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IS OUR STRONGEST WILDLIFE LIFELINE FACING THE CHOP?

15 November 2012

For the last 25 years, many UK farmers have become wildlife champions and have rallied to the plight of some of our most threatened species by creating the conditions they need to survive. Using payments for wildlife-friendly farming – known as agri-environment schemes – some of these ‘champions’ have reversed population crashes of those species most in trouble and some species now largely depend on wildlife-friendly farmers for their future survival.

But just as conservationists and farmers are celebrating the 25th anniversary of these schemes and what they have achieved, the RSPB is fearful that cuts to European and domestic budgets mean the axe could be wielded close to this wildlife lifeline – potentially slashing the largest single budget for wildlife conservation in the UK.

In September the Department of Agricultural and Rural Development announced that it is decreasing the number of new agri-environment agreements meaning that wildlife friendly farming is already under threat here in Northern Ireland. John Martin, acting Conservation Manager RSPB NI commented, ‘The farming industry is vitally important in delivering public goods such as preventing biodiversity decline, helping to mitigate the dangerous effects of climate change and improving water quality. Our precious rural countryside cannot afford these cuts to continue.’

Anxiety about the threats facing the EU funding has compelled the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts to write to David Cameron urging him to defend this vital lifeline when he attends the European Heads of State meeting in Brussels, which not only protects nature, but also helps the Government achieve its own conservation objectives. The RSPB is concerned that the size of the budget for wildlife-friendly farming is already too small and in some parts of the UK funding for vital conservation projects has run out.

Darren Moorcroft head of species and habitats conservation at the RSPB added, ‘the challenges facing wildlife are massive, and we believe an already unacceptably low share of EU funding goes to wildlife-friendly farming, to consider further cuts is deeply misguided; we need more farmers helping wildlife, not less.

‘Without this lifeline, we believe that several species would slide inexorably towards oblivion in the UK, and other species, such as butterflies, bees and rare plants, would inevitably decline.’

Since the first schemes were introduced in 1987, tens of thousands have helped wildlife on their land.  Many - regardless of whether they produce crops, rear livestock or both - are keen advocates of the funding, which allows them to help wildlife as well as receive steady income in volatile times. According to the latest official figures, in excess of 8.8 million hectares of land in the UK are covered by agri-environment scheme agreements.

Kenneth Alcorn owns family-run Lakeview farm, a dairy cow unit in Tyrone, he said, ‘the countryside and the wildlife in it is something we as farmers must secure and encourage for the future generations. Agri-environment schemes play an imperative part in making this happen, it is also important that farmers are given advice on how to adapt schemes and their options to fit into their farm and the wildlife that live on it.’

Rory McKibben arable farmer from Clough has been in DARD’s agri-environment scheme for a number of years and has seen an increase in numbers of priority species such as yellowhammer and tree sparrow. Rory commented, ‘I believe in being a custodian of the countryside, and agri-environment schemes help to cushion the pressures of production, my farm is a business, I need to make a living from it and without the support from schemes like this I know the wildlife on my farm would suffer.’

The one remaining breeding pair of chough fed almost exclusively on land managed specifically for them under the coastal grazing option in the Northern Ireland Countryside Management Scheme.  More choughs have been seen this summer and it is thought that this is largely due to well-targeted agri-environment options and on the ground support and advice for landowners.       

David Cameron will be meeting his European counterparts in Brussels on 22 and 23 November.  The RSPB is calling on all those who care about the future of the funding that benefits our countryside to step up for nature and email him.  Urge David Cameron to safeguard this spending and get us, the public, more for the money spent on agriculture by visiting www.rspb.org.uk/steppingup