Farming for Nature at Wiston
By Richard Goring
With the Regenerative Agriculture Festival Groundswell kicking off tomorrow, we asked Richard Goring to share his thoughts on how farming at Wiston has been shaped over the years, and what he sees as the challenges we face today. If you would like to know more about this we have two more Farming for Nature Tours running this year – 7th July and 5th August – see here for tickets.
“These are complicated stories, they are nuanced stories, and they are being told in a binary world.” Sarah, farmer, from “Rooted; How regenerative farming can change the world” by Sarah Langford.
In the early 1950’s my grandfather, John Goring, ploughed up Wiston park to grow food. Hundreds of oak trees were cut down, the land was drained, it grew crops for three years before going back into grass and thus it has stayed ever since. The drive for food security after the second world war was intense and only enhanced by the fear of trying to feed a population of 3 billion in 1960’s. Before we look at the disastrous impact of farming on the natural world, we have to understand the ‘miracle’ of feeding over 8 billion people. As Henry Dimbleby points out in his excellent book Ravenous, we now produce three times as much food from roughly the same acreage in the UK as we did in 1960’s. Much of this was down to the scientist Norman Borlaug, who had developed disease resistant and high yielding crops in Mexico in the 1950’s and was totally focused on trying to bring an end to hunger in the poorest communities. When challenged on the impacts of his green revolution he replied, “If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertiliser and irrigation canals, and be outraged that fashionable elitists were trying to deny them these things.” To an extent, as farmers, we are still somewhat driven by the magical and rewarding success of solving the food problem. Providing people with three meals a day feels a good thing to do. And the food system has got so ‘good’ we hardly even notice.
It is like driving a car, in the old days, you had to fiddle with the choke, get the clutch right, smell the fumes… and ideally have an AA membership. Now you push a button, put your foot on the accelerator and a whole lot of lithium and cobalt smoothly takes you where you want to go, whilst listening to a podcast on the future of food. However, in solving one problem we have created another. Nature is in decline. As wheat yields have doubled since the 1970’s our farmland birds in the UK have decreased by 54%. The UK now sits in last place in the European Farmland Bird index. Since 1970 there has been a 60% decrease in priority species in the UK and a lot of that has got to do with how we have farmed. Regenerative farming I hear you say… we’ll come on to that in a bit, first we need to go back a bit but not too far, or else we may end up regenerating.
At the same time as the ‘green revolution’ was sweeping across the world, another younger scientist was looking at insect decline on our farm at Wiston. His name was Dick Potts and in 1968 he started what has become the world’s longest running monitoring project, to measure the impact of changes in farming on the fauna and flora of arable land. Prof. Dick Potts sadly died in 2017 but his team continue the work and, only last week, were monitoring insects here on the farm with exactly the same vacuum they were using in 1968!
Their research was part of what pioneered the government’s funding of environmental stewardship options (what they have now called ELMS). So, whilst our neighbours at Knepp were experimenting with rewilding on the weald clay, up on the chalky Downs, we began a journey of splitting up the large arable fields with nature corridors. These diverse conservation headlands have become crucial to bees, butterflies, beetles and all sorts of grubs that are in turn food for farmland bird chicks. The huge increase in red kites, buzzards, sparrow hawks and other apex predators of the sky, is an indicator of the supporting pyramid of species underneath them. The other oasis for insects is the restored chalk grassland on the farm. After the ‘success’ of modern farming techniques, in 1980s there were butter mountains and milk lakes developing in Europe. This led to an option to take land out of arable and revert to grassland and my father, Harry Goring, was one of the first farmers in the UK to apply. Over the past 35 years, this land has not only become home to rare chalk grassland species but has also sequestered over a hundred thousand tons of carbon.
On the grassland theme, back in 1801, Charles Goring wrote, “For it seems to me to be wholly repugnant to reason that grass land should be improved or even left uninjured by a succession of crops every one of which must necessarily take something from it whereas it has always been impressed upon my mind from my early infancy that nothing but length of time could restore an old turf.” He goes on to describe the process of how to restore grasslands, with herbal leys and livestock. A process that will be repeated almost word for word this week at Groundswell, the annual gathering for regenerative farming. Each generation of those of us looking after the land has a different challenge to face.
For ours it is how do we produce food, energy, store water and carbon, whilst creating space for nature on a small island with a lot of people on it. We won’t be ploughing up the park again but we might make a start at replanting the oaks and we’ll go on experimenting and learning about this beautiful and complex land that we live and work in. It feels like we have a lot more to understand, as Wendell Berry says, “We do not understand the earth in terms either of what it offers us or of what it requires of us, and I think it is the rule that people inevitably destroy what they do not understand.” And slightly more encouragingly, “the care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.”