27 June 2002

Time for young to right wrongs

Older generations have wreaked havoc in the countryside

and it was time for a new generation to right some of the

wrongs, students at the recent National Sixth Form

Conference at Harper Adams, Shropshire, were told.

Simon Wragg reports

THE message may justifiably upset some within farming, especially as it came from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. But, broadly speaking, the words of Andy Simpson, head of education at the RSPB, hit a chord with the 250 students at the conference which promotes farm and land-based courses across the country.

"My generation has screwed up big time – no doubt about it," said Mr Simpson. The production subsidy-driven role of farming that produced much needed food after WW1 has never been brought up-to-date. "Farming is still being paid to produce; not to protect."

But the consequences of subsidy-led farming are now being seen. The uplifting call of the skylark has fallen 75% over the past 25 years, estimates the RSPB. Lapwing numbers have halved in just a decade.

&#42 New partnerships

"We need new partnerships for the countryside, ones that can put old enemies to bed. We need fresh thinkers, people who believe in change and are not bound by convention. It is you, the younger generation who have the energy, the drive, the ambition to change whats happening and help stop the demise of our most valuable asset."

Part of the countrysides problem is that humans believe they can almost control the environment, he said. "But nature has a nasty habit of biting back and we have seen that in the effects on wildlife. Past generations have screwed up; you dont have that excuse because you know better."

He told the students – who had travelled to the conference at Harper Adams University College, near Newport, Shrops, that he hoped they really burned inside on at least one issue. It would require will and determination to succeed in forcing change. "Remember, apathy is easy. It requires you to do nothing."

The RSPB had invested in buying farmland, the latest Tarn House Farm, near Brampton, Cumbria, with the intention of improving bird habitat but also demonstrating that a viable farm can operate alongside, he told students.

&#42 Subsidies a vice

It was a chord to which many of the prospective farm and land-based students could relate. The feeling that production subsidies were as much a vice as a benefit, was commonplace at the conference, aptly titled: A new generation for regeneration. Equally, the need for agriculture to be sustainable to support a thriving countryside was high on the list of must-haves.

"We have to change the way people think about the problems we all share in the countryside," he urged. "It also means that you may have to change your lifestyle too. The culture of having access to seasonal foods 52 weeks a year by shipping produce across the world was typical of the practices that damage the environment.

"You have choices to make, decisions to take. It is my hope that as a member of the older generation that you really do burn over one issue and that you look to force change," he concluded.

RSPBs Andy Simpson says we need new partnerships for the countryside.