As a young child, I became fascinated with wildlife. Soon, I was devoting every inch of my spare time to seeking out the UK’s rarest and most precious birds, mammals and insects. I would travel to what seemed at the time far-flung places such as Norfolk and Lincolnshire, roaming RSPB reserves in a quiet rhapsody.
As my passion for animals grew, I realised that the most pressing issue to solve was factory farming. So I dedicated my career to advancing the welfare of farm animals worldwide, and for the most part, wildlife remained a hobby. But as time passed I noticed the gradual decline of wildlife. I noticed the vast chemical soaked prairies. I noticed the seemingly endless corporate greed expanding into the countryside. I began putting two and two together. Perhaps it was more than a coincidence? Perhaps there was in fact a causal link?
The extent of the problem only became clear to me a few years ago, when I was in South Africa promoting my first book, Farmageddon. I was at Boulders Beach along the Cape Peninsula, where a colony of African penguins had recently set up home near to residential houses, and I came across a sign which sparked my interest enough to do some digging.
A visitor centre there sold all kinds of penguin memorabilia, but what struck me was the display board listing the ‘threats’ to the species, which included ‘reduction of penguin food supply by commercial fishing’.
I discovered that African penguins are now competing with commercial fisheries for food, severely depleting in numbers as we remove vast quantities of fish from the sea. But that’s not the worst of it: much of this fish isn’t going to feed humans. It’s being ground down, shipped halfway across the world and then fed to farm animals – caged and confined in cruel factory farms.
I decided to investigate more into how intensive farming is pushing wildlife to the brink of extinction. I found that jaguars in Brazil are pushed out of their homes to make way for ever-expanding plantations of soya. Elephants in Sumatra face the same fate as the palm industry tightens its grip on the country.
The two sides to factory farming
I began to see that there are two sides to factory farming. On the one hand, there is the cruelty inflicted on a massive scale to farm animals who deserve a better life. On the other, the habitat destruction, poisoning and pollution wreaked on the land in order to produce cheap animal feed. The findings of my investigation contributed to my book Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were.
Over the last decades farm animals have disappeared from the countryside. Cramming animals into cages and crowded sheds may look like a space-saving idea, but this ignores the fact that a vast amount of land is required elsewhere to grow food for them, often in huge crop prairies doused in chemical pesticides and fertilisers, squeezing wildlife out as industrial farming methods sweep the planet.
But with a marrying of farming and nature, both of these wrongs can be made right at once. There are beacons of hope across the world, helping turn the tide on this march towards extinction. Farmers are recognising that the way they farm has a huge bearing on biodiversity.
On well-managed pasture, animals convert what we can’t eat – grass – into what we can: meat, milk and eggs. In mixed and rotational systems, the soil is allowed to rest and be restored. This more natural way to produce food builds soil fertility, improves yields and avoids infestation by pests and disease. A key finding of Dead Zone is that these systems allow wildlife to thrive and take the pressure off the intensive animal feed industry.
This is where the future lies. Sustainable and humane farming systems are possible – we just need to support them. Moving away from factory farmed meat and dairy, and allowing the free-range, pasture-fed, and organic sectors to develop will bring a cascade of positive benefits to people, farm animals and wildlife alike.