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Our best chance for farm reform

The Environment Department recently published an obituary to farmland wildlife. Defra’s Natural Environment Indicators showed long and short-term decline in birds and butterflies and rapid short-term deterioration of water quality across the country.

September 2016

  • In 2014, the breeding farmland bird index in England reached its second lowest recorded level, 56% lower than its level in 1970
  • Breeding wetland birds in England declined by 10% between 2008 and 2013
  • Since 1990, butterfly numbers on farmland have fallen by 27% reaching a historical low point in 2012. The trend has shown a significant decline since 2009.

There couldn’t be a clearer sign that market failures in the agricultural sector are emptying the coffers of natural capital – every year, in the name of productivity, we take more from our natural environment than we put back and wildlife is seriously suffering as a result.

For decades now, fundamental agricultural stresses on our environment have been multiplied by a system of subsidies that has almost ignored the value of nature. In the Common Agricultural Policy, investing in the natural assets that sustain our countryside has always been a sideshow to the megabucks linked to land-holding and production.

If we are not careful, many of the sights and sounds that define our farmland could be lost: the flight of the lapwing, the call of the curlew, the song of the skylark. The character of our countryside is bound up in its wildlife.

Yet somehow, amid the political turmoil of Brexit, there’s a chance to turn things round. The Government has an opportunity to design a new subsidy system for sustainable farming.

The National Trust and CPRE have led the way in calling for a new subsidy system that rewards public goods; one that diversifies farmers’ income so that they are properly paid for environmental protection as well as production. Martin Harper has signalled RSPB’s support. Other Link members are working together on a response to the Environmental Audit Committee’s Brexit inquiry with a similar message of subsidies for sustainability.

At WWT, we’ll use our EAC response to call for a “pillar switch”: the Chancellor should commit to maintaining the £4bn we spend in supporting our farmers (that’s scarcely enough), but future payments should be guided by the “polluter pays” and “provider is paid” principles. Those who invest more in our natural wealth should be rewarded the most. This should be at the heart of a long-term, target driven plan to make us rich in nature.

We’ll also keep calling for an annual Natural Wealth Statement, setting out how our environment fares against long-term targets. It’s a scandal that this awful reflection of the way we manage our countryside went almost unnoticed. In future, when our environment is in crisis, the public and Parliament should hear about it.

For now, we’ll have to make do with raising our own voices to call for concerted environmental action. From individual bloggers and high-profile politicians, to NGO partnerships like Link, TCC and Green Alliance, the environment sector is beginning at last to speak with one voice. In a few weeks, the State of Nature Partnership will publish a second round-up of the UK’s natural environment, setting out the challenge that faces our new Government.

In farm reform, Defra has a chance to create an Environment, Landscape and Food policy that can deliver environmental improvement, alongside food security and public health provision. The Government can put our natural wealth at the heart of a strong 25 year environment plan.

There’s still time to support a sustainable farm sector and a countryside full of life. The Government's recent indicators need not be a final indictment.

Richard Benwell

Head of Government Affairs, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust

Find Richard on Twitter @RSBenwell

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.