Moorland farmers in Westcountry to be 'starved of cash'
Wildlife charities have criticised powerful lobby groups for engineering a new deal on European farm subsidies which would benefit big farmers, to the detriment of the Westcountry environment.
The RSPB and Devon Wildlife Trust claim that under the current planned reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), hill farmers and land managers in iconic landscapes such as Dartmoor and Exmoor would be starved of cash.
Farmers have hit back, accusing the bird charity of interfering and "feathering its own nest".
The RSPB says groups across Europe, including the National Farmers' Union (NFU), want more money to be doled out through direct payments to farmers – so-called "Pillar 1" payments – and less to agri-environment schemes, which fall under "Pillar 2".
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Moreover, the organisation says new plans which require the Government to match fund any Pillar 2 money effectively makes it impossible to access.
Mark Robins, senior policy officer for the RSPB in the region, said the CAP agreement – the first change for seven years – was being skewed by a "highly cynical ploy by vested interests", which should "outrage" taxpayers.
He added: "They know full well that treasuries will not be able to find the extra cash to enable wildlife-friendly farming. While this may benefit some intensive large- scale farms, it risks disaster for many special landscapes such as Dartmoor, Exmoor and the Culm Valley.
"It seems to us that the NFU and its counterparts are deliberately seeking to sacrifice the environment that so marks out what's special about the Westcountry."
Farm subsidy payments from the European Union are currently worth around £400 million each year.
Reform of the hugely complicated CAP system has been shaped by the EU's 44-member agricultural committee, a group described by South West Lib Dem MP Sir Graham Watson as a "conservative forum wedded to the defence of vested interests".
A major issue has been payments for so-called "greening" – subsidies for taking care of the environment – including eligibility for such cash.
Currently Pillar 1 accounts for about 88% of the budget, with Pillar 2 making up the remaining 12%.
Mr Robins said the average UK family "coughs up" around £400 towards the CAP and everyone was entitled to express a view.
Peter Burgess, Devon Wildlife Trust conservation advocacy manager, said: "Without these payments, internationally important landscapes such as Devon's Culm will be put at risk from the loss of farmers that are unable to continue local practices."
The two charities are calling on Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Owen Paterson to resist calls to shift payments and to continue to support the environment and its wildlife-friendly farmers.
But NFU South West spokesman Ian Johnson said the RSPB was simp ly acting out of "self interest".
"Places like Dartmoor and Exmoor are vulnerable and a special case can and should be made," he added. "But farmers are not serial destroyers of the landscape and certainly don't want to live in a countryside without birds. The RSPB is an environmental NGO whose sole interest is encouraging people to watch birds. It should not be concerning itself with agricultural policy – this is simply an attempt to feather its own nest."