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Is our strongest wildlife lifeline facing the chop?

Last modified: 16 November 2012

Stone-curlew portrait

For the last 25 years, many Surrey 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, including the stone-curlew, now largely depend on wildlife-friendly farmers for their future survival in the UK.

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.

David Cameron will be attending the European Heads of State meeting in Brussels – on 22-23 November - to discuss the future of the EU’s budget, including the amount of money spent on agriculture.

Gareth Harris, RSPB South East Farmland Conservation Advisor, said:  “We know that budgets are strained, but rewarding farmers for greater all-round environmental responsibility is excellent value for money, supporting farmland wildlife as well as improving water quality, land management and food production. The abundance of wildlife on these farms is simply an indicator of the health of the countryside.”

Farmland wildlife is struggling as the populations of many species of birds, butterflies and bees continue to decline across the UK. 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.

Gareth Harris added: “The challenges facing wildlife are massive, and we believe an already unacceptably low share of EU funding goes to wildlife-friendly farming, especially when less than £7 out of every  £100 spent on agriculture funds wildlife conservation. So, to consider further cuts is deeply misguided; we need more farmers helping wildlife and the environment, not less.

“Without this lifeline, we believe that several species, including the stone-curlew, which need farmers to create just the right kind of habitat, would slide inexorably towards oblivion in the UK, and other species, including butterflies and rare plants would inevitably decline.”

Since the first schemes were introduced in 1987, tens of thousands of farmers 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. In England, over two thirds of agricultural land is managed under a scheme.

Hugo Black, of Flanchford Farm, Reigate, is in the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme and uses the funding to provide beetle banks, wildflower strips, pollen and nectar mix, wild bird seed mixes and grass margin options.

The 630ha mixed farm is home to barn owls, lapwings, skylarks, yellowhammers, reed buntings, swifts, swallows and starlings.

Mr. Black said: "It would be an absolute disaster if these schemes were to stop. There has been a lot of good work done over the past 10 to 20 years but rising cereal prices and modern farming practices are putting real pressure on the ability of farmers to provide enough space and food for wildlife. Environmental schemes allow us to focus on providing these much needed habitats and there is a real danger that all this progress could be quickly undone.”

Anxiety about the threats facing this 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.

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