Farm funding decision falls short

Thursday 19th December 2013

Farmland cpt Zsuzsanna BirdFarmland cpt Zsuzsanna Bird

The Wildlife Trusts describe today’s announcement on agricultural funding for 2014-2020 as a missed opportunity to boost investment in wildlife-friendly and progressive farming.

The Government’s decision to initially transfer only 12% from farmers’ direct payments to the budget for environmental and rural growth schemes instead of the full 15% for the full seven year period is disappointing. 

This funding could have been prioritised for those forward-thinking farmers who are not only producing food but also doing most for wildlife, as well and creating other significant benefits such improving water quality

Although it is a relief that the status quo is being maintained for which Defra should be congratulated, the fact remains that this is insufficient to meet the huge challenges facing the natural environment.  A unique opportunity to create benefits for our natural heritage at no extra cost has been lost.

If the full 15% had been transferred, this money could have been used more wisely and effectively by targeting the farm-environment schemes that deliver far-reaching public benefits and ensure a better future for farming.

Farm-environment schemes don’t just ensure that wildlife thrives on farmland: the schemes play a vital role in sustainable farming systems, protecting soil, water quality and allowing pollinators such as bees the flourish – these factors are crucial in underpinning agriculture in this country.

The decision to transfer 12% across England rather than the maximum 15% allowable by EU rules compares unfavourably to the 15% adopted by the more forward-thinking Welsh government, but favourably against the 9.5% adopted by Scotland.

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

“The Government’s decision leaves both taxpayers and wildlife short-changed.  It shows a lack of ambition and poor understanding of how much nature matters to the future of farming.  This money for agriculture comes to the Government from the EU and the Government had a clear choice on how to spend it.  This funding could have been prioritised for those forward-thinking farmers who are not only producing food but also doing most for wildlife as well and creating other significant benefits such improving water quality.  Instead, the Government will now spend vital millions on farming whether or not it provides public benefits.

Farmland covers 69% of the English landscape.  The Government needs to embed environmental protection and enhancement at the heart of agricultural activities to ensure that the good work achieved by farmers for nature over the last 25 years can be built upon.  The average family contributes an estimated £400 each year towards the Common Agricultural Policy.

Paul Wilkinson adds:

“The Government’s hesitant approach towards bolstering our natural heritage comes at a time when much of our farmland wildlife is on the critical list.  We need to do more than simply retain the status quo.  How the Government implements ‘greening’ is now even more critical.  The need to restore nature is now so very urgent and the need is so pressing.  The Wildlife Trusts will continue to work with farmers to help them improve the lot for wildlife on their land.”

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.  The new decision is not the bold approach that’s needed to reverse these declines. (See list of farmland species on the brink, below)

Farmland species on the brink

1 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.

2 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.

3 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.

4 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.

5 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.

6 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.

7 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.

8 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.

9 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. 

10 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. 

Tagged with: Agri-environment schemes, Agriculture, CAP