The 21st century battle for farmland wildlife

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.

Grey PartridgeOnce 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.

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7 responses to “The 21st century battle for farmland wildlife

  1. Congratulations to Martin Harper on some interesting and constructive comments. It makes a nice change from some of the recent highly adversarial remarks (about farming) by senior figures in other charities – especially the RSPCA.

  2. Helloooo! We’re doing our bit, but we’ve only got ten acres! Very alarmed by the amount of old meadow being ploughed up around us and reseeded with rye grass and landscape features, those nooks and crannies which are so vital for wildlife, being ironed out wherever possible in the name of efficiency. Help!

    • Hi there thinkingcowgirl, thanks for stopping by our blog. Glad to hear you’re doing your bit! From our experience (and Martin’s as he says in his post) there are a lot of farmers doing the right thing! It’s just about encouraging those who aren’t to have a look at what they are doing and seeing the benefits of improving their practices!

  3. Warning to farmers

    I run a fully sustainable organic farm powered entirely by renewable energy with near zero use of fossil fuels. We are also keen to encourage as much wildlife as we can on our land. However, there are dangers in that from the RPA.

    We have created a large wildlife pond (about the size of a 25m swimming pool, stocked it with native fish and water/ marginal plants. It is now absolutely heaving with life – newly emerged fish fry, insects, birds, ducks. The edges are covered with frog spawn.

    Last year the RPA have selected us as the first 5% sample of farms to be re-surveyed, which they did with the help of GPS equipment. As a result they have excluded the whole of the pond and the area surrounding it, fenced off from the farm animals, from our SPS claim. Not only that, but they than excluded it from the previous five years of claims. On top of that they have imposed a 100% penalty for overclaiming SPS for five years. I thought we would be congratulated on our efforts, instead we were penalised.

    Similarly they have excluded all areas (such as hedges and streams) behind and in-between fences, having previously told that that we should fence streams off and also excluded most of our 1,5 acre wood – all back dated 4 years and all backed up by 100% penalty.

    The fact that all our previous claims were made exactly as indicated on RPA supplied maps of our farm and accompanying pre-populated forms seems to have no bearing on the matter.

    As a result we have lost almost all of our 2012 claim and have had a black mark added to our name, which means we have already had two more ‘random’ inspections in the past few months.

    Beware of the RPA ! It’s not enough for them to ‘modulate (=steal) about 20% of our EU subsidy, now they are also imposing penalties on us for mistakes on their own maps and pre-populated forms.

    RPA – not fir for purpose.

    Paul Sousek
    Fieldpower Organics @ Cottage Farm
    Sustainable organic carbon neutral farm powered by renewable energy producing organic beef and lamb. London and local deliveries by carbon neutral transport.
    Tel: 01840 230 548 Mobile: 079 0529 0530 email: Fieldpower@tiscali.co.uk
    Cottage Farm, Jacobstow, Cornwall, EX23 0BU
    On-line shop: http://www.CottageFarmOrganics.co.uk or http://www.bigbarn.co.uk/marketplace/vendors/Fieldpower
    Information: http://www.TransitionNC.org (Click Food Directory and look up Cottage Farm)
    Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Fieldpower-Organics-at-Cottage-Farm/142171192536789?sk=wall
    BBC Food and Farming, sustainable Farmer of the Year finalist
    Best Small Scale Renewable Energy Scheme in Cornwall and other successes at Cornwall Sustainability Awards
    Monthly SuperHome Open Days (www.SuperHomes.org.uk)
    Founder member Transition Cornwall and Transition North Cornwall (www.TransitionNC.org) and Powerswitch.org (www.Powerswitch.org)
    Speaker at national conferences, House of Commons and local groups on the future of energy, food and farming.

  4. PaulS,

    Not that I’m an expert in such matters but I would suggest that you contact your local MP and discuss your issues with them. The last thing David Cameron would like to see is bad publicity from an area of the country which is so proud of. Being relatively new to this field, who or what is the RPA?

    Following on from the main article’s issues, yes, there are indeed many farmers out there doing their bit but as the insect life (bottom of the food-chain) suffers, so will the overall farmland biodiversity. We need many farmers to be given the money and resources to follow the fantastic wildlife friendly examples achieved by the likes of Hope Farm and the Allerton Project. This in turn will benefit the agricultural ecosystem and finally push some money towards those that truly need it, our British farmers.

  5. RPA: Rural Payments Agency who administer EU farming subsidies.
    Btw, Hope Farm has a long way to go before it becomes sustainable.
    Maybe you should look at Cottage Farm to understand what it takes for a farm to become fully sustainable, biodiversity and insect life included.

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