Farm reforms: healthy countryside, healthy people

Posted by Carey Davies on 18/12/2013
CAP funding: access and wildlife must get their share

The government has the opportunity to spend £600 million on improving access to the countryside, boosting the rural economy and helping reverse the worrying decline of British wildlife. It should not be missed, the BMC says.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) may not sound like the most exciting piece of regulation in the world. But the decision the government makes about it in the coming weeks could have a huge impact on the countryside and the way we experience it.

Farming is the single biggest factor influencing the rural landscape of Britain. Very few places outside cities are untouched by farming. It affects everything, shaping the way the countryside looks, defining how we access it, and influencing how much wildlife can thrive and what sort. And, of course, it produces our food.

Subsidies

Every household in the EU pays on average around £400 a year to subsidise farmers.

This is where the CAP comes in. The agricultural policy of the EU, it sets out the framework for how this money is spent across member states in Europe and accounts for a whopping 40% of the total EU budget.

Over the last few years the EU has been attempting to reform the CAP, including ‘greening’ measures aimed at encouraging farmers to do things like leave grassland unploughed, diversify their crops and set aside land for wildlife.  

Sadly, many of these proposals have been heavily diluted under pressure from farmers.

But some of them remain, and it is still possible that a large amount of money could be spent on protecting the natural environment and stimulating the rural economy in England and Wales.

Pillar to pillar

This is because individual member states have a limited amount of flexibility to decide how the CAP is allocated in their countries.

The government has recently said it wants to shift 15% – totalling £600 million – of CAP funding from ‘Pillar One’ of the policy, which includes direct payments to farmers, to ‘Pillar Two’. Pillar Two funding includes things like land management schemes to protect wildlife and measures aimed at rural economic growth.

Again, this proposal has met with heavy resistance from farmers’ leaders. The National Farmers Union argue it will put farmers in England and Wales at a disadvantage compared to other countries who have decided to spend more on direct payments to farmers.

We recognise the fundamental importance of farming to society, and believe in fostering good relations between landowners and recreational users. But we also believe public money should bring the greatest possible public benefit, and in this case the maximum amount possible should be spent on helping improve access to the countryside, boosting the rural economy and helping to reverse the worrying decline of British wildlife.

Healthy countryside, healthy people

At a time when most wildlife species in the UK are in decline, with one in 10 facing risk of extinction, and with the numbers of bees and other pollinators dwindling to dangerous levels, it is more important than ever to introduce measures to encourage biodiversity and the recovery of dwindling species. Much of this decline has been due to large-scale farming and the destruction of vital habitats like hedgerows.

But CAP reform can also have an important role to play in opening up the countryside and improving access by encouraging farmers to maintain paths, rights of way and recreational infrastructure on their land.  With a mounting wealth of evidence showing the benefits of outdoor recreation to health and wellbeing coupled with a looming obesity crisis, the ability of people to access a vibrant, biodiverse countryside should be of paramount importance.

BMC Access and Conservation policy officer Cath Flitcroft has recently submitted a BMC response to the government consultation on how the CAP should be implemented in England. The government is set to make a decision on CAP reform imminently. We hope it is the right one.

The BMC has also responded to the government consultation on CAP reform in a document jointly signed by the Ramblers, the Outdoor Industries Association, the Open Spaces Society, the Sport and Recreation Alliance and the British Horse Society.

The RSPB is running a petition on CAP reform calling on the government to decide in favour of wildlife. Sign it here.



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