New report reveals hedgehogs, yellowhammers and dragonflies at risk post-EU Exit

Yellowhammer in a hawthorn hedgerow ©Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

New report reveals that there are no clear plans on how regulation gaps will be plugged to protect nature.

A new report published today - commissioned by The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and WWF - highlights big gaps in environmental protections post-EU Exit and argues that a new system of regulation is needed to maintain and improve farming and environmental standards.

The Agriculture Bill, which will be debated in the House of Commons on Monday 3rd February, presents a welcome transformative vision for agriculture in which payments will be made to farmers to tackle the climate and nature crisis. However, it misses the need to improve the way Government will ensure farmers meet minimum environmental standards post-EU Exit. This puts the natural world – from hedgerows and soils, to ponds and the wildlife that depends on them, at risk.

The three wildlife charities are calling on the Government to close the gaps in regulation and include a power in the Agriculture Bill to introduce and enforce a new regulatory framework for agriculture which addresses the gaps.

Risks and opportunities of a post-EU environmental regulatory regime for agriculture in England, the new report by the Institute of European Environmental Policy (IEEP), examines the risks to nature of losing the current conditions that are attached to farming support. It also reveals the gaps in domestic legislation which need filling. Without additional legislation, we stand to lose regulations which ensure that:

  • Hedgerows are not cut during the bird nesting season, protecting birds like yellowhammers and small mammals such as hedgehogs
  • Wild ‘buffer’ strips alongside hedgerows are not ploughed or sprayed with pesticides, protecting bees and other pollinating insects
  • Bare soils are protected from blowing away or draining into rivers, preserving our ability to grow crops in future and locking in carbon
  • Ponds are safeguarded, providing important stepping-stones for wildlife including frogs and dragonflies

The report also notes that:

  • Dame Glenys Stacey’s review of farm regulation included many positive recommendations, but the case for just one farm regulating body is flawed: the environmental strand of farm-focused regulation could be watered down if it is blended into a body seeking to combine several different and sometimes competing priorities
  • The new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which the government plan to introduce via the Environment Bill, should have the power and resources to hold public bodies to account to ensure that environmental regulations relating to agriculture are implemented and enforced effectively
  • Compliance with environmental regulations should apply to all farmers irrespective of whether they receive public funding.

 

Ellie Brodie, The Wildlife Trusts’ senior policy manager, says:

“We’re really concerned that the Agriculture Bill does not contain the regulation that’s so desperately needed and nature will continue to take the rap. Gaps must be filled and enforcement must be strengthened if we’re to address the nature crisis and climate emergency.

It’s absolutely vital that all new regulations apply to every single farmer – not just those who sign up to the schemes designed to help wildlife.

"Otherwise, to take just one example, damaging pesticides could pollute rivers and taxpayers will pay an even higher price for their clean drinking water.

“A new delivery model should build a more collaborative relationship between farmers, land managers and enforcement agencies by striking a better balance between information, advice, enforcement and incentives. This will require substantial funding.”

Tom Lancaster, Head of Land, Seas and Climate policy at the RSPB says:

“The Agriculture Bill includes vital new powers to pay farmers to restore nature, but is silent on the rules and regulations for farming in the future. With the change that Brexit will bring, this presents real risks to our soils and hedgerows, and the nature that depends upon them.

“Hedgerows may just be dividers between crops to us, but they are often hidden worlds, teeming with the amazing wildlife that calls our farmland home. The government must not let this once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform farming policy be undermined by these gaps in the protections for wildlife across our countryside.”

Debbie Tripley, Director of Environmental Policy and Advocacy at WWF, says:

“Unless the Government starts plugging the gaps left by leaving EU regulation, our soils, hedgerows and the wildlife that depends on them are at risk. We need firm but fair enforcement and advice that ensure food is produced to high environmental standards across the country.

And our farmers’ efforts must not be undercut by imports that are cheap in price but catastrophically expensive for our natural world and climate - so future trade deals must clearly reject deforestation and other poor agricultural practices, at the same time as we invest in standards and proper enforcement in the UK.”

 

Editor’s notes

  • How farming is regulated matters. Overall, farming is now the most significant source of water pollution and of ammonia emissions into the atmosphere in the UK accounting for 10% of the UK’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions. It is the primary cause of 30% of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in England being in an unfavourable condition[1],[2]. Farmers and enforcement agencies need support in changing this.
  • Most regulation for the environment and agriculture is based on EU law. For farming, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy makes adherence with certain environmental regulations a condition of receipt of financial support. Upon leaving the EU, this link disappears – along with EU law governing the wider regulatory framework.
  • Two flagship bills – for the environment and for agriculture – are currently making their passage through Parliament. This report, commissioned by WWF, The Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB, suggests how environmental regulation as it relates to agriculture could – and should – look in future if we are to reverse nature’s decline and tackle climate change.

 

Dame Glenys Stacey review 13 December 2018. 

 

Hedgerows support up to 80% of woodland birds, 50% of our mammals and 30% of our butterflies. The ditches and banks that surround hedges double up as home for frogs, toads, newts and reptiles. They provide song posts, shelter and nesting sites for both woodland and farmland birds such as yellowhammers, turtle doves and linnets. Bats use hedgerows not only as feeding sites but also as flight paths to commute between their roosts and foraging ground. They are particularly important to bats with a limited echolocation range such as the Pipistrelle. Hedgerows are also important to hedgehogs who use them for protection from predators, nesting and for their great supply of the invertebrates they like to eat.

The potential loss of regulations that prevent hedgerow cutting during bird breeding season could lead to nests being destroyed with disastrous results for some of our most threatened species such as the red-listed yellowhammer (declined by 55%1970-2013) and linnet which declined by 60% over the same period.

 

[1] A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment, UK Government, 2018. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/693158/25-year-environment-plan.pdf

[2] State of Nature 2019, State of Nature Partnership. Available at: https://nbn.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/State-of-Nature-2019-UK-full-report.pdf