Farmers and wildlife groups fight for funds
Westcountry farmers will join conservationists in London this week to lobby the Government to maintain cash support for wildlife-friendly schemes.
The RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and National Trust are organising the event at Westminster on Wednesday to coincide with an expected consultation on the shape of the next Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
The focus has now shifted from the multi-billion pound negotiations in Europe to how individual member states apply the reform measures. Conservation groups wanted the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to move 15% of the CAP budget – the maximum allowed – into rural development measures, which include agri-environment schemes.
However, they fear that wildlife will lose out if the money is kept as a direct farm payment with minimal "green" strings attached.
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Tony Whitehead, from the RSPB in the South West, said: "Agri-environment schemes need to be well designed and targeted to wildlife most in need.
"And because the market does not reward the work farmers do for wildlife, we need it to be subsidised through the CAP – which means a fair deal for everyone, because a countryside rich in wildlife benefits all of us."
The lobbying effort is being sponsored by Totnes Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, who said it would "highlight the vital importance of the environmental work done by farmers".
She added: "Be that hill farmers protecting moorland ecosystems and landscape on Dartmoor or the farmers in my constituency who have saved our cirl bunting from extinction, our wildlife and landscape depends on farmers and the funding they need to support their work."
Some £3 billion a year will be spent in Britain under the new Common Agricultural Policy which was agreed earlier this year.
However, there is concern among farmers about the transfer of a portion of direct farm payments, known as pillar one, to environmental and rural development schemes with conditions, known as pillar two.
The National Farmers' Union (NFU) has said it "wouldn't necessarily oppose transfers to the rural development measures if carried out equally and fairly across the whole of the EU".
Without that equality, the NFU warned, farmers at home would be at a disadvantage compared to other European rivals.
Robin Milton, who farms at West Anstey, near South Molton, in North Devon, addressed the issues with the All Party Parliamentary Group on hill farming.
Mr Milton went to Westminster last week in his role as the chairman of the NFU's upland farming group, which represents hill farmers on Exmoor, Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor as well as other parts of England.
He stressed the importance of hill farming's success in maintaining the environment of the moors – and the knock-on effect their wellbeing had on the vital tourist industry in the South West and elsewhere.
Mr Milton emphasised the need for pillar one support in light of a massively reduced budget for pillar two.
The Government, he said, should stop viewing farmers simply as a delivery mechanism for environmental programmes. "The truth is that without farming there would be none of the stunning upland landscapes we all value so much, and critically, no provision of the public goods associated with them," he told MPs.
"We believe pillar one offers the best mechanism of support, as it is most easily targeted to the farmer, assuming it is distributed fairly."
The RSPB also released its annual Wild Bird Indicator statistics ahead of the Defra consultation, which is expected to run for six weeks. Its Farmland Bird Index – which covers 19 species reliant on the farmed countryside – showed an 8% decline in numbers over the last five years.
Turtle doves are the fastest declining species – down 95% since 1970 – with reports this year is the worst ever for sightings.
Other species hit hard include lapwings, which are down 63% since 1970, corn buntings, down 90%; and skylarks, down 59%. Species that are doing well include jackdaws, whose numbers have increased by 140% since 1970, and woodpigeons, which are up 134%.
Mr Whitehead added: "Here in the Westcountry, many farmers are doing excellent work for farmland birds.
"Without this we would not have seen increases in species such as cirl bunting and chough.
"But these figures published today are hard to ignore. Formerly widespread species such as skylark are declining. Turtle dove are all but extinct now in the west. We really need to up our game now if we are going to seriously address this."
He added: "Intensive systems leave little space for nature.
"But we are convinced here in the Westcountry that there is a middle way, one where farmers can produce food and wildlife. But this currently relies on the Government making the right choices in terms of funding."