Conservation organisations across Wales call for Welsh Government to seize the opportunity to reform our farming policies to make Wales a world leading sustainable country.
People love the Welsh countryside. It's key to our national identity and nature is a crucial part of what makes it so special. Yet, the State of Nature 2016: Wales report published last week (21 September) highlighted that we've lost species once common in our countryside, and face losing many more if we don't step up our efforts in the years ahead: with one in 14 species in Wales is heading towards extinction7. How we manage the land has a huge impact on its ability to support nature and with farmland covering over 70% of Wales, farmers and land managers are uniquely placed to help meet the challenge of restoring nature, and to capitalise on the wider opportunities this brings.
One of the most significant influences on the way we manage our land in recent decades has been the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the purpose of which is to support and encourage farming that produces food in ways that takes care of the soil, water, landscape and nature.
However, as RSPB 1 Cymru's Land Use Manager, Arfon Williams, explains, the CAP has failed to deliver: "Despite 50 years of support, the CAP has not built a resilient agricultural industry in Wales, it has failed to prevent damage to the environment, halt the loss of wildlife and it has even potentially put some sectors such as our extensive upland beef and sheep farming at risk of disappearing altogether".
According to a group of 15 organisations6 representing a broad range of Welsh land management, environmental and biodiversity interests, leaving the European Union will be a defining event for farming and our environment. The group, which includes RSPB Cymru, The Soil Association3, Confor2 and the National Trust4 believe that now is the time to create policies that deliver for our agricultural and land management industries, our wider rural economies and communities, the environment and nature, which will help the Welsh Government meet its aspiration to become a world leading sustainable country.
Arfon continued: "Any proposed changes should be made available to the public so they can help shape any future policy. For example a recent polling5 shows that the public want support for agriculture to do more for nature. This isn't a choice between food and the environment; the future of food, farming and nature is inextricably linked".
The Welsh Government is currently establishing Wales' priorities in preparation for discussions with the UK Government on the future allocation of budget once the UK leaves the EU and what this money should be used for. To highlight the strength of feeling regarding the need for progressive reform of existing land use policies in Wales, the 15 organisations6 have written a letter to the Welsh Government which highlights the opportunities and benefits to everyone in the country that new sustainable land management policies will provide. These include:
1. Securing sustainable amounts of safe, healthy food and timber and provide a diverse range of sustainable products that generate income and employment for rural businesses and contribute to a diverse rural economy.
2. Supporting sustainable land management that maintains and enhances nature and the resilience of ecosystems to provide wide ranging social, economic and environmental benefits for Wales.
3. Ensuring that all public money invested in land management delivers true value by securing benefits for wider society.
4. Engage with wider society to help people make choices that recognise and reward sustainability.
The organisations involved acknowledge that a realistic transition period will be vital and particularly important for the most economically vulnerable; such as those in our extensive livestock sectors, who are often farming in marginal areas but are vital for the environment, the landscape and for nature.
Arfon added: "This new framework which we are recommending will support progressive, innovative farmers and land managers, providing them with the certainty to engage in sustainable production. It will ensure public money is focused on supporting resilient rural businesses capable of meeting diverse environmental challenges - such as the restoration of habitats for wildlife, storage of atmospheric carbon to alleviate climate change, natural management of flood risk and drinking water and ensuring the best use of the land in Wales. We should have a countryside rich in nature alongside vibrant communities and a thriving rural economy, which also delivers multiple benefits for society. Let's grasp this once in a lifetime opportunity to revitalise our countryside."
1. The RSPB is the UK's largest nature conservation charity, inspiring everyone to give nature a home. Together with our partners, we protect threatened birds and wildlife so our towns, coast and countryside will teem with life once again. We play a leading role in BirdLife International, a worldwide partnership of nature conservation organisations - www.rspb.org.uk
2. Confor is a membership organisation that promotes sustainable forestry and wood-using businesses within the private forestry and wood sector - http://www.confor.org.uk/.
3. The Soil Association is the UK's leading food and farming charity and organic certification body, who work to save soils and make good food the easy choice for everyone - https://www.soilassociation.org/
4. The National Trust is a conservation organisation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the largest membership organisation in the United Kingdom - https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/
5. The YouGov poll commissioned by Friends of the Earth can be seen here - https://www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/yougov-survey-brexit-environment-august-2016-101683.pdf
6. The 15 partners for the project include: RSPB Cymru, National Trust, WWF Wales, Soil Association, Salmon and Trout Conservation Wales, The Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation Wales, Bat Conservation Trust, Snowdonia Society, Wildlife Trust Wales, Woodland Trust, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, Plantlife Wales, Confor Wales.
7. Over the last 50 years, 57% of vascular plants, 60% of butterflies and 40% of birds have declined in Wales. Since 1970, across the UK 56% of species declined, with 40% showing strong or moderate declines, 31% showed little change and 29% showed strong or moderate increases. Over the last decade, 53% of species declined and 47% increased. These measures were based on quantitative trends for nearly 4,000 terrestrial and freshwater species in the UK. National measures of the Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII) provide us with one way to assess the extent of the loss of nature due to human activities going back centuries. It has been suggested that BII values below 90% indicate that ecosystems may have fallen below the point at which they can reliably meet society's needs. Therefore the value for Wales - 82.8% - gives great cause for concern; of the 218 countries for which BII values have been calculated, Wales is ranked 49th from the bottom. This puts Wales in the lowest fifth/bottom quarter of all the countries analysed.