Gareth Wyn Jones & Ben Goldsmith
The Argument That Never Happened
Season 3 / Episode 39 / April 21, 2021
Debate: Should farmers be encouraged to rewild areas of their land? With Ben Goldsmith and Gareth Wyn Jones.
In this unique episode of Cleaning Up, Michael Liebreich is joined by Ben Goldsmith and Gareth Wyn Jones, both farmers, but with different outlooks on how farming can fight the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss. Michael brought them together to debate rewilding, which Ben thinks farmers should be encouraged to do with the aid of government schemes. Gareth, however, has seen the adverse effects that the reintroduction of various species can have on farming and agriculture.
Below is an abridged transcript of the debate, edited for clarity.
Michael Liebreich: Ben and Gareth, welcome to Cleaning Up. Gareth, can you start by describing how and where you farm?
Gareth Wyn Jones: My farm is on the foothills of the Carneddau mountains, which is 27,000 acres of open land. We have the grazing rights for ponies and sheep, but the Queen and the National Trust own large parts of the land.
We now run about 4000 ewes in the family, which sounds like a lot. But there were four brothers in the business and my father was one of them. Each one of them brought a son into the business. So, at one point there was eight of us living off them sheep.
You must know how to manage the land and if you don’t any group of animals can be a problem. We’ve got a word in Welsh, cynefin, or hefting in English. It means belonging to a certain area. When I was a young boy, I would travel with my father. We would take the sheep to different areas of the mountain and that mountain is full of different habitats. It's a mosaic, there’s heather, grasses, blanket bogs, and wetlands. These are all the places that we were taught as children to take our animals.
ML: Ben, you are a big advocate for rewilding. One of the problems with rewilding farming spaces is where to do it. You are going to come up against somebody who says farming landscapes are traditional. In the Lake District, for example, people will say, rewilding is a good idea but they won’t want it there. Second, how would rewilding affect the market?
Ben Goldsmith: Environmentalists would like to see a dappling of trees and scrub appearing on what are fundamentally semi-open landscapes. Amidst those trees and scrub, you would still have the traditional hefted sheep and native cattle. Native horses are something that I would also love to see. They all play their own part in the ecology, and they all play their own part in the economy of the region. If you could get the market to recognise the value of food produced in this way, then someone like Gareth should be selling their meat at a premium because it is the highest quality meat you can buy. That's what you want to be cooking for your family, not some junk produced in a factory yard, where the animals are stuffed with grain or whatever.
So, if the food is produced in that way, there should be some sort of recognition for that on the part of the market. And that's partly about curtailing the cartel buying power of the supermarkets. It's partly about making sure there are proper standards applied to imports that match the standards that we apply to producers here in the UK. Also, if society wishes to see the reemergence of these wood pasture landscapes, there should be some incentive, some payment for that, because there will be economic as well as other societal benefits. There will be less flooding potentially, and carbon sequestration, and greater biodiversity.
GWJ: I am not against planting any trees. We are working with a National Lottery Heritage Fund. We won £2.4 million on the mountains. I was the chairman and we worked very hard to get this lottery funding and we are going to be planting trees on the mountain in certain areas, and have I got a problem with that? Definitely not.
I've got a problem with policymakers, the people in Whitehall and down in our Welsh Assembly, who are not listening to the people that are on the coalface, the people that know these lands are all different. Whichever way you are looking at it, there's different scenarios on every farm. When they put in a big blanket scheme across Wales and England, and say, plant x amount trees, do this and do that, it does not work.
ML: Rewilding is not just about flora, it also includes fauna, too. One of the methods of rewilding is the reintroduction of species. Gareth, have you got any beavers, for example, on your farm. What would you think about reintroducing them?
GWJ: I haven't got a problem with beavers. I think if people are reintroducing them, we should reintroduce them in places where we can look at the effects scientifically. Let’s fence them in and see what they bring to the economy, environment, and the area. If it is working, I have not got a problem. If they show me the statistics that suggest these beavers have made the difference in this area, I would not have any problem with seeing them on our river.
I think governments have got a massive problem because we look at what we've got out of balance and that is the badger. I love badgers, we've got badgers here, but as a boy, I'd never seen one. There is a lot of them in this area now. Thank God we haven't got TB. But the problem is that government brought a policy to protect these animals and they are lovely, but if we don't keep the balance, we will lose so much. And I will tell you, as a boy, there would be hedgehogs everywhere but these badgers are killing every hedgehog. They are trashing our ground nesting birds. It’s not just about the TB: we have to have a balance.
BG: I don't think we disagree. I don't have a problem with killing stuff, I don't subscribe to the view that man is somehow separate from nature, I think we're absolutely part of the fabric of the natural world. We do have a role to play in maintaining balance, but I would argue that a more complete ecosystem is perhaps more likely to be closer to balance by itself than one which has been impoverished. For example, nobody talked about midges in the west of Scotland in the 1860s to 1880s. But now midges are such a big problem that you can barely go to the west of Scotland in August. I think that things like the explosion of midges in the west of Scotland, or the explosion of jellyfish that have taken place in the Mediterranean in the last 10 years, is because we've removed the things which control them. All I say is that when you rebuild the jigsaw puzzle, and you restore some degree of ecological health, our role as the imposer of balance becomes a little bit less significant than it might otherwise be.
ML: The libertarian free traders would say, Ben, you have betrayed the right-wing. Today you’ve talked about the taxpayer paying for various schemes. But, in the libertarian mindset, if Gareth can't make it work he should go away. He should open a B&B or should do something else. But he should not be farming if he cannot be competitive, right?
BG: I believe in free and fair markets. I don't think a market in which we tell our farmers that they can't use sow crates, but we import pork raised from sow crates from abroad is fair. I believe in setting the same standards on imports as we set on those that produce our food domestically.
The second thing is, it’s not a genuinely fair market if you're causing damage that society has to cover the cost of. For example, if I'm a big factory pig farmer in North Carolina and my factory pig unit is polluting the air around my farm, the slurry is polluting the water, I'm probably killing the fish stocks and society is carrying all those costs. That's not a fair market, polluters should pay. So, if you are running an operation which is causing cost to society, those costs should be internalized in your business. I'm in favor of regulation that says that you can't spread slurry alongside the river and so on.
Third, I'm also in favor of applying a fair economic value on things which are public goods. For example, if Gareth is going to help reduce flooding by pursuing certain land management actions on his farm, he should be paid by the taxpayer for doing that. Or if Gareth is going to absorb carbon into his land by doing certain practices that change the way the land functions and more carbon is stored, he should be paid for that. If society chooses that it wants the lynx back in a particular landscape, then it should pay a fair and market price to those landowners that are going to have to spend their time figuring out how to deliver that.
ML: Gareth, does the compensation for annoyances or intrusion or lost animals work?
GWJ: The mountain itself is 27,000 acres, and there's a lot of farmers that live off that. Let's not forget, as well, we're producing one of the best qualities of protein from a very poor landscape. There's not a lot else you could do with that and to produce that top quality protein to feed people. I think is important. When we get that balance, right, let's say for argument's sake, they bring the lynx in, and in five or six years, we find out that the lynx aren’t taking many sheep, but they're eating the dead carcasses. But if we're finding, you know, that these animals are making a massive dent into our livelihoods – that’s a completely different story.