Natural Capital- Making good stewardship pay.
You may be familiar with the term ‘natural capital’, referring to the UK’s stock of natural assets, essentially the environment – our forests, rivers, land and sea. Farmers and landowners have always understood their value.
The Government more formally now recognise this. As part of its 2015 manifesto commitment, the Government established a Natural Capital Committee with the intention of applying hard economic numbers to the environment’s value and ensuring resources are directed where they are most needed. To this end, the committee is in the process of developing what we believe to be the first 25-year environmental plan for the UK. Whilst many are sceptical that this is an over-complication of what, for those engaged in land management, is obvious, this initiative is gaining momentum and must be taken seriously. Indeed it may well create valuable new opportunities.
The Country Landowners’ Association (CLA) has conducted considerable research into the rural economy, exploring ways to achieve the ‘perfect natural world’ scenario and, importantly, how this can be funded.
While more than half (52%) of landowners currently invest in their natural capital, they tend to be motivated by their sense of stewardship rather than any expectation of gain. Delivering better environmental outcomes could open up untapped potential by creating commercial opportunities for landowning rural businesses. Looking ahead, publicly funded schemes are likely to remain the primary source of funding for investment in natural capital. However, the CLA argues that by Government and land-based businesses working together we can avoid the bureaucratic, inflexible schemes of the past. Its vision is that by taking a commercial approach and establishing natural capital as a marketable service, by 2030 private and public investment in natural capital will be seen as a profitable part of being a rural business.
“Increasing biodiversity in the soil has beneficial effects across the whole farm.”
Taking arable margins as an example, infield margins can support ecosystems and agricultural production by creating habitats for beneficial pollinators and pest-eating insects and birds. Making an investment case for these changes should form an important part of food, farming and environmental policy post-Brexit.
The same hard-nosed approach can be applied to ponds and wetlands. Storing water can reduce flood risk while also creating a valuable water source in times of drought. When designed well, they can also reduce the loss of soil from fields.
On average, UK landowners invest some £13bn each year in the rural economy nationwide and the CLA calculates that every £1 spent on targeted natural capital schemes delivers a £25 return in natural capital benefits (Rural Business 2030 report- CLA- 6.12.16).
“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”
Farm management and advisory company Sentry gives a practical illustration of how taking a commercial approach to natural capital can maximise its value. The company has a Farm Business Tenancy on a large arable farm at Blackstone, West Sussex where the manager has introduced a Regenerative Agriculture model to bring sustainability and longevity to the farming operation.
It is an often-overlooked fact that soil is a farm’s biggest and most important resource, yet 2016 marked the start of what it terms “a horrendous time-bomb”: that most of our arable soils have only 50 harvests remaining. Depletion of organic matter, erosion by water and wind, and loss of soil biodiversity are the key reasons for this – and common farming practices exacerbate the problem.
The Sentry acreage is now farmed to tackle these issues head-on. Sentry is focusing on cover crops, low disturbance drills, long rotations and drainage to put soil health at the centre of all decisions. Working with Batcheller Monkhouse suitable modifications to the Farm Business Tenancy were secured to support this valuable work.
Mike Purnell of Sentry explains, “I am trying to provide a good home for the soil fauna to live in and to work with nature rather than fighting it. Drainage is one issue that I am finding has been overlooked on the heavy Weald clay but I am involved in restoration plans on all my farms. Hand in hand with this is balancing the nutrient composition of the soils.”
He aims to achieve this by increasing water infiltration, water holding capacity and extending the work window. Most clay is high in Magnesium, which causes drainage issues, as well as restricting plant access to other nutrients such as Phosphate. Mike Purnell’s reasoning is that, “This methodical approach to problem-solving will result in a soil where the biology will flourish, which will mean inputs can be cut and margins improved.”
To keep soil biology healthy a crop must always be growing on it. Sentry grows spring crops to help control grassweeds. Over winter it grows cover crops to stop erosion, reduce leaching of nutrients and keep soil structure with actively growing roots that also store the sun’s energy for the following spring’s crops. Cover crops also produce organic matter and help the dry soil in spring. Mike Purnell reports, “As wet as spring 2016 was, I had no issue drilling and harvest results were pleasing. Increasing biodiversity in the soil has beneficial effects across the whole farm. The only thing that stops most people doing it is a negative mindset.”
While soil health may have been neglected in modern farming practices, its importance has long been recognised. As far back as February 1937, pressing State Governors for uniform soil conservation laws (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=15373), US President Franklin Roosevelt remarked, “A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”