In the UK the research project primarily focuses on agri-environmental governance (AEG) developments in Herefordshire. The English county lies in the Western Midlands and is generally regarded as rural and economically weak due to its comparatively low population density and continued reliance on the agri-food sector. Herefordshire beef cattle, cider and potatoes are the county’s iconic products. Mixed farms with livestock on permanent pastures and arable crops still dominate in today’s picture, yet the farmed landscape also hosts a few large dairy farms and soft fruit producers alongside an ever-growing number of poultry sheds. Thus, not surprisingly Cargill Meats Europe and Bulmers (since 2008 owned by Heineken) rank among the main employers and buyers of farm produce within the county.
The major environmental concern represents deteriorating water quality and associated biodiversity loss in the river Wye and its tributaries. By 2015, 44 out of 50 waterbodies in the county were considered to be in moderate, poor or bad status due to elevated nutrient and/or sediment loadings negatively impacting on water quality, the number and diversity you would expect to find in invertebrate and fish populations. These watercourses are home to both rare and precious species including otter and Atlantic salmon and hence include features designated as Special Areas of Conservation and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Phosphate losses from farmland have been identified as one of the key issues, which notably not only affects the environment, but also further anthropocentric development. Economic growth has come under threat as housing and industry expansion will have to stop if the water quality is not brought back into compliance with environmental regulations, namely the EU’s Water Framework Directive and the Habitats Directive.
Currently several initiatives seek to address this problem through voluntary governance measures aimed at engaging the farming community. Natural England, for instance, runs the Catchment Sensitive Farming project to reduce agricultural water pollution. This initiative has recently been integrated into the country’s wider agri-environmental scheme and can thus be accessed through the Countryside Stewardship. The industry-led Campaign for the Farmed Environment is another example which seeks “to demonstrate how the industry collectively takes responsibility for achieving environmental benefit alongside profitable farming” (CFE 2013). Other examples include the work of the Wye & Usk Foundation or the Herefordshire Wildlife Trust, both non-profit environmental organisations, that directly work with farmers, regulators, and agro-industry on a project-by-project basis.
Farm Herefordshire – itself subsumed under the Wye Catchment Partnership – has recently taken up the challenge to better coordinate these individual efforts within the the county to communicate more coherent advice and information on the phosphate issue. This last approach will serve as a core case study in order to understand how the multiplicity of AEG works on the ground. It will help to elicit our understanding of the social dimensions of AEG, which induce or inhibit change in people’s attitudes and practices towards the environment.
Additionally, and for comparative purposes two other AEG instruments will be examined more closely. First, the Ecosystem Enterprise Partnership – Ecobank in the Welsh county of Pembrokeshire, which aims to tackle a very similar environmental challenge with the help of a market-based nutrient trading scheme; and second, the recently launched nation-wide certification scheme Pasture for Life, which is promoting the benefits of 100% grass-fed beef, lamb and dairy products for consumers, farmers and the environment. While this latter case obviously addresses broader societal and environmental concerns, it will also be useful to investigate how the more mundane challenges such as diffuse pollution are being dealt with.