Call me 50 (per)cent
(This article first appeared in the November 2016 edition of ‘Birdwatching’ magazine)
Somewhere between 65% and 70% of this sceptre isle’s land is used for agriculture. 57% of agriculture is ‘rough pasture’ and another 24% is grass. Add these together and it means that around 57% of the UK is used to feed animals… We raise some animals for dairy produce and wool growing, the rest is directly for food. This means something less than 15% of our land is used to grow crops (some of which is, of course, used for animal feed, and some small amount for non-food crops. Whichever way you look at it we devote a huge percentage of our land to rear animals. Believe it or not this was my main motivation for eschewing meat over three decades ago… the less meat that is eaten the more people can be fed from the same sized piece of land!
More recently I’ve become a complete convert to the re-wilding movement… the urge is not to turn back the clock to some idealised, misty-eyed pastoral utopia, but to try and save the planet and humanity from irreversible decline. The wild world is not an oversized zoo for us to visit for pleasure, but a vital resource to keep planet Earth from declining into an arid Martian desert. It’s often said that the rainforest is home to thousands of undiscovered medicines and millions of unknown plants and invertebrates. However, more importantly, wild areas are the lungs and header tank that enables us to breath and most of us to drink. Masses of phytoplankton, kelp, and algal plankton in unpolluted seas produce the air we breathe and still hold untold resources and unfound mysteries.
There are great chunks of the undeveloped world that are not much use as watersheds or lungs being dry desserts and barren mountains, yet there is still a lot that is wild. Unfortunately, as any schoolchild knows, huge areas disappear every day burnt to clear land for unsustainable agriculture and unnecessary crops like palm oil and corn syrup.
What I only found out recently is that the prevailing opinion is that to return the world to a sustainable ecology 50% of it should be left wild!
It is of course easy to rail against subsistence farmers in Madagascar who cut down forest, just as it is to vent our spleen on multi-nationals that bulldoze rainforest to plant palms or burn it to encourage grassland growth for cattle, or mobile burger units as I’m sure someone, somewhere calls them. While I am happy to join that lobby let’s start here at home.
If 50% of the UK was given over to wildlife great benefit follows for us all. It doesn’t have to be real wilderness so long as wildlife needs are prioritised and destructive animal husbandry or use of chemicals, pesticides, herbicides and the like are banned. There is room for rough grazing in the right places and even some organic, wildlife sensitive haymaking. While we are at it, let’s inoculate cattle against TB not slaughter badgers!
13% of our land is used for forestry and it could be far better managed for a more natural environment. Moreover, we could lead the world by taking back the uplands for deciduous woodland thus solving many flooding issues and creating natural wildlife corridors on a geographical scale as well as upping the percentage of Britain that’s now forested toward the 30% that should be! We don’t need grouse moors, nor should we go on subsidising sheep raising where it degrades the land. How did we end up thinking it’s OK to give tax payer’s money to farmers, but wrong to keep other types of industry going through government grants?
If land use is judged with the re-wilding yardstick there are still ways for people to make their living and for us to feed our people. Everyone could help by eating meat less often.
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