WMN opinion: Farmers and wildlife need support to maintain balance
Without a shadow of doubt, the Westcountry's greatest asset is its land.
There are more than 41,000 farm holdings in the greater South West – nearly a quarter of those in the entire country.
There are more than 61,000 people employed directly in agriculture and gross value added from farming is just under £1 billion. Add in the contribution of the tourist industry and you get some idea of the economic power of the far South West's green and pleasant land.
But we all know that the management of that land is not just about the money.
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The natural environment is priceless, and the protection of it paramount.
And, both in and outside our national parks, or areas of outstanding natural beauty, the protection of that environment, and the species that live in it, in the main falls at the feet of our farmers.
In that sense agriculture is unique as an industry.
It is not just about food production at a given unit cost, it is about managing life – whether that be in animal husbandry or in the management of natural landscape.
So the news that support for nature-friendly farming may be under threat in this week's EU budget negotiations is a concern.
Here in the Westcountry, EU funds worth millions of pounds help farmers to both protect nature and adapt their businesses – helping sustain and grow the rural economy.
But the EU Council President is proposing that rural development funds, money that supports nature-friendly farming, should be cut by 9.1%, on top of cuts approved last year. This could mean farmers working some of our most precious landscapes could be facing a 20% loss of support.
In short, the effect of cuts on this scale could be devastating.
As the RSPB's Mark Robins put it: "If we lose funding for nature-friendly farming, we know that the vast majority of farmers will stop doing the things that wildlife needs."
There will of course be farmers who continue to manage land in the best interests of wildlife. But there will be several who may find it hard to justify preserving, or not draining, a patch of "culm grassland" on their farm.
Today's message from a coalition of farmers, wildlife charities, and academics to the Prime Minister is well timed and deserves all of our support.
Cuts of the scale proposed could reverse years of hard work and commitment to the environment that are in some areas beginning to pay real dividend.
Any ambition this Government had about being the first generation to hand over the natural environment in better shape than before to the next will be lost. In the long term, under-investment in the Westcountry's finest asset will have grave environmental, economic and social consequences.
We back today's call to maintain this environmental support. Mr Cameron, your farmers need you.