Demands on the land
Farming not only dominates in terms of land area, but also shapes our perceptions of what constitutes a good landscape. Much of our wildlife and many ‘ecosystems services’, are an emergent property of the farmed landscape – public goods and services such as water quality and flood alleviation and those which support biodiversity.
Sustainable agriculture also needs many of the ecosystem services provided by a healthy and functioning natural environment; healthy populations of pollinating insects and pest predators, maintenance of soil fertility and air quality, and clean water for example.
Part of the answer is in thinking about the ways in which elements of the natural environment can be integrated into farming in ways which actually support production. Rather than viewing this as land lost, can measures which support biodiversity and other ecosystem services be configured in such a way that they support or even increase overall production?
The second, and linked challenge, is how, if ecosystem services emerge from the farmed landscape, we can reward their delivery? How do we encourage the delivery of public goods through the cumulative private actions by farmers whose focus is, understandably, on their farm?
We need to find actions which make sense at a farm level, which support production, or lower costs, or in some other way make sense at a farm scale, but which also produce wider social benefits. What is exciting about Pontbren Farmers is that this idea is embodied through a farmer led programme of change.
Knowing the land
It started from the point of view of improving the farming but has proved to have wider impact within the immediate upper catchment but which could reach more widely still if it were replicated in other headwater valleys.
The driver for the Pontbren farmers was to reduce costs, make the farming systems more economically and environmentally sustainable in the longer term, and improve prospects for the next generation. The key to these changes was to improve shelter by tree planting and restoring neglected woodland and hedges.
The point which comes out strongly at Pontbren is that the farmers knew what they needed, where shelter was wanted, those places prone to wetness and to liver fluke and foot rot or what would help to make the sheep easier to manage. But matching that understanding and those needs with the available support can be problematic; the flexibility to allow those people with the intimate knowledge of local circumstances to shape delivery is often missing.
When managing land there are complex trade-offs and interactions between the different services to be taken into account. Often the spatial configuration of features such as woodland, hedgerows, ponds and wetlands is critical to the supply of many services. An absolutely central message of the work at Pontbren is that those trade-offs must be embedded within the on-the-ground experience and knowledge of those who manage it. Not ex post facto as part of a consultation, but as the foundational activity for determining land use change.
The geographical mapping tool POLYSCAPE, used at Pontbren has allowed for land use change and tree-planting in different locations to be visualised and evaluated for its effect on farm productivity, flood risk, sediment transport, carbon storage in vegetation and soils, and connectivity of woodland habitats. Synergies and trade-offs can be illustrated and discussed.
When the tree-planting started only 1.5% of the Pontbren land was woodland – now it is nearly 5%. While this is a significant increase, it is not a frightening proportion of the farm. But if every farm in Wales made that subtle shift, not only would there be a massive leap in the provision of a whole range of ecosystem services, but the Welsh Government would be 70 per cent of the way to achieving its woodland expansion target.
Unless we intend some major social engineering and restructuring to the countryside through changed ownership, then we should respect and understand the landscape we have and the economic, social and cultural drivers which have patterned it, but which also now drive it.
More particularly, there is a need to recognise that the land is managed by a large number of farmers. Their primary consideration is, quite naturally, their farm and their community. They understand the land on which they work in a way which is not possible other than through that daily experience. I’m not getting sentimental and suggesting than all farmers are saints or sages, but there is an intimate understanding of the land which is difficult to obtain by any other means.
A model of success
The undoubted success of Pontbren has provided a model for farmers and policy makers seeking a better way of delivering essential environmental services as part of productive upland livestock farming in the UK. What Pontbren shows is that flexibility and the reflexive understanding must be built in to landscape change to allow those who manage the land to shape things in ways which make sense at a farm scale.
The Pontbren project worked because it was led throughout by farmers who actively took an innovative approach, and who were willing and able to interest and involve others in active collaboration, particularly the research community and funding organisations.
If the lessons of Pontbren are heeded there could be a transformation in the way the uplands of Wales and beyond are managed. It is worth in particular, reflecting not just on the science, which is strong, but on the critical knowledge and collaborative effort of the farmers which has made this a success. The report on the Pontbren project is now available, please click here.
Mike Townsend, Senior Conservation Adviser