What do you get if you put a farmer, an MEP and the RSPB in the same room to talk about Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform? Sadly there’s no punch line (and the answer is definitely not ‘punches’!) - instead you’re likely to get a passionate discussion about the importance of agri-environment schemes and the urgent need for the CAP to target support at High Nature Value farming systems.

Across 19-20 March, the RSPB (as part of BirdLife International) supported 8 farmers from across the EU to visit their MEPs on the Agriculture Committee so that they could tell their story about the role agri-environment schemes play on their farms. Representing diverse farming systems from the UK, Latvia, Portugal and Ireland, each of the farmers explained that the schemes allow them to ‘step up for nature’ alongside the production of agricultural commodities. And while each of the farmers was exceptionally proud of the wildlife their farms support, they were also honest that without CAP funding, they would not be able to manage their land in this way.

Gethin Owen*, one of the participating farmers who farms in Abergele, North Wales said, “As a farmer I have a duty to care for the countryside, and that means making sure that wildlife can thrive. The measures I have put in place on my land have made a real difference and this winter my land has been teeming with birds as a result. But modern farming is a business like any other and in order to continue providing these measures, we farmers must be supported”.

The RSPB and BirdLife were also keen to highlight to MEPs the critical need to channel support to High Nature Value (HNV) farming systems which, by the nature of their production methods, produce not just food but exceptional environmental benefits such as wildlife, clean water supplies and healthy soils full of carbon. Sadly, these systems are often economically marginalised and farmers face a stark choice between intensifying production or abandoning farming altogether, both of which would lead to environmental losses that are almost impossible to replace. These HNV systems urgently need the CAP to provide another option – one that will allow them to continue farming and producing the environmental benefits that society wants and needs.

As the European Parliament will play a significant role in determining both the design of the next CAP and its funding, this visit was a great opportunity to demonstrate that on some key issues, nature conservation organisations and farmers don’t just sit at the same table – they join forces! The farmers who came to Brussels welcomed the opportunity to explain to MEPs the value of their agri-environment schemes, not just for the environment, but for their farming businesses and wider society. They urged the 13 MEPs they met not just to protect the level of funding for agri-environment, but to increase it as part of the CAP reform process. The farmers also invited their MEPs to visit their farms back home so that they can see these amazing schemes in action.

‘Greening’ of the CAP is clearly a hot topic and was also discussed during the meetings. The RSPB emphasised that whilst improving the environmental performance of Pillar I payments is very much needed, ‘greening’ cannot replace what proven and targeted agri-environment measures can deliver.

The RSPB is hopeful that these powerful messages from farmers will ensure that the Parliament’s negotiating position on CAP, which is currently being developed, provides adequate funding and focus for invaluable agri-environment schemes and gives much needed attention to vulnerable HNV systems. As the wider EU Budget process (which will determine how much cash the CAP gets from 2014-2020) moves forward, all eyes will once again be on the amount of money this Policy costs taxpayers. In order to protect the best bits of the CAP, we will need every voice we can get to call for “More Money for Pillar II!!

* The other UK farmers taking part were James Bucher and Dan Skinner, both from Norfolk and Rory McKibbin from Northern Ireland.