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Not digging for victory: better land management by the Church

08 December 2023

The Church Commissioners and their tenant farmers are learning to work the land sustainably. Joe Ware reports on their progress

Church Commissioners

Scott Norris at Tan House Farm, near Brentwood, in Essex

Scott Norris at Tan House Farm, near Brentwood, in Essex

IN 2023, it has been hard to escape the fact that the world is facing a climate and nature crisis. Scientists predict that this will be the hottest year on record, as climate change continues to fuel global heating.

At the same time, this year’s State of Nature report, its fourth edition, has shown that nature in the UK continues to decline at worrying rates.

The report, a collaboration of more than 60 environmental NGOs and government bodies in the UK, calculates, since monitoring began in 1970, a decline of 31 per cent in amphibians and reptiles, 43 per cent in birds, and more than half of all plant species. The poet William Blake may have described England as a “green and pleasant land” in 1804, but the UK is now regarded as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.

Andy Lester, who is head of conservation for the Christian conservation charity A Rocha UK, one of the organisations that contributes to State of Nature, says that climate change is part of the problem: “Nature loss is outstripping our ability to act. At A Rocha UK we are working with nearly 50 landowners and managers through our Partners in Action programme to plant more trees, reseed chalk grasslands, and develop new wetlands.

“But the shift in climate is so great and so rapid that traditional methods of management are not cutting it any more. We need radical steps. The New Testament talks about creation groaning. Creation is not groaning: it’s screaming like the Edvard Munch painting.”

Andy Lester, head of conservation at A Rocha UK

Mr Lester sees parallels between the story of Noah and the part played by Christians in creation care. “Here, we had a man who has been told by God that the current systems are failing and to build something new. As with Noah, taking radical steps may mean people might think you’re an idiot, or say they love what you’re trying to do, but it’s impossible. But, if we’re called to be obedient, then we have to act. Anything else is walking away from Christ, away from hope.”

As one of the largest landowners in the country, the Church has an opportunity to play a key part in reversing this decline in nature, and also ensuring that church land helps to tackle rather than contribute to the climate crisis. A Rocha has calculated that the land owned or managed by churches and Christians in the UK covers an area of about 500,000 acres. This is 1.5 times the area of Greater London. Much of the land owned by the Church is agricultural. Operation Noah estimates that this is likely to create more greenhouse-gas emissions than all the Church of England buildings combined.

THE relationship between farming and climate change is double-edged. Although energy and transport, with their fumes and fossil-fuel burning, are often seen as the main culprits causing the climate crisis, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that food production is responsible for 31 per cent of all greenhouse-gas emissions. Some of these emissions come from methane, generated by ruminants, especially cattle and sheep.

This is why the UK Climate Change Committee has advised that, to help to reduce emissions, it is good for people to change their diets to reduce the amount of beef and lamb, and shift to pork, chicken, and vegetables.

Agricultural emissions also come from fuel used for machinery and from pesticides that can also reduce biodiversity.

Of the £2.5 billion-worth of physical assets (as opposed to financial ones) owned by the Church Commissioners, roughly 60 per cent are land, which includes farmland, forestry, and land to be developed for housing and other infrastructure.

Farming generates 112,000 tonnes out of the total 140,000 tonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent which is produced on land owned by the Commissioners. These emissions drive climate change, which, in turn, has a negative impact on agriculture. Studies suggest that one third of global food production is at risk from the climate crisis. This is a particular problem in poorer, developing countries, where many people rely on farming for their food and livelihoods.

About ten per cent of the land is not classed as productive farmland, and here the Commissioners have identified areas for nature restoration. One example is Bartonsham Meadows, near Hereford, which is often flooded by the River Wye.

A 25-year lease has been agreed with the Hereford Wildlife Trust to turn it into a wildflower and flood-plain meadow. This will make it a better store of carbon dioxide, and it will provide a home for skylarks, barn owls, and voles, and attract pollinators such as orange-tip butterflies and bumblebees.

THE majority of the Commissioners’ land is commercial farmland. It is where the biggest impact can be made. Of this farmland, 15 per cent is Grade I; 26 per cent is Grade II; and 49 per cent is Grade III. These are all classed, to varying degrees, as “productive” in terms of growing food. Among the more than 500 tenants who farm this land, some are working with the Commissioners’ Real Assets team to ensure that the land is managed sustainably, in a way that generates environmental benefits as well as food.

Paul Temple runs Wold Farm, a mixed arable and livestock farm in East Yorkshire. He has adopted a “no-till” approach to his soil, which has meant that more carbon dioxide is left locked up in the ground, where it does not cause climate change, besides benefiting nature and reducing costs. He said: “By not disturbing the soil, we’re seeing far more beneficial insect life than we would have done with our previous cultivation techniques.

Church CommissionersPaul Temple at Wold Farm

“Disturbing a soil habitat clearly has consequences for overall biodiversity, and this is the first year that we haven’t used a single insecticide. We don’t need to look at land in terms of acres, but in terms of the health of the soil and its longevity. We may have lost some of our yield to obtain better conservation practices, but this creates better and more sustainable long-term production, and can increase margins through reduced costs.”

The reduced costs that come from a gentler and more hands-off approach to the land can be considerable, Mr Temple’s example suggests. “Our no-till approach means we don’t use lots of heavy machinery,” he said. “The cost of machinery is shooting up, which is a serious issue for the business case of farming. But this creates opportunities: by using fewer tractors, less horsepower, we can measure reduction of fuel use and man-hours, a meaningful gauge of environmental sustainability.”

Mr Lester also backs this kind of approach. He said: “It’s not that we need to impose a 100 per cent rewilded management regime that doesn’t produce food. For a tenant farmer who prides themselves on food production, the idea of excluding farming from rewilded landscapes can be painful. There are ways of doing both. It’s about creating reconnected landscapes rather than simply a rewilded one. Reconnect land, nature, and soils.

“It’s about extensive grazing rather than intensive; crop rotation, farm shops, and diversified economies, as well as government incentives such as payments for nature on top of that. A diversified farm system can still be productive, and is often more resilient to climate change and much better for nature.”

BESIDES being a source of emissions that drive climate change, Church-owned farms are feeling the effects, too. Jon Rooke, a potato farmer in North Yorkshire, manages the White Skye Farm. He said: “We face monumental challenges in the face of climate change, and shifting weather patterns put pressure on our business model. It’s very different now: its all or nothing, from a climate perspective, and there is nothing gradual in terms of rainfall or droughts.”

To address emissions, the Commissioners are encouraging their tenants to carry out carbon audits on their farms. Mr Rooke has not done so yet, but is planning to, while Scott Norris, a farmer near Brentwood, in Essex, has started the process.

Church CommissionersJon Rooke

“At Tan House Farm, we’re in the process of undertaking a carbon audit, using the Farm Carbon Toolkit,” Mr Norris said. “This survey takes in different information about our holdings, such as machinery, inputs, planting, and crop rotation, and determines a rating, with a report on how to further improve carbon emissions. The result of this survey will form a baseline which captures greenhouse gas emissions, allowing us to monitor what we can do to ultimately reach net zero. We also hope to undertake a similar exercise across our wider agricultural business.”

Ciara Williams, from the Commissioners’ Real Assets team, acknowledged that many of their tenant farmers have been using regenerative farming techniques, to varying degrees, for many years, but said that there had been a new direction towards sustainability from the Commissioners in the past five years. “We always try and work collaboratively with the tenants,” she said. “We don’t tell them how to farm: we try to encourage and support. We’re encouraged that most of our farmers recognise the challenge of farming sustainably.”

As well as their direct work with tenants, the Commissioners’ large holdings allow them to use their influence for “landscape-scale change”, as Ms Williams puts it: “In Cumbria, we have a block of land, and have been able to bring neighbouring tenants together to improve the state of nature. Wildlife doesn’t take notice of farm boundaries, and so, by working with multiple neighbouring farmers, we can make changes which, hopefully, improve biodiversity on a bigger scale.”

DESPITE the new focus on emissions reductions and nature recovery, the Commissioners currently have not set themselves any targets to measure progress, which, they admit, is different from other landowners. They believe that there is a limited ability to measure this accurately, and say that it varies according to what is appropriate for each individual farm.

Sharon Hall, a campaign officer at Operation Noah, believes that some targets would help to track progress and allow for good work to be celebrated. “In the past, the Church Commissioners have probably not been the most ambitious when it comes to regenerative farming and biodiversity, aiming to be more in the middle of the pack, compared with other big landowners, like the Duchy of Cornwall, which has emphasised best practice. But there’s been a noticeable shift in the last few years at the Commissioners, and movement is happening that means the Church can set an example for others.

“The levers that an institution like the Commissioners can pull are huge in terms of the impact they can have at a national level. That’s why we’d love to see them taking even bolder steps, setting some targets, even if it’s just things like the number of carbon audits. It’s not about telling farmers how to farm, but, as landlords, there are things they could do to incentivise their tenants, like maybe reimbursing the costs of the audits, or extending leases.”

Mr Lester has another Bible story that speaks to the issue. He said: “In John 21, the disciples are fishing. The resurrection has just happened; they are still confused, and have just lost their best friend. They are experienced fishermen, trying to provide food for their families, but are failing. A man they don’t recognise tells them to do something different, and put their nets in over there. They could have said ‘Who are you? Shove off.’ But, instead, they try his idea, and it bears fruit. Once they reach the shore, Jesus could have berated them for not acting sooner, but he breaks bread with them and creates community.

“This is the challenge. Trying something new can be discomfiting, but when it comes to how we manage our land, if we don’t change what we’ve done in the past, we will be in serious trouble. We are living in a John 21 moment, and at its heart is the need to listen to others’ voices and be obedient to the call of God.”

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