Does Defra have a plan to close the funding gap?

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Does Defra have a plan to close the funding gap?

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I spent the weekend with friends in Oxfordshire, a stone's throw from Aston Rowant  NNR.  While not the best time to enjoy the chalk grassland, red kites were everywhere.  A bit distracting for drivers (especially those, like me, that struggle at the best of times) but a wonderful addition to our skies.

The BTO Bird Atlas, published last week, includes a load of good news stories, such as the red kite.  These remind us what conservation can do to turn round the fortunes of threatened species.  At the Atlas launch, Biodiversity Minister Lord de Mauley rightly drew attention to these successes but he also put a spotlight on current concerns such as the plight on farmland birds.

Successive governments have promised to fix this problem yet despite the efforts of some farmers and millions of CAP pounds, this year's farmland bird index was at its lowest level to date.  What is even more galling is that we have identified many of the solutions that could allow the species to recover but we have not yet managed to encourage sufficient farmers put in place adequate habitat to help them.

The good news is that Defra is in the process of designing a new agri-environment scheme, innovatively called the New Environmental Land Management Scheme (or NELMS) and we think they are doing a good job.  A well-designed scheme targeted at the right locations could make a big difference.

The bad news is that whatever the outcome of the current CAP consultation, Defra have a major funding problem.  As environmental commitments (to both biodiversity and compliance with the EU Water Framework Directive which obliges Member States to ensure water bodies are in good condition) grow, the amount of available funds for agri-environment schemes is going to diminish over time.  

The graph below, drawn using government's own data, shows the widening funding gap.  The green bits show the funding needed and the coloured lines show what would happen to available funding in the various scenarios outlined in the CAP consultation. 

Defra knows it has a problem.  Farmland wildlife is failing to recover and their number one tool for aiding its recovery is being cut.  The response must be first, to ensure that Defra chooses to transfer the maximum amount of CAP funds available into agri-environment schemes and retain their focus on the environment.  Second, it must look at alternative means of improving the environmental performance from our farmed landscape. If there is no more money, and if market solutions are not readily available, then it must either rely on the good faith of the farming sector or be prepared to, well, use regulation.

Decisions that current ministers such as Lord de Mauley make will inevitably have an impact on the abundance and range of species in future bird atlases.  Here's hoping that Lord de Mauley and his successors heed the words of BTO President and former RSPB Chief Executive, Baroness Barbara Young, and does what it takes to ensure that "those that are thriving continue to thrive and those are no longer thriving, thrive again".

Help Ministers to make the right decisions on the CAP by supporting our campaign here.

  • Two significant pieces of conservation news but, with apologies, not related to the above,

    1)President Obama has fined a major renewables energy company in the USA, $1 million for their wind farms in Wyoming killing many eagles over recent years. The fine will go to conservation organisations. Has this relevance to the UK?

    2)An agreement has been signed in in Warsaw for some protection of the worlds forests. Hopefully this will really be meaningful.

  • We are spending hundreds of millions trying to sort the problems of farmland biodiversity and water quality - and billions creating the problems in the first place. The money is all there - were we to stop spending on one thing (maximum food output) to create a whole raft of downstream (often literally !) problems. Ecosystem services aren't just for the birds, they are for Defra, the Treasury, people who love wildlife (and pay taxes) and people who don't want to spend Xmas in a caravan because their house has flooded. The recent nature check publicity estimated that wetlands save £360m/pa as flood defences - which they weren't even designed for. How much could we save if the actually put new wetlands where they are needed (for example, paying farmers to hold water in the Somerset levels rather than spending the money deepening rivers, which won't work). Wouldn't it be far better to share the millions (c £800m/pa, I think) water companies spend cleaning fertiliser (which we've paid for once already) out of our drinking water with farmers not to put it there in the first place ? Its not that difficult - a tree-lined  or reed margin of just a few metres wide can absorb a surprisingly high proportion of chemical runoff. The money is there. the problem is we're spending it as if it was 1947, not 2013.

  • I have written to the Minister strongly supporting the RSPB campaign and have asked my colleagues to do the same.

  • I wonder how much of the cost of compliance with the EU Water Framework Directive could be carried by the water companies and industrial dischargers to rivers rather than the Government.This might be done by the Environment Agency tightening their specifications for discharges, as well as tightening regulations in respect of fertilizer applications and other farm "run offs". I would have thought many of these types of cost need not necessarily be borne by the Government leaving more for Defra to spend on combating biodiversity loss.

    (I see you were down my way at the weekend Martin.)