Farmers from across England will be taking a strong environmental message to Westminster later today [Wednesday 23 October, 2013], when they meet MPs to highlight the need for a greater share of funding to help threatened species, landscapes and heritage features.
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.
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 National Trust, the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts 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.
Richard Morris Farm Manager at the National Trust’s Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire said: “Farmers have to ensure a return from their land so that their businesses remain viable. With no other support this requires field corner-to-corner production. A successful alternative that has delivered huge benefits to nature are agri-environment schemes. If farmers sign up to these, they receive income support for the land they take out of production to replant hedges, establish margins, field corners and habitats which are rich and varied.
“Without continued support for the cost of management and forgoing income from these areas they are likely to return to production with the resulting degradation of nature’s resource. I believe the public would want to see more investment in this ecological friendly and more sustainable type of production. We need to ensure funds to deliver these schemes that protect biodiversity, habitat and healthy living landscapes both for today, and for future generations.”
The partnership of organisations 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.
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.”
Martin Harper is the RSPB’s conservation director. He 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.”
The Wildlife Trusts Head of Living Landscape, Paul Wilkinson commented: “Wildlife Trusts across the country work with farmers delivering the current agri-environment schemes.
“We know how important it is for those famers who make a long-term commitment to delivering effective schemes to receive appropriate financial support. In many parts of the country, agri-environment schemes play a crucial role in shaping the landscapes that underpin rural economies and communities.
“We believe that the public appreciate that and we hope that the Government will therefore put the public funding in place to support those farmers who do the most for the environment.”
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.