As you can see from the photograph, at this time of year many of our fields, especially those we have ‘shut off’ for hay or silage, acquire a golden yellow hue. This ‘dandelion summer’ lasts for a brief few days before the flowers turn into white clocks, releasing millions of tiny parachute seeds, after which the plants quietly recede into the vegetation of the sward, shaded out by more competitive clovers and rye grasses.
Many farmers think of dandelions as a weed, but I regard them as a wonderful gift of nature, a free, nutritious and harmonious component of our long-term grassland pastures. In addition to looking so beautiful, their tap roots draw up minerals from the subsoil, which is presumably why our dairy cows will selectively graze them at this time of year. They are also a vital nectar source for bees – as I stood still to take these photographs, I became aware of a low background buzzing and realised I was surrounded by bees working the flowers. It seemed to me that the scout bees from every hive for miles around had got the word out about the Bwlchwernen dandelion fields.
The fact that our fields have all these dandelion and so many other wild plants that co-exist within a farming system primarily managed to feed dairy cows, is a direct consequence of our not having used any nitrogen fertiliser for 40 years. This brings me to today’s topical news story – the publication of The State of Nature report backed by 23 of Britain’s leading conservation organisations. The report reveals that despite all the best efforts of these conservation organisations, there has been a relentless and potentially catastrophic decline in the majority of our common species of plants, insects, small mammals and farmland birds. These species used to coexist quite happily with low intensity farming systems, but have been ousted by five decades of intensive farming, the key elements of which have been the application of nitrogen fertiliser, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.
Needless to say, the wildlife organisations have been perfectly well aware of the damage that intensive farming practices have inflicted on wildlife for many years. However, instead of using their enormous lobbying power to persuade both the public and governments alike that if we really want to protect nature we have to change the way we farm and adopt more sustainable farming practices, they have adopted a different approach which I refer to as ‘food factories and wildlife parks’.
This had amounted to a kind of ‘deal’ where conservation groups agreed a trade-off with farming organisations. They would abstain from using agricultural chemicals on 5% of the land in exchange for being allowed to farm as intensively as they liked on all the rest of their fields.
I realise that I am at great risk of falling into the ‘I told you so’ camp, which would not be fair to the conservationists. I have no doubt whatsoever that their advocacy of this approach was well intended, but it is perfectly clear to me that for as long as the majority of our farming practices remain intensive, nature will continue be on the losing side.
The question remaining is what can be done, not merely to arrest this catastrophic decline in biodiversity, but to actually reverse it? David Attenborough was upbeat in this morning’s Today Programme and although perhaps his reasons for optimism are not quite the same as mine, I do think there is cause for hope in restoring our lost wildlife. My optimism is derived from my personal observation of over four decades on our family farm in Wales of the way in which farming methods, which avoid the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides can not only be remarkably productive in terms of food output, but also coexist with an extraordinary diversity of wild plants, butterflies, other insects, pond life, amphibians, small mammals and birds.
If these methods were widely applied, our fields would once again illuminate the progression of the agricultural year with the yellow, white and red hues of the dandelions, clovers and poppies, each colour marking the seasons in our farmed countryside.
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