Most of us will already be aware of the devastation that livestock farming is wreaking upon the Amazon rainforest via the one-two punch of cattle ranching and soya plantations (most of which provide animal feed). We in Britain rightly decry this assault upon one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots and major terrestrial carbon sinks.
Britain’s temperate rainforests are of international importance
And yet, we’re almost completely unaware as a nation about the far more comprehensive assault that has been inflicted upon our own rainforests by livestock. Temperate rainforests potentially once covered up to 20 per cent of Britain, mostly within a region of ‘oceanicity’ along the Atlantic coast. They are characterised, as the name suggests, by heavy rainfall distributed evenly throughout the year, which enables unique assemblages of lichens, bryophytes and epiphytic ferns to colonise the gnarled and twisted branches in luxuriant verdant carpets. These epiphytes (plants growing on other plants, without a root system below ground) make important contributions to nutrient cycling, and potentially form overlooked stores of carbon in ‘canopy soils’.
Today, these rainforests cover less than 1 per cent of Britain, in small, fragmented pockets. Temperate rainforest is globally rare, and Britain therefore has international importance for its rainforest zone.
Dartmoor Sites of Special Scientific Interest under threat
Dartmoor National Park sits at the southern end of Britain’s rainforest zone, yet woodland is pretty scarce. Much of Dartmoor appears to be a glorified sheep ranch, ecologically barren and managed not primarily for wildlife or the public enjoyment of nature (the principles on which National Parks were founded) but to provide better grazing.
The Park includes the three largest moorland Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in the country, all in unfavourable condition. Of all SSSIs nationally, only 38 per cent are assessed to be in favourable condition, down from around 45 per cent 20 years ago.
It’s in this context that Natural England, the public body responsible for nature conservation in England, including management of SSSIs, recently wrote to Dartmoor farmers advising them to reduce sheep stocking rates, at the risk of losing public subsidies for nature-friendly farming that supports these precious sites. Hardly controversial, one would think, especially as it is actually making efforts to fulfil its remit.
Local MPs oppose Natural England’s intervention
Even such a mild intervention to limit over grazing and protect biodiversity is too much for Britain’s powerful farming lobby, and the politicians who represent those constituencies. So rather than encouraging the restoration of our national rainforests in line with the urgency of addressing the biodiversity and climate emergencies, which would have overwhelming public support, a number of local Tory MPs have opposed this strategy. Led by Sir Geoffrey Cox (the MP for Torridge and West Devon), they are now campaigning for an inquiry into the extent of Natural England’s powers over the management of SSSIs and even recommending transferring such control into the hands of ministers.
If Cox’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because just over a year ago he was accused of breaking the MPs code of conduct by giving legal advice from his parliamentary office to companies based in a tax haven, before arguing in parliament against stricter regulations on that same tax haven. While a case was not brought against him, it could be argued that working on behalf of special interests contravenes the ideal of public service and, in this case, causes environmental damage.
A looming natural catastrophe
Not only is livestock grazing obliterating the biodiversity of places like Dartmoor, but it incurs additional public costs in the form of reduced water retention, increasing the risk of downstream flooding. What’s worse, this destruction has in recent decades been largely funded by public subsidies, without which most upland grazing in Britain would be unviable, and on parts of Dartmoor massively loss-making. Now that the government is weaning landowners off of the disastrous EU subsidy regime, it’s difficult to see how these MPs can possibly envisage the current ‘sheepwrecking’ of Britain’s uplands continuing any longer.
The UK is among the most nature depleted countries on Earth, and the Tories are actively obstructing its ecological recovery. In response to this latest backlash, Natural England has reportedly agreed to extending existing stewardship payments unconditionally for another year. This raises serious questions about how independent our supposedly arms’ length agencies can be while they rely on government to set their funding and their remits.
Following years of funding cuts rendering Natural England all but impotent, if a Tory inquiry now strips it of its powers to manage SSSIs, there will be little hope left for our biodiversity. Forget rewilding to recover intact and functional ecosystems. Forget even slowing the precipitous declines. England will be rendered as a pesticide-sodden wasteland, devoid of most life except sheep, gamebirds, sewage fungus and golfers.
Livestock grazing currently dominates more than half of UK land area, to our great environmental detriment. We as citizens can either defend the limited remaining ability of statutory conservation bodies to protect and restore our ecosystems, or remain a nation of sheep.