In parallel with my job in nature photography, I’ve been a farmer for the last 20 years. Not a proper farmer you understand; not a paid up member of the NFU; no, I farm for wildlife on our humble plot of land in the Cairngorms. I’m a biodiversity farmer. I ‘produce’ nature – plants, trees, insects, birds and mammals. My next-door neighbour, a livestock farmer, doesn’t get it. He can’t see the ‘product’, the end result. He thinks our ‘unproductive’ patch of flood plain meadow and regenerating woodland is wasted. And yet in part at least, I farm for profit, just like him.
Many of my images (which I sell) were taken on our farm; many of our photo tour guests (who pay us) photograph on our farm and our self-catering cottage (which generates rent) attracts visitors who enjoy being on our farm. The insects, the birds and the trees all pay their way; they create revenue. What’s more, we don’t have to prostitute our values by getting into bed with those greedy supermarkets. No, biodiversity farming is a profitable and rewarding business.
There’s another significant advantage of being a land-owning farmer: I get a voice in the corridors of power. I’m no longer just a bunny-hugging do-gooder; I’m a legitimate part of the fabric that holds rural life together. As a farmer, I’m recognised as a proper custodian of the countryside. From such a privileged position I can legally kill things I don’t like. I can demand compensation for raptors attacking my lambs or game birds. I can get paid for geese scoffing my grass. I can apply to shoot cormorants, or even otters, taking ‘my’ fish out of ‘my’ river. I can object to beavers (if and when they arrive here) undermining ‘my’ riverbank. And as a landowner trying to earn a living in rural Scotland, people will listen; important people; people who make decisions; people who will put economics before almost anything.
As a biodiversity farmer I have no intention of complaining about the impact of other species on my livelihood. Oh but wait. Perhaps I can flex my land-owning muscles? Perhaps I do have grounds for retribution? If it’s OK to shoot corvids or foxes in the name of custodianship; if it’s acceptable to trap stoats and weasels; if I can get a licence to ‘manage’ (kill) geese or cormorants and receive a sympathetic ear to do the same to pine martens and buzzards, can I not simply shoot my neighbour’s sheep and cows for breaking the fence and scoffing my young trees and wildflowers? What about all those non-native, farm-reared pheasants that have been let loose and invaded my property, hoovering up my valuable insect life?
Are these not simply alternative examples of ‘inconvenient’ creatures impacting on my productivity? Perhaps sheep and pheasants are exempt from the ‘vermin’ list thanks to their (questionable) economic contribution to the rural economy? Or perhaps they’re spared thanks to some sort of illogical Grandfather Rights? Either way, I don’t get it.
Many farmers and landowners that I know make a valuable contribution to conserving and enhancing biodiversity on their land for wider public benefit. And so they should. This is not an attack on farmers or landowners, but on a broken cultural system that breeds irrationality and inconsistency; a system that encourages those that should be rewarded for protecting biodiversity, to selectively kill creatures whose only crime is that of existing. And as a society, our crime is that of acceptance.