Balanced approach essential for our countryside
If the British countryside were a seesaw then at one end would sit the wildlife fanatics, frantically advocating the re-introduction of wolves and bears and the restriction of farming.
At the other would sit the agri-business obsessives anxious to put more acres under the plough and graze livestock ever more intensively. But what a seesaw really needs is balance, where farmers are free to farm productively and there is plenty of room in the spaces between the growing of crops and the rearing of animals for wildlife in all its forms.
The link-up between farmers and wildlife groups in Westminster today to campaign for a better deal for farming and wildlife in the next round of Common Agricultural Policy reform encapsulates a version of that all-important balance; giving weight to subsidy that helps promote wildlife-friendly farming practices but accepting that land must be used for producing food.
The RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts and even the National Trust are not every farmer's idea of welcome bedfellows. The environmental lobby has been too keen, in general, to lay all the alleged ills of the natural world at the door of "greedy farmers" in recent years when many other factors, not least the urbanisation of once rural areas, have served to squeeze out animals, birds and plant life.
No one would deny that as farm practices have become more efficient and demand for food has increased, so those spaces for wildlife have become more restricted. A good deal of that change can be traced back to the war years, when starvation was a very real possibility and self-sufficiency in foodstuffs a priority for the nation. In the 70s and 80s that expansion of farmland and increased use of pesticides and chemicals hit wildlife too. Big changes have occurred in the opposite direction since then, however. Most farmers have shown that combining the production of food with the preservation of wildlife is possible. It must continue to be supported. West Country farmers are in the forefront of conservation work, saving the cirl bunting and the chough, among others, from virtual extinction within the region.
If the conservation bodies and the farmers can agree on a strategy that safeguards wildlife and keeps the nation fed, the seesaw will be in balance. That's the least we should expect for our EU contributions.