Last modified: 23 October 2013
Image: Andy Hay
Within weeks Owen Paterson MP – the Environment Secretary – will have to finalise his budget and priorities for the future of the countryside. A key decision the Secretary of State has to make is how much funding to dedicate to so-called agri-environment schemes, which fund farmers to manage their farms in wildlife-friendly and environmentally-friendly ways. With a finite amount of money available under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), he has the power to transfer up to 15 per cent of direct subsidies to these and other rural development schemes, and farmers attending today’s event are calling for the maximum transfer.
With many species continuing to decline this funding is needed more than ever. Figures released last week by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) revealed that the number of birds reliant on farmland have halved in number since 1970. Additionally, the State of Nature report launched by Sir David Attenborough, in May, shows that 60 per cent of 1064 species monitored on farmland have declined, and a third of the total, including the small skipper butterfly, have declined strongly.
In Yorkshire, sympathetically managed farmland habitat is incredibly important for a number of birds including yellowhammers, grey partridges and skylarks – all of which have experienced serious population declines as a result of habitat loss.
As well as addressing wildlife declines, agri-environment schemes can also help promote more sustainable farming and deliver wider public benefits, such as tourism and jobs. The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB, National Trust and Conservation Grade believe these schemes are vital for competitiveness and long-term viability of the sector, as well as the encouraging the growth and vitality of rural communities.
Chris Clarke who owns Nethergill Farm in Upper Wharfedale will be amongst the farmers in attendance at today’s event, meeting with his local MP Julian Smith. Using funding from Natural England’s stewardship scheme and with advice from Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, Chris and his wife Fiona have developed their farm, which rears Dalesbred ewes, rare breed white shorthorn cattle and free range chickens, into a hybrid ‘farm reserve’. Here farm production is sustainable, yet in tune with wildlife. Mixed woodland has been planted and a field centre and accommodation have been developed, so that members of the public can come and learn about the wildlife on site.
The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and National Trust, all of who are helping with today’s event know from experience it is possible to reverse the declines of some of our most threatened wildlife, and to date a broad coalition of farmers, NGOs, scientists and Government have played a key role in some important conservation success stories. But the organisations believe if these successes are to be repeated in the future, continued support for environmental schemes is essential.
Terry Smithson, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Director of Operations commented: “Yorkshire Wildlife Trust works across the county with many farmers delivering the current agri-environment schemes. We know how important it is for those farmers who make a long-term commitment to delivering effective schemes to receive appropriate financial support. Agri-environment schemes play a crucial role in shaping the landscapes that underpin rural economies and communities. Nethergill Farm is a prime example, running not only a sustainable farm, but helping develop the local economy through nature tourism. Farms, like Nethergill and Appleton Mill Farm in the North York Moors where we work with owner Jonathan Allison also provide a number of jobs, which is ever important in this tough climate. We believe that the public appreciate the wider benefits of agri-environment schemes, and therefore hope that the Government will put public funding in place to support those farmers who do the most for the environment.”
Martin Harper, the RSPB’s conservation director said: “Three-quarters of England is farmed, and that means farmers have a huge responsibility to look after a great proportion of our wildlife, landscapes and cultural heritage.
“Over the last two decades, an increasing number of farmers have embraced the challenge and taken the step to enter agri-environment schemes, working hard to get results on the ground. I’m delighted we are working alongside farmers today to try and secure a better deal for these schemes in the future.
“Together we hope that Owen Paterson MP will keep his pledge to help wildlife and the wider environment by shifting farming budgets in favour of those farmers seeking to farm in wildlife-friendly ways.”
Patrick Begg, Rural Enterprise Director at the National Trust, remarked: “Farming needs to be more in-tune with the natural characteristics of the land and rural economies in which it operates, recognising both its dependence on environmental resilience and sustainable land management, as well as the multiplier effect it can have both culturally and economically.
“We cannot emphasise strongly enough the importance of maximising modulation and securing a high agri-environment spend in mitigating the impact of EU cuts and securing a positive outcome for the countryside and taxpayers. Only then can we rise to the challenge of producing enough food, safeguarding our precious natural resources, and ensuring an economic future for farming and their communities.
“Our Government needs to show real leadership in Europe and send a clear signal that environmental sustainability has to be put at the heart of farming in the UK.”
Today’s lobby of Parliament, includes 28 farmers, from various parts of England, working alongside the RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust and Conservation Grade.
Defra is expected to host a public consultation into how agricultural budgets should be spent. The RSPB is asking the public to vote in a yes/no poll about whether the Government should invest in farming that creates a countryside richer in wildlife. To vote, please click here.
Information on The Wildlife Trusts’ Farming for Nature campaign, which will be launched to coincide with the Defra consultation, will be available via www.wildlifetrusts.org
Nature in the UK is in trouble and some of our more familiar garden species are amongst those suffering serious declines. We can all help by giving nature a home where we live.
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