Amongst some environmentalist communities there is a push for “rewilding” which is sometimes seems like a plea to stop farming and let nature rebalance itself. George Monbiot talks about being able to see otters in Scotland this summer and how we should stop intensifying agriculture and let nature take its course and let wolves and lynxes lose to control deer. This weekend I helped a friend recover equipment from a campsite on Mull abandoned in last weeks wind and rain. It was a chance to revisit the Hebrides after a few years away. What is notable is how native woodlands are recovering and how much they contrast with the gloomy plantations of conifers. We walked along the coast where native wild flowers bloom on abandoned ridge and furrow beds from the long dead crofting villages. I farmed on the Hebrides over 30 years ago and I know the difficulties of markets and weather on those remote islands, there was plenty of wild life there then and fewer tourists looking at it. Is it really better environmentally that we are encouraging long distance travel to see wildlife ? The marginal lands across the UK are less farmed now and this does make space for wild life. It is a new form of Highland clearance with the new masters of society preferring wild life to people. Sheep and cattle numbers have been falling for years, partly because of changes in subsidy regimes but also because we can produce more milk and meat from less land and inputs. We also import plenty of food which is a way of moving our environmental impact to other countries. Patterns of meat consumption have also changed with less grass fed lamb and more cereal fed chicken.
Creating wild areas is only possible because intensification of agriculture has removed the need to farm marginal land on which the plough marks of former villages can still be seen. Intensification does not even mean more pollution, the UK is intensively farmed and has some of the lowest nitrate pollution of water in the EU. The new water framework directive will put more subsidised features in place such as stopping cattle getting into rivers and creating field boundaries to allow run-off to settle. The more that we seek to manage diffuse pollution the more we have to control and so more cows will move inside where the manure can be captured and converted to biogas and damage to the field minimised. We will produce the milk we need from fewer cows and the lamb from fewer sheep all of which creates space for the rewilding. The role of engineers is to provide the tools needed to improve animal welfare and the one area of work I would like to promote is the integration of robotic milking and grazing using weather predictions to adjust the diet of cows proactively so that they can use grass with buffer feed and avoid damage to fields. At eCow we are dedicated to improved production and high welfare through better technology.