Guest Blog from Martin Harper, Conservation Director, RSPB
Martin Harper has been the RSPB Conservation Director since 2011 and oversees the Society’s work on conservation policy and advocacy, research and acquisition of nature reserves. Prior to joining the RSPB in 2004, Martin spent five years at Plantlife International, having previously run Wildlife & Countryside Link. Educated at Oxford and UCL, Martin undertook fieldwork in the Comores and Mongolia before embarking on a career in policy and advocacy. Away from work, Martin enjoys family life with his wife and two children. He claims that running keeps him sane, while Arsenal FC and the England cricket team provide him with emotional highs and lows.
Our country’s farmed landscapes provide one of our greatest assets. Managed well they provide large quantities of healthy food and attractive countryside full of colour and the sounds of wildlife which people can enjoy.
But as farmers became increasingly proficient at producing food the second half of the last century, other services that that land offers (from clean water and carbon storage through to healthy wildlife populations) have suffered. This was the conclusion of the National Ecosystem Assessment produced in 2011. This also explains why there is a crisis for farmland wildlife. While much of the damage was done in the 1970s and 1980s as the Common Agriculture Policy incentivised production, despite the best efforts of wildlife-friendly farmers, populations of many farmland birds remain in a critical condition.
As the latest UK Government’s report into the state of the populations of wild birds shows the turtle dove and the grey partridge are displaying staggering reductions in their numbers.
Once widespread in southern Britain, the turtle dove population – which is currently estimated at 14,000 pairs – is now balancing on a knife-edge in the UK, with nearly 60 per cent lost in the five years to 2010. The UK grey partridge population is estimated to be around 43,000 pairs, but this too has fallen, by 30 per cent over the same period.
What is frustrating is that there are farmers doing the right thing. I was lucky enough to visit the Duke of Norfolk’s estate near Arundel recently and see the impressive turnaround in grey partridge numbers in the past five years – from 3 to 83 pairs. And there are many others, who we celebrate through our Nature of Farming Awards who are doing similarly great things.
But it is not enough. We’ve demonstrated at our commercial conventional farm in Cambridgeshire that you can triple the number of farmland birds whilst increasing yields using Entry Level Environmental Stewardship. This a scheme available to all farmers and is funded through the Rural Development Programme for England as part of the so-called Pillar II of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP). We have the tools to recover farmland wildlife which is why it is so frustrating that that too few farmers are taking the chance to do the right thing. LEAF members know this and so do the 3,000 farmers we speak to each year through our farm advice programme.
We need farmers to be the vital guardians of our landscape and wildlife. And they need support. This is why we have been making a fuss about the big European debate about the one trillion Euro EU Budget for 2014-2020.
In these times of austerity, cuts across many areas are inevitable, but when the Heads of State met in November the horse-trading and true colours were revealed. Pillar II was getting hammered with cuts proposed of over 20% in real terms, at a time when we need more investment in the natural environment, not less.
Pillar 2 is not perfect, but it delivers real value for money. It is the bit of the budget that supports those things for which there is no market – healthy soils, water quality and yes, wildlife.
Perhaps unsurprisingly in these tough times, in a recent RSPB survey, we found that 96% of farmers think environmental work on their farms would be impacted if payments for wildlife-friendly farming were stopped or reduced. This would have devastating consequences for wildlife across Europe and in the UK.
To our relief, these proposals were not adopted – talks collapsed without agreement and decisions postponed until early next year.
The good news coming from all of this is that there was a greater public debate about the relative merits of the use of European taxpayers money and the CAP itself. The CAP can be perceived as a dry subject, and getting the wider public to understand how it affects us all – or even to know or care it exists – is a constant challenge.
This is something that LEAF knows well. Earlier this year LEAF found a shockingly poor level of awareness about where our food comes from amongst young adults. Conservationists and farmers alike need the general public to be interested in agriculture, and to show government that they care.
The recent nationwide coverage of CAP will have helped more people understand a bit more about the food on our plates, and care a bit more about how their taxes are being spent. The farmed environment – and the people and wildlife that depend on it – will need their support when the debates resume next year.