This may sound over-idealistic, and for the vast majority of livestock farming it most certainly is. But it truly doesn’t have to be. We’re based in Devon which, like much of the UK, is split between uncropable upland areas and the more agriculturally valuable lowlands. Following the traditional farmers of the past, we see these two zones as distinct but fundamentally co-dependent, with livestock spending the first parts of their lives in the uplands before moving to be finished on degraded arable land in the lowlands. In each of these parts of their lives they serve a different environmental purpose, which together could utterly transform our countryside if adopted at scale.
In the uplands, where wildlife has been in steady retreat for decades, grazing livestock are both the problem and the solution. Overgrazing, especially with sheep, strips the hills of wildflowers and prevents tree saplings from getting a hold. But when Natural England responded by making farmers limit stock numbers on Dartmoor and Exmoor in the 1990s, they found not heather and bilberry making a comeback, but a single hyper-competitive grass species outcompeting everything else and growing to waist height. In response, the ground nesting waders like curlew, lapwing and dunlin disappeared, unable to breed in the dense vegetation. No other wildlife came to take their place.
Our moors need more trees. But they also need more wildflowers, better bogs, more scrub and wood pastures. It is this diversity of landscape that supports the most wildlife, but that diversity relies on grazing herbivores. Take them away and you have a single minded process of natural succession, rewarding the most competitive species and ending with dense woodland – a wonderful habitat no doubt, but only one of many that we need.
The lowlands are a different picture. We need this land for food production, but we need to do it in a way that can coexist with more wildlife, store massively more carbon and hold more water. This is possible, and the answer lies in how we treat our soils. For the last seven decades, artificial fertilisers have allowed us to hugely increase crop yields, but at the expense of the soils, which have effectively been treated as a reservoir, gradually drained. The agricultural impacts of this become clearer each decade – increased fertiliser need, more pests and crop disease – and the environmental fallout has been consistently charted by the interminable decline in once common species like skylarks and sparrows.