Exciting times ahead!
Today the Government is re-launching the landmark Agriculture Bill that is set to significantly change the way that farmers are subsidised to manage their land. With enhanced incentives for farmers who manage their land for environmental improvements, this bill finally recognises the public goods that farming can deliver through wildlife and conservation efforts. But why is it needed and does it go far enough for wildlife?
Theresa Villiers, the Government Environment Secretary said:
‘This is one of the most important environmental reforms for many years, rewarding farmers for the work they do to safeguard our environment and helping us meet crucial goals on climate change and protecting nature and biodiversity.’
Over 70% of land use in England is dedicated to agriculture, both for crops and livestock, so the way that we farm has a colossal impact on the wildlife that lives in and around these human managed landscapes. Unfortunately for our native wildlife, successive government policies since the 1940s have actively encouraged an agricultural model based on very intensive land use. This meant subsidy for the stripping of field margins and hedgerows, draining of wetlands and destruction of ancient woodland habitats that wildlife need to survive.
Things got worse in the 1970s as perverse EU Common Agricultural Policy financial subsidies worth £3 Billion a year continued to incentivise landowners for farming on even the most precious habitats and low-grade land. The result of this damaging approach is the 54% drop in the farmland bird abundance1, massive rises in the area pesticides are used and the countrywide destruction in soil quality that threatens our national food security.
England is now one of the most nature depleted countries in the world with stripped fields, increasingly silent and devoid of natural life in the air, on land or in the soil. Farmers and conservationists are desperate to reverse this eco-system decline and it looks like the new Agriculture Bill could really help.
What does the Agriculture Bill do?
In a nutshell, the agriculture bill takes the £3 Billion pounds paid to farmers for business as usual practices and instead gives those subsidies to landowners when they deliver the ‘public goods’ of enhancing their land for wildlife and environmental improvements.
These Public goods include:
- Mitigating for climate change by tree planting and habitat restoration
- Managing waterways to make them more tolerant to drought and flooding
- Reducing soil erosion and chemical fertiliser pollution
- Improving public access and enjoyment of the countryside
Some large landowners will lose out because they will no longer be paid for farming land, but proactive and engaged farmers, such as the Wallop Brook Cluster near Romsey in Hampshire, who have made some fantastic changes for wildlife and will see their positive efforts financially encouraged2
Does it go far enough?
For our Wildlife Trust, as for many conservation groups, this Bill represents possibly the most significant step forward in government policy for a generation. Since so much of the land in the UK is farmed, farmland is the obvious way to create a healthy, linked-up Nature Recovery Network that can join up our isolated and fragmented reserves and protected areas.
“There are some aspects of the Bill that cause concern. Since the early 1990s most of the funding for the management of nature reserves and designated protected sites has been provided through these 'agri-environment schemes'- a pillar of the CAP - supporting charities, conservation groups and private landowners to manage and enhance these critical areas for wildlife. Will the new Agriculture Bill continue to recognise and support the management of these vital wildlife havens as hubs in the Nature Recovery Network?”
A second criticism could be that it doesn’t go far enough to encourage farmers to transition to different land-use models. Many experts now believe that other ways of managing the land and farming, such as agroforestry represent a more sustainable future and are undervalued in the new bill. Upland sheep grazing, managed sporting shoots and other farming practices that can reduce biodiversity will be protected by this piece of legislation as examples of a ‘cultural landscape’ that bear little relation to the natural state of the habitat
With those important caveats, we are pleased to welcome a government approach to farming that recognises the importance of nature and vital habitats required for wildlife. We hope to see that same ambition reflected in the Environment Bill that is coming soon!
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