Bird-friendly farming

Bird-friendly farming is a way of farming which, as well as profitably producing food for humans, preserves habitat for birds and other wildlife; protects and nurtures invertebrates; and regenerates the soil. This is done by avoiding agrichemicals, by avoiding compaction of the soil (low-till or no-till), through careful crop selection, leaving plenty of space uncultivated, and, where possible, benefitting from the services of other species to protect the crops.

The death of wildlife is now mainstream knowledge: in 2017, insectageddon hit the news when a German study emerged showing that flying insects had fallen in number by more than 75% over the last 27 years ( This year the French have learned that birdlife has fallen by a third to two thirds because of farming ( In the UK they have lost 50% of their wildlife (

I read of a concerned scientist trying to understand how this has happened. Surely a case of an Oxford PHD being less useful than common sense: if over a period of several decades, and several times a year, you cake over 50% of your landmass in chemicals which are designed to kill off life, and they you repeatedly compact the soil with heavy machinery, don’t be surprised if life gets poisoned and crushed to death. You wonder what they teach scientists and engineers at university. It is certainly not to think broadly about the ramifications of their work. Too much mechanics and not enough philosophy.

With this our soils are being destroyed. Even fertiliser, for all the good it does, when misused, which is often, creates imbalance in carbon and nitrogen in the soil and leads to the evaporation and leaching away of all the good.

Why does this happen?

Farmers are under pressure to squeeze the last penny from the land, ignoring the long-term consequences which they don’t consider they will live to endure. They are under pressure from supermarkets which are competing with each other. Supermarkets are competing for shoppers who are trying to save money on food. Shoppers are deluded by politicians’ meme that “cheap food” is a good thing.

It might have been a good thing after the second world war to produce cheap food for people, but the second world war was more than seventy years ago. Cheap food is now a pernicious meme which, at the age of seventy, now needs to be killed off quickly.

Even though a simple average shrouds much complexity, it is worth noting that the average UK household spends 9% of its income on food, Germans 11% and French 14%. Assume conservatively that organic food is on average 30% more expensive, we are talking about exterminating our wildlife for around 3%-5% of the household budget. This also means that there is hope: once Facebook and other forms of social mediocrity have been shut down, there could be a sufficient release of human enterprise and energy to make that extra 5% easily affordable.

Here are some things that could be done about the extermination of wildlife, but might not be:

  1. The food industry could introduce a voluntary labelling scheme for conventionally produced food as being harmful to wildlife, pollinators, insects, birds etc. This would involve the de-branding and elimination of illustrated packaging (as applied to the cigarette industry) for factory- and intensively farmed foods which pollute our soils and constitute a danger to society far graver than smoke-induced lung cancer.
  2. The farming industry could voluntarily make it a requirement of a farmer’s land-stewardship licence that she or he clearly understands the various impacts of conventional, organic, and low- or zero-tillage farming on soils and wildlife.
  3. Supermarkets could agree to phase out conventionally produced food over a ten year period on a straight-line basis (i.e. 1/10th reduction each year). They would subsidise this in recognition of their insidious if unwitting role in wildlife extermination over the last few decades.
  4. Customers could become enlightened by way of social influences, schooling and watching Netflix (note impact of Blue Planet 2), and then willingly seek out bird-friendly farming labelled foods in the shops and local markets, paying any premium in the knowledge that they and their descendants will be happier and healthier as a result.
  5. Global chemical crop control companies could enter into voluntary liquidation and their chemical engineers could voluntarily go on a retreat to Gruinard Island in Scotland. This form of corporate hara-kiri is necessary for the officers and shareholders of these companies to restore the social honour of their families.
  6. Meanwhile, the skills of bird-friendly farming, which can be done productively and profitably, need to be imparted quickly and effectively to farmers around the world. To this end, a global network of bird-friendly farming centres of excellence needs to be endowed and established quickly; probably funded anonymously by the aforementioned corporations, for whom this would constitute a desirable legacy.

Any other suggestions as to how to bring about fundamental change in farming around the world would be gratefully received by some skylarks, frogs, snails and worms, among others.

(Before anyone says authoritatively “You can’t feed the world with organic food”, consider that by working hard on cutting down on food waste and meat eating, we would free-up land to make good any net fall in yield from farming wholesomely; and not all land needs to be farmed organically to save the world’s wildlife. But a lot does.)

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Calculating the cost of changing demand for emission reductions

The price of something is, in economics, established as a point where the demand curve meets the supply curve. So, too is the quantity of that thing that is traded.

Most climate policy has been, to date, about changing the shape of the supply curve for carbon dioxide emissions so that the price of carbon dioxide emissions rises and the quantity falls. Emission trading schemes, policies to tax fossil fuels, to prescribe emission limits to technologies, policies to subsidise clean technology – all are ways of making good things cheaper and bad things more expensive; that is, they try and shift the supply curve.

The demand curve reflects how much we are all prepared to pay for things. This is the aggregation of everyone’s utility function: the value to individuals of things. The demand curve changes with population size and shifts in tastes, aspirations and customs.

Policy-makers are generally uncomfortable with measures which try and change the shape of the demand curve – it is seen as an unacceptable intrusion or social engineering to try and meddle with someone’s tastes or aspirations. Of course, we do this all the time – what is advertising if not that – but still, there is political discomfort with the idea.

Notwithstanding political discomfort, it would be useful to have an idea of the cost of changing the shape of the demand curve. Perhaps the cost of moving the demand curve is actually lower than moving the supply curve. Perhaps if you move both at the same time, you get an even bigger effect?

So scientists, engineers and economists, who today are very focussed on the technology and economics of supply-curve changing policies, should also turn their attention to the technology and economics of demand-changing policies. Perhaps there are unexploited, undiscovered ways of tweaking people’s utility functions which turn out cheaper per ton of CO2 thereby reduced, than marginal improvements in renewable technology or the strugglesome attempts to constrain industrial greenhouse gas emissions.

We will have to examine distasteful things – how did bad people persuade large numbers of people to do bad things – and more positive things – how did good people persuade large numbers of people to do good things – in order to understand the technology of cultural change as well as we understand the transformation of sunlight into electricity. But academics at least should not shirk from examining the distasteful, even if politically incorrect, if the prize is an effective and painless way of preserving liveable life on the planet.

The marginal abatement cost curves which show to policymakers the costs of different ways of cutting emissions are generally flawed since they only include supply-side measures. Demand-side measures are harder, more difficult to measure and predict. But that does not mean they are more expensive. If our aim is to cut emissions cheaply, then more work is needed to understand them and calculate their costs.

This is a non-humorous revision of an earlier blog posts: and . Related posts are here:

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Everything we eat is from a place which was once wilderness

The Guardian has recently reported on destruction of forest in the Ivory Coast for growing chocolate:

It is horrifying and but we should not be surprised, self-righteous or indignant: everything we eat is from a place which was once wilderness.

Each time we eat a banana, an avocado, some chocolate, have a cup of tea or coffee, we are consuming something from a place which was once forest in a hot country. And every time we eat a potato, a carrot, a slice of bread, we are eating something from a place which was once forest in a less hot country. If not forest, then swamp or savannah.

Each time we eat a little bit more, we are contributing to the destruction of wilderness – since surely the responsibility must be shared on a per capita basis; blaming the marginal arrival would imply an intolerable burden of guilt for the young.

I imagined a slave who is beaten every day. His back is a map of the world. Most of it is now formed of hardened scars, and tough leathery skin. There are weals where recent punishments are starting to heal – long purple sores marking the trajectory of the whip. And then simple bleeding, raw gashes from yesterday’s beating.

Such is the surface of the world: the scars are our conventional farms, with tough, drying soil. The bleeding wounds are where we are now turning wilderness into farmland.

Through caring, wildlife- and bird-friendly farming can we give ourselves food and at the same time go some way to restoring the land. But first, we just need to eat and drink less.


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LAPWING: a small levy on middle-class coffee drinkers to finance bird-friendly farming

Stephen Moss’ book, Wild Kingdom, is about bringing back Britain’s wildlife. Industrialised farming since the Second World War has devastated Britain’s landscapes and the birds and animals that lived in it. Originally the destruction of our historical, zoologically rich farmland happened because we needed to feed ourselves during the war. Now it happens because we don’t want to spend properly on food – British people now spend 8% of their income on food compared to a third of their income a few generations ago.

We want cheap food and we enlist the supermarkets to put pressure on farmers. The farmers, in turn, put terrible pressure on the land and its flora and fauna.

Since food one of the most important things in our lives – as it is necessary for life – we should spend properly on it. We should be ready to pay for food which is not only wholesome for us (that is, fresh food, not processed food) but which is produced in a way which is wholesome for the land. Anything less is a false economy.

While it is not fair to put any more financial burden on people with low incomes who are struggling to make ends meet, lots of people in the UK could tolerate a higher spend on food. I expect many in the middle class don’t even know how much they are spending when they check out at Tesco or Sainsbury and certainly not those who check out at Waitrose.

The test is the espresso test. If you can afford an espresso, you can certainly afford to make a contribution to wholesome farming.

The logical conclusion, therefore, is a small levy on coffee to finance wildlife-friendly or bird-friendly farming schemes.

The levy could be called the Levy on the Affluent who Purchase fancy coffee, for Wildlife IN aGriculture or LAPWING – this being the name of a bird which has seen a dramatic decline on British farms. Or, for something shorter, LARK – Levy for Agriculture and Rewilding Know-how.

(photo from

I suggest starting with a trial levy of 30p a cup. I estimate some 10 million cups of fancy coffee are sold a day – about 20% of the 55 million which are consumed daily in the UK. This would raise £3 million each day. Over the course of a year this means around £1 billion. Invested each year into helping farmers farm more gently, this could go a long way to restore farmland habitat for larks, lapwings, corncrakes, curlews, tree sparrows, yellowhammers, turtle doves, hen harriers and so forth.

There might even be a bit left over to paying a fair price to the coffee grower so he, too, can farm in a bird-friendly way.

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Nature notes – Nature’s builders and more death gardening

Nature’s builders

Although calcium is recommended by doctors, the taste of cement and plaster, which are rich in calcium, is not pleasant. Yet, during a construction project you get a lot of calcium in your mouth. Consider, then, two creatures which are obliged, not having hands or machinery, to use their mouths for construction work.

On an early morning trip to Platform Construction Store in Budaörs to buy cement and bricks, I noticed that under the awnings of this building suppliers, house martins have built nests. The nests were placed directly above lights, and, happily, the good people of Platform had constructed wooden boarding around the light shades to collect poo from the nests. This stops the poo landing on employees, customers and goods.

It was good to see that Platform had taken care to solve a problem without simply wiping out the birds nests. This is rather rare example of courtesy to animals; perhaps a show of respect, by builders, of the skills that the house martins show in mud construction.

Martin's nest above light at Platform Construction Supplies

Let’s hope that the enormous amount of construction work around Budaörs does not remove the last sources of open water which the martins need to make their mix.

Back at the building site, I noticed a faint, repeated scratching sound coming from behind black foil taped on to a wooden ceiling beam to protect it from the plasterer. I climbed a ladder to inspect behind the foil, and saw this:

Dauber wasp cells

It is the work of the mud dauber wasp, who I had seen earlier collecting mud from wet ground around the house. In each chamber, I read, one larva is put, together with several small spiders as food – a bedroom with larder annex. The amphora-like chamber is then sealed, and the larva, in spring, by which time it has turned into a young wasp, will eat up the flies and then break out of the chamber.

Unfortunately, I disturbed the foil and stuck it back slightly differently. When the wasp appeared, it seemed not to be able to find the nest it was making.

Luckily, the next day I saw that the wasp had found its way back to the nest and continued its delicate construction work.

I am worried that if the nest stays in the house, then the larvae will not know what season it is, and mistime their growth and emerging from the nest. I am thinking it might be wise very carefully to remove the nest from the wooden beam and put it somewhere safe in the garden, where it will experience the proper temperature cycle of autumn, winter and spring. Consultation with an expert is needed.

Origins of death gardening

Death gardening, the style of gardening practised by town councils worldwide, the nouveau riche and other social groupings, seems to have its origins in the upper class. This is consistent with a view that the upper class start things off and then everyone copies them.

Look at the gardens of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, Versailles near Paris or Frederiksborg in Copenhagen.  You see straight lines, geometrical patterns, order, monotonous green or simple primary colours and much gravel; a statement of complete control over nature. These are the gardens of kings and emperors. Their realms thrive when they are ruthlessly controlled from the centre, when power is absolute, with no exception and no complaining. Naturally, the aesthetic tastes of such a ruler will reflect his curious psychology, hence a style of gardening which prefers death to life.

Even where non-straight shapes are allowed, they are formalised and just have one species of plant in.

A few hundred years later, the common man still considers this style of gardening desirable, such is the lure and comforting effect of absolute, centralised power.

Commercialisation of death gardening

First and foremost, a death gardener sees his job as to kill. This is the instruction he receives from his boss. And, armed with strimmer and motorised sprayer, to kill as loudly as possible. At the weekend I visited a source of the killing machine: OBI in Siofok. In the gardening section the first thing I saw were diverse chemicals and equipment aimed at killing or scaring: rats, mice, moles, pigeons, slugs, snails, aphids, mosquitos, other forms of flies and insects and even helpful arachnids … and moss (!!!). Moss??? What the fuck. Beautiful, soft, gentle, comforting, dewy, emerald moss. Yes, to garden is to kill.

In a country were intolerance is encouraged politically, it is not surprising to see such dramatic intolerance of other species. But so ruthlessly, on such an industrial scale, in the back garden?

Recent death gardening highlights

Outside our building project, the grass banks of the 59 tram were, until Tuesday, awash with blues, whites, purples and yellows of wild flowers. Then came a municipal death gardener and he not only exterminated the wild flowers, but also hacked to pieces two elderberry bushes which were making great progress and had enriched the street with its flowers and fruit, both suitable for making delicious and refreshing drinks.

I came across our neighbour’s gardener out in the street in front of our house, about to attack a frond of wild clematis with its exquisite dried flower preparing to give seed. He told me he had to remove it because it will be ugly. I told him it was from my garden and he should leave it alone. I also said that you shouldn’t cut stuff back until they have finished their growing in later September or October. I am not sure whether this is true or not, but it makes sense that a plant should be able to make as much use as possible of its nutrients. So why were these death gardeners hacking back the neighbours garden in the middle of August?

Outside the office a still flowering hedge was getting the chainsaw treatment. Bright pink flowers being brutally decapitated. Why plant flowers if you destroy them before the flowering is done?

Eliminating death gardening

I am not sure how death gardening will be eliminated. It will need a huge sprawling, unkempt movement with many unruly branches and tendrils: to make champions of brilliant wildlife gardeners; to replace IT lessons with wildlife gardening in schools; night time gorilla / guerrilla campaigns to sow wild flower seeds on pristine lawns and to replace decorative evergreens with indigenous fruit trees; punitive decibel tax on strimmers and leaf blowers; an international convention, hosted in Montreal, to outlaw the manufacture and sale of gardening weapons of mass destruction (GWMDs); electro-therapy for directors of municipal works to instil species tolerance; more conversations about moss and earwigs on Game of Thrones; replace the pointless Nobel Prize for economics with a Nobel Prize for garden permaculture; compulsory fence holes for hedgehogs; free days off work for scything lessons and gathering wildflower seeds; retraining the gardeners at Versailles and Schonbrunn as IT consultants, where their deep need for order will be put to better use.

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