Blogger - Simon Tonkin, Senior Farmland Conservation Officer

The signs from the EU in the last few days are that the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, is considering major cuts to pillar two of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). An essential fund that amongst other things pays farmers and landowners to manage their land in wildlife friendly ways (as pictured and taken just days ago)

President Barroso is expected to announce the budget on Wednesday 29 June.

If these reports are true, it would mean that the EU will fail to get anywhere near its recently adopted biodiversity target, and problems like water pollution and soil erosion would further increase. The CAP has long been criticised for inefficiency and waste. It would be unbelievable if cuts were targeted at the one part of the policy that is actually delivering for public goods and rural populations.

The RSPB is asking members of the public and farmers to join them in sending an email to President Barroso at calling for a fair deal for farm wildlife and public benefits.

Any reduction will remove the lifeline on which many of our most-loved species depend and will risk decades of effort, which has already helped save many species from the brink. 

Farmers, landowners and agronomists from all around my region have expressed their upset with the situation and pledged to make a stand together with the RSPB.

Suffolk Farmer, James Bucher said: “This is just absolutely staggering news. We as farmers are given such mixed messages; on one hand, we are told to farm to help the environment, but today we hear of emerging policies like this. It is a total contradiction. Species of farmland wildlife are in decline, I am stepping up for nature on my farm, but I need the help and support of government and the EU to create and manage areas for public benefits.

“Without these funds many farmers will not be able to help farm wildlife and as a result some of the most beautiful wildlife and countryside will change irreversibly for the worse.”

Cambridgeshire Farmer Philip Bradshaw  said “Many Farmers, like myself, have enjoyed being able to improve the environmental and wildlife profile of our farms in recent years as a direct result of pillar two funding, and it is vital to the future of agriculture and the countryside that such funding continues”

Edward van Cutsem of the Hilborough Estate in Norfolk said: “The bio-diversity of the environment and wildlife across the UK has benefitted substantially from Pillar 2 funding as farmers have been able to afford to bring a significantly improved balance to the land they farm.  We have been provided with help in de-intensifying our farm which has saved a large number of rare species of fauna and flora from total decline, including amongst them the stone-curlew, where as a result of Pillar 2 funding we now have 15% of the national population. 

“The only alternative to Pillar 2 funding would be a reversal of this significant progress of the past 8 years and a return to intensive farming as we still fight to be profitable in a very difficult climate for farming.  More widely one only needs to travel across the country to see how significantly it has changed from even 5 years ago, with previous 'carpet' farming now widely broken up by headlands and conservation strips and a noticeable increase in our wildlife.  The Pillar 2 funding of the past ten years has only just come in time to save otherwise irreversible declines and a diminishment in our existence; can we afford to let that go?”

Norfolk Farmer, John Goucher said: “This news is so worrying; it makes me wonder what is next for the countryside. If pillar two is cut this would dismiss all of the hard work of conservation organisations like the RSPB working with farmers like me to ensure the countryside, its wildlife and the next generation have a future.”

Chris Skinner of High Ash Farm just outside of Norwich said: “The public wants us to farm in an environmentally and wildlife friendly way, but that does cost money. Without pillar two funds I cannot afford to farm my land to the benefit of wildlife and have to go back to more conventional ways of farming which would be disastrous for the farm wildlife and the tax payers that come to enjoy it.”

Ed Cross, another Norfolk Farmer said: “This is deeply concerning news, it is clear to me that there is still much to do for farm wildlife and that species that are already in decline will only be lost forever if this fund was to be removed. On my farm I have seen changes for the better including Lapwings using HLS areas and we have also been able to take on a young trainee, none of which would have been possible without pillar two funding.

Hertfordshire Farmer, John Birchall said: “We have been involved with agri-environment schemes for over 11 years now and have seen a steady improvement of the farm wildlife and the sustainability of the farm operations as a direct result of our pillar two funds. I will make a stand together with the RSPB to try to save this fund; I am really upset that such important resources may be lost effecting wildlife and the sustainable future of farming.”

Essex farmers, Andrew and Allison Bond said: “We farm 300 acres in North Essex and have been in the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme for three years.  It has been a lifeline not only to the many species of wildlife that have benefited from our various schemes we have on the farm, but also to us as a small family business, giving us a small amount of extra security in these hard times.  Without a doubt had we not gone into the Higher Level Scheme we might well not be in business today.

“The scheme has given us such pleasure and satisfaction - the various options we have taken have proved that they work - we have more corn buntings, tree sparrows, turtle doves, grey partridge, barn owls, marsh harriers, lapwings and curlews to name but a few, and we are sure that by the time we come to the end of our scheme there will be even more.  We have also seen an increase in the number and variety of bees and butterflies and have been able to share our success with groups of visitors who enjoy looking around the farm and understanding what we are trying to achieve.”

Adam Glover – Farmer, Norfolk said:This is crazy, pillar two is not money for nothing, it is a payment the provides real public benefits and enables me to farm with the public interest at heart.”

Richard Palmer an agronomist in Norfolk said:I think it is vital for the future of our rural environment that CAP reform targets environmental protection and enhancement.  We need to continue and expand the good work that has been done by farmers in the UK.  Many have renewed ELS and converted expiring CSS schemes into HLS, as well as those that have entered into new HLS agreements.  We need to move forward from this sound base to encourage more farmers to enter into ELS and HLS to widen the area in which good habitats are being developed to encourage biodiversity.  Without funding from Pillar Two this will be difficult to achieve.  High commodity prices have made production based subsidies less necessary, so surely any cuts deemed necessary should be in Pillar One not Pillar Two.  We are in danger of undoing all the good work that UK farmers have done over the past years.  Surely, this would be a very retrograde step for our rural environment.”

Daniel Skinner a farmer in Norfolk, said: “As a young new entrant to agriculture, without pillar two funding I would have to reconsider my decision to enter the agricultural sector. I came to work on the farm because I aspire to farm in wildlife friendly ways. Pillar two funds are directly linked to my involvement in agriculture.”

Robert Law a farmer in Hertfordshire said:What they are talking about is about a 180 degree turn from where we were a few years ago, you can understand the reluctance of some farmers to join these schemes when we are at the whim of politicians. They seek our commitment to join up for 5-10 years and then change the rules and withdraw the funding – madness!”

All of these farmers and landowners can demonstrate the huge public value they deliver in return for public funds and I really do applaud them for their efforts. I hope the EU will recognise the value and the essential need of continued funding for farmers and landowners to meet future challenges and ensure there are significant funds to help our best loved wildlife.