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How would you spend £2bn on the English countryside?

Last modified: 31 October 2013

Marbled white butterfly, Cambridgeshire

Marbled white butterflies are among hundreds of sensitive species largely reliant on wildlife-friendly farming

Image: Stuart Elsom

The public is being asked today how they want billions of pounds of public money to be spent in our countryside until the end of the decade.

In the next few weeks, the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson will have to decide how to spend the £2bn of public money available each year from England’s agricultural budget and for the first time the public is being consulted on how this money should be spent, in a consultation launched by Defra this morning. And as farming dominates three-quarters of England’s countryside, the RSPB believe that it’s right that everyone has their say.

In a statement to the House of Commons earlier this year, Owen Paterson indicated that he was ‘minded’ to transfer the maximum amount (15 per cent) of funding available under the newly reformed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to schemes that benefit rural communities and the environment. We welcome the clear preference in the consultation to follow through on this intention.

Rewarding farmers

Agri-environment schemes have helped farmers restore farmland wildlife for almost two decades. In particular these schemes have rewarded farmers who protect rare birds such as the stone-curlew and the cirl bunting, which leapt in England from 118 pairs in 1989 to around a 1000 pairs today.

These funds have provided a valuable lifeline in helping threatened species recover. But the State of Nature report – published in May by a coalition of 25 UK wildlife groups – revealed worrying declines of many species of farmland wildlife, including wild flowers and butterflies. Conservationists believe that against the backdrop of declines in farmland wildlife, these funds are needed now more than ever.

Martin Harper is the RSPB’s Conservation Director. In a campaign plea to RSPB members and supporters, he said: 'Three-quarters of England is farmed, and that means farmers have a huge responsibility to look after a great proportion of our wildlife. We think money spent on farming needs to work much harder for our wildlife in order to halt the declines highlighted by the State of Nature report and begin to re-build a countryside rich in nature.

Spending wisely

'Wisely spent, farming budgets can do more than anything else to help restore beleaguered wildlife. Over the last two decades, an increasing number of farmers have embraced the challenge and taken action through environmental funding schemes. But we need more farmers doing more of what we know will work, and this means protecting and growing the funding. Otherwise, without funding farmland wildlife will inevitably decline further.

'Over the next four weeks, the public has an opportunity to agree with Owen Paterson that there is a strong case for protecting wildlife and the countryside, and that funding should be directed to those farmers who help protect wildlife and conserve threatened landscapes.'

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