Rescue rivers, wildlife and climate faster, say three largest nature charities
Today the Government published details of its eagerly awaited scheme to pay farmers for managing land more sustainably, restoring nature and tackling climate change. It comes on the first anniversary of the Agriculture Act - it is a significant moment revealing the extent of the Government's ambition to improve the 70% of our land that is farmed since Brexit and our departure from the EU's Common Agricultural Policy.
But today's announcement is a huge disappointment, say the UK's three largest nature charities, and does not bode well for nature, climate, or farming.
The Wildlife Trusts, National Trust and RSPB are deeply concerned that the Government is failing to come up with an ambitious scheme, undermining their ability to boost nature-friendly farming. They believe that promises made by Government in its 25-year environment plan are now in jeopardy.
The Government has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform farming from being a leading cause of declines in UK wildlife to playing a central role in nature's recovery.
Instead of causing air and river pollution, nature-friendly farming can help clean up our countryside and reverse the UK's label of being one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world to a shining example where nature is in recovery. That vision is now in peril.
Farming accounts for more than 10% of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions, so transformation is also critical to help tackle the climate emergency.
Eliot Lyne, Chief Executive of Norfolk Wildlife Trust, says:
"In addition to being one of the most productive counties for agriculture, Norfolk is outstanding for the diversity of its habitats and wildlife. In light of the huge challenges our natural environment faces, it is vital that agricultural productivity in Norfolk does not come at a cost to our wildlife. We already know from our collaborative work with Norfolk landowners that there are better ways forward for farming and wildlife.
"During huge-scale agricultural intensification across the county in the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands of miles of hedges were removed, hundreds of farm ponds were filled, and huge areas of Breck grassland, heathland and hay meadow were ploughed, leading to massive, documented declines in wildlife including lapwing, grey partridge, turtle dove and harvest mouse.
"Norfolk has always been a pioneering county for farming, and this is equally the case for regenerative agriculture. Across the county, we are seeing a great many landowners leading the way in farming with nature, environment, climate and human wellbeing in mind.
"With adequate support, our farmers are vitally positioned to help create a healthier, more resilient, natural landscape.
"If farmers are not properly incentivised as we fight species loss and climate change then countless extremely rare species with a stronghold in Norfolk - including Spanish catchfly, fingered speedwell, spring speedwell, proliferous pink, the endemic Norfolk swallowtail, fen orchid, and northern clade pool frog - face national extinction."
Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts, says:
"After leaving the EU, we were promised that the billions of pounds of taxpayer's money given to farmers would be used to improve our natural world. But today's publication shows a shocking lack of ambition which does very little to address the climate and nature crises. The Government seems intent on perpetuating the iniquities of the EU's much derided Common Agricultural Policy. Worse still, nature-friendly farmers look set to lose out too.
"There's so much that farmers could be rewarded for doing, such as restoring peatlands and employing ambitious measures to prevent soil and pollutants from washing into rivers - to help wildlife and store carbon. It's an absolute scandal that the Government has failed to seize this unique and important opportunity to improve farming so it can help restore nature and address the climate crisis."
Beccy Speight, Chief Executive of RSPB, says:
"Leaving the EU and its divisive Common Agricultural Policy gave us the perfect opportunity to reform the way we produce and consume food whilst also tackling the nature and climate crises. However, this Government is letting this opportunity slip through their fingers by not supporting nature friendly farming and not delivering on previous promises. Not only does this go against public wishes but it also undermines the Government's ability to deliver their own environmental targets as a result. Farmers want to be doing more but they need incentives in place to help them."
Hilary McGrady, Director-General of the National Trust, says:
"Nearly four years has passed since the Government set out its vision for the future of food, farming and the environment in a 'Green Brexit', centre-stage being the delivery of a better and richer environment in England. But the future of wildlife and climate now looks uncertain as today's announcement falls short of the ambitious reforms promised. Farmers need a clear path to a future where nature is at the heart of sustainable and secure food production, not the short diversion this new scheme creates.
"We want farmers to be justly rewarded for playing their part with a carefully-designed scheme, but Government also needs to help farmers quickly embrace a new business model that delivers for farming and the environment. With wildlife and climate 'on hold' until the New Year, we hope our concerns will be met with a new resolution to turn things around and move at the speed that farmers, people and nature needs."
The UK has stated its ambition to be a "world leader" on climate and nature, but it cannot tackle these twin crises without wholesale reform of farming policy. Today's announcement falls far short of the Secretary of State's statement at COP26 that the Government is "leading the way through our new agricultural system in England, which will incentivise farmers to farm more sustainably, create space for nature on their land and reduce carbon emissions." Instead, the new scheme is at risk of recreating the status quo by funding basic good practice, and in some cases will not require any extra benefits for nature at all.
George Eustice was clear at COP26 that "there is an urgent need to reform the way we grow and consume food in order to tackle climate change." But worryingly, nature-friendly farmers are at risk of being left behind by today's announcement. All farmers are anxious about reforms and need clear messages from Government. Additionally, the Government needs to outline objectives and a pathway for an ambitious scheme that will rise to the challenges of the 2030 biodiversity and 2050 climate goals.
Wildlife losses over recent decades have been largely caused by modern agricultural policy and farming methods which have contributed to: the disappearance of 97% of lowland meadows that support wildflowers, insects, mammals, and birds - and 80% of purple heathlands which are home to bilberries, sand lizards and curlew. Rivers are in deep trouble too: in England, only 14% of rivers meet standards for good ecological status. Much of this is due to agricultural pollution, causing 13% of freshwater and wetland species to be threatened with extinction. Butterflies and moths have been particularly hard hit, with numbers down by 17% and 25% respectively. Mammals also fare badly with more than 26% of species at risk of disappearing altogether.