What’s driving change in the state of nature? A focus on farming

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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

What’s driving change in the state of nature? A focus on farming

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Cast your mind back to May 2013. Summer was just beginning and I had the pleasure of being at the stunning Natural History Museum in London, with colleagues from across the nature conservation sector, government and business, listening to an impassioned speech from David Attenborough. This was the launch of our sector’s own State of Nature report (see here).

The report was an important milestone. Twenty-five organisations came together, contributed data and expertise, and presented some shocking statistics about the fate of the UK’s wildlife. Several of these stats have been widely cited since, including the top headline that 60% of species have declined in the past 50 years.

The report was well received, but prompted some valid questions from commentators, including what had caused these declines.  For the past couple of years, we’ve been working with our partners to help answer this.

Today, a paper exploring the pressures that led to those declines has been published in the journal PLOS ONE by a subset of the same partners. You can read the paper in full here.

The study looked at a comprehensive range of pressures, both positive and negative, on a sample of 400 species of plants and animals and ranked the significance of the different drivers of change.

This sort of analysis is incredibly useful as it helps us work out where we (and I mean all of us) should be investing effort.  Those within government should be interested in the policy implications of this report, businesses can use this to identify how their practice may need to evolve, and those in civil society can work out the most important issues for which they should be using their voice for nature.

Through our study, we found that that intensive management of agricultural land and climatic change have had the greatest impact on wildlife since 1970. In a blog post tomorrow, I’ll focus on the climate issue in more detail. Today, I’m going to focus on farming.

Andy Hay's image of RSPB Hope Farm where we have demonstrated that it is possible to grow food profitably and recover farmland birds

Farming practices have changed dramatically since 1970, such as a change from spring- to autumn-sown crops, losses of hedgerows and farm ponds, and use of novel pesticides and herbicides.  These changes have had overwhelmingly negative impacts across many groups of animals and plants – including butterflies, beetles, bees, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds and plants.  Indeed agriculture has also been identified as the biggest pressure on the world's threatened birds by BirdLife International (see here).

Yet with c75% of UK land being farmed, and the clear impacts of farming practice on wildlife, the UK’s farmers are in a unique position to reverse wildlife declines and secure a brighter future for countless species of plants and animals.

Farmers up and down the UK are bucking the downward trend, by taking targeted action to benefit wildlife on their farms. As an organisation we are lucky enough to work with numerous passionate farmers committed to seeing wildlife thrive on their farms.  Locally, these actions have noticeable effects, but the sad truth is that current effort is inadequate.  Reversing national declines will require action by many more farmers and that inevitably will mean a change to the current policy and regulatory framework.

Fortunately, financial support is available to help farmers take action for wildlife. Government schemes to support wildlife-friendly farming (called agri-environment schemes) are in place across the UK.  In England, the new scheme launches for its second year this week – applications are open for the new Countryside Stewardship scheme until the end of September, but farmers interested in the higher-tier (akin to the old Higher Level Scheme) will need to get in touch with Natural England in the next couple of weeks.  Whilst it hit a few snags in its first year, I'm confident that, with the support of farmers, the new scheme will provide real benefits for nature.  In fact, the impact of these schemes have increased since they were first piloted in the mid 1980s.

The funds to support these schemes ultimately come from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.  The CAP (as I have explained on many occasions for example here), is a behemoth of a policy and financial instrument, absorbing 40% of the EU budget, or €1 billion per week. It’s impact on Europe’s environment are complicated but (as illustrated in the IEEP report a fortnight ago - here) widely perceived to be negative overall, despite the localised promise shown by agri-environment schemes.

With the referendum of the UK’s membership of the EU taking place this June, the future of agri-environment schemes in the UK is far from certain.  Whatever happens – remain or leave – fundamental reform of agricultural policy to ensure greater financial support for wildlife-friendly farming will be a vital next step.  Indeed, CAP reform was a core component of our Response for Nature (here) which has formed the basis of our engagement with government plans for nature across the UK.

We need politicians across the EU to acknowledge that agriculture is the key driver of biodiversity decline and grasp the nettle on CAP reform.  Only then will farmers across the EU secure the long-term support they need to take widespread action for wildlife.

  • Good blog Martin, A concerted effort in the coming years by Birdlife International, the RSPB and other conservation organisations across Europe to make clear to politicians the very damaging effects the current CAP has on wildlife and the environment. Any such effort should commence well before the next CAP budget is to be discussed within the EU. This effort should of course publicise the tremendous achievements of RSPB Hope Farm in combining good farm production with big increases in wildlife. Hope Farm should be used to the maximum possible , and I am sure it is and will continue to  be, to demonstrate to all of Europe'politicians and farmers  that wildlife friendly farming is NOT incompatible with good productivity. We just have to lay the falsehoods put about by the big commercial concerns in farming including the NFU, that farming without due regard to the environment wildlife and biodiversity is all that matters and that these considerations are just a drain on productivity.

  • I'd suggest we need to go rather further: in particular, we need to recognise that it isn't 1945 anymore when the only priority for farming was to feed a starving Europe. Today there are equally serious demands on the land from, most obviously, water supply and flooding but also human health and welfare - access to the natural environment and the wildlife that should go with it. Far from recognising this, the NFU has ramped up its alarmist 'food security' rhetoric and, for example, fails to acknowledge the impact of the massive post-war drainage effort on run off and flooding - we have invested heavily in creating those floods. The Natural Capital Committee will hopefully continue to play a key role in presenting a 21st century vision of what the country needs from its land.