New Agriculture Bill vital to recover nature

Wednesday 12th September 2018

Photo SImon Greener

Today the Government publishes the Agriculture Bill. The recovery of wildlife in the UK - one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world - depends on an Agriculture Bill which enables farmers to create and restore natural habitats.

The Wildlife Trusts, including Northumberland Wildlife Trust in this region, believe that now is the time for agricultural policy to lead nature’s recovery. As the Bill progresses through Parliament, The Wildlife Trusts will be highlighting:

• The recovery of wildlife in the UK depends on an Agriculture Bill which enables farmers to create and restore natural habitats, because 70% of our land is farmed.
• Farmers should receive public money for producing benefits to society, such as creating habitats for wildlife, conserving soils for future generations and protecting communities against flooding.
• Successful farms need thriving wildlife because crops depend on pollination, natural pest control and healthy soils.

Mike Pratt, Northumberland Wildlife Trust Chief Executive says: “We support the Agriculture Bill’s intention to change how taxpayers’ money will be spent towards environmental ‘public goods’. Spending on these is vital if we are to restore uplands to hold water and prevent flooding in towns, create new wildflower meadows for pollinators and improve the fortunes of farmland wildlife like barn owls and brown hares. However, we need an ambitious Bill to arrest decades of wildlife decline and allow natural ecosystems to recover.”

Agriculture policy does not have to choose between wildlife versus food production. Farming that works with nature makes sense – for now and for the future. Our ability to produce food in this country relies on us having healthy soils and the things that nature gives us for free - if they are allowed to recover - from pollination to natural pest control.

The European Red List for Bees reports that almost one in ten species of wild bee face extinction, and over the past 50 years, half the bee, butterfly and moth species studied in the 2013 State of Nature Report have declined. We can directly link these declines to changes in the way we farm. The intensification of agriculture has led to the destruction of habitat, and what is left is becoming increasingly fragmented.

The Government has stated its intention to leave the environment in a better state for the next generation. The Wildlife Trusts believe that the only way to do this is to commit to targets for the recovery of the natural environment – this requires agreement from the Treasury. The Treasury must support the investment in our life support system - in nature, our land and our countryside - at a substantially higher level.

Mike Pratt continues: “Poll after poll reports that the public want more support for nature friendly farming [1], and a recent independent assessment [2] confirmed that to meet its own commitments on the environment, the Government would need to invest at least £2.3bn in environmental land management alone. It’s time that the Treasury acknowledged that the public want to see tangible change to meet the scale of the challenge that lies ahead.”

The Agriculture Bill will need to set out the minimum rules that all land managers will have to comply with - and how these will be enforced. In the context of continuing cuts to our statutory agencies for environmental protection, their ability to do their job is of deep concern. The Bill will also raise questions about how the new legislation will be enforced especially because we understand that much of the policy intent for the Bill - contained within the accompanying policy statement - is not formally linked to the Bill and so has no legal underpinning.

The Agriculture Bill will give farmers some very welcome certainty over the coming transition years around environmental schemes. Progress on designing the new Environmental Land Management Scheme is well underway; and we are pleased that the current Higher Level Stewardship and Countryside Stewardship schemes will be available through the transition period. The Government has listened to The Wildlife Trusts and others to provide reassurance for farmers that there will be no gap between schemes. They can now more confidently make business decisions that do not reverse decades of good work to help wildlife.

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Over half of UK species have declined since 1970 and 15% are extinct or threatened with extinction. The public support increased funding to help wildlife recover on farmland:
1 - A recent WWF poll found that 91% of the UK public want the UK Government to pay farmers to protect nature. The poll also reveals that 85% of the UK public believe there is less wildlife in the country than when they were children. A recent RSPCA poll found that 82% of the UK public want public funding to support higher animal welfare.

2 – See The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and The National Trust, Assessing the costs of Environmental Land Management in the UK, Final Report, 2017.