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Nature must be at the heart of the biggest reform in farming history: Michael Meharg

We are on the cusp of delivering significant and positive change for Northern Irish farmers and the environment. On the 31st December the Brexit transition period ended. Allowing us to reconsider the objectives for farming and nature. whilst this will pose many challenges it also presents the Northern Ireland Government with a once in a lifetime opportunity to help farmers manage the countryside more sustainably and reverse the declines in wildlife, habitats and water quality. Recently, the Minister for

25 March 2019, Mandatory Credit ©Press Eye/Darren Kidd

Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs announced his plans for a future agricultural policy framework for Northern Ireland, which could deliver a productive and sustainable industry that guarantees farmers earn a fair return whilst ensuring food is healthy, affordable and sustainably produced. This represents the biggest reform of farming and land use the country has seen for 40 years. There is now a pressing requirement for DAERA to deliver and act on these promises. Across the country, farmers have been facing the destructive combination of nature decline, ineffective EU farming policy which has brought about a decline in nature and now Brexit, which is forcing them to face an increasingly uncertain future. On average, farm business incomes have plummeted by 26% in just two years. we now have an opportunity to deliver transformational change secure sustainable farming and land management; however, without clear commitments from policymakers, farmers won’t invest in the nature-friendly farming approaches that are critical for their long-term survival. Farmers want to be a part of the solution and many understand the value of working with nature to increase productivity and resilience.

By transforming our food and farming system to one that rewards farmers for safeguarding the landscape, where nature and businesses can thrive. The need for bold action and a clear timeline The Nature Friendly Farming Network welcomes the Minister’s announcement on the development of new environmental funding schemes. Rewarding farmers for delivering public goods such as flood protection, carbon sequestration increased biodiversity and public access to nature, is the right way to go.

Nature must be at the heart of the biggest reform in farming history Opinion: Michael Meharg, Chair, Northern Ireland Nature Friendly Farming Network

However, these promises must be backed up by bold action and a clear timeline that farmers can align their businesses with. We desperately need an agriculture policy framework that is supported by devolved legislation. This legislation is essential as it would set out the transformational approach to the way that farmers will be rewarded to deliver environmental improvements. Farming payments that come at the price of declining wildlife numbers, soil degradation or polluted water are not a good investment from the government and will do little to enable our agriculture sector to become more productive, sustainable and resilient. Our food system needs to be balanced. I was recently appointed as the new chair of the Northern Ireland Nature Friendly Farming Network and hearing the farmers in the network share their experiences it is clear that there is a sweet spot for farmers to aim for. If we get the balance between food production and nature right, we get the best value out of our landscape and farming businesses are more profitable. Establishing the balance between food production and nature protection All farms, whatever the size or system, can be nature-friendly. I farm a suckler herd of Irish Moiled Cattle in Antrim. These cows graze an area that has been classified as an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) due to the species rich grasslands and rare species found there.

This traditional breed, with its wide foraging ability, is ideally suited to grazing the natural grassland, providing the perfect conditions for wildflowers, orchids and butterflies, as well as a host of mammals, birds, and other wildlife. As a result of our conservation grazing, we’ve managed to increase our stocking levels by a third, as Irish Moiled cattle have less of an impact on the land when compared to continental breeds. Farming with resilient native breeds produces excellent quality meat whilst also reducing our inputs and costs, such as veterinary bills. It is essential that farming policy reflects the role that the environment and the protection of natural assets has in underpinning our landscapes, cultural heritage and farm business resilience. The Nature Friendly Farming Network represents the voices of 1,900 farm businesses, delivering the benefits of good stewardship. Membership is free and we welcome all farmers who work with nature, at whatever stage in their transition. Our mission is to unite farmers who are passionate about farming and the environment, while engaging with policymakers to secure better public and policy support for nature-friendly farming. Change will not be easy, but it is crucial if we want to have a sustainable food system in Northern Ireland. The Government can and must grasp this opportunity and commit to a bold agriculture policy framework and ambitious targets, so that we can build a farming future that benefits both farmers, the public and nature.