Posted on behalf of Senior Policy Officer Tom Lancaster
We’re often told by politicians at Westminster that ‘Brexit means Brexit’; but what does Brexit actually mean, and what does it mean for farming, land use and nature?
Cattle grazing in cirl bunting habitat (RSPB-images.com)
The outcome of the referendum result has created a shift so massive that few, if any, are yet able to comprehend what it will mean for farming and the environment in the UK. So without sounding like a cop out, I’m afraid there’s no way to answer this question at the moment!
There was though some good news over the weekend that should at least allay some of the short-term uncertainty. The UK Treasury guaranteed that all agri-environment agreements signed before the autumn this year will be “...fully funded, even when these projects continue beyond the UK's departure from the EU.”
In England, this looks like it amounts to a guarantee that all of those Entry and Higher Level Stewardship (ELS and HLS) agreements currently in place will be honoured. This is great news, and a welcome recognition from the Westminster Government of the great outcomes that many farmers have delivered through these schemes.
Looking ahead, it should also mean that farmers and land managers in England can progress with mid and higher-tier Countryside Stewardship applications this year. We read the Treasury’s announcement on agri-environment as a commitment to funding schemes in England beyond 2020. With this in mind, and with the “current level of agricultural funding under CAP Pillar 1” only guaranteed until 2020 – at which point we should transition to domestic arrangements – to us at least, it looks like agri-environment schemes are a safe bet in uncertain times.
The situation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is less clear cut, but the Treasury’s decision to underwrite agri-environment payments now and in the future should give devolved Governments all the certainty they need to guarantee existing agreements. The announcement should also enable them to commit to new schemes this year, and we hope that they will push the Westminster Government to provide assurances over funding for new agreements in the next few years.
Corncrake habitat created on Balnahard Farm Image: RSPB-images.com
There is still work to do to clarify some of the fine print, and we will need to work hard to win Government support for these schemes in the years ahead, and not just this year, but this news provide welcome short-term clarity for those doing the most for the farmed environment.
Looking ahead, the picture gets altogether more fuzzy. It’s no secret that we haven’t been the biggest fans of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) over the years. Given that, the outcome of the referendum should be an opportunity to fundamentally reform agriculture policy, and to reorient it around supporting environmental land management and the promotion of more sustainable farming methods. This should sit alongside steps to improve the way the market works for farmers and the environment to ensure that farmers get a fair return for their produce.
But it’s not just a replacement for the CAP that everyone interesting in farming and the countryside will have to think about. Areas such as trade policy, which have been EU competencies for over 40 years, will now come back to the UK. What sort of arrangement we come to with the European Single Market, and how tariffs are applied (or not) will have a major impact on farming, and therefore on nature.
We don’t pretend to know how this will all play out, and we’re a long way off being able to answer the question in the title of this blog. What is clear though is that all of us who care about nature and sustainable farming will have to have to bring our A-game if we’re to realise the opportunities the referendum provides, whilst seeing off some of the risks that we now face.
A new and updated plan for arable farms has been developed by the Farm Wildlife partnership, and is now available on the website - www.farmwildlife.info. This plan brings together the knowledge and expertise of all the partners involved in the project to provide the essential habitats and farm management that wildlife relies upon in the farmed landscape.
Six key measures are the focus of the plan:
Look after established wildlife habitats such as woods, trees and ponds, as these places are particularly valuable for wildlife.
Make the most of field boundaries, as hedges, ditches and margins are often where most wildlife is found.
Wet features, such as farm ponds, provide an important habitat for many species which live, feed or breed in or near water.
Provide flower-rich areas on 2% of your arable land, as this will support pollinators and other insects.
Provide seed-rich areas on 2% of your arable land so you can support farmland birds through the winter.
Farmed area – spring crops and in-field features such as fallow plots in the middle of your fields give wildlife a space to thrive.
The general principles which underpin the plan are applicable anywhere in the UK, and the site provides sensible, easy-to-follow guidance on why each measure is important, and how to create and manage them - not just for the benefit of wildlife, but also the long-term sustainability of the farm.
A livestock plan is currently under development, and should be available before the end of the year. In the meantime, if you have arable land and you’re interested in understanding a bit more about how to maximise the value of your farm for wildlife, why not have a look at the new plan and see if you are covering each aspect within your current management?
If you’d be interested in sharing some of your experiences in managing any of the habitats with others through a case study, or have any suggestions for the future development of the site or the partnership, we’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org
August heralds the winding down of show season for us, and this year has been as busy as ever for the agriculture team. We’ve been all over the UK to talk about nature-friendly farming, and it’s a great way for us to catch up with friends in the farming world, hear about issues and successes and help find practical solutions.
A busy day at Cereals 2016. Image: Anna Broszkiewicz
One of our biggest shows is Cereals – Europe’s largest arable event - this year located at Chrishall Grange in Cambridgeshire. We spent two days discussing Countryside Stewardship and providing bespoke advice to farmers interested in seeing how they could maximise the environmental benefits on their own farm using our map software. We laid the foundations for some individual Countryside Stewardship agreements during these 1:1 sessions, but with the uncertainty surrounding the future structure of support following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, we will have to wait and see what the future holds. At the very least, we hope our conversations have helped to reinforce the requirements of farmland wildlife.
Using a map of his farm, RSPB Advisor Kirsty Brannan takes a farmer through which options could work best for wildlife under Countryside Stewardship. Image: Anna Broszkiewicz
These requirements are encapsulated in the new arable plan developed by the Farm Wildlife partnership, which was also a feature of the RSPB stand. More to come on this next week!
Talking through Farm Wildlife and the arable plan while waiting for a 1:1 slot to look at their own farm. Image: Anna Broszkiewicz
Over the course of the event, we spoke to over 700 farmers and land managers. Over 150 people entered our competition to win a bumper selection of wildlife goods, including bird and bat boxes, bird food and feeders, and a selection of reference materials. The lucky winners – Mrs Gillian Edwards of Pocklington, and Mr Graham Folkard of Southminster - have already received their gifts and we hope that you enjoy watching the wildlife they bring to your farmyards and gardens!
Visitors talk to Ian Dillon, RSPB Hope Farm Manager, at Cereals 2016. Image: Anna Broszkiewicz
Other shows where you may have bumped into the RSPB over the last couple of months include the Royal Highland Show in Edinburgh, and the Royal Welsh Show in Builth Wells. And if you’re at the BBC Countryfile Live event (4-7 August), we’ll be there too - make sure you pop bye to say hello.