A vital chance for Britain's wildlife

Organic farms can play an important role in reversing the decline in a wide range of British species

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Biodiversity is an important concern for UK environmentalists. The growth in large cities and mass farming methods has led to a marked reduction in a number of rare species, as well as causing previous common species to become rare. And while this is a problem which has existed for at least the last 30 years, methods of preserving biodiversity are still fairly piecemeal. Traditionally, conservationists have lobbied for certain areas of land to be protected against development, while government strategy includes paying farmers to leave part of their lands fallow.

Biodiversity is an important concern for UK environmentalists. The growth in large cities and mass farming methods has led to a marked reduction in a number of rare species, as well as causing previous common species to become rare. And while this is a problem which has existed for at least the last 30 years, methods of preserving biodiversity are still fairly piecemeal. Traditionally, conservationists have lobbied for certain areas of land to be protected against development, while government strategy includes paying farmers to leave part of their lands fallow.

In recent years, however, there has been a burgeoning suggestion that organic farms could be at least part of the solution to the problem. The evidence suggests that not only can farmed land avoid damaging the balance of biodiversity, it can play a highly effective role in maintaining UK wildlife.

Gundala Azeez is policy manager for the Soil Association. In 2000 she authored a report which was to change government practice in the support of organic farms. "We did a review of all the separate studies on biodiversity on organic farms," she says. "Until then there had been a number of different studies of different places, but no comprehensive analysis of a general view on the issue. The conclusion was that organic farming was beneficial for biodiversity."

So what is it about organic farms which makes them effective at preserving biodiversity? "Basically, organic farms do all the elements necessary to protect wildlife," says Azeez. "They don't use chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers. But in addition they don't specialise in one crop to maximise profits in the way that conventional farms do. Organic farms have mixed crops, and this is very important for species such as birds, for example, who need both grassland and cereal crops to thrive."

The differences between the species supported by organically farmed land and those found on conventional farmland were documented by a joint report from the Soil Association and the WWF. This showed that as many as five times the number of wild plants grew on organic land, and many of these were either rare or declining. Three times as many non-pest butterflies were also identified in the crop edges. In addition rare birds such as lapwings were found on organic farms, nourished by the diverse species of insect which the land encouraged. Recent studies have also shown that bat populations have been recovering in number surrounding organic land, as bats - like birds - rely on insects as the bulk of their diet.

There are several reasons why these species flourish on organic land - with lack of pesticides forming only one component. On conventional farms, routine animal treatments such as worming treatments have a knock-on effect on the type of dung they produce. The result is to prevent certain varieties of dung beetle, which are important both for maintaining bird populations and for enriching the soil. In essence, the theme of biodiversity comes back to the traditional view of the food chain. If you alter or suppress one element of wildlife - even an undesirable pest - you affect the natural balance of the land.

However, it might be argued that modern methods of food production, quite laudably designed, ensure that our food supplies are constant. And as a rational but unfortunate adjunct, pesticides are necessary to combat the inevitable onslaught of pests which our methods of mass farming preclude. Not so, says Gundala Azeez, who has personally moved from cynic to a convert with respect to organic methods of pest control. "Organic farms use natural predators to control pests, which works surprisingly well. It might sound idealistic and romantic, but the system of using nature to balance pest problems is very effective.

"Organic farms plant certain wildlife and flowers which encourage species which are the natural predators of pests you want to avoid. We've had experts go round to farms who use this method to measure the level of wildlife, and the verdict has been that the pests are present, but they're kept under control by other species. The same is true of keeping chemicals out of the soil. If you encourage soils that are full of insects and other species, they act as natural predators for certain pests. And in addition the plant is getting all the extra nourishment from being rooted in biodiverse soil."

As a future method for maintaining UK biodiversity, organic farming is winning some strong support. On the strength of recent evidence, the Government has established its Organic Action Plan, aimed at encouraging organic farming methods. But perhaps the biggest victory for organics is the support of conservationists, who ironically have been hard to convince that a farming method could foster biodiversity. Determined campaigns from organic growers have gone a long way to convince conservation groups that organic farming is superior to set-aside schemes. As a result, organic farming is finally establishing itself a well-earned reputation as an environmental protectorate.

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