, as he joined a coalition of environmental organisations and farmers on the steps of Stormont this week to call on government to “help farmers to save nature”.
Leaders from Nature Matters NI campaign, along with repre-sentatives from the Nature Friendly Farming Network, gathered on Monday at Parliament Buildings to hammer home their message ahead of the close of the Department of Agriculture’s stakeholder en-gagement period on its proposals for NI’s Future Farming yesterday (Wednesday).
Speaking to FarmWeek, Patrick Casement said Brexit presented NI agriculture with a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to formulate a new and improved policy outside of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
“We’ve seen over the years that CAP has effectively failed the environment, it has been successful in keeping farmers on the land but unfortunately it’s led to environmental degradation and a real problem with loss of species and loss of biodiversity,” he stated.
“Agriculture is the one industry that can help us turn this around, it’s the only one in the carbon equation if you like that has the ability to store carbon in a meaningful way on our land, in our soils, in our trees and vegetation,” continued Mr Casement.
“So there’s all sorts of opp-ortunities but it’s important that farmers understand those things, it’s getting that message across that a lot of what they’re doing is fine but it needs fine-tuning.
“We’re absolutely clear that we do not want to see farmers leaving the land because we are absolutely dependent on them to deliver the environmental benefits that we want to see.
“Without farmers it won’t happen. Wide-scale land abandonment is not what we want to see. There might be a few places where we would like to see a more relaxed attitude, a reduction in the intensity of agriculture but we don’t want to see people being forced to leave the land because they can’t survive,” he insisted.
He believes the younger generation will be vital in ensuring agriculture is able to adapt to this change as many are likely to be “more receptive to new ideas”, however, he says they will need encouragement to come into the industry ahead of other “more attractive, more profitable and lucrative” options.
Mr Casement said he would like to see current levels of support for farming maintained but with a “much fairer distribution, with more going towards environmental improvement.”
He added that since agriculture and the environment had been brought under the remit of a single executive department – DAERA – groups such as his had noticed a “real change in the way dialogue has gone” between them and farming groups.
“We are talking directly to farmers and that is vital, we are building on that common ground and yes there are things we don’t agree on but at the moment we are working hard to get a common view because there’s a much stronger possibility of getting progress and a better solution if we do that,” he concluded.
Adding a farmer’s voice to proceedings was Ballynahinch man Philip Bell, a part-time suckler farmer who has been a long-time advocate of nature-friendly farming.
As a member of the NI Nature Friendly Farmers’ Network, Mr Bell said he wanted to see the “best deal” for farmers and wildlife in a post-Brexit era.
He said the key to a successful and environmentally sound farming policy will be ensuring farmers are given the right tools to meet their specific needs.
“I wouldn’t like to see funding reduced,” he told FarmWeek. “It doesn’t matter if it comes through direct payments or environmental schemes, the important thing is it gives farmers that inbuilt flexibility when it is there.
“Farmers want to be able to make their own decisions, it’s not all about inspections and penalties, they need to be given the right advice.
“They are keen to employ the measures, it’s not just going through the motions, but the advice for my farm will be different than the guy up the road from me. It’s about employing the right measures that will help your farm.”
“I still believe there’s space for the small farmer, the medium farmer and the large farmer. Alright, the small farmer might not be seen as the most efficient but he can still punch above his weight for the environment and be a role-model for other people,” added Mr Bell.
Heather McLachlan of the National Trust and the Nature Matters NI campaign also commented: “Brexit presents a once in a generation opportunity to re-think how we are doing things, we need to create a sustainable food and farming system that works for people and nature.
“Farmers and the general public in NI have been getting on board with our campaign. They want a countryside that is filled with wildlife whilst producing sustainable and healthy food.
“In recent weeks well over 1,000 people have emailed the department locally asking decision makers to ensure that protection and restoration of the environment is at the core of post-Brexit agriculture policy.”