by Sarah Lee

In this article from My Countryside magazine, Director of Policy and Campaigns at the Countryside Alliance, Sarah Lee, sits down with Victoria Prentis, Farming Minster at Defra to talk all things food, farming and the countryside. 

Victoria Prentis is the Defra Farming Minister who not only talks the talk on farming but when she is not in Westminster she gets her hands dirty back in her constituency on the family farm near Banbury. She describes the Agriculture Act as one of her proudest achievements at Defra and has since been working exceptionally hard to get the balance right between British food production and environmental sustainability.

Farming is at a pivotal moment now that we have left the European Union and through the Agriculture Act the Government has laid out the support farmers will receive to aid landscape recovery while still feeding the nation. The Minister explains that it is an exciting and challenging time for British agriculture: “We’ve left the Common Agricultural Policy, which I think truthfully held us back from natural development in the countryside for the last 40 years, and we are taking a seven-year period to bring advice and agricultural transition, which is really quite transformational. When I have met other agricultural ministers from G20 countries they are so envious of what we’re now able to do in this country. And while it is definitely challenging, because it is changing the whole way that we support farmers, I think many people are very excited about the direction of travel towards regenerative farming and towards making space for nature within our food producing farms. So absolutely farmers continue to produce food, that’s what we do, that’s what we’ve always done, but making space for nature within our farms in a sensible and coherent way, that really helps.” 

The farming community has raised concerns over the lack of detail in the farming schemes, which is understandable as farmers need certainty on the direction of travel, but the Minister tells us that one of the early signs of success is that “farmers have really come on board, they view countryside stewardship schemes as the future, and I include myself in this; our own farm has recently gone into a mid- tier countryside stewardship scheme. I think the fact that farmers are voting with their application forms and showing their keenness to engage with new policies is really heartening.”

The Minister emphasised that there are three pillars important in farming – food production, nature, and net zero targets. The Minister made the point that “those who really enjoy the countryside have seen first-hand the decline in farmland birds as a visible and worrying trend that we need to put right through the new farming programmes,” which is something that the Alliance agrees with. She also went on to recognise the role that livestock farmers play in the future of net zero targets “carbon is stored very well in grazed pasture and that livestock farming can very much be part of the future of food production in this country, we just need to be careful and scientific about how we do it.”

The Countryside Alliance is reassured to hear that livestock farming is viewed as being very much part of the future of farming in this country, as we are becoming increasingly alarmed by the attacks on our farmers, with misinformation being circulated on social media regarding our farming systems, using data and examples from other countries to slur our farmers.

In response the Minister says: “The Common Agricultural Policy has held us back. We haven’t had to make our case perhaps as strongly as we should have done over the last 40 or 50 years. And I think we have allowed other very vocal lobbies to corner that argument and use science in a way that isn’t always helpful. So, I think it’s right that we fess up as farmers to the things that we have not done as well as we should have done, particularly in the farmland bird space, and look at ways of making that better now, but I also think it’s right that we continue to bring the livestock argument back to real science and how varying production methods in other countries lead to a very different outcome.”

If we want the public to understand the value and role that our hard- working British farmers play, not only in putting food on our table but as custodians of the countryside, then we must all work together to achieve that and educating the public about farming is something we are passionate about at the Countryside Alliance. It has been interesting to see farming on TV recently with shows like Clarkson’s Farm, Our Farming Life, and Our Yorkshire Farm – it has really captured the public’s imagination.

This is something that the Minister agrees with: “Clarkson’s Farm has been really helpful in getting across the difficulties, he [Clarkson] has actually had a very thoughtful approach to stewardship and it’s very much on board with our new policies and regenerative farming. So, I think that’s been a really useful programme. It’s a really good introduction to British agriculture at the moment.”

But what is the current position of the Government when it comes to recognising the role that hunting and shooting play in the countryside?

The Minister says: “The Government’s policy is not to amend the Hunting Act and people should not break the law in any respect.”

On shooting the Minister says: “The Government absolutely recognises the benefits to the rural economy of shooting and I was reading an excellent report by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust this morning about the very real nature benefits of shooting.

“We do have to recognise that these things have to be done sensitively and in accordance with nature. And I think again, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust usually strikes a really good balance along with the work of the Countryside Alliance. The work that I have been shown on some of the managed grouse moors in terms of nature and wildlife is very impressive.”

With our time coming to an end, I wanted to find out from the Minister what she loves most about the countryside and how it helps her relax after a busy week in Westminster. She laughs: “when I get back to the farm there is always an awful lot to sort out and the last thing I do is relax.” But she also says that as she has got older “the rhythm of the year is something I notice more and more. And you really do notice when the daffodils are out – all of those moments are exciting.”

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