How to prevent another wildlife catastrophe - a message for the Prime Minister

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

How to prevent another wildlife catastrophe - a message for the Prime Minister

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One silver lining to the ash die-back crisis is that it is reigniting the debate about how we manage the countryside and ensure wildlife is in good health.

As we rightly take the opportunity to intensify debate about the importance of better regulation of species movement and improved biosecurity, I hope colleagues in Defra and other bits of government, have enough energy to put a spotlight on the crucial role that agri-environment schemes play in helping farmers manage our countryside.  And it is important that the Prime Minister rolls up his sleeves as well.

This autumn we should all be celebrating the 25-year anniversary of our agri-environment schemes. 

‘All’ of us because they benefit farmers, conservationists and every taxpayer; ‘our’ because we all benefit from the species and habitats they support – turning our food production areas into our ‘countryside’. 

Let's be clear, the schemes are not perfect, but they have made a big difference.  When deployed well, by farmers and conservationists working closely together, they have provided an essential lifeline for species.  Whether in the mixed farming landscapes of south-west England supporting species such as the cirl bunting, or the crofts of the Western isles of Scotland made corncrake-friendly, these schemes have ensured we are producing both food and wildlife.  Farmers in these schemes help to deliver what we all want - an attractive countryside rich in wildlife which people can enjoy.

But as any regular reader of this blog will know, all is not well in our countryside.  Iconic species like turtle dove and skylarks have seen precipitous declines, as have many butterflies and arable flora.  Agri-environment schemes reward farmers willing to step up and help.  And, as our Nature of Farming Award shows, many are. 

Whilst we are celebrating the past contribution of these schemes, we should all also be concerned for their future.  This month, the prime minister will travel to Brussels to meet his counterparts to discuss the EU budget.  Given the recent parliamentary debate, he is under pressure to make the case that the budget needs to be cut or at least frozen.  As I have argued before here and here, we want the Prime Minister to advocate that the trillion euros of European taxpayers money (which constitutes the EU Budget) should be allocated to those things that the European public want and need.

With the Common Agricultural Policy making up over half the current budget, and with the axe to be wielded, there is a real danger that the so-called second pillar of the CAP – where our agri-environment schemes sit - will be seen as an easy cut to make (particularly as this is the bit of the budget that requires match-funding from national exchequers). 

Given the economic crisis, we recognise the pressure on budgets but the debate should be less about how much money, and more about what should the money be spent on.  Even within the CAP itself, there is significant expenditure which delivers much less value for taxpayers.  Cutting the financial support for agri-environment schemes would undermine the hard work and commitment of many nature-friendly farmers, cut the vital taxpayer lifeline to our countryside and leave the fate of our much-loved species to a market place which still fails recognise their value.

This would be another catastrophe for the countryside.

If you don't believe me because I work for the RSPB and would say that wouldn't I, here is what others are saying.

Gethin Owen, who farms in Wales, is the Welsh winner of last year’s RSPB Nature of Farming Award. He is typical of many of the farmers supportive of wildlife-friendly farming payments.  He says: “There has been a lot of good work that’s been done for wildlife over the last 10 or 20 years, and there is a real danger that all that good work could be undone, while this lifeline remains under threat.”

Henry Edmunds, who has a mixed arable and livestock farm in Wiltshire, is the winner of the 2012, RSPB Nature of Farming Award. He says: “I think it would be an absolute disaster if these schemes were to stop.”

Dale Clanfield, who farms in the Fens of East Anglia, says: “I love helping the wildlife on my farm, but I wouldn’t be able to afford to keep doing it if it wasn’t for funding from Europe.  I’d rather see the money go towards supporting environmentally friendly farming than just given out as subsidies.”

So, the message to the Prime Minister is simple.  At the forthcoming EU Council meeting, please Mr Cameron, fight to protect the second Pillar of the CAP and argue for a shift of money to support agri-environment schemes.  This does not mean that the overall size of the Budget needs to grow, it simply means that there are some bits of the budget that offer more public benefit and deserve to be bolstered.

If you want to support nature friendly farmers and the wildlife they support, please add your voice here to the those telling David Cameron not to cut the strongest lifeline for wildlife.

  • Martin . I really do not understand why RSPB does not highlight the huge amounts of support that "the few" receive from the CAP; it is an opportunity that as ever just seems to go begging and that whole territory is now bare and left to small peripheral groups such as the "Land is Ours" since FoE withdrew from UK nature/agriculture policy.

  • Last week our local RSPB group visited a farm to see the conservation strategies that the farmer has put in place (he is a previous finalist in the Nature of Farming Awards). It was an inspiration to see his enthusiasm and what he has a achieved. Sadly he is very pessimistic for the future. Just one example, currently he gets some funding for 75 farms visits a year (he's already done over 120) but he has been told that for the following year funding reduces to cover only 25 visits. These visits include disabled children who have real benefits from their visits. He gave other examples of expected funding cuts much more related to his farming activities. So, although we were initially inspired we came away very concerned for the future. Please keep up the pressure on the government.

  • I agree with your drift here. However I feel that there are significant savings to be had from "large farmers"; 80% goes to 20%; prices are rocketing etc etc ; real cuts in direct payments might aid restructuring and land release towards new entrants etc; I would nationalise all Duchy land and look to way of breaking up large holdings to rebuild small scale holdings of a few ha which with high labour inputs deliver significant productivity with the aim of improving UK food security; there should be CAP money for this purpose.

    The Tana River Kenya is a Ramsar site; well done RSPB and Birdlife.