Farmers throw nature a lifeline
The West Country is a special place. Our diversity of landscapes and wildlife are second to none and this makes it an attractive place to live, work and do business.
But this landscape doesn't look after itself. What we see today is the result of thousands of years of farming. On the Culm, grazing by Red Ruby cattle produced grasslands where marsh fritillaries thrived. On the coast, land left fallow over winter proved the perfect food source for finches, buntings and skylarks. Everywhere, farmers and wildlife responded to one another's presence. And it's produced some truly unique places. However, since the Second World War, technological advances supported by a political imperative to produce cheap, plentiful food has produced a human dominance over the natural world the like of which we've never seen before. And in the rush to intensify production, wildlife has lost out. And if wildlife loses, we all lose.
No more do we hear the song of skylarks as we once did. To see lapwings we have to travel to nature reserves. And, worst of all, children are now growing up in a country where they risk never knowing these things and where butterflies and flowery meadows are trapped in the pages of old natural history books.
But all is not lost. In the West Country there has, over the past couple of decades, been something of a quiet revolution in the way many farmers farm. Farmers who understand that producing food and producing wildlife are not mutually exclusive activities.
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Central to this quiet revolution have been agri-environment schemes. Funded by our taxes through the Common Agricultural Policy, these schemes provide farmers with payments in return for making space for nature, or maintaining the landscape – using public money to provide homes for wildlife that the market alone would otherwise fail to reward.
These schemes have provided a lifeline for many species. The recovery of the cirl bunting from just 118 pairs in 1989 to nearly 1,000 today can largely be attributed to the measures that they have funded.
But the future of these schemes is not guaranteed. Their funding and future shape is the subject of political decisions in Westminster, as Owen Paterson, Environment Secretary, decides how to implement the CAP in England.
A central question is how much money to transfer from direct subsidies, so-called Pillar I, to agri-environment schemes and rural development, or Pillar II in CAP jargon. We and many others strongly believe that Pillar II represents far better value for money than the blunt direct payments of Pillar I, securing real and tangible benefits that would otherwise fall by the wayside.
Because of the scale of commitments that the Government has signed up to, all of the core Pillar II budget from 2014 to 2020 would be required simply to fund them. This means that as individual agreements expire, they would have no chance of being renewed without a transfer of funding.
This wouldn't just jeopardise the future of the cirl bunting and marsh fritillary. It would also turn the clock back on a decades-long reform of the CAP, and undermine the range of benefits that agri-environment funding can secure.
These include benefits such as those being secured by South West Water's Upstream Thinking project, working with farmers and other partners to manage the land in a way that improves the region's water quality. The aim is to reduce the expense associated with water treatment, and therefore reduce bills in the long-term.
The beauty of the South West's landscape and richness of our wildlife also underpins much of the tourism in the county, providing jobs and income for thousands of people.
And these wider benefits are crucial here. Many might spin the decision on how much to transfer from Pillar I to II as a battle between conservationists and farmers. It is not. There is a growing number of farmers who have embraced these schemes, making them a central part of their business.
If the Government was to row back on its commitment to a full transfer now, it wouldn't just be jeopardising the future of some of our most cherished species, but it would also pull the rug out from under those farmers who have done the most to provide the public goods that society both needs and demands.
We're in Westminster today with farmers from across the country and their message to MPs and ministers is clear: back a more sustainable future for farming, and commit to future funding for agri-environment schemes.
The Government will soon be launching a consultation to discuss these issues and we urge all those that care about the countryside to add your voice to the call.