Call this green and pleasant land?

RECLAIMING THE COUNTRYSIDE 1: FARMLAND Britain's wildlife is under threat. Malcolm Smith looks at ways farmers can repair the damage they have done
Click to follow
On Boundary Farm at Framsden, near Stowmarket in Suffolk, barn owls are hunting over the winter-chilled fields. Come the spring, along with partridges and a couple of pairs of lapwings, the owls will breed; an indicator, according to the farmer, Chris Bacon, that Boundary Farm's wildlife is on the up.

A few decades ago, these farmland species - and an awful lot more - would have been taken for granted. What cereal field didn't have a scattering of scarlet poppies and blue cornflowers? What hay meadow wasn't alive with grasshoppers or didn't have skylarks ascending over it?

That was before Britain's agricultural revolution. Fuelled by the EC's Common Agricultural Policy, our farmland has been transformed. Pastures and meadows have been ploughed up, wetlands drained, hedges grubbed out and crops sprayed with copious quantities of insecticides, all because of a policy obsession with producing more and more food irrespective of the cost or of its environmental impact.

The destruction of wildlife has been unprecedented. In the 50 years to 1984, England and Wales lost 97 per cent of its natural lowland grasslands, the haunt of celandines, of blue butterflies, of shrews and reed buntings. Limestone and chalk grassland - one of our richest habitats for flowers and insects - is reduced to 40,000 hectares countrywide. Sussex, alone, lost a quarter of its chalk grassland between 1966 and 1980. According to the British Trust for Ornithology, 24 out of 28 farmland bird species are in decline.

Skylarks, for instance, have declined by 58 per cent over the last 25 years, a loss of three million birds. Others have fared even worse; tree sparrows down by 89 per cent and grey partridge by 82 per cent. Many once abundant flowers, insects and mammals - from shrews to brown hares - are now few and far between on Britain's farms.

Apart from habitat loss, Andy Evans and his colleagues at the RSPB list two other crucial changes which have affected farmland birds.

Firstly, most farmers have switched from sowing cereal crops in the spring to sowing them in autumn. So winter stubbles - a rich source of spilt grain and of flower and grass seeds left behind after the crop has been cut - are now uncommon. It's thought to be a major factor in the demise of the corn bunting.

Secondly, insecticide sprays have annihilated many of the invertebrates which nestlings are fed on. Spraying crops with selective herbicides to eliminate unwanted flowers not only depletes the plants themselves but it removes the habitat many of the invertebrates need. The paucity of sawfly larvae appears to be a major factor in the decline of farmland grey partridge.

Spurred on by the CAP's largesse, more and more farmers in the 1960s and 1970s intensified and specialised - into cereal growing; into dairy cattle farming; or into sheep grazing. Mixed farms have been disappearing at the rate of some 1,400 a year.

But in the last decade the CAP has been modifying its shape, largely as a result of mounting criticism over food surpluses and their storage but partly, too, because of the destruction of wildlife habitats. Schemes such as Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs), Stewardship in England, Tir Cymen in Wales, the Habitats Scheme and others are all designed, in one way or another, to make annual payments to farmers in exchange for them farming in a much more environmentally sensitive way. Slowly, they are helping to put back some of the lost habitats and wildlife.

"I've entered 50 acres of grassland into the Suffolk River Valleys ESA," says Chris Bacon. "We're going to be taking a hay cut and grazing it afterwards. These fields were all arable until recently but in the old days they were meadows. The idea is to get them richer in plants again," he adds.

In the middle of Mr Bacon's land is the six-acre Fox Fritillary Meadow owned by the Suffolk Trust for Nature Conservation, a haven for snakeshead fritilleries, beautiful, purple flowers reminiscent of drooping tulips. Like their damp meadow habitat, they were once more common. A few have reappeared in Mr Bacon's fields adjacent to the Trust's meadow, an early sign of their recovery.

Setaside, introduced compulsorily in 1992 to take cereal growing land out of production, is also benefiting wildlife. Rotational setaside, where the fields taken out of production are different ones each year, is of less value because it doesn't allow wildlife habitat - except weedy stubbles for seed-eating birds - to develop long term.

Setting aside the same fields or field edges for several years is better. Allowing a grassland to grow where once there was a copiously sprayed field of barley attracts not only flowers but ground nesting birds like skylarks and lapwings. voles and shrews increase too, so now uncommon barn owls have choice in their farmland diet once again.

So far, 1.5 million acres of land in the UK are setaside. The RSPB believes that it could become one of the most important means of reintroducing wildlife to many farms long devoid of the habitats and species they once nurtured. But much more flexibility is required in the rules, especially to allow farmers to graze livestock on land setaside to manage it effectively for wildlife.

Superficially, England's green and pleasant land appears just that. But in its artificial greening - the result of dosing with fertilisers and pesticides - our farmland has lost most of the wildlife it nurtured into the 1950s.

Repairing the damage has begun. According to the RSPB, the CAP must be further reformed to encourage a reduction in the intensity of farming operations, a return to more mixed farming and to protect traditional practices which conserve habitats such as sheep grazing on chalk grassland. They also want to see more lowland farmland put back to species-rich heathland, woodland wetlands and grassland.

That way, farmers can grow wildlife as well as food on their land and put a feather back in the CAP.