Martin Hole, Montague Farm, East Sussex
Nirmal Purja, on completing his unique winter climb to the summit of K2, reflected that “Mother Nature always has bigger things to say”. The roar of the wind on that savage mountain would have filled his ears, but we should listen to his wisdom without necessarily scaling a 26000ft peak. Jane Goodall and David Attenborough, august voices of nature, have expressed their view that, among a range of ghastly outcomes, covid 19 is caused by the disintegration and disconnection from the natural world. They, too, are telling us to listen, and to act accordingly.
Back at home, I have been alerted to some less well-known voices. Having pursued an ambitious conservation plan on the farm for over a generation it is disquieting that many species special to our landscape are still in steep decline. I have been looking intently to the works of the rewilders, particularly a nearby project at Knepp Castle Estate, which now boasts the highest song bird densities in England, for inspiration. Their results are challenging the paradigm of conventional good conservation, causing me to review what we do on our marshes and meadows. Over the last decade we have grown wilder. There is even a patch of the farm referred to as Mini Knepp, and another, where our lapwing nest, called Little Elmley, after the great North Kent nature reserve, but the “whole hog” of rewilding remains economically too difficult. We must continue with our cattle and our sheep or face bankruptcy. This is what deep environmentalists refer to as The Tragedy of the Commons. Mulling over this impasse is taxing.
Just as we must keep “doing”, we must keep listening. With great relief comes a message from another senior voice of nature, Beccy Speight, the bright new CEO of the RSPB. Understanding the new energy of the rewilding movement she has played the sensible hand. She has called for a moderation of the “polarisation” created by extreme demands. Let us use farm land to spread our reserves into, she says, to merge boundaries and extend the connectivity of wildlife habitats. Let us get “good conservation” played out more widely by joining with the farming industry. Let’s not alienate farmers with painted words and plastic concepts.
I find many like minds in the farming industry’s own regenerative agriculture movement and in a neat little organisation called the Nature Friendly Farmers Network. The National Farmers Union is finally embracing its role in the conservation of natural resources, championed by the effervescent President, Minette “Zero” Batters, and the Country Land and Business Association continues to work well in this field. All are asking the Government to do more and to get on with it quicker, but successive Defra minister’s fine words are not yet “buttering the parsnips”. “Net Zero” requires radical change, and it will be catastrophic if the new ELMs farm policy fails to deliver.
At the kitchen table I hear keenly from my wife and our three daughters the urgency of the plight of our wildlife. Sharing their impatience, and always wanting to do more, I read widely for further inspiration. And between the covers I have met a fellow shepherd, from the Lake District, called James Rebanks, whose two books, The Shepherd’s Life and English Pastoral, provide some of the clearest and most emotionally acute and honest words to be found on the subject of both farming and farming for wildlife. In a recent interview on New Zealand radio with Kim Hill he was asked whether he thought his farm would be a better place without his flock. “Don’t be a dingbat”, he replied.
I have been reliably informed that the farmer’s head is the most critical environmentally sensitive area. This one is beginning to fill with voices. To clear my mind I seek the wild places in the reaches of our marshland or beneath favoured trees. On my own, in these place’s quiet purity, I can hear, as Nirmal could on K2, that Mother Nature is truly asking for bigger things.
Martin is a member of the NFFN England Steering Group. To find out more about Martin’s Farm go to www.montaguefarm.co.uk
Pictures Credits: Martin Hole