‘Send in the drones’ to protect soil

Squadrons of drones should be deployed to locate and penalise farmers who let soil run off their fields, a report will say.

A coalition of campaigners complains that the Environment Agency can only check soil on 0.5% of farms each year.

Their report says drones can help to spot bad farming, which is said to cost more than £1.2bn a year by clogging rivers and contributing to floods.

The government said it was considering the ideas for combating soil run-off

The proposals come from the Angling Trust, WWF and the Rivers Trust – with support from the RSPB. Their preliminary briefing has been seen by the Environment Secretary Michael Gove.

The groups say poor farming is the chief cause of the UK’s decline in the health of rivers, and a major contributor to flooding.

They calculate that investment in stopping soil loss would pay back many times over.

But, they say, Environment Agency enforcement of soil protection is under-funded, and careless farming in remote fields is often hard to spot.

The challenge is particularly acute in the West Country where many farmers grow maize on steep slopes. The plants are widely spaced and soil left uncovered between them is liable to be flushed away in heavy rains.

Over-stocking livestock is another problem, as hooves compact fields and create a crust which blocks water from seeping into the sub-soil.

In Herefordshire, a trial drone surveillance scheme is said by the report to have worked well to prevent soil loss.

It focuses on maize – and also on potatoes, which exhaust soil and make it more likely to be washed away.

National effort

Under the trial, the Environment Agency shifted its local budget towards drones. Guided by a contour map, it identified the areas of fields most susceptible to losing soil in heavy rain.

The Agency offset the cost of drones by handing their farm advisory role locally to the Wye and Usk Foundation.

Simon Evans, a spokesman for the foundation, told BBC News: “When we started to tackle this problem in 2000 we had lost spawning salmon along the whole length of the English Wye.

“Working with the Agency hasn’t only improved soil – it’s also benefited fish, because we’ve now got 65 miles of the Wye with salmon spawning successfully.”

The report will urge ministers to replicate this scheme on a national level.

One of its authors, Mark Lloyd from the Angling Trust, told BBC News: “The rules on protecting soil aren’t being enforced. We need a baseline of regulation to stop bad farmers doing the wrong thing and to stop good farmers looking over the fence and seeing someone else get away with it.

“The trouble is that the Environment Agency can only respond to major incidents. But soil run-off is diffuse pollution – it comes in hundreds of thousands of trickles, not normally one big incident.”

“What we really need is Treasury support, because for an investment of tens of millions of pounds you get hundreds or billions of pounds in benefit to local councils, water companies, and society as a whole.”

The report will call for a strategic approach to land use management in the UK, to be overseen by the new body proposed by Mr Gove to ensure environmental standards post-Brexit.

This would allow different farming practices in different areas. It would lead to farmers in parts of the West Country being incentivised to revert cropland to pasture or woodland to capture rainfall and bind vulnerable soils together.

The groups say farmers who allow soil to run off fields should first be given advice. But if they transgress again they should be prosecuted and lose farm grants.

Farmers who help prevent flooding and increase the carbon content of their soils should be rewarded through the grant system.

Investing in soil

One potato farmer, Sam Bright from Woodmanton, told BBC News he had worked with the Wye and Usk Foundation to improve soil conservation through a range of measures, including planting buffer strips of grass round field edges; increasing pastureland; and using minimum tillage, which avoids the traditional method of overturning soil with a plough.

In earlier years, he used to sell off his wheat straw to livestock farmers after harvest – now he chops it and leaves it on the soil surface. “The worms are pulling the straw residue right down into the soil for us. So we’ve got good organic levels right through the soil profile. It’s improving our drainage, our soil structure and our soil health,” he told me.

Kate Adams from the Wye and Usk Foundation has been advising local farmers. “The biggest step by far is for a farmer to take the first step in acknowledging that there’s something on the farm that needs to be addressed,” she told BBC News.

“I don’t tell farmers what to do. There’s no point me selling them a conservation message if that’s not what they are interested in. Whatever advice I give has to go with the grain of what they want to do. And most of them want to improve how their farm works.”

The NFU’s Diane Mitchell told me: “The awareness amongst farmers about the importance of investing in our soil health is at an all-time high, with increasing uptake in techniques such as cover cropping and minimum tillage.

“The NFU sees good soil health as a key element of any new domestic agricultural policy in the future, helping deliver dual benefits for our productivity and for public goods, such as carbon and soil biodiversity.”

A government spokesman told BBC News: “Our farmers work hard to keep our soils rich, our rivers clean and to help in the fight against environmental degradation. We are considering the proposals put forward (in the report) to improve these efforts further.


Soil benefits

The report says protecting soil has multiple benefits. It:

  • improves the ability of future farmers to grow crops,
  • save on fertilisers and pesticides;
  • reduces the need for dredging;
  • is good for anglers and tourism;
  • reduces flooding;
  • protects against drought by recharging aquifers;
  • uses less diesel by minimising ploughing;
  • saves costs for water firms, so cuts bills;
  • locks up carbon to tackle climate change;
  • increases wildlife.

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Up close and personal with the biggest drone squadron ever

Before taking office, Donald Trump called the war in Afghanistan a “total disaster”. But last August he changed his mind and announced that the US would stay until the war was – in his words – “won”. Military commanders see air power as key to the hoped-for victory, and have assembled in the country what they say is the biggest drone squadron ever.

I’m lying in the belly of a KC-135 “stratotanker”, peering down at the snowy IS-infested mountains of north-eastern Afghanistan.

Suddenly the first wasp-like F16 fighter jet comes into view. It delicately positions itself under the boom that hangs down from the back of this flying fuel tank and – moments later – has locked on. The “Viper” is now taking on hundreds of pounds of aviation fuel a second.

We are so close I can see the pilot glance up at me, yet – unbelievably – this intricate ballet is playing out at 20,000ft and at 500mph.

A couple of minutes later, its tanks full, the fighter arcs away and another noses up to take its place.

The scene is so dramatic, beautiful and bizarrely serene it is easy to forget its real purpose – wreaking havoc and death among the insurgent fighters that have been making steady inroads in Afghanistan since the Nato combat mission here ended in December 2014.


KC-135 “Stratotanker”

  • It is the backbone of the air war in Afghanistan, yet has been part of the American fleet for an incredible 60 years
  • Stratotankers are key to the air war because fighter jets typically can’t fly long missions – the KC-135 allows them to attack targets and provide air cover to ground troops for much longer
  • The plan is to keep the KC-135 fleet in service for another 40 years – raising the astonishing possibility that fighter aircraft in battles in the middle of this century could be being serviced by a plane that is almost 100 years old

    The sense of being insulated from the conflict is hard to shake.

    Back on the tarmac at Kandahar airbase, I watch an MQ-9 wobble uncertainly out on to the runway.

    The “Reaper” drone is surprisingly flimsy-looking, but this strange creature with its domed fuselage, distinctive downward slanted tailfins and rear-mounted propeller is probably the most controversial aircraft in America’s entire fleet.

    The MQ-9 represents asymmetrical warfare at its most stark.

    Critics say these “unmanned aerial vehicles”, as the US Air Force prefers to call them, alter the moral calculus of war by taking the pilots out of the planes, thereby converting deadly conflict into something more like a video game.

    Maj Gen James B Hecker has the buzz cut, square jaw and easy manner you’d expect of a senior US Air Force officer. I’m worried he might be uncomfortable talking about the ethics of the drone war. But, as we sit in the shade of some sand-coloured camouflage netting alongside the runway, it becomes clear he’s actually keen to talk about this notorious aircraft.

    As he talks, I realise why.

    He explains he’s spent thousands of hours in the air-conditioned comfort of an airbase base back home in the US watching the footage from the array of high-tech cameras and sensors that are packed into the MQ-9.

    “I’ve spent weeks looking at a single compound in Afghanistan,” he tells me.

    “You kinda get to understand the patterns of life. You get a sense of belonging. You’re kinda in touch with them when you watch them for so long.

    “You watch dad playing soccer with his son, you watch him flying his kite with his daughter and kiss his wife goodnight. And you watch him sleep outside in the summer when it is hot.”

    He pauses, giving me a moment to consider this chillingly intimate image.

    I imagine the invisible aircraft, thousands of feet above the scene, its blank eyes staring down at the banal routines of family life.

    “Then dad would go out and plant an IED” – a home-made explosive device – “that might kill one of our soldiers, and then we would have to take him out.”

    He says this without any apparent emotion, and pauses again.

    “We have to do that. We know that son, that daughter, will never have a dad again, OK? And that wife will never have a husband. Now that’s the last thing we want. But what we won’t stand for is for the Taliban to go in and kill a bunch of innocents. And that’s what they are doing right now – blowing up innocent people.”

    This idea of unblinking surveillance backed up by deadly force is, of course, the most potent of propaganda.

    The message back home is that these drones are precise, even surgical tools, dispensing death only when the target has been identified with certainty.

    The message to the insurgents is very different – “We are always watching, you are never safe.”


    Find out more

    • From Our Own Correspondent has insight and analysis from BBC journalists, correspondents and writers from around the world
    • Listen on iPlayer, get the podcast or listen on the BBC World Service, or on Radio 4 on Saturdays at 11:30 BST
    • Read: Russia ‘arming the Afghan Taliban’, says US

      The vast drone squadron America has amassed here – along with all the other aircraft – is evidence of the massive increase in the intensity of the air war that is a key part of President Trump’s new strategy in Afghanistan.

      Another key part is building the offensive capability of Afghan forces.

      According to the commander of US forces here, Gen John Nicholson, the message to the Taliban is simple: “Reconcile or die.”

      What he means is, “We will continue the fight until you are willing to negotiate some kind of peace.”

      But it is a message the Taliban have heard before.

      The truth is, the war here in Afghanistan has always been giddyingly unbalanced.

      Killing has always been easy for the coalition forces.

      Seventeen years into this conflict, the real challenge remains trying to create real momentum towards peace and stability.

      And the commanders here really do believe that is happening now.

      Other observers insist peace remains as elusive as ever, despite the technical wizardry bearing down on this fractured country.


      Read more

      The most feared bomber plane of the 20th Century is still going strong after 60 years in service in the US military – from Vietnam to Afghanistan. And she will keep on flying until 2044. How does this 1950s behemoth survive in the era of drones and stealth aircraft?

      Read: America’s iconic war machine

Up close and personal with the biggest drone squadron ever

Before taking office, Donald Trump called the war in Afghanistan a “total disaster”. But last August he changed his mind and announced that the US would stay until the war was – in his words – “won”. Military commanders see air power as key to the hoped-for victory, and have assembled in the country what they say is the biggest drone squadron ever.

I’m lying in the belly of a KC-135 “stratotanker”, peering down at the snowy IS-infested mountains of north-eastern Afghanistan.

Suddenly the first wasp-like F16 fighter jet comes into view. It delicately positions itself under the boom that hangs down from the back of this flying fuel tank and – moments later – has locked on. The “Viper” is now taking on hundreds of pounds of aviation fuel a second.

We are so close I can see the pilot glance up at me, yet – unbelievably – this intricate ballet is playing out at 20,000ft and at 500mph.

A couple of minutes later, its tanks full, the fighter arcs away and another noses up to take its place.

The scene is so dramatic, beautiful and bizarrely serene it is easy to forget its real purpose – wreaking havoc and death among the insurgent fighters that have been making steady inroads in Afghanistan since the Nato combat mission here ended in December 2014.


KC-135 “Stratotanker”

  • It is the backbone of the air war in Afghanistan, yet has been part of the American fleet for an incredible 60 years
  • Stratotankers are key to the air war because fighter jets typically can’t fly long missions – the KC-135 allows them to attack targets and provide air cover to ground troops for much longer
  • The plan is to keep the KC-135 fleet in service for another 40 years – raising the astonishing possibility that fighter aircraft in battles in the middle of this century could be being serviced by a plane that is almost 100 years old

    The sense of being insulated from the conflict is hard to shake.

    Back on the tarmac at Kandahar airbase, I watch an MQ-9 wobble uncertainly out on to the runway.

    The “Reaper” drone is surprisingly flimsy-looking, but this strange creature with its domed fuselage, distinctive downward slanted tailfins and rear-mounted propeller is probably the most controversial aircraft in America’s entire fleet.

    The MQ-9 represents asymmetrical warfare at its most stark.

    Critics say these “unmanned aerial vehicles”, as the US Air Force prefers to call them, alter the moral calculus of war by taking the pilots out of the planes, thereby converting deadly conflict into something more like a video game.

    Maj Gen James B Hecker has the buzz cut, square jaw and easy manner you’d expect of a senior US Air Force officer. I’m worried he might be uncomfortable talking about the ethics of the drone war. But, as we sit in the shade of some sand-coloured camouflage netting alongside the runway, it becomes clear he’s actually keen to talk about this notorious aircraft.

    As he talks, I realise why.

    He explains he’s spent thousands of hours in the air-conditioned comfort of an airbase base back home in the US watching the footage from the array of high-tech cameras and sensors that are packed into the MQ-9.

    “I’ve spent weeks looking at a single compound in Afghanistan,” he tells me.

    “You kinda get to understand the patterns of life. You get a sense of belonging. You’re kinda in touch with them when you watch them for so long.

    “You watch dad playing soccer with his son, you watch him flying his kite with his daughter and kiss his wife goodnight. And you watch him sleep outside in the summer when it is hot.”

    He pauses, giving me a moment to consider this chillingly intimate image.

    I imagine the invisible aircraft, thousands of feet above the scene, its blank eyes staring down at the banal routines of family life.

    “Then dad would go out and plant an IED” – a home-made explosive device – “that might kill one of our soldiers, and then we would have to take him out.”

    He says this without any apparent emotion, and pauses again.

    “We have to do that. We know that son, that daughter, will never have a dad again, OK? And that wife will never have a husband. Now that’s the last thing we want. But what we won’t stand for is for the Taliban to go in and kill a bunch of innocents. And that’s what they are doing right now – blowing up innocent people.”

    This idea of unblinking surveillance backed up by deadly force is, of course, the most potent of propaganda.

    The message back home is that these drones are precise, even surgical tools, dispensing death only when the target has been identified with certainty.

    The message to the insurgents is very different – “We are always watching, you are never safe.”


    Find out more

    • From Our Own Correspondent has insight and analysis from BBC journalists, correspondents and writers from around the world
    • Listen on iPlayer, get the podcast or listen on the BBC World Service, or on Radio 4 on Saturdays at 11:30 BST
    • Read: Russia ‘arming the Afghan Taliban’, says US

      The vast drone squadron America has amassed here – along with all the other aircraft – is evidence of the massive increase in the intensity of the air war that is a key part of President Trump’s new strategy in Afghanistan.

      Another key part is building the offensive capability of Afghan forces.

      According to the commander of US forces here, Gen John Nicholson, the message to the Taliban is simple: “Reconcile or die.”

      What he means is, “We will continue the fight until you are willing to negotiate some kind of peace.”

      But it is a message the Taliban have heard before.

      The truth is, the war here in Afghanistan has always been giddyingly unbalanced.

      Killing has always been easy for the coalition forces.

      Seventeen years into this conflict, the real challenge remains trying to create real momentum towards peace and stability.

      And the commanders here really do believe that is happening now.

      Other observers insist peace remains as elusive as ever, despite the technical wizardry bearing down on this fractured country.


      Read more

      The most feared bomber plane of the 20th Century is still going strong after 60 years in service in the US military – from Vietnam to Afghanistan. And she will keep on flying until 2044. How does this 1950s behemoth survive in the era of drones and stealth aircraft?

      Read: America’s iconic war machine

Up close and personal with the biggest drone squadron ever

Before taking office, Donald Trump called the war in Afghanistan a “total disaster”. But last August he changed his mind and announced that the US would stay until the war was – in his words – “won”. Military commanders see air power as key to the hoped-for victory, and have assembled in the country what they say is the biggest drone squadron ever.

I’m lying in the belly of a KC-135 “stratotanker”, peering down at the snowy IS-infested mountains of north-eastern Afghanistan.

Suddenly the first wasp-like F16 fighter jet comes into view. It delicately positions itself under the boom that hangs down from the back of this flying fuel tank and – moments later – has locked on. The “Viper” is now taking on hundreds of pounds of aviation fuel a second.

We are so close I can see the pilot glance up at me, yet – unbelievably – this intricate ballet is playing out at 20,000ft and at 500mph.

A couple of minutes later, its tanks full, the fighter arcs away and another noses up to take its place.

The scene is so dramatic, beautiful and bizarrely serene it is easy to forget its real purpose – wreaking havoc and death among the insurgent fighters that have been making steady inroads in Afghanistan since the Nato combat mission here ended in December 2014.


KC-135 “Stratotanker”

  • It is the backbone of the air war in Afghanistan, yet has been part of the American fleet for an incredible 60 years
  • Stratotankers are key to the air war because fighter jets typically can’t fly long missions – the KC-135 allows them to attack targets and provide air cover to ground troops for much longer
  • The plan is to keep the KC-135 fleet in service for another 40 years – raising the astonishing possibility that fighter aircraft in battles in the middle of this century could be being serviced by a plane that is almost 100 years old

    The sense of being insulated from the conflict is hard to shake.

    Back on the tarmac at Kandahar airbase, I watch an MQ-9 wobble uncertainly out on to the runway.

    The “Reaper” drone is surprisingly flimsy-looking, but this strange creature with its domed fuselage, distinctive downward slanted tailfins and rear-mounted propeller is probably the most controversial aircraft in America’s entire fleet.

    The MQ-9 represents asymmetrical warfare at its most stark.

    Critics say these “unmanned aerial vehicles”, as the US Air Force prefers to call them, alter the moral calculus of war by taking the pilots out of the planes, thereby converting deadly conflict into something more like a video game.

    Maj Gen James B Hecker has the buzz cut, square jaw and easy manner you’d expect of a senior US Air Force officer. I’m worried he might be uncomfortable talking about the ethics of the drone war. But, as we sit in the shade of some sand-coloured camouflage netting alongside the runway, it becomes clear he’s actually keen to talk about this notorious aircraft.

    As he talks, I realise why.

    He explains he’s spent thousands of hours in the air-conditioned comfort of an airbase base back home in the US watching the footage from the array of high-tech cameras and sensors that are packed into the MQ-9.

    “I’ve spent weeks looking at a single compound in Afghanistan,” he tells me.

    “You kinda get to understand the patterns of life. You get a sense of belonging. You’re kinda in touch with them when you watch them for so long.

    “You watch dad playing soccer with his son, you watch him flying his kite with his daughter and kiss his wife goodnight. And you watch him sleep outside in the summer when it is hot.”

    He pauses, giving me a moment to consider this chillingly intimate image.

    I imagine the invisible aircraft, thousands of feet above the scene, its blank eyes staring down at the banal routines of family life.

    “Then dad would go out and plant an IED” – a home-made explosive device – “that might kill one of our soldiers, and then we would have to take him out.”

    He says this without any apparent emotion, and pauses again.

    “We have to do that. We know that son, that daughter, will never have a dad again, OK? And that wife will never have a husband. Now that’s the last thing we want. But what we won’t stand for is for the Taliban to go in and kill a bunch of innocents. And that’s what they are doing right now – blowing up innocent people.”

    This idea of unblinking surveillance backed up by deadly force is, of course, the most potent of propaganda.

    The message back home is that these drones are precise, even surgical tools, dispensing death only when the target has been identified with certainty.

    The message to the insurgents is very different – “We are always watching, you are never safe.”


    Find out more

    • From Our Own Correspondent has insight and analysis from BBC journalists, correspondents and writers from around the world
    • Listen on iPlayer, get the podcast or listen on the BBC World Service, or on Radio 4 on Saturdays at 11:30 BST
    • Read: Russia ‘arming the Afghan Taliban’, says US

      The vast drone squadron America has amassed here – along with all the other aircraft – is evidence of the massive increase in the intensity of the air war that is a key part of President Trump’s new strategy in Afghanistan.

      Another key part is building the offensive capability of Afghan forces.

      According to the commander of US forces here, Gen John Nicholson, the message to the Taliban is simple: “Reconcile or die.”

      What he means is, “We will continue the fight until you are willing to negotiate some kind of peace.”

      But it is a message the Taliban have heard before.

      The truth is, the war here in Afghanistan has always been giddyingly unbalanced.

      Killing has always been easy for the coalition forces.

      Seventeen years into this conflict, the real challenge remains trying to create real momentum towards peace and stability.

      And the commanders here really do believe that is happening now.

      Other observers insist peace remains as elusive as ever, despite the technical wizardry bearing down on this fractured country.


      Read more

      The most feared bomber plane of the 20th Century is still going strong after 60 years in service in the US military – from Vietnam to Afghanistan. And she will keep on flying until 2044. How does this 1950s behemoth survive in the era of drones and stealth aircraft?

      Read: America’s iconic war machine