I am hugely encouraged by seeing so many of you here today, and I do want to congratulate Plantlife, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust and Wildlife Trusts, all of which I am very proud to be Patron, for assembling such a galaxy of talent to discuss a subject which can only be described as of the greatest possible importance.
Throughout my life, for what it is worth, and as a result of witnessing their destruction throughout the 1960s I have felt rather deeply about the traditional meadows of the British countryside, from the water meadows of southern England to the hay fields of the Yorkshire Dales, the heathlands of Dorset, the rushy pastures and cliff-top fields of Wales and the machair of the Western Isles. To me, these are rare and beautiful places, produced by the interaction of Man and Nature working in harmony over thousands of years, and they are a priceless part of our, and Nature’s, heritage.
Interestingly, having gone through the process over the last 34 years or so trying to recreate lost habitats at Highgrove in Gloucestershire and creating a meadow there, and trying to create more now, it's very interesting when people come around and walk through that meadow, how so many people then write to me afterwards saying it was such 'magical experience because it reminded me of my childhood'. Of course the difficulty now is that there aren't going to be so many people left perhaps who will have had that chance to experience it as a child. But it is something very special about that experience I think, just walking through a meadow with so many wildflowers.
I was therefore well aware of just how much has been lost in the U.K. of our precious biodiversity, and entire ecosystems, since the last war, but I was nevertheless appalled to be reminded by a Plantlife report in 2012 of the staggering losses of meadows. When we lose a meadow we are not just losing a place of great beauty, but also a part of our national heritage and a source of spiritual refreshment. We are also losing the plant and other species that live in meadows and the traditional native breeds that are so well suited to graze natural pastures and eat hay from the meadows. In addition, and most crucially, we are losing all the pollinating insects on which, ultimately, so much depends for the proper functioning of natural systems, let alone our own food systems. These losses, then, put at risk the overall biodiversity on which we rely and the genetic resources that underpin those farming systems. For example, you may not know, but you probably do, that the value of pollination, mainly from wild bees and other pollinators (but not honey bees from hives) was estimated as â‚¬153 billion in 2005; that was about 10 per cent of the value of global agriculture production.
I, for one, am not prepared to stand by and watch these appalling losses. I believe there is much we can do. But what we are lacking is a coherent and focused plan to address these declines and so I am delighted that this conference today is taking a significant step in that direction.
For my part, last year I launched the Coronation Meadows initiative. I asked three charities of which I am Patron, and which are, of course, also organizing today’s event, to mark the 60th anniversary of The Queen’s Coronation by identifying the very best and most characteristic meadow in each county of the United Kingdom and to use seed and hay from those meadows to restore and create at least one more in every county thereby ensuring that each Coronation Meadow can lead to a succession of “Crown Jewel” meadows in order to restore lost habitat.
The idea came to me while I was struggling over redrafting a forward to Plantlife's report, and I suddenly thought that with all the effort over the Jubilee to plant woods, Jubilee woods and Jubilee avenues and so on, I suddenly through why can't we do the same sort of thing for meadows this time around. That was really the point.
So I hope that in time this ambition might grow, perhaps to become one in every parish. There is a good target for you all to aim for today! But creating a new meadow is not a task to be undertaken lightly. The great historian of our countryside, Professor Oliver Rackham never one to mince his words put it like this: ‘a meadow or pasture rich in native plant life can be made in about 150 years less time than it takes to make a good wood, but impracticably long in terms of human whims and setbacks’. I have only been at it for 34 years so I know what he means. So I suspect that rather more formal protection will also be needed. The threats of development are ever-present, as is the possibility of either under or over-grazing. Whatever the mechanism, long-term security and good-management need to be guaranteed if these new meadows are to be enjoyed by our great grandchildren.
I also hope that our native breeds of livestock, evolved and selected over generations to suit local conditions, will be the logical choice to graze such meadows. Here in Sussex, for instance, we are in the home of the Southdown sheep, perfectly adapted to live year-round on the South Downs, and I am delighted that Southdown lamb is on the menu for today’s lunch. So we will all be contributing to reducing food miles, growing local and eating local as part of the effort to increase and enhance diversity.
This morning I have been to see one of the new meadows at the Beech Estate in East Sussex. It was a wonderful way to start the day, walking in the “donor” meadow, which is very ancient, followed by the interest and encouragement of seeing how well the new sites, seeded last year with green hay, have established. Actually it is remarkable how quickly it is happening. I then met a small group of landowners and meadow experts who are doing similar restoration work. It really was inspiring to see how enthusiastically this whole idea has been taken up.
But it is not enough for small groups of enthusiasts to work in isolation we need landowners and land managers across the country to create an environment in which meadows can be conserved and re-established as part of holistic, year-round livestock and pastoral farming systems. This is not a backward-looking step to a previous way of life but a vision for a new and sustainable farm and food business.
We need above all a genuinely inclusive approach to the totality of our biodiversity looking not just at wild plants and animals, but also at the farmed animals that graze these sites and the management practices be that mowing, grazing or seasonal flooding that are essential to maintain their botanical interest and our overall diversity.
Now, before all sorts of people start to think to themselves that I am trying to drag them back to the Middle Ages, I know only too well that unless we persuade people that meadows can ‘pay’ (in the widest sense of the word), we won’t get very far. We have to find ways of enabling people from policy makers and businesses to land owners and local communities to understand the bigger picture. Of course, that process needs to start by creating an understanding of all the products we derive from meadows meat and fibre certainly, but also hay and seed, and less tangible products such as the holidays, art, photography, walks and picnics that give people so much pleasure.
But there is also a wider dimension of ‘value’ that absolutely must be recognized and weighed in the balance. The idea of “Nature’s capital”, the “income” from which we all draw to sustain our existence, is something which suddenly came to me while being interviewed for television on a boat during a visit to the Amazon five years ago. More recently it has attracted the label of ‘ecosystem services’ and in that guise it is gaining a heartening level of attention.
So let me give you just a few figures from official sources. Semi-natural grasslands store around 300 million tonnes of carbon. They also, most importantly, provide homes for pollinating insects, which are themselves estimated to be worth £440 million a year to the agricultural economy. The grasslands prevent soil loss due to erosion by water and wind, and they enable good rates of water infiltration, which helps to prevent flooding. And finally, as places of rare beauty, they play a big role in tourism too. The South Downs alone receives around 40 million visitor days each year, and those visitors put over £300 million into the local economy.
To obtain a true figure for the value of semi-natural grasslands, all these factors need to be accounted for. But there is also evidence that the level of biodiversity within these habitats can have a positive effect on their value. No less an authority than the U.K. National Ecosystem Assessment reports that species-richness can lead to a significant increase in production, for instance in hay yield, without any increase in soil fertility. Of course, the increase is less than could be achieved by tilling, re-seeding with rye grass and white clover and then providing a good dousing of artificial fertilizer, but it is nevertheless significant. And greater plant diversity has also been shown to increase the extent of carbon sequestration. Indeed, in case you did not know, according to DEFRA, approximately 25 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are from agriculture and associated land-use change; and in the United Kingdom for every 190 kilograms of nitrogen fertilizer that is applied to the environment, the total cost to the environment is £334!
Whether the meat from animals fed on natural grass and hay tastes better than the alternative, and is healthier for us, or whether in fact the animals themselves thrive better, may still be a matter of opinion though if it is, then it’s certainly an ‘opinion’ that I suspect many of us share! But the saving on expensive concentrates and diet supplements is real enough.
The current emphasis on production and the comparative low cost of artificial inputs may of course not last for ever. As Professor Jules Pretty has pointed out, increasing energy costs may change the balance and encourage farming that addresses matters such as energy flows and nutrient cycling as a priority.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I really hope you will set to work with conviction and enthusiasm this afternoon, fortified by an excellent lunch, to draw up a plan that will provide practical solutions.
I am sure you will have no shortage of ideas for discussion, but perhaps I can just end by suggesting a few of my own? I have already mentioned the need for physical protection and assurance of continuous management regimes for our remaining meadows, some of which are already designated as S.S.S.I.’s, and those which are now being created. But how could this be done? And what about incentives for biodiversity? Do we have to live, indeed is it sensible for us to live, in a sea of monocultures? Might it be possible to argue for at least one field on every farm to be kept as either permanent pasture or cropped for hay, under a consistent grazing regime that would increase biodiversity and enhance the pollinator population?
Whatever the outcome, I shall look forward to hearing of your recommendations and achievements with the greatest interest. And I do have one final plea while you talk about economics, sociology, planning policy and genetics today, as you must, please do not forget that some of what we get from our meadows simply cannot be measured, or even named. And I do hope we can get across to people that biodiversity doesn’t just “happen” it is crucially dependent on farming systems which underpin and enhance it in other words Man working once again in true harmony with Nature. But if, as Oliver Rackham says, it takes 150 years to make a proper meadow, then we must ensure the necessary continuous management regimes on which our biodiversity ultimately depends.