When you travel through the British countryside, what you see is mostly a farmed landscape. It often looks lovely, but it has been bent to our will. There is no true wilderness, and there hasn’t been for centuries. It is a land transformed, disfigured and impoverished not by industrial spoil, not even by houses, roads or pollution, but by the need to fill our bellies. Our relationship with the food on our plates is skewed. We eat too much of it and pay too little for it; much of it is unhealthy and a lot of it comes from too far away. And in a world growing increasingly urban, the disconnect between the food we buy and the natural environment from where it is sourced grows wider and wider.
This is not some vague global problem. For several years the annual State of Nature report has acknowledged that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in Europe. We have ample scientific evidence that farming and food production are literally killing our countryside, and lately there has been a worrying trend towards demonising those who advocate making more space for nature.
Somehow, the laudable objective of what some people call rewilding – which attempts to return tiny parts of our countryside to a state where animals, birds, insects and plants can survive – have been branded as irresponsible, wrong-headed or even woke. Recently, Princess Anne, who is patron of the Whitley Fund for Nature and trustee of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, made headlines by saying that she “isn’t sure that rewilding at scale is necessarily a good idea”. Those who propose such schemes are immediately accused of endangering our food security. I believe those claims are nonsense.
Making space for nature is now on the list of bad things. Our understanding of what makes a healthy relationship between nature, food and farming seems to be totally out of kilter. The now-famous story of one animal that will never be eaten reminded me of just how odd our relationship with our farmed environment has become.
Two years ago, a kayaker spotted a lone sheep, seemingly stranded, at the foot of some cliffs on the Cromarty Firth. This November, when she saw it in the same spot, she appealed for someone to rescue it. The lone ewe wasn’t starving, far from it, and nor was she injured. However, a petition was launched to “rescue” the animal (subsequently named Fiona) which gathered more than 50,000 signatures, and the Scottish branch of the RSPCA joined local farmers in mounting an expedition to haul the animal to safety.
After being shorn of 9kg of wool, she weighed 92kg, which on the sheep BMI index gave her a score of 4.5, well above the normal proportions of a healthy animal ready for slaughter. But Fiona, having been named (and fat-shamed), wasn’t destined for the chop: she was adopted by Dalscone Farm, near Dumfries, a place where children can get up close to animals. The drama wasn’t over, however, as animal rights activists then picketed the farm claiming Fiona would “become a spectacle and lose her dignity”. Fiona’s story was featured in almost all of the national press, and her fame spread around the world with video footage attracting more than three million views. By any measure, that’s a lot of energy devoted to one sheep.
I am fond of sheep but this story worries me. No one wanted Fiona to suffer, and it is right and proper that all animals are treated well. Sheep, cuddly and full of nursery-rhyme charm though they may be, have been described by George Monbiot as “a white plague”, responsible for turning much of the UK into what environmentalists such as Ben Goldsmith describe as “ecological deserts”. Huge attention was focused on Fiona, but there is little public engagement with what is wrong with farming and our relationship with the food it produces.
Never mind the sheep, what about the birds? In the winter months, our countryside is overpopulated with so-called game birds, non-native species such as pheasants and French partridges – around 60 million of these easy targets being released annually. Some precious few do get eaten, but on many estates the dead birds are pushed into holes in the ground by bulldozers after they have been shot. In the autumn, the weight – or biomass – of the UK’s captive-bred pheasants and partridges is more than 1.5 times the biomass of all of our wild birds.
In the same week that Fiona the fat sheep was making international headlines, the British Trust for Ornithology released its annual data on UK birds. Most populations are going downwards, with the long-term trend for all bird species showing a decline of fifteen per cent since the 1970s. However, drill down a little further and you find that woodland birds have declined by almost 40 per cent, seabirds by 28 per cent and farmland birds by an astonishing 60 per cent. The survey looks at nineteen farmland bird species, many of which you will know by sight: greenfinch, jackdaw, kestrel, reed bunting, rook, woodpigeon, yellow wagtail, corn bunting, goldfinch, grey partridge, lapwing, linnet, starling, stock dove, skylark, tree sparrow, turtle dove, whitethroat and yellowhammer. If you are, say, 40-plus, then these are the birds of your childhood, fleeting emblems of summer memory, many of them stitched into the collective fantasy of an English countryside idyll immortalised by our greatest poets.
A quarter of Britain’s 250 bird species are now on the conservation Red List
The reason these birds are dying out is that they depend for shelter, food and habitat on farmland. It’s that simple. Species described as farmland specialists (such as partridges, lapwings and skylarks) are showing an overall decline of more than 70 per cent. Intensive farming, the planting of winter crops that leave no stubble or fallow ground where the birds can forage, and the removal of nesting areas and wild plants that provide seeds and invertebrates for them and their offspring to eat has been carried out in the pursuit of greater productivity. Pesticides have reduced the number of invertebrates available for the birds to eat, and ruthless drainage schemes have removed standing water where invertebrates could breed and their larvae be found for juvenile lapwings, for example. Swifts, the screeching minstrels of summer, have been deprived of nesting sites by the demolition of old buildings with open eaves. It’s not difficult to understand. A quarter of Britain’s 250 bird species are now on the conservation Red List. The damaging causal effects of making the land more productive for food are legion.
On farmland the corn buntings, grey partridges, turtle doves and tree sparrows have declined by at least 90 per cent since 1970. The link between this lamentable state of affairs and what we eat is simple: all of these species live predominantly on the land that is farmed. It’s not industrial pollution, too many cars or even too many people that are killing the birds, it’s the farming. The numbers don’t lie. According to Defra, 71 per cent of UK land area is used for agricultural production, most of it grassland for animal grazing. Land use, again according to Defra, has changed little in the past 30 years, with annual variation in crop availability due to weather and price fluctuations rather than land being taken out of production. The potential threat to our food security, say the government scientists, is not from some foreign power but from declining soil quality, drought, flooding and climate change impacts. And it’s not from wild birds.
This isn’t a uniquely British situation. People and their livestock now account for 96 per cent of the mass of all mammals on Earth; 70 per cent of all the birds on our planet are poultry – mostly chickens, which now outnumber us by three to one. My childhood fear of alien space invaders has been supplanted by a fear of what chickens are doing to us right now and may do in the future. As I write, the legacy of avian influenza H5NI, which originated in domestic poultry in China, continues to severely impact many of the native bird species here in the UK, especially seabirds. And the prospect of a mutated bird flu wiping out us humans remains a tangible threat.
At a much more local level, the collateral damage to the general environment done by chicken farms is evident to environmentalists and leisure users of the River Wye, which meanders across the English-Welsh border, as they witness the devastation of salmon numbers (with less than five per cent of the number of fish being caught compared with twenty years ago). An estimated 20 million farmed chickens live within the Wye catchment area, and their dung is spread on the land as fertiliser, whence a substantial proportion is carried into the river when it rains. The chemical balance of the river has been radically altered, often visible to the naked eye when it turns brown or bright green. Natural England classified the river this year as “unfavourable – declining”, which is just one step above “destroyed”.
Ironically, the drive to produce food coincides with an increasing sense that most people are now severely disconnected from nature. That sense of disconnection is likely to get worse because the United Nations estimates that, by 2050, 60 per cent of people will be living in urban communities. In the UK, it’s already around 85 per cent.
In spring 2023, some British supermarkets ran low on salad. Asked if our food security was threatened by Brexit, Thérèse Coffey (then secretary of state for the environment) suggested people might like to eat more turnips. She was ridiculed but she no doubt thought that people should be reminded that when it comes to vegetables such as turnips, peas, potatoes and cabbage, the UK still produces more than 70 per cent of its requirements.
The missing 30 per cent should not alarm us unduly. In reality, Britain has not produced all of its food since the middle of the nineteenth century. People often confuse food security with food self-sufficiency. Thanks to globalised food chains, almost nowhere on Earth now grows all of its food. Even during the covid pandemic we didn’t run out of food. If some extreme situation meant that the UK was marooned without any supplies from outside, we would not actually starve to death. Domestic food production could be increased, particularly by using some of the vast areas of grassland being used to grow animal feed – much of which is for export. We would, however, have to wean ourselves off couscous, year-round strawberries and, of course, avocados (of which we import more than 100,000 tonnes a year). We wouldn’t need to all become vegans; Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board stats show that the UK still produces more than 100 per cent of its required sheep meat, and over 80 per cent of its beef. However, with fewer livestock we could grow more vegetables – something the government would encourage on environmental and health grounds.
Inevitably, within such a complex subject, there is a danger of oversimplifying. However, it is clear that the way we are farming our land needs to be re-examined. We may decide that we don’t much care if we no longer hear skylarks above our fields. But if there is little for them to eat, then it means that the insect pollinators we rely on to fertilise our own plants are also under pressure. When Professor Partha Dasgupta of Cambridge University published a review into the Economics of Biodiversity, he observed: “The consequences of actions which desecrate nature are often untraceable to those responsible. Neither the rule of law, nor the dictates of social norms are sufficient to make us account for Nature. We will have to rely on self-enforcement, to be our own judge and jury. And that cannot happen unless we create an environment in which, from an early age, we are able to connect with Nature.”
People often confuse food security with self-sufficiency
The UK still produces more than half the food it needs overall. But attempts to steer food production and farming in a more environmental direction are all too often resisted. Many British farmers are introducing sustainable practices and farming regeneratively to accommodate natural habitat on their land. Done properly, this results in greater productivity. But, with so much of the country under the control of farmers, it’s probably not nearly enough to stem the tide of biodiversity and habitat loss.
Of all of the land used to produce food for the UK (including land used abroad) more than 85 per cent of it is used for rearing animals. Yet they produce only 30 per cent of the calories we consume. In his National Food Strategy review, Henry Dimbleby calculated that fifteen per cent of our land produces almost 70 per cent of the calories we need. But if just nine per cent of the UK’s least productive farmland was returned to nature, we would only produce one per cent fewer calories than our total national consumption. That equates to the UK still producing 99 per cent of its current crops, 97 per cent of current fruit and vegetables and almost all of our milk, chicken and pork. And it would leave some space for birds and insects.
All of these numbers are readily available for anyone who takes the trouble to seek them out, and I’m sure many know and care, but many more do not. Statistics, as we know can be manipulated in myriad ways, but the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation maintains that although one third of the planet is used for growing food, this proportion hasn’t changed since 2010, even accounting for forest destruction in South America for cattle farming.
However, the rate of increase in food production globally has outpaced the calories per capita we need. We’re growing more than we eat. Of course, the distribution of calories is uneven, as in the developed West we over-consume while many people in the world still starve.
Eating is now a political act. What we eat, where it comes from and how it’s produced have become an ethical maze. Animal welfare, carbon footprint, food miles, sugar content, food intolerances and the politics of where food was grown: any and all of these things may be given as reasons why certain people will not eat certain things. You may be on safe-ish ground if you stick to a turnip-based menu, but hosting a dinner party and catering to everyone’s fads and foibles has never been more fraught. We, I fear, are as lost as Fiona the sheep.
Tim Ecott is the author of “The Land of Maybe: A Faroe Islands Year” (Short Books)