October, 2011


Welcome to this group for all farmers and anyone with an interest in farming. Read our blog to see how we're working with farmers and to find out where you can meet us at events.


Find out how we're working with farmers and where to meet us at events. Join in the discussion on farming issues and share tips for wildlife-friendly farming.
  • The CAP proposals are out – but what do they mean?


    Last week (12 October), the European Commission’s proposals for CAP reform were finally released. Although long awaited, these proposals are really just the beginning of a long process of negotiation between all 27 EU Member States and the European Parliament. The end result will be a new CAP that will have a profound effect on farmers and the environment from 2014-2020 and beyond.

    The RSPB has been deeply disappointed by the reform proposals, but they can still change and it vital that we all do what we can to ensure that the outcome is a policy that genuinely delivers for farmers, consumers and wildlife.  You can help by contacting your local MP and MEP to ask what they’re doing to ensure wildlife and environmentally-friendly farming gets a fair deal from the CAP.  Read on for more detail...

    So what is being proposed?

    The 2-Pillar CAP that we’re now all familiar with (with Pillar 1 providing direct payments and Pillar 2 funding Rural Development and agri-environment schemes) will remain but with some significant changes.

    Pillar 1

    Instead of the Single Payment Scheme, (also known as the Single Farm Payment), Pillar 1 could feature up to six different payment schemes:

    1. The ‘basic payment scheme’ (which effectively replaces the SPS);
    2. A ‘greening payment’ for farmers observing a set of agricultural practices designed to be beneficial for the climate and environment;
    3. A ‘young farmer’ scheme;
    4. A ‘small farmer’ scheme;
    5. A coupled support scheme and;
    6. A payment for farmers in areas under natural constraint.

    If these schemes are agreed in the forthcoming debate, each Member State will have to offer the first 4 schemes and can choose whether to offer the last 2.  The Basic Payment would account for the majority of Pillar 1 funding .

    Every farmer who entered the Basic Payment Scheme would also be required to enter the ‘Greening scheme’. This scheme would account for 30% of each Member State’s Pillar 1 budget and to get the payment, farmers and land managers would be required to:

    • Protect permanent pasture on their farms where applicable;
    • Assign 7% of their arable land as an Ecological Focus Area (details still to be determined).
    • For farms with more than 3 ha of arable, grow at least 3 different crops each year.

    The young farmer scheme would provide ‘start-up’ support (for a maximum of 5 years) for new entrants to farming who are less than 40 years old.

    The small farmer payment would replace all other payments for those entering the scheme. Recipients would receive a small payment (somewhere between the equivalent of €500-1000) and unlike farmers in all the other schemes would not have to respect cross compliance or the measures set out in the greening payment.

    Coupled support would provide payments linked to production in areas where specific types of farming or sectors are facing difficulties and are important for economic, social or environmental reasons. The payment would not seek to increase production in such areas, rather to maintain it at current levels.

    The payment for areas under natural constraint is effectively providing ‘Less Favoured Area’ support under Pillar 1 in addition to support already provided (and which will continue to be provided) under Pillar 2.

    Pillar 2

    Pillar 2 has not been so dramatically transformed. Member States will still have to develop Rural Development Programmes (at national or regional levels), they will still have to offer agri-environment schemes as part of these RDPs and ‘ring-fence’ 25% of Pillar 2 funding for environmental measures.

    However, these Rural Development Programmes will be expected to deliver a much broader range of objectives than currently, grouped under 6 priorities:

    1. Fostering knowledge transfer in agriculture and forestry;
    2. Enhancing competitiveness of all types of agriculture and enhancing farm viability;
    3. Promoting food chain organisation and risk management in agriculture;
    4. Preserving and enhancing ecosystems dependent on agriculture and forestry;
    5. Promoting resource efficiency and the transition to a low carbon economy in the agriculture, food and forestry sectors;
    6. Realising the jobs potential and development of rural areas.

     So is all this good or bad?

    In a nutshell, the RSPB has been deeply disappointed by the reform proposals. We have long called for reform that links the public money that funds the CAP with clear ‘public goods’ – things like wildlife, healthy soils and clean water which the market doesn’t properly reward. This would mean CAP money going to those farmers and land managers who are protecting and improving the environment alongside food production.

    Not enough money for environmentally friendly farming

    It is positive that the reform proposals require 25% of Pillar 2 money to be used for targeted environmental measures (like England’s Environmental Stewardship schemes for example). However, the CAP budget for 2014-2020 will be less than the current budget in real terms so this will mean smaller pot of money for Pillar 2 across Europe. This won’t be enough to meet the scale of environmental need or the level demand from farmers who want to join.

    Another highly worrying proposal is also on the table – some Member States may be allowed to transfer up to 5% of their Pillar 2 budget into Pillar 1, further reducing the money available for farmers who wish to enter agri-environment schemes.

    Positively, the proposals do provide the ability for Member States to shift (or modulate) up to 10% of Pillar 1 funds into Pillar 2 and this should be welcomed.  Although the subject of modulation is often contentious, it must be remembered that without modulation in the UK, we would not have been able to offer the kind of open-to-all agri-environment schemes we have.

    No support for High Nature Value farming systems

    Despite concerted effort from the RSPB and its BirdLife partners across Europe, the proposals still fail to provide targeted support for HNV systems. These systems, which are generally very extensively managed (and include some of the crofting systems in Scotland and upland farming systems across the UK), deliver outstanding environmental benefits, are socially extremely important and yet currently receive little to no financial support from the CAP.

    Potentially damaging ‘simplification’

    In a bid to make the CAP simpler and more socially acceptable, the proposals contain some very strange measures indeed. The small farmer scheme is a particularly worrying example as it would provide a payment to small farms with no strings attached and no clear policy objective in mind. The RSPB strongly believes that all farms, large and small, have a shared responsibility towards the environment and there should be no means for farms to effectively opt out.

    Another proposal is to target Pillar 1 payments to ‘active’ farmers only. In a bizarre twist, this could actually result in genuine farmers being exclude from CAP direct payments because they have diversified so successfully they make too much of their income from non-farming activities! This proposal could also potentially catch very extensive farming systems which receive very low (but vitally important) CAP payments and where the farmer may have to work another job to make ends meet.

    New ‘greening measures’

    The new greening measures have caught many of the CAP headlines in recent months. The RSPB hopes that the proposed measures can be designed in such a way that they deliver real and meaningful environmental benefits on the ground, including helping to protect the natural resources needed for long term food production.

    In particular, we are extremely hopeful that the proposed Ecological Focus Area requirement will include the right kinds of land management types and features (such as hedges, buffers and margins, areas out of production, ponds and very extensively managed farmland) and will reward farmers who have retained such features, as well as providing an incentive for more farmers to re-inject these features back into the landscape. The EFA requirement is not the same as the old set-aside scheme, which simply aimed to reduce food surpluses by demanding up to 10% of productive farmland be taken out of production. These new requirements could, if designed well, bring both biodiversity and agronomic benefit. However, as for many of the new CAP proposals, the devil will be in the detail.

    So what happens next?

    Now the reform proposals are out, the complex process of ‘co-decision’ starts. Co-decision is new to agricultural policy. In the past the European Commission proposed the policy and the Member States decided the outcome. Now the Commission proposes but the Member States have to share power with the European Parliament.

    The proposals for reform will change during this process and it vital that we all do what we can to ensure that the outcome is a policy that genuinely delivers for environmentally friendly farming. This means ensuring that enough money is available for well-designed agri-environment schemes, that all farmers and land managers do their bit for positive land management and those farming systems which deliver the most for the environment but often get the least from CAP are properly recognised and rewarded.

    You can help by contacting your local MP and MEP to ask what they’re doing to ensure wildlife and environmentally-friendly farming gets a fair deal from the CAP.

    You can find out who your local MP and MEPs are here: www.writetothem.com

  • To be a farmer, birder and Spanish

    The first bird I learned to identify was a Turtle dove. My great-grandfather taught me about farmland birds as well as the plants and the insects we have. My childhood natural education was all about the wildlife around the farm; where they live, why they are good for the farm and more importantly why we need the birds living on the farm.


    Our farmland walks had the benefit of ensuring that everything was in working order and depending on the season, we would look for mushrooms in the cork oak tree woodlands or in the few pines close to the beach. We would unearth Spanish oyster thistle in the spring and make stews with them. Wild asparagus for delicious omelettes made by grandmother were also part of the menu.


    My great-grandfather was a Spanish farmer; a good one. We never had a bad year. If a crop failed, the pigs, cattle or sometimes the subsided crops like cotton would balance the income.


    A lasting memory is how he used to talk about the farm with the connection that most farmers have with the land. He would say;  ‘One swallow does not make a summer...but the arrival of the first Turtle dove says summer is close’.


    As a little boy, my curiosity would ignite waiting in hope for the sweet repeated “rourr-rourr-rourr" in early April. This was the beginning of a season of wild encounters around the farm.

    Now as an adult, that childish curiosity hasn’t faded. I still delight in the hunt for creepy crawlies in farm scrublands and enjoy the pursuit of discovering new and old wild habitats. One of the wonders of my childhood was the observation of the Turtle dove; bird that symbolises love and peace and my memories.  Unfortunately, since then, the beloved turtle dove doesn’t nest anymore, in either our olive trees or the hawthorn. Why? One of the reasons is the food availability.  As they arrive in April the crops have been harvested and there is nothing for them to eat and prepare for the breading season ahead.


    Ten years ago my uncle adopted measures for the protection of our scrub and designed plans to create transition habitats. One area of our olive tree production was connected to the grassland area. It managed the scrub and added hawthorn and grasses rich in seed.

    At the far end of our pastoral field we also included a plot sowed with cereals and sunflower.

    Last September, after spending eleven days back home, those childhood feelings flooded back as I prepared to return to the UK. There was a sense that fun was over and it was now time to return to work.  It wasn’t the sight of my suitcase packed and ready, signifying my return to reality, but the sound of the migrating turtle dove on her way back to Africa. 

  • The Hope Farm Bird Indicator has gone up by 211% - what does that mean?

    It has been another fantastic summer for birds at Hope Farm, our arable farm in Cambridgeshire, with the Farmland Bird Indicator going up again, albeit slightly since 2010. The index is now 211% above what it was when the RSPB took over the farm in 2000. This is huge when you consider that the national Farmland Bird Indicator has undergone an 11% decline over this period, and roughly halved since 1970.

    Farmland bird indicators measure the average population trend for 19 species which are dependent on farmland. Indicators are mathematical things that allow us to compare our performance against the national trend, but what has really happened? If we talk about changes in the number of territories of farmland species which have declined nationally by over 50% since 1970, the figures are staggering: grey partridge up from 0 to 5 territories, turtle dove up from 0 to 1, skylark up from 10 to 42, yellow wagtail up from 0 to 2, starling up from 3 to 22, linnet up from 6 to 26, yellowhammer up from 14 to 33, reed bunting up from 3 to 16 and corn bunting up from 0 to 2.

    How do we know all this? Well, we have carefully counted them, or at least Derek Gruar, our resident researcher has. It was only when I looked back through my own records of birds on the farm that I realised how stark a change I have witnessed myself. I occasionally help out with winter bird counts. My counts on one part of the farm in December 2001 included 19 yellowhammers and 6 skylarks, whereas on the same part of the farm in December 2009, I counted 165 yellowhammers and 23 skylarks. I have occasionally seen three-figure flocks of skylarks on the farm in winter, too. Derek tells me that the maximum farm counts in the winter of 2000-1 were 2 yellowhammers and 35 skylarks!

    I understand farmers who do not think farmland birds have declined in their area: without a birdwatchers notebook, the scale of the increase we have seen here would have passed me by, too! We have seen greater increases in the winter bird counts, probably because we have drawn birds in from further afield to feed on our ELS seed mixtures. Winter counts do not reflect population changes as accurately, but still indicate what a huge contribution the farm is making to bird conservation. I think it is fair to say that the increases we have seen have exceeded anyone’s expectations. Amazing what a few seed crops, flower-rich margins and skylark plots can do!