Small scale trials of potential solutions to farmland bird decline before use in larger scale research trials or agri-environment scheme options, RSPB Hope Farm, Cambridgeshire

Common Agricultural Policy

Since the Second World War, our rural landscape has changed dramatically. The result is a countryside which is significantly less diverse than it once was.

Why was the Common Agricultural Policy introduced?

Farming practices have become increasingly intensive.

Field size has increased, there are high levels of chemical inputs including fertiliser and pesticides. There has also been a move to specialisation with farms concentrating on either livestock or crop production. 

Farmers have been able to achieve an almost fourfold increase in crop yields since 1945 and while food production is a critically important function of our land, a 'maximum output' approach has had serious environmental consequences. 

There has been a dramatic reduction in landscape and environmental quality, with widespread declines in the populations of many farmland bird species and other wildlife. We're also facing serious problems with water pollution and soil degradation.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was a significant factor driving the intensification of farming. Created in 1962, it aimed to provide farmers in the European Economic Community with a reasonable income and a secure, affordable supply of food to European citizens.

Through subsidies and price guarantees the CAP was so successful in stimulating higher levels of production that soon the EU had to contend with massive surpluses in certain commodities – the infamous butter mountains and wine lakes of the 1980s and 1990s.

The policy had to change. It was becoming unacceptably expensive. A problem which would only worsen as more countries joined the EU. The policy was also having a huge impact on agriculture outside the EU, particularly developing countries that couldn't compete with EU produce dumped on world markets at below production costs. Finally, the serious and widespread harm to the environment being driven by the CAP had to be addressed.

Arable farmland, cereal crop, Saffron Walden, Essex.


Outlining the RSPB's interest, information about budgets, and more. PDF, 79Kb.

The RSPB's views on the Common Agricultural Policy

BirdLife International’s vision for the future of the EU Common Agricultural Policy. PDF, 600Kb.

New challenges, new CAP

This study reviews the potential effects on biodiversity of the 2007-2013 Rural Development Programmes across the European Union. PDF, 1.4Mb.

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Tarnhouse Farm - Cumbria


Reform of the CAP began in the 1980s with the introduction of production limits, and continued through the 1990s with steps to encourage more environmentally sustainable farming practices.

In 1999, the CAP was split into the two 'Pillars' we have today: Pillar 1 which consists of income-support 'direct payments' to farmers, and Pillar 2, the Rural Development pillar. The 1999 reforms were particularly important as they required every Member State to introduce agri-environment schemes under the Rural Development Pillar, which farmers could then join voluntarily, and be financially rewarded for implementing more wildlife-friendly farming methods.

Further reforms in 2003 introduced the important principle of decoupling subsidies from production, removing the incentive to over-produce and allowing farmers to be more responsive to market conditions. The 2003 CAP reform also introduced 'cross-compliance', a set of minimum environmental, animal welfare and safety standards which farmers have to meet to receive their payments.

Proper funding for the management of Natura 2000 sites, the EU network of sites for nature conservation, can also be supported by CAP funds, and are available to all Member States.

Farming after Brexit

Following the decision in June 2016 for the UK to leave the European Union, major decisions will need to be made about how all governments across the UK support the environment, farming and rural development to replace the Common Agricultural Policy. 

Alistair Robb won the Operation Lapwing award for Scotland in 2005, after having raised the Lapwing population on his farm from 0 to 63 pairs

A vital role for nature

The CAP has considerable influence on how our land is managed – perhaps to be expected considering the money involved - more than €50bn every year, entirely paid for by the public through their taxes.

Elements of the CAP are crucial to help address biodiversity declines and other environmental challenges, particularly through agri-environment schemes in each of the four UK countries.

There have been some successes with schemes targeted at specific species. For example, the national breeding population of cirl buntings increased from 118 pairs in 1989 to 862 in 2009 following a special agri-environment project – essentially preventing the species from being lost from the UK altogether.

However, despite these efforts many farmland bird species such as the skylark, corn bunting, grey partridge and turtle dove continue to decline.

Room for improvement

The CAP has improved significantly since the early days of maximised production, but there is still a long way to go before the policy truly meets the needs of farmers, consumers and the environment.

Across the UK and wider EU, farmers' payments are still often linked to past production levels with the highest payments going to intensively managed farms whilst extensive, wildlife-friendly farming systems often get a much poorer deal. 

Cross-compliance standards, although an important concept, are fairly undemanding, and have not yet met their potential to provide genuine benefits for the environment and wildlife.

The CAP represents an enormous public investment in agriculture and rural areas and yet the majority of its budget is spent on direct payments, which have no clear policy aim and bring limited social and environmental benefits. Only 25 per cent of the CAP spending goes to rural development, with less still (just 4 per cent) spent on agri-environment schemes. 

The trajectory of reform, kick started in the early 1990s, also appears to have stalled, with a deeply disappointing 'reform' agreement in 2013.

Rewarding farmers

The RSPB believes that protecting farmland wildlife, cherished European landscapes, and conserving the natural resources needed for long-term food production, must be the core objective of the CAP.

By rewarding farmers who integrate environmental protection and enhancement into their day to day business, the CAP can provide benefits not just for the environment, but for farming incomes and the long-term sustainability of the farming sector, and ultimately ensure the policy is in line with society's expectations from the countryside.

Working with BirdLife partner organisations and other stakeholders across the UK, the RSPB advocates this policy change to EU governments and decision makers. 

A crofter & his dogs shepherding sheep near to Moine House, Sutherland, Highland region, Scotland