Soaring food prices are threatening to inflict widespread ecological damage on the countryside, as farmers abandon environmentally friendly schemes that have improved much of the landscape.
Government-backed environment schemes (ELS, or entry level stewardship) are having to compete with market pressures on farmers as crop values escalate. If farmers start to back out, much of the good work achieved since the schemes were introduced 21 years ago could be destroyed. The Observer can reveal that a survey by the National Farmers' Union shows that two-thirds of farmers who signed up to the schemes failed to renew them when contracts expired. They cited high commodity prices as well as 'disenchantment' with the way the schemes were now run.
At the most basic level, the schemes pay farmers £30 a hectare (2.49 acres) to replace cultivated areas with grassy margins, or to restore and manage hedgerows. At a higher level, larger payments are targeted at preserving rare and valuable features and species. The schemes have been hailed a huge success, improving farmland and wading bird numbers, restoring populations of rare stone curlews and cirl bunting, and protecting the traditional cornflower and small mammals such as the harvest mouse.
In addition, they have seen more than 11,000km (6,835 miles) of hedgerows being restored or newly planted, the building of 2,600km (1616 miles)of dry-stone walls and the opening up of more than 2,500 footpaths and bridleways to the public. In all £2.9bn has been earmarked for such schemes over the next seven years. But recent changes have upset farmers, who claim that rules introduced in 2005 to replace old classic schemes are not viable and would take more land out of production at a time when it did not make financial sense.
'Only one third of the classic scheme agreement holders are renewing into the new environmental stewardship schemes, and this is a serious concern both to Natural England and to the industry,' said Andrea Graham, the NFU's countryside adviser. Though crop prices were a factor, she said, other issues, such as adding one month to the period farmers are prevented from cutting hedges, had also 'touched a nerve'.
Sally and Robert Bendall embraced the environment scheme at their 140-acre mixed Hollow Trees Farm at Semer in Suffolk. They provide habitats for grey partridge, skylarks and barn owls, as well as two species of bat and great crested newts. Areas are planted with wild bird seed mix and pollen and nectar-rich plants, sloping fields have been reverted to grass and they have built a farm trail. They are in a 10-year ELS scheme, and planned to convert their remaining 50 acres of arable to grass. But current high prices mean they are now keeping it arable. 'That has been the only influence of the high prices,' said Sally, 46. 'We would never go backwards. We are committed to the scheme. But I can see the temptation for others because farmers have been through such a difficult time.'
The RSPB said it was crunch time. 'How many farmers are only in the schemes because they were pushed into them by bad bottom lines, encouraged into them by the economy?', said Sue Armstrong Brown, the charity's head of countryside conservation. 'That's changed now. It's boom time for farmers, and the schemes cannot be anti-competitive.'
Sir Martin Doughty, chairman of Natural England, the environmental advisory body in charge of implementing them, concedes high prices could present a real challenge to the projects credited with reviving endangered species as well as enriching biodiversity. He said: 'We don't expect farmers to leave schemes early, because they would have to pay back the money. But, yes, they might not renew. We don't know at this stage if prices will stay up - wheat is already coming down. We must make sure the schemes are value for money.'
The Council for the Protection of Rural England said the government must recognise that benefits lost now would prove expensive to recover in the future. 'The problem is that the mindset of farmers will switch back to production, and it will become increasingly difficult to persuade them of the value of enviromental intervention,' said Tom Oliver, head of rural policy.
Jonathan Shaw, undersecretary of state at Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said a payment review would be carried out when prices were less volatile. 'We are determined to find a way through to ensure that we have another 21 years and beyond of positive agri-enviroment schemes.'
Special Thanks to The Guardian