New threat to the UK countryside

Thursday 15th November 2012

Gemma Bodé

Last night the EC President proposed what could amount to a 20% cut to a key part of the EU agricultural budget – a move that would create a new crisis in the UK countryside.

This proposed cut to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget could signal the start of a serious decline in wildlife-friendly farming that threatens to undo 25 years of investment in our natural heritage – important work that began after the post-war intensification of agriculture radically changed the UK countryside.  Since then, thousands of miles of hedgerows and wildflower meadows have been restored.

On Thursday 22 and Friday 23 November, Member States will set the CAP budget at the EU Summit.  The budget proposal announced last night by EC President Herman Van Rompuy, proposes deeper cuts to funds for rural development than originally suggested.

The Wildlife Trusts' Head of Living Landscapes, Paul Wilkinson, explains:

“There is now huge uncertainty about the future of wildlife-friendly farming. Current discussions suggest that from 2014 onwards we will see significant cuts to the budget that supports farmers for managing their land to protect and enhance wildlife.  We are looking at a potential cut of up to 20% to the rural development budget.  It will prove to be a catastrophe for wildlife habitats and species across rural landscapes and cause real damage to the rural economy.”

Biodiversity is important because it supports the ecosystems that give us essential services like clean water, clean air, natural flood alleviation and pollination - David Cameron

The Wildlife Trusts also believe that proposals by the EU to link a proportion of payments that all farmers receive to 'greening' measures, such as the designation of Ecological Focus Areas on farms, will be badly weakened.

Paul Wilkinson says:

“We need more, not less, investment if we want to halt the decline of wild species and places.  The current Higher Level agri-environment scheme in England has shown what can be done with, for example, farmers and land managers working together to achieve positive landscape-scale change in the countryside.  The market does not adequately reward farmers for delivering public benefits for our natural heritage, for treasured landscapes such as restoration of wildflower-rich grasslands, or protection of our precious rivers and wetlands.  Yet these are the very kind of measures that will protect farming and food production in the future.  We urge the Government to support robust greening measures linked to the direct payments that farmers receive and to defend the Pillar II budget of the CAP that funds agri-environment schemes.”

The Wildlife Trusts have today joined other environmental NGOs in writing to MPs to urge them to lobby Prime Minister, David Cameron, to stand up for sustainable wildlife-friendly farming and protect the Pillar II budget when he represents the UK at the the EU Summit on 22 November.

On a visit in 2009 to Chimney Meadows, one of The Wildlife Trusts’ nature reserves in his Witney constituency cared for by the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust, Cameron said:

“Biodiversity is important for our environment because it supports the ecosystems that give us essential services like clean water, clean air, natural flood alleviation and pollination.  This ‘environmental infrastructure’ literally supports life as we know it.”

The Wildlife Trusts urge David Cameron to stand by his comments and protect the funding that will ensure improvements to this infrastructure, not its destruction.

Further information

At present there are more than 58,000 agri-environment scheme agreements, covering over six million hectares – almost 66% of the agricultural land in England.  AES support jobs and generate spending in the local economy. Results from research indicate that existing annual AES spend generates further annual spending in the economy of between £178 million and £847 million and sustains between 1,800 and 15,000 jobs. Read here.

Read more about The Wildlife Trusts’ farmland work here.

The Wildlife Trusts work closely with farmers and land managers.  A healthy natural environment, where farmland is producing food but also bursting with wildlife, underpins sustainable farming systems.  Likewise farming and land management are critical to creating a Living Landscape.  Farmland covers around 75% of the UK so working with farmers is essential if nature is going to recover and wildlife re-colonise and disperse through our landscapes.

The Wildlife Trusts own and manage 20 working farms across the UK, from lowland arable to upland hill farms.  We use these to demonstrate wildlife-friendly farming methods and several are managed in partnership with local farmers.

Each year Wildlife Trusts provide advice to around 5,000 landowners on how to manage land for wildlife. This often involves helping farmers to access agri environment funds and can also involve helping groups of farmers to restore and link habitats at a landscape-scale.

The first agri-environment schemes were set up in 1987 to help conserve and improve the rural environment by encouraging environmentally friendly farming methods.  Natural England has highlighted some of the achievements of schemes over the past 25 years here.

Tagged with: Living Landscapes, Agriculture, CAP, Farming