Cameron’s chance to save the countryside’s national treasures

Saturday 7th December 2013

Farm track with brown hare cpt Amy Lewis

PM must ensure £15 billion of public money is spent on public benefits.

Turtle doves, harvest mice, globeflowers, pollinating bees and other much-loved wild plants and animals could disappear from much of the English countryside if the Prime Minister, David Cameron, fails to prioritise the environment when making a key decision next week on how to spend £15 billion of public money.

You can help by asking your local MPs to ensure the Government to make the right choices.

It is vital to green the bigger picture and invest in the health of our rivers, the survival of our meadows and the wildflower-studded pastures that are so crucial for bees and butterflies

This huge sum is destined for English farmers and will shape the future of 69% of the English landscape.  The question Cameron must answer is: will the money be given to farmers who implement environmentally-friendly practises or will it be handed over as income support with few environmental strings attached?  The average family pays an estimated £400 a year towards the Common Agricultural Policy. Cameron needs to ensure they get value for money.

The choice is between a healthy, wildlife-rich farmed landscape where hedgerows, clean rivers and our much-loved wild plants and animals co-exist with sustainable food production - and a countryside where nature, already greatly diminished, ebbs further into inexorable decline.  In May this year, The State of Nature report revealed that 60% of the species studied have declined over recent decades.  More than one in ten of all the species assessed are under threat of disappearing from our shores altogether.  Cameron’s decision is make or break for our natural heritage.

Paul Wilkinson, Head of Living Landscape at The Wildlife Trusts, said: 

“David Cameron’s green credentials have taken a bashing in recent weeks but now he has a chance to redeem himself.  We’re asking him to support his Environment Minister, Owen Paterson’s commitment to transfer 15% of the budget that provides direct payments to farmers to the budget that supports wildlife-friendly farming schemes.  However, as wildlife-friendly farming schemes will cover 35-40% of the country at best, he also needs to ensure that environmental standards are raised across the whole of the farmed landscape by agreeing to a national ‘greening’ scheme for England linked to the payments that all farmers receive.  It is vital to green the bigger picture and invest in the health of our rivers, the survival of our meadows and the wildflower-studded pastures that are so crucial for bees and butterflies.”

Paul Wilkinson has also written a blog on this issue.  You can read it here.

Ten of the many farmland species whose fate Cameron holds in the balance:

The Turtle Dove
One of the historic sounds of the English countryside, the “purring” of the turtle dove is now seldom heard.  This species is in severe decline, with habitat deterioration at wintering grounds and mortality rates during migration periods key factors, as well as reduced food availability during the breeding season.  Increased herbicide use is also thought to be a cause of decline.  The turtle dove needs hedgerows, scattered bushes or woodland edge habitats across open countryside where it can find seeds and grains to feed on.  Retaining a mosaic of different habitats across the landscape and delivering specific measures to ensure food supplies would help this species to recover.

The Yellowhammer

A classic farmland bird most notable when the male, with its bright yellow head, sings its distinctive song:  “a little bit of bread and no cheese” from hedgerows or bushes in the spring.  The yellowhammer has already suffered a rapid decline across farmland, potentially because of lack of food resources in the winter.  It needs thick hedges and seeds from cereal fields and unimproved pastures. 

The Corn Bunting
The sounds of the corn bunting singing its jangling song as it perches high on a post or wire was another characteristic sound of the countryside in the past. But this plump brown bird has suffered serious long term decline due to changes in farming practices that are thought to have led to reduced availability of seed and invertebrates. The corn bunting needs open farmland with weedy fields, stubbles or farm yards that are a source of insects or grain.

The Lapwing
Known as the peewit due to the evocative call it makes as it tumbles in display in the spring, this beautiful wader was once common across upland and lowland farmland. But it is has suffered continued decline on lowland farmland since the mid 1980s with evidence that this is linked to habitat loss and degradation due to changes in agricultural practice, for example a change from spring to autumn sowing.  It is struggling in upland areas too, where drainage of grasslands and loss of mixed farmland is a factor.  The lapwing needs unimproved pastures, meadows and fallow fields where it can find insects and worms, and undisturbed areas for nesting. 

The Harvest mouse

This diminutive mouse was associated with cornfields in the past, but it can also be found in field margins where taller grasslands support its woven nest.  It is a key species for conservation that is thought to have become scarcer in recent years due to changes in habitat management and agricultural methods. The harvest mouse would benefit from buffers along arable fields, especially where it can find shelter in nearby hedgerows in the winter, and retention of taller grasses in damp areas. 

The Brown hare
Vulnerable to agricultural intensification and monocultural approaches to farming, the brown hare is patchily distributed across the country.  It needs areas that support a patchwork of fields which provide food through the year and hedges or woods for shelter in winter.  It is also vulnerable to being killed by modern farm machinery, so refuge areas for brown hares across the intensely managed arable landscapes are needed.

The Duke of Burgundy butterfly
The Duke of Burgundy is one of the UK’s most threatened butterflies.  It has suffered population losses of 46% between 1995-99 and 2005-09.  It is mainly restricted to the limestone and chalk grasslands of southern England and breeds on scrubby grasslands or in ancient woodland clearings, with larvae feeding on cowslip or primrose plants. It needs targeted sensitive management to survive.

The Corn buttercup
The corn buttercup is related to our common buttercups and is only just hanging on in some arable areas.  It used to be widespread in the south and east of England but has declined rapidly over the last 60 years.  There are now few viable populations and it is at high risk of extinction.  The intensification of arable farming has been the main cause of decline.  It is vulnerable to herbicides and cannot compete with modern crops that out compete this and other arable plants.  It would benefit from farm environment schemes that are designed to target key areas where the plant remains and where these areas also support other important arable plants and animals. 

The Globeflower 

Another member of the buttercup family, which has beautiful pale yellow globe shaped flowers.  This plant is occasionally found in damper grasslands and species-rich upland hay meadows, one of the rarest grassland habitats in the country.  The globeflower needs to be protected through specially designed farm environment schemes for upland hay meadows and damper grasslands.  

The Shrill Carder bee
Just one of several species of bee that are threatened in the UK due to agricultural intensification, especially the loss of flower-rich grasslands, this is one of the smaller members of the bumblebee family.  Its rapid flight and distinctive colouration make it easy to identify, but it is now only found at  handful of sites.  The remaining sites need connecting and managing sensitively.

Spending the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget

The Wildlife Trusts believe that the Government can do two things to ensure that we continue to reward farmers for delivering environmental benefits on their farms:

The Government has two main decisions to make:

Big Decision 1Support for farm environment schemes

Farmers have made significant commitments to delivering farm environment schemes in the last 25 years.  These schemes are restoring and connecting important habitats and bringing species back from the brink.  They help to protect rivers and streams from pollution and protect habitats that store carbon.  But budget cuts agreed in Europe mean these schemes are under threat.  The Government wants to put things right and move the maximum amount allowed by Europe (15%) from the budget which supports direct payments to farmers, into the rural development pot (so-called ‘modulation’) which funds these schemes.  Not everyone agrees and the Government could change its mind.

We want the Government to stick to its commitment to protect the rural development budget which supports farm environment schemes by making this 15% funding transfer.  Once it has agreed its amount for the rural development budget the Government will choose whether to allocate an amount between 78-88% of the rural development budget to farm environment schemes.  We want to see the maximum amount possible allocated to environment schemes, providing more space for nature and supporting healthy farmland ecosystems.

Big Decision 2 Effective actions for the environment on all farms

As well as building on current successes and keeping the farm environment schemes going, more needs to be done in the areas that will not be eligible for such schemes. At best, future environment schemes are likely to cover 35-40% of the country, so other ways must be found to raise environmental standards across the whole of the farmed landscape.

The Government can choose whether or not to improve upon the standard ‘greening’ measures proposed by the EU that farmers will undertake in return for 30% of the direct payments they receive.  For example Government could focus on measures that could do more to protect remaining flower-rich grasslands or link habitats strategically across the landscape.  The best way for the Government to deliver the 'greening' measures would be via a special greening scheme for England.

Please see our news release that was issued on the when the public consultation began: Bees, birds and hedgerows at risk: public must act to protect nature on farms

Tagged with: Living Landscapes, Agri-environment schemes, Agriculture, CAP, Farming