Author: John Lockhart, Chairman

Celebrating 20 years of working in forestry, land management and agriculture industry prompted Lockhart Garratt’s (www.lockhart-garratt.co.uk) Chairman John Lockhart to reflect back on two decades of change in the industry. 

The changes that technology has wrought over the last 20 years across all aspects of life are amazing. We now think nothing of using phone apps to pay bills, book holidays or even turn the heating on. How very different from when our small forestry and environmental land management business was set up 20 years ago – back in 1998.

Some people see land as the ultimate stable resource, unaffected by change.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.  Woodlands in particular do very little in a hurry and as such, have sometimes been taken for granted. However, issues such as ash dieback are now casting a real shadow over valuable ancient woodland habitats,  as well as our unique structure of tree-lined fields and country lanes.

An environment in decline?

According to research undertaken by Dr Deiter Helm’s Natural Capital Committee[1], England’s Natural Capital (elements of the natural environment which provide valuable services such as clean air, clean water, food and recreation) is in long term decline. This has a significant impact on our health, wellbeing and economic prosperity.

Furthermore, we are now witnessing the real impact of intensive farming, combined with overwhelming evidence that the way that land has been managed, often driven by the mechanisms of the Common Agricultural Policy, is environmentally unsustainable.  Examples include a significant deterioration in the condition and viability of our soils and bio-diversity, as well as an increase in flooding events.

Add to this an intense pressures on land for development, in particular new housing, to support a changing demographic as people live longer amongst blended families and social groups.  The Office of National Statistics predicts an increase in the UK population of approximately 9 million by 2031, and of 15 million by 2051, inevitably requiring significant additional areas of land for new housing, industry and infrastructure.

Understanding the value of natural resources

Many in the land management sector understand what is required to manage land and its associated habitats effectively.  Historically farmers, foresters and landowners knew the real value of their natural resources, in particular soils.  Excessive intensive rotations of oilseed rape and wheat driven by policy and subsidy structures, have massively damaged this resource, with weed problems such as blackgrass exploding to a point where control mechanisms have reverted to cropping rotations and systems not practised for many decades. The scale of the problem is highlighted by the fact that an average 2.46 tonnes of soils are being eroded from every hectare of land in the EU each year.

However, we seem to be at a turning point. As Lockhart Garratt enters its third decade, for the first time in my career, we are beginning to see a fundamental shift in how the natural environment is perceived and valued.  In its 2011 White Paper, The Natural Choice, and repeated in successive manifestos, the government has affirmed its commitment to the preservation of natural capital by stating that it wishes to be “the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited…”.

Raising the profile of Natural Capital

As a result, the Natural Capital Committee was formed, coming up with a key recommendation for the development of a long term Environment Plan which arrived in the form of Our Green Future: A 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment.[2]

This was closely followed by the consultation paper Health and Harmony: The Future for Food, Farming and the Environment in a Green Brexit, which started to set out the government’s thinking on the future of agricultural subsidies and land management support.  A key theme is the proposed move away from support for agricultural production to a system of public payment for public goods which has now been enshrined in the Agriculture Bill 2018[3]. This aims to put foresters and farmers at the heart of protecting and managing the countryside sustainably, whilst producing world-class food, plants and timber. Encouragingly, the proposed changes aim to allow foresters, farmers and landowners time to adapt to future change and identify potential opportunities.

As yet,  ‘public goods’ are undefined, but there is a clear understanding of the link to the work of the Natural Capital Committee which has highlighted the benefits of retaining and protecting our natural capital beyond the economic to incorporate emotional welfare and cultural character, including:

  • Better health and wellbeing
  • Educational opportunities
  • Recreation and tourism
  • Sustainable supply chains
  • Better carbon retention and sequestration
  • Better catchment management and natural flood protection
  • Better soils
  • Enhanced and more accessible landscapes
  • Greater biodiversity

For landowners and managers to really take advantage of these opportunities requires a better understanding of our Natural Capital Asset to enable land management decisions to be guided by this understanding. This also involves reviewing assets and looking at them through a new lens to highlight the emerging opportunities.

The Environmental Land Management scheme

It’s clear that the government is keen for funding to be directed through the proposed Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) and Defra are currently running pilots in Yorkshire where farmers are being rewarded based on measurable environmental outcomes.

Initial reports indicate that these farmers are enthusiastic about the payment by results approach because they can use their skill and judgement to produce the desired outcomes. This is supported by the experience of Helen Keep, Senior Farm Conservation Officer at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority who comments:  “One of the most surprising and pleasing aspects of the pilot is that it has helped to engender a healthy competitiveness among the farmers to do more for the environment.”

There is also a real focus on new woodlands and associated habitats in recognition of the wealth of environmental services they can provide. Examples include the announcement of £50 million of new funding for the development of a Carbon Guarantee[4] that could significantly alter the economics of new woodland creation.

As a business working with Defra to help to shape the new ELMS scheme, we have been encouraged by the anticipated focus on longer term management plans, similar to those in the forestry sector that could provide a flexible framework within which foresters, farmers and land managers can use their skills and land use understanding to deliver real change.

The development sector is also undergoing fundamental change.  The first policy of the 25 Year Environment Plan states the government’s aspiration to embed an ‘environmental net gain’ principle for development, including housing and infrastructure.  Further policies are enshrined in the Clean Growth Strategy although to be achieved, there will need to be a real change in the way that development relates to wider land management.  An understanding of Natural Capital and the supporting green infrastructure networks will be critical to identifying and exploiting new opportunities. The recent launch of the Natural Cambridgeshire: Developing with Nature Toolkit[5] provides an indication of how this is taking root in practice.

Going Forward

As Lockhart Garratt enters its third decade we seeing a fundamental change in our understanding of the natural environment and its value to both economic prosperity and health and wellbeing.  We welcome the challenge of working  together to deliver the real benefits that will flow from  the sustainable and innovative management of land  and forests as our most valuable and precious resource.

Article prepared for Forestry Journal, November edition.

 

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/natural-capital-committee.

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/25-year-environment-plan

[3] https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2017-19/agriculture.html

[4] £50 million Woodland Carbon Guarantee: The Woodland Carbon Guarantee will help tackle climate change and expand England’s forests and woodlands by offering woodland creators a guaranteed price for woodland carbon units they produce, as verified through the Woodland Carbon Code. Further details on the Guarantee, including the guaranteed price, application process and eligibility criteria, will be provided in due course. This funding follows up the commitment to consider introducing a Woodland Carbon Guarantee in the 25 Year Environment Plan and the commitment in the Clean Growth Strategy to strengthen domestic carbon offset markets. This is an innovative financing stream, which exemplifies Defra’s vision of ‘public money for public goods’ in future funding for landowners.

[5] https://naturalcambridgeshire.org.uk/news/developing-with-nature-toolkit/

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